“My caterpillar to butterfly moment. My Jewish birth.”

Modest Jerusalem is launching a series of personal essays from friends and other women from Israel and around the world, who have inspirational stories covering a variety of topics.

Kicking off this series is a dear friend and former colleague of mine, Juli Kristof, who was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. She made Aliyah to Israel in 2011 and went through a Rabbinic Orthodox Conversion. Here she bravely opens up about this emotional and challenging journey to Judaism.

Juli currently lives in Givatayim with her husband and son Yonatan. Juli studied English Literature and currently works in Journalism and Social Media in both Hungarian and English.

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My Sinai, my Torah

I’m thinking of Sinai. I’m thinking about my Sinai – the mountain I climbed to get my Torah.

My mountain’s slopes began in Hungary. It looked terrifying – from down there – this whole journey, the confusing place of wanting something so much, that I was absolutely not supposed to have, the terrifying nature of what lay ahead. The end of the path that was covered in seemingly very stormy clouds.

I entered the Budapest shul the first time with deep trepidation but I could not stay away anymore. I felt like a young lamb lost in the woods at night. I thought I was going to be chased away. The rabbi will spot me during Kabbalat Shabbat and send me home because I’m not Jewish. Or well – not Jewish their way.

My work laptop hid in shame under a thick layer of coats in the cloakroom.

The rabbi really couldn’t sing and there was no cantor. Lecha Dodi still sounded like the sweetest tune in this freshly budding tiny post-Communist kehila. The mountain didn’t look so terrifying anymore.

And then again it did. “Are you Jewish?” – asked the rabbi one Tuesday afternoon via Facebook messenger. My blood froze. No. Yes. Somewhat. “That’s not enough.”

“Can I still come?”. “Sure, everybody is welcome.”

Next Kabbalat Shabbat an older, red headed lady helped me through the prayer. She smiled at me whenever she pointed out the right place in the siddur.

I have to do this, I thought. I have to do this – but not here. Israel.

I arrived just 5 months later. Two years after that I was in front of the Beit Din following a magical conversion process. “How could you become Jewish if your fellow countrymen murdered Jews during the Holocaust?” Their first question. Stormy clouds around me. Terrifying, bone shaking thunder. The top of the mountain is nowhere in sight.

“I think the terrifying thing about the Holocaust was that people, collectively accepted the fact that Jews are all evil. Doing the same with the people of a whole country is just as wrong.” The thunder is mind numbingly loud, the lightening seems life threatening.

“I like that answer”. Sudden quiet. It’s raining, lightly.

And then more questions – but these are about holidays and halacha. Piece of cake for someone as obsessed as me. You can see the mountain again – and there, behind the thinning clouds, is the summit. Clearly visible.

“We are happy to accept you into the Jewish people.” The head of the Beit Din is even smiling.

I’m in. Almost. So close. I get a date for the mikvah.

“So what’s your Jewish name going to be?” – asks the new, mikvah rabbi. Another Beit Din. I’m all clean and fresh in the Jerusalem morning, full of anticipation, joy and excitement. Waiting for a final, cathartic rainbow.

“Hagar,” I answer.

“We can’t let you get into the mikvah with that name.”

I call my rabbi, sobbing. “The Beit Din agreed to it, they listened to why I wanted it and agreed to it. The real Beit Din, at the Rabbinate.” He tries to calm me down, helps me choose another name. Tells me I can use whatever name I want once I’m out of there.

I’m still swallowing my tears as I put on the heavy and rigid mikvah clothes, in which I wade into the water – I dip, the rabbis come in and stare at me in my miserable condition. My caterpillar to butterfly moment. My Jewish birth.

The top of my Mount Sinai.

It takes me a year or two to make sense of it all. The magical process and the anticlimactic ending – or beginning.

And then I realize that this summit, the top, my “real Jewishness” is just that – the reality. The Jewish reality. It’s not pure, clean and constantly magical. It is messy and imperfect and full of ups and downs. Because this Jewishness – is me. It’s my life now. It’s an opportunity, it is unanswered questions – that I keep answering and changing my mind about them.

It’s a path I chose. As much as I didn’t choose conversion – I was driven to it and through it by something much larger and stronger than me. (Many times I tried to put a name to this force. But can it even be named? These names…).

I’m a real Jew today – not because of my picture perfect conversion. I am one, because my primary identity is not being a convert anymore. I’m owning my Judaism just like I own the fact, that my Jewish name is the name I was born with. A decision I made after years of struggling with my mikvah name. “Yonatan Yitzhak ben Juli”, I heard at my son’s brit and it felt right. I’m a Jew, because I choose my own path within this new realm I was admitted to – and because I thank Gd every day for leading me into it.

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