I first walked into an Orthodox shul (Knesset Israel Torah Center) in Sacramento in early 1993 on a Sunday morning to take a conversion to Judaism class with friends.
The rabbi looked at me walking in with a yarmulke on my head and tzitzit hanging out and said, “I don’t know you. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
So I turned around with a pounding heart and walked out, accompanied by my friend Michael Weed (born Jewish), who said he didn’t want me to be alone.
We drove over to a kosher food stand operated by a Persian woman in her late 20s. We started talking. We said we were single. She said she might be able to set us up, but first, “I want to see your tax returns.”
I knew that Jewish life was intense but I wasn’t expecting this.
Sacramento’s Orthodox rabbi called me that week and asked me about why I wanted to convert to Judaism, why did I start out with Reform Judaism, what beliefs did I have about Jesus (I had none), and we chatted about the radio stations where I used to work — KAHI/KHYL.
I passed my Reform Beit Din in late 1992 but didn’t get to use a mikveh until March of 1993. When I drove down that with my Reform rabbi Marvin Schwab, I was embarrassed to see the Orthodox rabbi who had interviewed me for his Orthodox conversion class. I tried to hide in the background and he made no sign of seeing me.
He gave my Reform rabbi the key to the mikveh and told him not to use the shul. “What do you think we’re going to do? Eat cheeseburgers in there?” asked my Reform rabbi. “Stay out of the shul,” the Orthodox rabbi repeated. He was so blunt. I was intimidated. I was learning that in Orthodoxy, it’s more important to obey the Torah than to be nice.
For my Reform ceremony, we had two witnesses present aside from the rabbi, one was a woman (who did not watch any of the stuff where I was naked).
Rabbi Schwab performed the hatafat dam brit (ritual circumcision ceremony) on my with a pricker like diabetics use, taking a drop of blood from my penis (as I had been circumcised at birth in Australia). Then I immersed three times in the mikveh and said some blessings and finished my Reform conversion.
I moved to Orlando in August of 1993 for eight months. I remember applying to this matchmaking service operated by an Orthodox rabbi and he returned my application and check when he realized I had not completed an Orthodox conversion. He also said that the autobiography I sent along with my application contained much raunchy material not appropriate for publication.
With Reform and Conservative Judaism as I experienced it, everything Jewish you did was great and there was little judgment about your sins. That word “sin” was hardly ever used. Orthodox Judaism, by contrast, had huge standards and I was learning it was not easy to finesse your way around them, the way I had operated all my life when I wanted things that required more from me than I wanted to give.
I never set foot in an Orthodox shul in Orlando and had only one conversation there with Orthodox Jews.
After making a partial recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Florida (after six years of bed-rest), I flew back to my parents’ home near Sacramento in mid-March of 1994 and on Thursday evening, March 31, I drove to Los Angeles to begin a new life.
On Friday, April 1st, with Passover beginning Saturday night, I stepped into the Chabad house at 741 Gailey Avenue in Westwood wearing shorts and a t-shirt and a knit yarmulke. I had walked by the building many times when I was at UCLA in 1988-1989, but had no idea at the time I was going to convert to Judaism.
In the Chabad house, I found this enormous rabbi, he looked about 6′ tall and weighed about 300 pounds and he was one of Rabbi Cunin’s sons.
I had heard that this Chabad house was run by Dennis Prager’s friend Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, but evidently things had changed.
I told the rabbi I was a convert to Judaism and was seeking a Passover seder. All the seders I’d had in the past were limited affairs I had done on my own.
The Chabad rabbi was immediately suspicious of me. Who had done my conversion? Rabbi Schwab, I said. He’d never heard of Rabbi Schwab. Was he Orthodox?
And now I began lying as I have always done in situations where there was something I wanted badly and could not get it if I told the truth.
Yes, I said he was Orthodox. Had the rabbi taught me I could not drive on Shabbos? Yes, I lied.
I’m sweating bullets. Orthodox Judaism is going to be more difficult than I imagined.
The Chabad rabbi asks for my rabbi’s phone number. I dig into my notes and read him off the number. My pulse is racing. On the last digit, I lie and change it. When the Chabad rabbi calls the number, there’s no answer.
He says I’m welcome to come for the seders and to join them for the prayers tonight and tomorrow.
I walk out relieved.
I could lie and say I don’t remember when and why I started lying, but that was explained to me by my psychiatrist in Orlando in 1993. I began lying to avoid being smacked by my parents. When they found out my lies, however, they hit me harder. In third grade, my dad knocked out of me my habit of lying, except in times of greatest need when I felt I had a good chance of getting away with.
So from then on, I did little casual lying. I only lied when I had to, such as when I sought to begin my life in Orthodox Judaism in Los Angeles.