Skip to comments.Matter of chemistry
Posted on 05/28/2004 7:14:39 AM PDT by SJackson
One on One: Matter of chemistry
For Sarah Strikovsky, what began as a career move became a journey to Judaism
"You know you're not allowed to ask me about my conversion," says Sarah (Olga) Strikovsky, smiling sweetly. "But I guess I'm allowed to volunteer the information." This, she explains, is because a convert is not supposed to be reminded of his or her past.
Strikovsky, 36, a chemist at a pharmaceutical company in Rehovot, made aliya from Nizhny Novgorod in the former Soviet Union 12 years ago with her husband and daughter.
Since then, her life has changed dramatically.
"If someone had told me that I would end up living in Israel and becoming a Jew," she says, a Russian lilt in her fluent Hebrew, "I would have thought he was out of his mind."
How did you come to make aliya and convert to Judaism?
It was less than a year after the Putsch in Russia in 1991, and the future looked uncertain for a young couple embarking on careers in chemistry. Because my husband's father is a Jew, Israel was an option for us and we decided to give it a try.
What was the extent of your knowledge about Israel at the time?
Did you know anything about Judaism or the Jews?
The first time I ever heard anyone refer to Jews was when I introduced my husband (when he was still my boyfriend) to my family, and my aunt said to my mother: "You know, that boy is Jewish." But it wasn't said as a criticism. There were all kinds of people in Russia with all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. But my family never paid any particular attention to that. And I was never aware of anti-Semitism.
Did you belong to a church?
I was raised as an atheist. We did celebrate Christmas with a tree, but that wasn't considered a religious ritual. It was more of a traditional symbol of some kind. This may be why my mother was anxious at first about my converting, and quoted Marx about religion being the opiate of the masses. She told me to beware of being sucked into a cult. But I told her she can relax, because Judaism is far from being a cult. It's a way of life.
According to Halacha, your husband isn't a Jew. Did he consider conversion?
Never. His reason for coming to Israel had nothing to do with Judaism. It didn't even have anything to do with Zionism.
What caused you to take an interest in Judaism, once you were here?
When you live in Israel, it's hard not to learn about it to some extent. I mean, the Jewish holidays are national holidays. Also, my daughter was in the school system, so she was exposed to all the customs of the religion. And we got invited to friends' houses for holidays. But it took 10 years before I took a serious interest in it.
Many women convert to Judaism when they want to marry a Jew. Your case is different.
That's the beauty of Judaism - that it is a constant interweaving of the practical and the spiritual. This isn't true of any other religion.
My own process was gradual. At first, I didn't think I was actually going to convert. But I did begin listening to people talking about the practical side of Judaism, and how it connected to the spiritual side.
The real moment at which I realized that my interest wasn't merely intellectual came when my husband and I received a Green Card, which would enable us to go and live in America.
For my husband, there was no question that this was what we should do. I, on the other hand, suddenly had second thoughts. Up until this moment, everything I did in my life just kind of flowed. I got a degree, I got married, I had a baby, and then I came to Israel.
Now, suddenly, I found myself faced with a choice. This is ironic because I was the one who applied for the Green Card in the first place - and now, here I was, not at all certain that this is what I want to do.
Making a choice under such circumstances is very hard. But the truth is, when you choose something, it becomes yours. Maybe this is why God presented me with this dilemma - so that I would have to look inside myself for the answer.
How did your husband react to your hesitation?
He assumed that I was afraid. I can't blame him for thinking that. If I were in his shoes, I would have thought the same thing. I mean, it didn't make any sense.
But fear really wasn't the reason. The fact is I picked up and moved to Israel - a country I knew nothing about - without the slightest hesitation. It's not in my nature to be afraid of change or of new challenges.
The reason I didn't want to leave Israel is because I felt good here. Yet, I wasn't able to explain why. It's true that I had a good job and by then had learned Hebrew; it's also true that my absorption into the country went very smoothly. But I had no reason to assume that my absorption into America would be any less smooth.
What was the transition from this to conversion?
It was connected to what was going on in my marriage. I can't say that my decision to stay was the cause of my divorce, but as soon as I forced myself to look inside myself to understand my connection to Israel, I was also forced to look at my marriage. On the surface, everything was fine. We both had jobs, we had a daughter we love, and we appeared to be a good couple on the outside.
While I was grappling with the meaning of Israel for me - and the meaning of marriage - I began to read the Torah. For some reason, the first thing I stumbled on was the part on family - the role of men and women. I was amazed. It made me think that if only I had been taught these things as a child - instead of chemistry and physics - maybe I would have done things differently... maybe better.
All the questions of why we live and how we should live - these are things I have always contemplated in some way, but didn't know what to do with them. I even thought that maybe something was wrong with me, since my husband never seemed to understand what I meant when I raised these questions. And the people around me only seemed to think about whether to buy a car or where to go on vacation.
So you began reading the Torah.
Yes, but you can study the Torah and not convert to Judaism. Just the way you can read literature. And, from a practical, logical perspective, I had no reason to want to convert. My not being Jewish didn't have any negative effects on me. I've never had any social problems here because of it. And this gets back to what I said about making choices. The fact that I like living here - I like the openness of the Israelis - wouldn't necessarily mean that I'd want to become a Jew.
Why be Jewish?
I had reached the conclusion that I didn't want my marriage any more, but I knew that it would destroy my family, particularly my child. The process took a year. During that time, my husband went to live in America. I visited him twice, to see what it was like there, and to see whether - in spite of my decision - we could work things out.
It was a really rough period. Because he didn't want the divorce, he wasn't being cooperative. The courts demand that both spouses be present in the divorce proceedings, so he stalled by not showing up. I didn't know what to do.
Then, one night, after my daughter was asleep, I lay in bed awake and began talking to God. I think it was the first time I'd ever done that. I told Him that I didn't know whether I was doing the right thing. I begged him for guidance. And you won't believe this, but two days later, my husband arrived in Israel. Four days later, I was granted the divorce.
After that, it's a little hard not to believe in the Lord. The distance from there to conversion classes was very short.
You saw that as an actual sign from God?
Yes. And I am grateful for the guidance He has given me.
Which conversion ulpan did you attend?
It's called Machanayim. It's for Russians - the classes are conducted in Russian.
All kinds of people study there: Some are on a spiritual journey; others are on an intellectual pursuit; and, of course, there are a lot of women who are there to convert so they can marry their Israeli boyfriends.
Did you discuss your conversion process with your daughter?
Of course. In fact, I wanted her to convert as well. But so far, she hasn't decided. The whole thing is a little strange to her. Having come here as a toddler, she feels completely Israeli. So, she doesn't really see the point. Hopefully, she will do it one day.
Your conversion doesn't automatically make her a Jew?
No, only children under the age of 10 or 11 automatically become Jews if their mothers convert.
Did you begin to keep some of the mitzvot in the course of your studies?
Yes, though I began separating milk and meat in my kitchen a long time ago, because it's much healthier for the digestive system. It wasn't until I began studying that I began to use separate cutlery and dishes. There's a lot to learn.
When you undergo a conversion process, you are mentored by religious families, who give you practical guidance about all the mitzvot. I was assisted by three families - one of them from Chabad. They were wonderful, but I was given a hard time "behind the scenes" by the religious establishment. Later I learned that this had been on purpose.
How were you given a hard time?
For example, when I wanted to start keeping kosher properly, the people who were supposed to deliver dishes and give me instruction kept postponing their visits to my house. They kept telling me to wait another day - that the dishes weren't ready, or some such thing. It turned out that there was a reason behind this: It's a little bit like what I was saying about having to actively make choices, rather than merely fall into decisions. The degree of my seriousness about my Judaism was being measured by how willing I was to nudge the family about helping me learn. In other words, it was crucial for me not to take the whole process lightly - to invest energy in it.
It's a lucky thing I wasn't aware that I was being tested, because it would have made me self-conscious. Normally, I'm shy about pestering people. But as Pessah was approaching, I was so intent on preparing my apartment, that I didn't let up. And it worked. When the holiday arrived, I was prepared.
Were you instructed in how to dress, or is your long skirt a personal choice?
Nobody ever told me how I should dress, but I am beginning to feel more comfortable in modest attire. I'm starting to see things differently. Now that I am more aware of the different roles of men and women, I can see the advantage in women wearing dresses and skirts. There's something nice about looking and feeling womanly. It's another example of how the spiritual and practical influence one another.
How does this affect the way you view marriage?
I always considered marriage to be central. But now, I understand that it is not merely a framework. It's also an internal, spiritual union.
How do you envision your next marriage? What kind of wife will you be?
I won't behave differently in terms of the external workings of the relationship. I'll continue to have my career, for example. But my role will be one of more understanding and direction. I hope to be his ezer kenegdo.
What's your definition of ezer kenegdo?
A man's job is tikkun olam (making the world a better place). But because his focus is on the "external" world, he doesn't do too well at taking care of his soul - of walking the right path. For this, he needs a woman, to allow him to do whatever he needs to do "externally," while making sure his "internal" world is a "better place."
Do you feel any different, now that you're a Jew?
No, because I believe that my soul was always Jewish, and that this is how I arrived where I am today. When God told Abraham: "Go forth," we interpret this as meaning that he should go to Eretz Yisrael. But the Kabbala and the Zohar interpret it as meaning that he should return to himself. This is how I feel about my conversion - that I am returning to myself.
If you'd like to be on or off this middle east/political ping list, please FR mail me.
Does anyone know if a Jew can ever be married to a Gentile under any circumstances? Can one person conert and not the other?
A most delightful read!
A most delightful read!
Ezer Kenegdo is a load of dirty laundry that needs washed.
Either that or Ezer Kenegdo is that funky guy down the street
who makes dolphin statues and welds a bit when its not too hot.
Ezer is "help"; neged means "against", which means that she tried to help him to reject influence, spiritual in this instance