My Journey to Liberal Judaism

Having a surname like mine I couldn’t help but wonder about it from an early age. Thus, I grew up in the knowledge that Frieze is a shortened version of Frieszenski (a spelling no one has ever confirmed) and that my paternal great, great grandparents appeared in Leeds in 1870 giving Russia as their birthplace. The family story was, they were Russian- Polish Jews who came to England for a better a life. This was all we knew, and pretty much all we have ever been able to find out.

I didn’t meet my grandparents until I was nine, when we went back to Australia for the first- time since emigrating to London in 1970. My grandfather, Grieg Frieze, called himself a ‘yiddisha kopf’ and had lots of Jewish sayings, but beyond that our family were secular and/or atheist. His mother was originally Irish Catholic, his wife was of English extraction, while my mum’s family was an English/Scottish/German mix.

Why my surname and my Jewish ancestors made more of an impact on me as a child than my other family members I don’t know, but they did. It particularly influenced my choice of reading material as I was often drawn to books about WW2 and the Holocaust. But, actually investigating Judaism as a faith was not something I thought of doing.

But, then, I met my husband. In India. As you do, when you’re travelling after Uni, or in his case, the army. For Shimon is Israeli. We settled in the UK in October 1993, after travelling together overland from Israel (via Cyprus as the ferry was still running then) through Turkey, Eastern Europe and Germany. We visited some of the concentration camps, yet, while I felt despair at the crimes wreaked upon the Jews and others, and relief that my paternal grandfather’s family had left when they did, I was not motivated to become Jewish. Indeed, when we had our civil wedding in November 1993, and later our marriage blessing in May 1999 (officiated by Rabbi Danny Rich), I told Shimon that I could not convert, as I had nothing to convert from, being an atheist. And, he has never asked me to.

This was despite promising Rabbi Danny that we would bring our children up in the Jewish faith (which we have, more on that later), attending evening classes in Hebrew for most of the mid-to-late 90s and visiting Israel pretty much every year since our marriage was blessed. (We even had a wedding party in Israel in 2000 to celebrate with Shimon’s extended family.)

It was around this time I started wearing a Star of David necklace. I was bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding and her thank-you gift was a Tiffany Cross. I absolutely could not bring myself to wear it, so with her permission, I bought myself a Star of David and gave my new-born niece the Cross as a christening present. I’ve pretty much worn it every day since. One thing I learnt from all the weddings we attended, most of them Christian, is that I much prefer Liberal Jewish ceremonies, as they are about the couple and not about marriage being a declaration of love for God (and the Church).

To cut a long story short, it wasn’t until September 2012 that our family joined Kingston Liberal Synagogue, mainly so our sons could attend Beiteinu to prepare for their Bar Mitzvahs. It had taken me some years to persuade Shimon to join KLS, although we did celebrate Passover, Rosh HaShanah and Hanukkah at home (albeit irregularly). As a secular Jew growing up in Israel, he did not see the need for joining a synagogue as all the festivals and rites of passage were automatically Jewish. Yet, when we did start going, the sense of relief was palpable: ‘Finally,’ he said, ‘I don’t have to explain myself to people.’

At this point we pretty much threw ourself in KLS life, attending services many Saturdays, joining in for High Days and Holy Days, hosting Shabbats at Home and sending our boys on LJY weekends and camps. We now count among the KLS community a number of close friends, many of whom joined us in Jerusalem in August 2017 when we held our younger son’s Bar Mitzvah there, officiated by Rabbi Charley Baginsky.

I cannot talk about my Jewish Journey without mentioning Rabbi Charley. When I first started attending services at KLS I felt like a fish out of water, unaware of prayers, services and nomenclature. Yet, as time went on my rusty Hebrew improved and familiarity brought understanding of the Amidah, Shema and Kaddish. At the same time I discovered that Rabbi Charley could take a Torah portion and reference 11th-century rabbis, 18th-century philosophers, 1960s folk singers and her children, all in one 20-minute exposition to make her sermons relevant and meaningful.

Through these sermons, the many Bar/Bat Mitzvahs I attended and my own reading Ilearnt that Liberal Judaism espouses many of the views I hold dear, especially regarding equality for all, protection of the environment and social action. Parashot Emor (Leviticus 19:9-11) speaks to me about social justice: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.”

I am also drawn to and inspired by the philosophy that the Jewish way of life is everlasting through the action of good deeds. Boruch Cohen has summed it up better than I can: “The doing of good deeds is compared to planting a seed. When a seed is planted, it disintegrates in the ground, losing its puny identity to the nourishing soil and creative potential of mother earth. A seedling sprouts, which will one day grow into a tall tree. In time, the tree will bear fruit, and seeds, which themselves might become an orchard, and ultimately, a vast forest. Likewise, a good deed takes root and sprouts in a nourishing eternity of good deeds and Jewish values. These deeds and values give life to ourselves and our offspring, that we too might one day grow into tall fruitful trees; that our fruits might one day become orchards. That’s why the Torah is called the ‘Tree of Life’.”

More emotively, going to the regular family services (with Tammy Rich singing) was an exercise in trying not to cry. The music for the prayers touched me in a way I was not expecting, nor can I fully explain. Maybe it’s Tammy’s voice, maybe it’s the harmonies, maybe it reaches an ancestral chord in my soul. Whatever it is, it’s too powerful to me to ignore.

Helping my two sons become Bar Mitzvah have been moments of special pride as a mother. Seeing them do so in their own very individual ways taught me so much about their specific characters and made me appreciate how this ceremony helps teenagers grow and develop an understanding of Judaism and themselves. It’s a very unique experience, and brought us together as a family, particularly our wider family in Israel, as Guy and Natan each did their Bar Mitzvah twice – once in KLS and once in Jerusalem.

But, why now, have I decided to convert? I could keep going as I am – being ‘Jewish enough’, but it is no longer enough. Partly, it’s as a fellow convert told me, when I asked her why she converted, “Because I’m tired of saying my family’s Jewish, but I’m not, when in fact I take part in everything they do.” Partly, it’s my sons who tell me “You’re not part of the family because you’re not Jewish.” Partly, it’s because Shimon and I plan to retire to Israel. Partly, it’s because KLS plays such a big role in my life that it feels false not to.

Ultimately, it’s because I feel Jewish. I want to be Jewish because of the sense of community it gives me, because of the tradition it comes from, because its moral teachings fit with my own. Because it feels like it’s meant to be.

I’m 50 at the end of the year, and I’d like to be honest with myself. I thought about doing a DNA test to see how ‘Jewish’ I am; and I realised that while I would be disappointed if my paternal Grandfather’s genes didn’t run strongly through my own, it wouldn’t affect my decision. I don’t need to be Jewish by blood or by genetics, I am Jewish by choice, because of everything in my life that has led to me this point. I would like to spend my next 50 years – if I’m blessed with long life – being ‘properly Jewish’.

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