Vivian DeGain Better at 50 Blog

Columnist and arts writer


Daughter and Mother, Vivian DeGain, 2016, London

Becoming a Jew by Choice, and every day for the last 11 years

Vivian DeGain: I celebrate becoming a Jew by Choice 11 years ago with the reprint of my essay, shared aloud with my congregation at the time.

For January 20, 2006

Today, the Hebrew calendar date is 20 Tevet, 5766, which counts six thousand years of the Hebrew calendar/ and some 4,000 years of written/ oral Hebrew history, dating to the time of Abraham.

And from that history, two of my favorite stories quote the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Sha-mmai: two great scholars born a generation before Jesus.

“Hillel and Sha-mmai are often compared with one another because they were contemporaries, and the leaders of two opposing schools of thought. The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between the two schools.

“Rabbi Hillel was born to a wealthy family in Babylonia, but came to Jerusalem without the financial support of his family, and supported himself as a woodcutter. It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the fee to study Torah and because of him that fee was abolished. He was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity.

One of his most famous sayings, recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, in the Mishna) is: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?

And if I am only for myself, then what am I?

And if not now, when?

“Rabbi Shammai was an engineer, known for the strictness of his views. Writers from the Talmud tell that a non-Jew approached Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a stick!

“Hillel, on the other hand, converted the man, by telling him, “That which is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Christians recognize this as the essence of the Golden Rule.

Jews credit Rabbi Hillel, and quote the story with two sets of emphasis – one to respect all people – and the other to “go and study….”

Just as these 10 commandments (motion to them) above the Ark are from Hebrew scripture, this instruction has become familiar world-wide.

Thank you all for coming this evening to share my joy as I begin my life as a Jew, with my Hebrew name Chaya Tova bat Avraham v’Sara.

Since my first meeting with Rabbi Joseph Klein was in August, 2004, this celebration represents 17 months of formal study with my teacher (Rabbi means teacher in Hebrew) about Jewish history, culture, holidays and religion —  as well as my own intensive interpersonal investigation.

I began this study as a “grown woman on the outside,” but as a six-year-old Jew on the inside … six, only for having been a good listener to many discussions with my Jewish friends and mentors since college.

But as you can imagine, the process of conversion invites us to question so much more than content. At any age, at any time, a deeper study of one’s faith also connects us to a lifetime of inner identity, dreams, memories, fears, steps and missteps.

This time of study with Rabbi Klein has been the best in my life of much study.

My Rabbi has guided me through my assigned and elective reading list of nearly 200 books, through numerous classes, here with other adults, through religious services and holidays, and through a wonderful 2-week study trip in Israel.

As a caring guide, he’s listened with an intuitive wisdom that has anticipated my volumes of questions, some from me as the 53-year-old writer, wife and mother of three, and some from me as the six-year-old Jew.

You see, as writer Anita Diamant says in her book, “Choosing a Jewish Life,” that is the “go and study” part of Rabbi Hillel’s message, the significant one that I respect so much about Jewish people.

Jews are called “the people of the book” – for the volumes of Hebrew scripture they write, for an active, intensive debate about that text and context, and for the implied requirement to “go and continue to study.”

Because I am a writer, this fits me all so well.

But as a six-year-old Jew, I had so much to learn.

At least once a month I met with Rabbi Klein. “There are no stupid questions” he would remind me. His counsel has been gracious, generous and something I will always be grateful for. He’s been my technical editor for work I’ve published over this course of study. He has asked me the deeper questions I had overlooked or avoided for myself. He took me, and Doug, for a private walk through Jerusalem on the evening of Rosh Chodesh (Hebrew for a new month) to the Kotel, the Western Wall.

He asked me, as did the Rabbis this afternoon who were my Bet Din, my court, and as you have been asking me, so, why do I want to be Jewish?

For me, there are a hundred answers, and each day a few more.

Today, I can best answer this way.

For years I have always thought of myself as more Jewish, less Christian, more feminist, less traditional, more secular, less religious. I’ve read about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and practiced meditation, but I am a Westerner. Ultimately, I believe in one God, but not an exclusive faith, and that our human intention with God’s help is to make the world a better place.

Jews call this Tikun Olam, “to heal the world,” words echoed in the poem I just read by Edmund Fleg “I am a Jew Because…”

I have come to love Jewish people, your traditions and brilliance… And I love your discourse…when introducing discussion about controversies here at Temple Emanu-El for instance, Rabbi Klein often begins the discussion with the adage, “We’ve all heard that for every three Jews, there are four opinions…” I want to be Jewish.

So for me, it’s more about why do I want to become Jewish NOW?

Because now at age 53, I choose to study and do what I want, and that is to learn and to love Judaism.

Because at age 53, after 27 years, our youngest is in college and our oldest has recently become engaged, so I am between children and grandchildren. It’s never the wrong time to begin a serious study and self-investigation about what most matters.

I want to become Jewish now because when I first came to study at Temple Emanu-El as a guest of Ann Costello, it was August of a presidential election year.

I can’t tell you when I began to see the world as the image of a butterfly – the butterfly’s body as the flattened-out globe – the butterfly’s abdomen as the tiny sliver of the nation of Israel on the world map, surrounded by one wing as half-a-world of Christianity and the other wing as half-the-world of Islam. But that is how I see the world now, and the election made these images very intense in my mind.

I want to be Jewish now because, in my own family history, a German-American history, I have conflicts and seek to learn more. My great-grandfather Josef Otter was born in 1871 in Hausen, Germany. He was blinded by a sniper in World War I, went home to raise a family on his farm with a seeing-eye dog, but on April 4, 1941, died mysteriously because he was blind. He was “undesirable” in a Nazi terror, and was killed for it. Others in his family were drafted into it. Like the children and grandchildren of six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, and like all of us, I am left with a guilt, rage, confusion and fear of this unimaginable but real human history. Somehow in my becoming a German-American-Jew, perhaps I can make a stand in this history.

Also, I want to become a Jew because I love to hear Hebrew, and again thank Rabbi Klein, my musical directors Judi Lewis and Steve Klaper, my mentors Anne Costello, Pat Chomet and Ande Teeple, and to virtually all of you here at Temple Emanu-El who have welcomed me with wide-open arms, taught me Hebrew songs and prayers and patiently spoken and respoken the pronunciation as I stumble and learn.

I also want to thank my very supportive husband Doug and our children Michael, Bryce and Danielle for their love, and my extended family, here tonight!

Finally, Since I was a child growing up in Detroit, I have known that God is One, and that we are messengers of light and love in the world. Jews say Adoni is One, and that we are One, and that Tikkun Olam is our job – to heal the world. And that we are the people Israel, because Israel means to wrestle with God, or perhaps to wrestle with ourselves for God’s work here.

Today, I am a Jew…

because, for Israel, the world is not completed, we are completing it.

I am a Jew because

for Israel, humanity is not created, we are creating it.

A  blessing of peace, Shabbat Shalom.

Sacred time with my daughter



Detroit Life Worth Living: Trip to Israel

Vivian mug JNews









Vivian DeGain photo by Doug DeGain

The Detroit Jewish News  Nov. 5, 2015

Vibrancy Amid Israel’s Heightened Violence

I’m home from a 13-day journey through Israel. My suitcase is empty and all is Kol Be Seder (all in order), but it will take weeks to unpack the memories, experiences and relationships jammed into that time.

Our Temple Beth El (TBE) group of 25 made Aliya (going up to sacred ground,) led by Rabbi Mark and Rachel Ann Miller, and TBE travel specialist Phyllis Loewenstein. We landed in Tel Aviv Oct. 14, a date that Israeli and international headlines reported terrorism near Jerusalem, some dubbing it “the third intifada?” Sadly, the week recorded lone stabbings, shootings and incitement in East Jerusalem, Hebron and Beer Sheva.

Though we never saw any violence and Israel is a safe place to travel — the headlines were frightening to those making a first trip to Israel and heartbreaking to all.

The Talmud teaches that killing one person is like killing countless. We mourned, yet were sheltered from any conflict in our route. We saw nothing but beauty, but violence personally struck two Israelis we encountered in our circle.

And while I recited Kaddish, an haredi Orthodox woman who patrols the women’s section scolding and enforcing her “modesty judgements,” was loudly harassing a visitor behind me with a camera. The scolding was mean and I raised my voice in prayer. The haredi woman silenced herself and went away. I was polite – but The Kotel does not only belong to the Orthodox – it belongs to all Jews.

Our guide modified our itinerary to avoid tense areas, and we hired an armed guard in Jerusalem. Our bus driver, Yehuda Sison, a seventh generation Israeli who lives with his family on Moshav Sdei Hemed, was devastated to learn that a young solider, a boy from his moshav and known since birth, was killed in Beer Sheva in bus station attack. Yuhuda, with sabra (native) determination, drove for the remainder with a beautiful smile.

And at Shabbat morning services at Kol Haneshema in Jerusalem, Israeli Rabbi Arik Ascherman, co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, came to the bima to recite the Gomel blessing “for having survived a near-death ordeal.”

A masked extremist had attacked Ascherman with a knife, slashed at Ascherman’s head, throat and arms when he assisted Palestinians harvest olives near the settlement of Itamar Oct. 23 near Nablus, Samaria. Newspapers said the attacker is presumed to be a Jewish settler.

None of this prevented me from walking through the city of Jerusalem alone and unafraid. This was my third trip to Israel in 10 years, so I was familiar with sites scheduled for our tour. I chose to venture off and spend time in the Jewish Quarter and The Kotel.

With a map and elementary Hebrew, I walked from Ben Yehuda Street and hotel near King David cautiously but confidently by myself. There was increased police and military presence, but families, young children, couples, and students were out and about doing ordinary things. I felt comfortable approaching them to talk. They were very welcoming.

Good news in Israel is the bursting of life and innovation. We visited Stratasys in Tel Aviv, a high-tech company specializing in 3-D printing. We also visited a start-up company which facilitates “medics on bikes,” faster first-response through traffic and terrain: United Hatzalah ( which provides life-saving until ambulances arrive.

As a feminist, a Reform Jew, and a woman who often wears a t-shirt that says “Straight Not Narrow,” I was particularly thrilled to visit Progressive Judaism congregations in Israel. Both Kehilat Ha Lev in Tel Aviv and Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem welcome and support gay people. There may be few other places where LGBT people can celebrate Shabbat and their lives, since Orthodox extremists control “religious” life.

For my three days at The Kotel, I prayed and watched women from all over the world pray, mourn, cry, dance, sing, and feel home at the holiest Jewish site. On the women’s side, I saw Nigerian women weeping and mourning the loss of children. I saw 100 spirited American women from the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project singing Debbie Friedman songs out loud!

And while I recited Kaddish, an haredi Orthodox woman who patrols the women’s section scolding and enforcing her “modesty judgements,” was loudly harassing a visitor behind me with a camera. The scolding was mean and I raised my voice in prayer. The haredi woman silenced herself and went away. I was polite – but The Kotel does not only belong to the Orthodox – it belongs to all Jews.

Detroit Life: Trip to Israel Commentary

J News Op Ed Nov. 5, 2015