New Year, New Life: A Jewish (Re-)Conversion Story for the Jewish New Year Holiday of Rosh Hashanah
What does it mean to celebrate a new year?
For many Jews, the period surrounding the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, offers a culturally sanctioned opportunity to rethink the past year’s successes and pleasures as well as frustrations and regrets. That calendrical structure offers some helpful emotional boundaries. For example, it allows any pain and guilt that Jews might feel about their actions or reactions of the past to be restricted to a year, and avoid letting negative emotions get out of control.
But sometimes, our lives take a turn for the more ambitious, and circumstances demand a longer-term look at our past and future. Such is the case with Carlos Spinola.
This month, Carlos Spinola, age 52, just completed his formal conversion to conservative Judaism. The path that led him to this life-changing ceremony is a long one. Depending on how far back we want to look, we can say that it dates back to two years ago, when Carlos (along with eight others) enrolled in a weekly course for potential converts to Judaism at Temple Emanu-el in Providence, RI.
But the seed was planted much earlier. Carlos emigrated from the Cape Verde island of Brava to the US in 1994. Soon after arriving, he encountered Jews—he thought, for the first time. One thing led to another, and Carlos found his interest in Judaism piqued. He became trained by Rabbi Ethan Adler (spiritual leader of the Congregation Beth David in Narragansett, RI) as a volunteer working with elderly Jews at senior citizens’ homes and centers around Rhode Island. That proved a tremendously fulfilling experience, and Carlos delved more deeply into the Jewish community.
But even that twenty-two-year journey pales by comparison with the long arc of history that surely underlay the curiosity and attraction that Carlos felt in first meeting American Jews.
For Ashkenazi Jews who know little about the early history of Sephardic Jews, the name “Spinoza” might ring a bell. One of the most important European philosophers of the early modern period, Baruch Spinoza is widely credited with helping to usher in the “Enlightenment” period of Western philosophy and culture. Part of a Jewish family that fled the anti-Semitism that was ravaging Iberia through the Inquisition (first in Spain, then in Portugal) beginning in the late 15th century, Spinoza’s ancestors fled the peninsula, and Spinoza himself was raised in Amsterdam. In the 17th century, that comparatively tolerant city was one of the urban centers that helped forge global ties across the Atlantic—in good part, from trans-Atlantic networks created by Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula.
The family name, “Spinoza,” has several spellings—including “Spinola.” Carlos Spinola—as with others in Cape Verde who bear this name–likely has roots in some branch of this illustrious family (although he has not yet traced the exact connection).
Although Carlos’ conversion ceremony had a certain air of finality to it, like any rite de passage, it was actually the culmination of a three-part process.
As the great folklorist, Arnold van Gennep, pointed out a century ago, all life-cycle rituals contain three basic components: separation (from the community and family); “liminality” (a period of strangeness and creativity, when normal routines may be turned upside-down); and reintegration (back into the community and family, but with a new identity). For Carlos Spinola, the period of “separation” began in 2014, when he made the decision to begin formal training in Judaism, with the goal of completing a formal conversion. His “liminal” period encompassed the next two years, when he was neither Catholic (his former religion) nor yet formally Jewish. Two weeks ago, Carlos experienced the third and final component to his life-cycle ritual: the formal conversion to Conservative Judaism. In his case, that included a surgical circumcision; a ritual immersion in the community bath called the mikveh that is located behind the Jewish Community Center of Temple Emanu-el in Providence; a special temple service in honor of Carlos’ new identity; and the signing of documents attesting to all the above.
But Carlos’ life journey back to his family’s Jewish identity is by no means stopping with his conversion. His next step? He has already begun paperwork to gain dual citizenship in Israel—or, as it is called in Hebrew, to “make aliyah.”
Meanwhile, enjoy these visual glimpses documenting the path that brought him to the new year, and new life, that Carlos is celebrating this Rosh Hashanah.
By Alma Gottlieb
(Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Visiting Scholar in Anthropology, Brown University)