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Betty Smartt Carter
A few weeks before reading Lauren Winner's book, Girl Meets God, I heard that Chaim Potok had died of brain cancer. Potok was the novelist who made so many of us Gentile teenagers feel that something was missing in our lives: namely, Orthodox Judaism. We loved The Chosenwith its story of Danny Saunders, the Hasidic boy who struggled to make a life of his own without dishonoring his rabbi father. We didn't want Danny's dilemmas, but we wanted his brilliance and intensity: we loved the rich Jewish history and culture that made his struggles so poignant.
Lauren Winner read The Chosen as a teenager and romanticized Orthodox Judaism from a distance. Unlike most of us, though, she had a doorway into its closed world. Her father was Jewish: non-observant, but religious enough to want his lapsed Baptist wife to send the kids to a synagogue, something she did even after they divorced. Winner spent much of her time during high school at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was a teenage anomaly: an earnest, devoted student of religion who gradually traded in "lacrosse practice and ballet lessons and field hockey sticks, awkward dates at the movie theater and Friday night football games for more hours at the synagogue."
Winner loved her friends at Congregation Beth Israel, but the synagogue was Reform: liberal in its approach to Jewish law. Her own instincts were different: "Either God revealed all this stuff to Moses on Mount Sinai or He didn't. If He did, then we're bound by it . …Either there was no Judaism or there was Orthodox Judaism."
She lived for a summer with an Orthodox family in New York, learning to make challah and study Talmud, dressing in ankle-length skirts. While at Columbia University, she formally converted to Judaism by going through a ritual bath called a mikvah. Rabbis streamed in to witness the bath, though allowance was made for female modesty:
when I entered the mikvah room, the rabbis all turned their backs, and then, robe on, I plunged ...