A Convert's Path to Judaism
by Shannon Gonyou
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Pub Date 15 Jun 2022 | Archive Date 15 Sep 2022
Raised in a heavily Catholic suburb of Detroit, Michigan, Shannon grew up focusing on two things: how to do enough good deeds to get into heaven and how to stay pure enough to escape hell. In college, she followed many of her peers into an Evangelical church known for guitars, drum, religious-based shame, and the idea that without Jesus she was nothing.
But when she encountered Judaism on that same campus, a spark ignited within her and refused to be put out. Judaism felt obvious, familiar. After a falling out with her biological mother and two miscarriages, she found the courage to send the most important email of her life: she asked the local Jews by Choice program to accept her as a student.
Honest and unflinching, Shannon's story of coming home to Judaism encourages everyone—Christian, atheist, Jewish, and anything in between—to search relentlessly for the place where they belong.
“Conversion, above all else, requires openness: an honesty about your longings and the ways past religious life hasn’t met them. Since Sinai lays Gonyou’s longing bare with disarming tenderness. Coursing with humor and warmth, it’s neither prescription nor polemic but a parable for the ways love surprises us as we learn to know God by different names.”
—Rev. Benjamin Perry, Middle Church, New York
“Shannon (Chava) writes honestly, openly, and with great wit and intelligence about her journey to join the Jewish people and its faith. As you read, Shannon invites you to witness the birth of a Jewish person and a Jewish family through deeply personal recollections. After reading, you’ll be hungry to follow Shannon to wherever her Jewish journey takes her next.”
—Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Chief Jewish Education Officer, Jewish Federation of Broward County
Average rating from 6 members
I don't often give out five star reviews on Goodreads--I think the five-star label should be reserved for the absolute best and for the books with the potential to withstand time and contribute something of value to the world. And while Shannon Gonyou's book may never offer deep historical insight or any sort of analysis or lessons for future generations, her memoir brings so much honesty about not only spirituality but about life and the different struggles we face as people. It highlights how we, as humans, wrestle with our own faith, our desires to be good people, and our internal state.
As someone who has challenged my own spirituality time and time again, I was drawn to the book because like Shannon, I have felt a pull toward Judaism but, unlike Shannon, never really explored it. So, I hoped to share her experience. And I did. I related to so much of her story and I appreciated how openly she talked about not only her conversion but about her disordered eating, pregnancy loss, anxiety, sexuality, and meeting her birth mother.
Healthy spirituality requires us to face and embrace all of these things.
The book came to me via NetGalley, at a time of my own life where typical human struggles were threatening to overwhelm me (injury, minor flood from my bathroom, an incident with flea meds that landed a personal cat and a foster cat in the hospital, and the death of a nonagenarian author who published his memoir with my small publishing company). But, the book also arrived when themes of Judaism seemed to gravitate toward me: this memoir; the author who passed away was Jewish and his memoir discusses World War II from his family's perspective and how they rebuilt their lives here in the United States; and from a sillier pop culture perspective, my recent binge of Orange is the New Black on Netflix brought me to the storyline of Cindy's conversion as I read this book. Shannon's mikveh came in the manuscript only a few days before Cindy's mikveh in the lake.
Perhaps none of this has anything to do with Shannon's writing. Her book offers a steady and easy-to-read text of family stories and real experiences that anyone in this crazy 21rst century can understand. The peace and joy she finds in Judaism and the way she rebuilt her spiritual life as she embarked on her marriage journey provides wonderful thematic balance to the tale.
I’ve followed Shannon Gonyou on Twitter for a while now. She converted to Judaism, like me, and I’m always interested in the perspectives of other converts: the whys, the similarities and differences to my own conversion. Shannon has always seemed insightful, with a good sense of humor, so I was thrilled to learn she’d written a conversion memoir. Lo and behold, there it was on NetGalley! I requested (of course!), and voilà, the acceptance email for Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou (Msi Press, 2022) landed in my inbox a few days later. I may have gasped in excitement. Huge thank you to NetGalley, Msi Press, and Shannon Gonyou for the opportunity to read and review this book!
Shannon Gonyou grew up Catholic, the stipulation of her birth mother to the parents who adopted and raised her. They weren’t super into it, but they dutifully raised her in the faith, which didn’t particularly interest her as a young child, but in which Shannon took a greater interest as she grew older. She had a lot of questions, of course; maybe more questions than her religious educators cared for, and the answers often rang a little more hollow than she would’ve liked, but Shannon held on, trying to carve out a place for herself in Catholicism. The evangelical church she tried out next was much the same. Both churches’ white savior complexes felt faulty, along with their one-size-fits-all belief systems. What’s a spiritual-seeking girl to do?
Judaism was something Shannon just kept coming back to, over and over. She’d question friends, co-workers, classmates, anyone who she met and learned was Jewish. The tradition kept calling to her until finally, she blurted out to her husband one Christmas eve (what better time?) that she wanted to be Jewish. To his absolute credit, despite being caught somewhat off guard, her husband was remarkably understanding, and eventually he came to fall just as deeply in love with Judaism as Shannon did. This is the story of Shannon’s religious journey, from questioning Catholic to deeply committed Jew, and all that happened in between.
This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Shannon’s story is winding, full of questions and the struggle to find herself in traditions that weren’t quite meant for her. Conversion is a huge, intimidating leap (I sat in front of my first email to the rabbi I converted with for over a week, struggling to come up with the exact words that expressed how deeply I had fallen in love with Judaism); being able to travel her journey with her in all its stops and starts, in the moves she now considers uncomfortable at best (such as the mission trips she went on), was truly enjoyable. I saw a lot of my own story in hers and it was a true joy to not only read about Shannon’s path to the mikvah, but to also be able to compare and relive my own journey there.
This is no dry, dusty, stodgy memoir; Shannon Gonyou writes as though she’s having a warm, comfortable conversation with her oldest friend, and every sentence is infused with her love of Judaism and her absolute delight in having made her way home to where she belongs. If you don’t know much about Judaism and are curious as to why someone would choose to become a member of a traditionally persecuted group, Since Sinai will lead you to a greater understanding. If, like me, you’ve converted to Judaism, you’ll definitely see yourself in these pages. And if you’re in the process or are considering converting, this book will enlighten you as to what the process might look like for you – and you can pass it along to your family and friends when they have questions, too.
Since Sinai was an absolute delight to read. Pre-pandemic, I was staying off the internet on Shabbat, but fell away from that practice when the internet became my sole connection with family and friends who were similarly isolated. Reading this moved me back to the place where I felt ready to do that again, and I very much welcomed that haven of calm and peace the last few weeks.
Not having all of the answers is scary; not having all the answers is freeing.
In Since Sinai, Shannon Gonyou exposes herself, telling us of her experience with Judaism and Conversion, as well as her past as a Catholic and her life before and after becoming a Jew. Shannon Gonyou converted with her husband Travis, on a complex but extremely fulfilling path.
I decided to ask for this book on Netgalley because I'm converting to Reform Judaism and I wanted to read another person's experience. Gonyou got closer to Conservative Judaism in the end, but it makes little difference. As she says herself, it's always Judaism. Obviously, this book is not a manual, nor will it portray everyone's experience with Judaism, but it was still really interesting.
There are truly many things I appreciated about this book, first of all, the honesty with which Gonyou talks about her life, from her conflictual relationship with her natural mother to the difficulty to conceive, from her life as a young Catholic - and her problems with Christianity - to her life as a Jew.
Personally, I never found myself in Catholicism, so much that I became a Pagan for half my life and, now, my path brought me towards Judaism. My relationship with religion is extremely complex, and seeing someone else with the same problem who later found herself was comforting.
Judaism and Christianity are extremely different, and by reading this book you can understand it well. The author often compares the two religions, in the way of behaving and in the way they made her feel. I found myself agreeing on everything, even though I didn't have some direct experiences as she had. In the end, I wasn't as involved in religion as she was.
While reading this book, I couldn't help but compare Gonyou's experience with mine. They're slightly different; I haven't started the classes yet because itìs not as fast as it was for her, but I found the same hospitality from the community and the same will to prove ourselves.
Furthermore, I really appreciated the chapter in which she explained her reasons and her push towards Judaism, with which I very much agreed. Even though every convert's experience is different, there can be some common points that make us part of the same group.
The author also tells us about part of her experience with the Beit Din, which made me understand, partially, what I should expect if I ever get to that point.
I admit I really bonded with the author, just for her blunt honestly regarding her abortions, her eating disorder, and other extremely important themes for her and her family.
Also, the book is written in such a way you don't feel time passing, or so it was for me. One page led to another, I wanted to know more about the author and her life.
In short, I recommend this book.