An Interview with Gretchen Johnson

Gretchen at Central Market South

Gretchen at Central Market South

L: I’m going to just start at the beginning. Are you originally from Texas?

G: Yes, I am. I was born in Dallas, and my family moved to Austin when I was a toddler. So I grew up here and I went to Austin High School and then I also went to U.T.

L: Oh wow…so a lifetime Austinite…that’s really cool.

G: Yeah. I moved to the Rio Grande Valley for a little over 12 years when I was in Teach for America, and then I came back again to Austin maybe about 6 years ago.

L: That’s neat. So is your whole family still here?

G: My mother and father are not still married but they both still live in Austin, and then my sister is living in Dallas right now.

L: So what year were you born? You’re 48?

G: 1969.

L: How old were you when you moved to Austin?

G: I think about 2 or 3, maybe.

L: And you have a sister?

G: Yes, I have a brother and a sister, but my brother died when he was 27. He was 2.5 years younger than me, and he died of leukemia. 

L: I’m so sorry to hear that. That’s awful. So your sister…is she older than you?

G: My sister is younger. She just turned 40. She just completed her psychiatry residency and she has a daughter who’s 5. So I have a niece.

L: So that’s your only niece?

G: Uh huh.

L: Do you get to see them in Dallas much?

G: Whenever I get a chance. It’s hard because I usually have to work on weekends and usually weekends are the only time she’s not working, you know? So it’s a little hard to coordinate as I would like, but a few times a year I do.

L: Are you going to see them for Thanksgiving?

G: Yes. They’re coming to town.

L: Cool. So when you were a kid, what did you most want to be when you grew up? Were you one of those people who knew from the time you were little what you wanted to do, or were you kind of searching around for a while, or were you in-between?

G: Well I probably searched around for a while, but I think that some of the things that I wanted to be I ended up doing. I think I wanted to write, starting from a pretty young age, and also I thought that I might become a teacher and I did teach for 12 years.

L: So do you still write?

G: I do. I’m not really published, but I’ve done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 5 times. But other than that, I mostly wrote things for when I was teaching, and I’ve done a D’var Torah a couple of times.

L: Were you a huge nerd in high school? Were you just one of those people who always had a book with you? What were you like as a kid?

G: Yes, I read very, very much…I started reading when I was probably about 4 and I just read all the time. When I was halfway through kindergarten, my father made a rule that he would not buy me any books that had less than 100 pages, because I’d finish them before we got out of the bookstore. 

L: (laughs) So you were a fast reader, too!

G: Yeah. So I was reading novels like the Wizard of Oz and things like that while I was in kindergarten. And especially during the time that I was converting, I started just inhaling books on Jewish themes. I think I read about 200 books on Jewish themes in the two years that I was studying for conversion. I only admitted to 50 at my beit din, because, I don’t know, I thought that sounded less…

L: Braggy? Which is so funny because you’re not a braggy person at all. But possibly more believable to say maybe 50.

Ok. So you weren’t raised Jewish. But were you raised in any religious tradition?

G: Yes. My parents converted to a lot of Christian denominations when I was a child…so I was baptized Presbyterian…actually all 4 of my grandparents I believe were Presbyterian. And so I was baptized Presbyterian, and then when I was in grade school, my parents were going to an Episcopal church near where we lived, and then when I was 10, my family converted to Catholicism. And at the Catholic church, there was a youth group leader who was more towards the evangelical side, pentecostal side, you know? I’m not sure how much the priest knew about what was going on there…but I definitely got exposed to that as well. 

By the time I was 16, I decided that Christianity wasn’t quite working for me, and I didn’t go to church any more. And my best friend at that time…well my best friend all through middle school and high school was Jewish. But when I told her that I didn’t want to go to church anymore, that I’d had enough, she said “Well I don’t think you should try to be Jewish, because you pretty much have to be born Jewish…it’s almost impossible to covert.”

L: She said that?

G: Yeah well that was more than 30 years ago, you know.

L: Did you have an interest though, at that point?

G: Yeah I think so.

L: So are you parents currently practicing Catholics?

G: No. My mom I think mostly goes to an Episcopal church now, and my father became a Buddhist. 

L: How did they feel about you converting?

G: They were very supportive, you know? My mom bought me this star of David (see picture of Gretchen with Magen David necklace) as a conversion present. She also bought my tallit for me. And they’ve both been to the synagogue several times. My dad has come to the Purim celebrations twice. And they were there a few weeks ago when I chanted Torah for the first time.

L: That’s really great that they’re supportive. 

G: Yeah.

L: So what do you do about Christmas?

G: Well…ok…so originally…when I was going through the conversion process, like when I knew for sure that I was definitely going to convert, I actually waited until after Christmas to tell the Rabbi.

L: I see…

G: Because I figured…I wanted to have Christmas one more time. I mean I know that I still go to Christmas, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be the same. I knew it wasn’t going to be my holiday. Not that I had any belief in the religious stuff, you know. 

But I think that when I was going through conversion that the thing that oddly I was most worried about was thinking oh, darn, that’s hundreds of Christmas carols that I could never sing again. Because singing and music was something that I really enjoyed, you know. But now I realize that there’s more singing in Judaism, because you sing during the entire service every week, so I feel a lot better about it now. But that was a concern at the time…that I thought I was going to miss Christmas carols.

L: So you were able to replace one with the other, and so the transition hasn’t been so bad because of that.

G: Right.

L: That’s good. So have you thought about learning trope?

G: I did take a trope class, and I chanted Torah a few weeks ago with no tape or anything like that.

L: So when you chanted Torah, was there a program that you went through to prepare for that?

G: That was mostly the trope class that we took with Ellen…I think it was a 10 week course…and then at the end of it kind of like for our graduation we each of us chanted a few verses of Torah.

L: Wow…that’s really cool.

G: Yeah. And right now I’m in the adult b’nei mitzvah class. In May, I guess officially that’s going to be my bat mitzvah service.

L: So what’s the date? I just want to make sure I don’t miss it.

G: I think it’s May 13th. After the Sisterhood Shabbat on May 12th.

L: So…what is it that drew you to Judaism?

G: Partly, it’s kind of mysterious. From early childhood maybe, I was drawn to it…like if I came across a book that had Jewish characters in it, I was just really fascinated. 

And then the other thing is that, out of the people that I made friends with at school, most of them as it turned out were Jewish. And I didn’t know it. Many of them were not very religious. And they didn't really talk about it. and so I did not know that they were Jewish until years after we became friends. But I went through an experience throughout middle school and high school where, one by one, I learned that a high percentage of the people who I hung out with were Jewish. 

L: Do you think there was something about them…maybe…the culture?

G: Probably. With my best friend, I would go over to her house and talk to her parents…they were really smart, interesting, educated people. They were college professors, actually. And so it was really interesting the discussions they would get into. I think I sort of like the view of morality…instead of everything being about whether you’re going to be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, basically it was just more of a focus on doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. And that made a lot more of an impression on me because you would still do the right thing, whether or not you believed all of the stuff.

L: Uh huh…it’s more ethics-based.

G: Yeah. And also, I think when I was probably in my early teens, they had a Passover Seder at the Catholic church that I was going to. And I went to that a couple of year in a row. And I thought that that was just the coolest thing, and it was near Easter time and I was like “Can’t we just do this instead of the Easter thing?”

L: What are the things you like most about being Jewish?

G: I like it that you’re always learning things. There’s so much more focus on education, you know. I like that it’s not as strongly belief-based as some religions, and so you have a lot more intellectual freedom. Really there’s nothing that you can’t discuss.

L: It’s not dogmatic.

G: Mm hm. 

L: Well. At least not Reform (Judaism).

G. Yeah. And I also like it being a little more action-based than belief-based.

L: What about things that you don’t like? Are there any things that have turned out to be problematic?

G: If there were any issues that I think that at first…you know that I didn’t necessarily agree with…the first one that came up during my conversion process was about forgiveness. I read this book “The Sunflower”…and basically they had a lot of Jews and Christians and people of other religions responding to the question of whether you should forgive serious crimes. 

The Christian position was yes, that you should forgive, because that’s what you do…It’s one of the most important commandments, I guess, that Christians are supposed to follow. And the Jews are saying, no, no…you shouldn’t forgive. So, I…I don't know, I wasn't too sure about that, because I felt like, in the first place, if you just hold on to your grudge and you don’t forgive people, you’re just going to be holding on to your resentment and that’s not going to do you any good. And in the second place, how is that going to motivate people to reform. But since then I’ve actually realized that there is a more diverse range of positions within Judaism than was necessarily apparent from the book.

L: I think I got a really different take-away from that [book] when I read it…because it’s true, you can see the dividing line right down the middle when you read the Jewish responses and you read the Christian ones…and Jews believe that a lot of the responsibility for being forgiven is on the person who transgressed. And to me, that makes more sense. It’s good to forgive…but the person has to prove that they’ve changed. That they’re no longer going to be committing whatever it was that caused them to injure others in the first place. So that was my take-away from it. 

G: Yeah. And I think I have a more nuanced understanding of that than I had at the time, but when I read the book, I was kind of shocked by it. I tried and tried to write a book report on that book…I just never …every time I wrote it I was just like…I don’t want to turn this in. 

Also, [out of] everything that I told my mother about when I was going through the conversion process …that was the only thing that she did not respond positively to.

L: Before you became Jewish, did you have any experiences with prejudice and discrimination? I mean on a personal level.

G: Yeah. So I am bisexual, and I originally came out when I was a junior or senior in high school [and] I realized that I was in love with a woman. This was like late ‘80s, early ‘90s…I went through the whole coming out process and was participating in the gay rights movement at the time.

L: So do you feel that gave you any insight into anti-semitism at all? Like did you feel more comfortable with that aspect of becoming Jewish?

G: Yeah, I think that I didn’t have any hesitation converting because of concerns about anti-semitism…and I think that I initially wrote in one of my assignments for class that Rabbi Rose was reading…by the way, I have no intention to be a closeted Jew.

L: That’s awesome.

G: So yeah I definitely um…it’s not something that I would try to hide from. You know in some cases, it’s kind of interesting because you know if you were born Jewish, maybe you want to be a little more discreet about it, whereas I’m like, what? You know, is there like anybody who doesn’t already know? 

L: How do you feel about the Jewish community in Austin? Do you feel like they’ve accepted you? Have you had any problems feeling integrated into Jewish life?

G: I felt pretty comfortable at CBI from the first …I made friends pretty readily…and so I think it’s great. I really feel like CBI is my family. Occasionally there’s certain issues that I don’t completely agree with, or different things that I want to change or add, but I feel like I can do that.

L: Is that with respect to Sisterhood, or with the Congregation in general?

G: Well, both. I went through the leadership development a couple of times, you know…also with Sisterhood I’ve had the opportunity to do some things that I’m not sure I would have gotten the opportunity to do as quickly if it had not been for Sisterhood. I’m on the board now, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a service because of the Sisterhood Shabbat…I don’t think that the mainstream of the synagogue would have asked me to do that as quickly as the Sisterhood did.

L: So let’s move on to non-jewy things. Ok, so you’re a big reader. Are there any other hobbies? Oh, you knit!

G: Yes. I do knit.

L: Ok...let’s see. So you read everything.

G: Yes.

L: What are your favorite books?

G: I read a lot of science fiction.

L: Who’s your favorite science fiction author?

G: I’ve been really into N. K. Jemisin recently. The Broken Earth trilogy. It’s an intense read. It’s not a light read. But that was really awesome. She already won the Hugo award for both of the first two books in the trilogy. And I have always been a big fan of Ursula LeGuin for the longest time. Octavia Butler. Samuel Delaney. Like back in my high school years.

L: Anything else?

G: Let’s see..what do I do during the free time that I don’t have…

L: That’s right, because you work a lot.

G: Yeah (laughs) I don’t know…I’m trying to think…like apart from the reading and the writing when I get the chance…and then I’m in a bunch of different activities at CBI.

L: You are! You’re involved in just about everything.

G: Yeah. And I’m involved with the Refugee Services of Texas. Oh yeah I go to IACT things too. Like the Red Bench.

L: When you’re not at work or synagogue, where are you most likely to be found?

G: You know…probably at home. Because …actually I’m an introvert. But I work in sales. And then I’m constantly doing group activities at CBI. So I feel like I’m pretty much just maxing out my introvert limit on a regular basis.

L: Oh I gotcha…

G: (Laughs) so I’m just …there’s not that many hours in-between, anyway. My schedule’s pretty crazy. I’m very frequently driving straight from work to CBI or CBI to work. 

L: So this question is completely out of left field…but what do your parents do for a living? Are they still working?

G: They’re retired. My dad was a state auditor. And then my mother…she taught for a while, and then she was a stay-at-home mom for a while…and then she got a job as a secretary, I think maybe at the business school at U.T, you know…and then she was actually a…so she got her clergy license…she was actually an assistant pastor. She was in charge of pastoral care at MCC for a while. So she’s never been a senior pastor or anything but she’s a retired pastor.

L: So the one thing we didn’t cover was your work experience with Teach for America. I’ve already asked you about that a little bit…you taught high school physics, was it?

G: Uh huh. Yeah.

L: For 12 years?

G: Yeah. And other assorted sciences.

L: Were you kind of a science nerd?

G: I was. So I have a triple major.

L: Oh that’s awesome.

G: I don’t have any graduate degrees, but I have a triple major in English, History and Physics.

L: So I think you’ve answered all of my questions…except for one more. So what do you now want to be when you grow up?

G: (Laughs) 

L: What are your future plans? If any.

G: You know I don’t know if I have it all figured out. I don’t know if I thought of a job that I can reasonably get paid for that would incorporate all of the things that I want to do, you know?

L: Have you thought about going to Rabbinical School?

G: I’ve thought about it. I think from a practical and financial standpoint, it’s an unwise idea…but yeah, I’ve thought about it.

L: That’s cool. I can picture you doing that. Just saying…(laughs)

G: (Laughs)

L: Alright. Is there anything else you want to share?

G: I think that’s all I can think of…

L: Yeah, we covered a lot! That was a good interview. Thank you.