Karachi's Rajput Girl who accepted Judaism - The writer at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis during a recent visit with family

Karachi’s Rajput girl who accepted Judaism

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Karachi's Rajput Girl who accepted Judaism - The writer at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis during a recent visit with family
The writer at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis during a recent visit with family

My parents were secular Muslims who respected their religion; prayed and observed the festivals and some of the fasts. I turned out to be the most religious of the four daughters, the only one in the family who finished reading the Koran.

This is the story of Karachi’s Rajput girl who accepted Judaism and lives in Jerusalem. Yael Stepansky, whose parents belonged to Rajput clan of Jaipur, India and had migrated to Karachi Sindh in 1948, narrates her own story – her journey of life from Karachi to America and then to Israel.

“If you were to meet me, you might assume I was an ordinary Sephardi Jewish woman who dresses modestly and covers her hair, living in a Jerusalem suburb with two young daughters,” Yael writes.

My reality, however, is very different. I was born into a middle-class Islamic family in Pakistan, the seventh and youngest child. There were actually nine children at home, as my mother also raised her two nephews after her sister died. The household was always busy, and I grew up watching everyone around me, like younger children in a large family.

My parents were secular Muslims who respected their religion; prayed and observed the festivals and some of the fasts. I turned out to be the most religious of the four daughters, the only one in the family who finished reading the Koran.

In Pakistan, the rules of modesty and separation of genders are followed. At home, we wore jeans and admired Western culture, watching the government-run TV and radio channels that featured women singing modestly. Even today, women sing and entertain on TV, dressed very modestly, as most people admire an open culture similar to that of the United States, but with a much more modest touch.

When we had gatherings at home the men and women sat separately. Similarly, there was no mixed dancing or dating (except for marriage purposes) before marriage.

My early life growing up in Karachi—the capital city of Sindh province of Pakistan—was a comfortable one focused on school, my family, playing at home in the yard or with neighbors. Once in a while, we would all go by train to visit my father’s elder brother who lived in a small village outside Karachi. But visiting there was a fun adventure, and we didn’t feel we lacked anything; we slept under the stars, had food to eat and enjoyed time with our relatives.

My father was a math and physics teacher, and my mother a homemaker. We lived in a huge house given to us by the government college where Dad worked. There were also servant quarters, as they called it then—a small one-bedroom apartment in our backyard for our domestic workers who helped my mother. The house had a long driveway with a garage, even though we never had a car. Dad had a scooter, and to our delight, occasionally gave us rides.

Every Friday, he and my mom went shopping and would bring back ice-cream or fancy cookies. Friday was the day off in Pakistan, so we had a huge family lunch with chicken, rice, salad and bananas for dessert.

We were middle-class, according to the standards of a Third World country, with food on our table, clothes to wear and a roof over our heads. We were healthy. None of us ever complained about not having more things. It was taken for granted that we were fine as we were, a value still ingrained in me. This made us seem humble compared to our American counterparts later on. Once, I mentioned to a high school friend that I shared a room with my three sisters. She told me how unfair that was and how she’d never put up with such a thing. For me, it was just a matter of fact; I really wasn’t complaining at all! This attitude has made it much easier to survive hard times, as I realize that very little is needed to be happy in life.

My father is the kindest, sweetest, humblest and most truthful person I have ever known. He taught us the value of patience, hard work and honesty. His life story was full of hardships; he left India during 1948 and walked on foot with his younger siblings to Pakistan. Unfortunately, some of the younger children died on the way. I cannot put into words the sacrifice he made for his family, yet he never takes any credit for it, but says it’s all due to our mother who supported him.

We grew up admiring the United States. My father had sent my uncle to US to obtain an education and make a good life. Dad firmly believed that a higher education is the key to building a better life. Completely on his own, he left his poor little village, put himself through college and became a professor at a prestigious government college for women. He was even featured on TV for his amazing work.

Each time Dad or his sister visited America they’d bring back cool stuff like a radio or knee-high nylon socks we thought were made of some magic material. To us, America seemed to be a perfect place, with sunshine and flowers blooming everywhere, and happy, smiling people who were, of course, also good-looking.

In 1985, Dad again attempted a seemingly impossible task, relocating his family of nine to the United States, with no job, no English and only a promise of temporary support from his younger brother. Everyone was convinced that he would fail and soon return in defeat. The opposite happened, and after a lot of hard work by him and all the older siblings who took minimum-wage jobs while going to college, we all pitched in and succeeded in America.

My uncle worked at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis as an engineer. He was married to a gorgeous blonde, blue-eyed woman named Jane and had two gorgeous, light-skinned daughters who looked like dolls to us. Then he divorced Jane, and married Marla and had two sons.

I found out many years later that both Jane and Marla were actually Jewish women, but so completely assimilated that no one suspected their origins.

Our arrival to the reality of America turned out to be challenging. Although it was June, the weather in St. Louis seemed cold to us after the heat of Pakistan. Huddled in our newly purchased blankets at home, we still felt chilly. When winter arrived and we saw snow for the first time, it seemed magical. At the age of 11, I figured out how to toboggan down the snowy hills on pieces of cardboard just like American kids.

Language was more difficult. None of us spoke English, so this became the focus of our lives. It took a lot of self-studying, as there were no other Urdu speakers to tutor us. Watching TV and looking at newspapers helped us learn English vocabulary. Within a year or so, my siblings and I were able to cope in school and figure out our homework.

From the start of our arrival in America, our parents told us that we wouldn’t adopt the moral standards of the country. We came to build a better life with education as our top priority. The reason we were living in the land of opportunity was to be highly educated and build a better life.

Being the only foreigners in a St. Louis public school had its own social challenges. I did make a few American friends, but never really fit in. I studied hard for tests and was recognized as a smart student, the stereotypical academic Asian. We had Pakistani neighbors and friends to visit on the weekends. My best friend growing up was also from Pakistan and lived about a half-hour drive away.

After high school, I wore a hijab (a Muslim headscarf) for several years, perhaps in search of growing spirituality. At age 20, after all my older siblings were married, I followed our tradition and agreed to a suitable arranged marriage: He met my family, my sister knew him, and his upper-class family owned a bakery in Karachi. After our wedding, my husband, a freshly graduated doctor, and I moved to Michigan, where he started his residency. I continued college at Wayne State, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in finance.

Karachi's Rajput Girl who accepted Judaism- Writer's mother is on the right
Writer’s mother on the right

My parents were thrilled when I was awarded scholarships in college, and my degree made me the first American college graduate in the family alongside my dad.

After graduation, I started working for General Motors in Detroit. Life was good at first. My husband finished his residency and internship, and found a private practice in a small town near Grand Rapids making a lucrative living as a private-practice physician. The first couple of years, we were busy enjoying our wealthy, successful life with a new house, new car and vacations.

Being raised in humble beginnings, I began looking for more meaning in life. My husband didn’t want to have children, and we lived far from my family. It grew difficult to visit them as everyone kept asking us, “When are you going to have kids?”

I began to feel more and more lonely and empty, as I could not connect to co-workers, whose life seemed very materialistic. We looked like the picture-perfect young couple, but it was a very trying time as the rift between my husband and I continued to grow. Sadly, I realized that we could no longer continue a life together. We eventually divorced after nine years of financial success. I remember thinking to myself: “Is this all there is to life – More money? Shopping? This can’t be it!”

After the divorce, I went back to live with my parents. Shortly thereafter, I met Eli online, an Israeli Jew living in Paris. We spoke about life and I found it fascinating as he was the first Jew I had ever met—or at least one proud enough to announce it. At home, we never spoke about Jews, who seemed as foreign to us as the Taiwanese or American Indians. I was vaguely aware of Jews in movies, but somehow they didn’t make me think of Judaism at all. They seemed like any other educated American: open-minded, free of religion, good people.

Later, after moving to Los Angeles, I continued my spiritual search of Judaism. I found learning Torah very different than what I had thought of religion. People were constantly asking he was the first Jew I had ever met questions.

I first learned the alphabet to try to learn Hebrew, just for curiosity, and I ended up taking beginner Torah classes. I was amazed at the openness and clarity of the rabbi’s teachings. There was nothing you couldn’t ask him, and he was not preaching—just reading text, explaining beautifully the life of Avraham our forefather.

It didn’t feel like dogma but a history lesson. As I became more serious in my studies, it became clear to me that Judaism is not a religion but a faith. We know the truth—we know when, how, why and where it all happened starting from day one through today. That’s amazing!

In converting to Judaism, I learned the reasons and connections of our behaviors and actions, as well as God’s will for us to be truly fulfilled and purposeful.

My conversion to Judaism was not easy and resulted in a painful rift in my relationship with my family. Eventually, Eli moved from France to Los Angeles, and we had a real Jewish wedding and settled down. When our first daughter was born, my dream finally came true after all those empty years of longing to become a mother. A few years later, we moved to Israel, where our second daughter was born. Though I was sick for a while after her birth, my joy at our growing Jewish home gave me the strength to go through a lot of challenges that I would not have dreamed would come my way as an observant Jew.

My marriage to Eli began to suffer as I realized that our outlook on life did not match. I was very scared to be in Israel alone with no job, no language and two babies to take care of.

Though my marriage to Eli unfortunately ended, I am now entering a new phase of my life. I know that whatever has happened is for the best and will definitely lead me to my father’s vision for his children: to build a good life. The definition of that goodness has completely changed over the years to a life of meaning and purpose, and now I feel totally fulfilled connecting to my true self. Once, I lived in a large house filled with every material possession, but devoid of spirituality and the joy of children. Now, I live in an apartment in Jerusalem with my two sweet daughters and feel totally fulfilled. My task is to raise them to realize we are the luckiest people on earth—that we know the truth, can connect to our Creator in a personal way and to always feel grateful for what we have.

Lately, I have started working for a wonderful outreach organization in Jerusalem, which I feel is God’s way of assuring me that I am loved and being watched over by Him. I have also remarried.

Karachi's Rajput Girl who accepted Judaism- writer's Jewish Israeli daughters
Writer’s Jewish Israeli daughters

Over the last few years, my parents and I have gradually started to reconnect. I am so happy that now they see their granddaughters on Skype and even mentioned the possibility of visiting.

I recently went to Saint Louis to meet my family with my husband Nachum. It was such an awesome surprise how loving, accepting and respectful all of my family was to me and him. It gave me so much satisfaction to realize again that I come from such a good background of genuinely kind, loving and respectful people. Though they may not be pleased with my faith and practice, they made it clear to me that they accept me, no matter what. I am grateful to God for having such a fascinating life—way beyond what I’d ever have hoped for.

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Yael Stepansky - Karachi's Rajput who accepted JudaismYael Stepansky lives in Jerusalem with her husband and daughters. She works as an accountant and loves to host Shabbat meals and spend time learning Torah with her family and friends. She recently started speaking to groups and sharing her life story.
Courtesy: Chabad.org 

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