a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Ask Erika:Is Conversion Necessary?

Posted on: October 12, 2012

I received the following question via Facebook and while I answered J’s question I began to ponder it more. So I decided to post my initial response to J and flush it out a bit as well.

As always, if you’d like to ask me a question you can send me an e-mail at blackgayandjewish@gmail.com or if you like my Facebook page you can ask me a question there.

 

Hello,

I am loving your blog, websites, Facebook, all of it…
I’m J. I too amĀ  Black and Jewish and I find so much of our story parallels…
I was just wondering; before you formally converted, you say that you considered yourself Jewish anyway…
How would you explain your Jewishness to people originally? and what made you go through with the formal conversion?

Thanks for your time,
J

Hi J,

Thanks so much for sending me this note.

That’s an interesting question that I’m afraid won’t be short in answer, but I’ll try. The short answer is that I considered myself Jewish because I was living a Jewish life; learning about the holidays and traditions, attending service, celebrating holidays. As much as I’d like to go back to the times of Ruth and just declare that I was a Jew like Christians and Muslims do, it’s not how we do it, which I’ve grown to respect.

Here’s the long answer:

When I studied the monotheistic religions in Catholic school I was struck by the similarities, but I don’t remember learning how you could convert to Judaism. I knew that you only needed to go before my mother’s church on Sunday morning and declare Jesus Christ as lord and saviour and you’d be met with an onslaught of amens and hallelujahs and praise his names before being whisked away to the back room. I know this because my mother made my sister and I do it. I must have been between 10-12 years old and wasn’t interested in doing it at all. I was, of course, christened as a child but becoming a Christian meant being baptized and doing it before the church at an age when you could choose. I didn’t choose it, the choice was made by my mom.

We knew that we would go before the church on the Sunday morning it happened and I remember feeling very hesitant for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, when the pastor asked if anyone would like to accept Jesus into their lives, my mother tugged my sister and I from our seats and we walked up to the front of the church. I wish we’d waited longer because we had to stand before the congregation and receive their praise and blessings and relief for our salvation while the pastor implored more people to accept the precious gift of Christ. More people came, most of them crying and as an adult I can only imagine it was out of that final relief one feels when they give themselves over to a higher power. I felt that as a new Jew, but I didn’t feel it on that Sunday morning.

Our mom joined us in the back of the church and we arranged a time for baptism. A few moments later we were all brought back before the church and the pastor said some more words before we went back to our pews. A few weeks later we came to church in our white dresses and went into the back of the pulpit. I remember being shocked by how big it was back there and that there was an actual baptismal pool behind the pulpit. We put on white gowns and I’m sure our mother insisted on swim caps for our relaxed hair before being brought to the pool. I went first.

The Pastor was already in the waist-deep water and I remember it being warm. He put his hands on my capped head and said some prayers I cannot remember. What I do remember is him asking if I took Jesus Christ into my life as lord and saviour and thinking that I did not. I looked over to my who gave me the classic black mother look that told me to do what I was supposed to do. I said yes and was dunked backwards into the water. I remember the force with which my little body easily flopped in the strong hands of the pastor. I remember him holding my nose and mouth shut as he brought me under the water. I remember how happy my mother looked when it was all over.

So what does this have to do with conversion to Judaism? Everything. As opposed to being baptized without much say, I wanted to convert to Judaism. Instead of a pastor praying over me in the baptismal pool I said my own prayers in the mikvah-the same prayers that all converts and all people who immerse in mikvah say. There wasn’t any separation between me and Gd, no one in the sacred pool with me, it was just me and my Creator. Instead of feeling hesitation and doubt I felt assured and elated. While I was stark naked in a foreign place with foreign words on my tongue and far away from my mother I felt truly alive. I wouldn’t give that experience up for the ease of simply saying I’m a Jew and just being one.

In my experiences, you can walk to the front of my mom’s church and say you want to be a Christian and they’d ask you if you take Christ into your life and BOOM! You’re Christian-without much learning. The same is true of Islam-the learning comes after the conversion. I appreciate the learning that’s required and necessary to become a Jew. I love that it’s not one declaration and then you’re done. I love that you’re required to continue learning and I absolutely love to outsmart JBBs who’ve forgotten or never learned things that I’ve learned. But that could be the snark in me wink ;)

To my Jewish friends I was a Jew, I attended service regularly, some times more than they did. My partner is Jewish, but has very minimal Jewish knowledge and often felt concern that the level of commitment to Judaism and my unrelenting pursuit to not only become a Jew, but to live as Jewishly as possible now and in the future, could be problematic. Was she Jewish enough for me? The answer is, of course, yes.

My Jewish identity was and is based solely on my personal journey. While I’m happy to share that journey here and with select people in my public life, it’s not something I regularly divulge. To avoid the questions I introduce myself using my Hebrew name when in new Jewish environments. I find that it puts off the, “Did you convert?” question so many Jews of Color hear. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my road to Judaism, it’s the fact that it doesn’t really and shouldn’t matter how I’m Jewish simply that I am.

Hope this answers your question.

Erika

4 Responses to "Ask Erika:Is Conversion Necessary?"

this blog put a huge smile on my face and i can relate in many ways especially as a person growing up in the b lack church and was baptized twice.

I’m so glad! Shabbat Shalom!

The analogy I’ve always found useful is the process of becoming a United States citizen. Can you just show up here and say, “I’m an American”? No. Can you pay someone to give you citizenship? No. It’s a process of study, and you have to pass a test. It might not sound fair that I was born here, and technically I don’t have to know anything about my country to be a citizen (although I certainly should!), but that’s how it is. I value my citizenship in the Jewish People more because I had to work for it.

Gyah, the citizenship analogy grates on me like nothing else. I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns, perhaps in part because I hear it all the time, and I find it both trite and inaccurate for a variety of reasons (some of which I can’t get into here because of my job). I also find it outrageously offensive when it’s used (as it very, very often is) to compare non-Orthodox converts to undocumented immigrants (and it’s offensive to both the immigrants and the converts). I will say, though, that if a person gains citizenship under, say, a Republican administration, and a Democrat then becomes president, they’re not going to show up to vote one day and have someone say, “Um… actually, we know you’ve been paying taxes this whole time, but you’re not American.”

Anyway, conversion. I identified Jewishly and was Jewishly active for ten years prior to my conversion. I do not recommend waiting that long, BTW. But the bottom line for why I formally converted is that this is what the community requires. I may not have chosen to take an introductory course about Judaism, for instance, where we mostly covered things I already knew, but that’s what my community required. And I’m the one showing up on their doorstep saying, “Hey, I want to be a part of your community. I want to join you guys.” That makes it incumbent upon me to respect what they’re asking of newcomers. I would never, ever take an aliyah, for instance, if I hadn’t formally converted.

Personally, I think completely valid, halachic arguments can be made for much, much less stringent conversion processes- across all denominations. I think the interdenominational arguments about conversion standards are largely manufactured for political gain. But the dysfunctionality of the interdenominational conversion situation doesn’t change the fact that it’s reasonable for a community to ask for some kind of a demonstration of commitment before saying, “Okay, you’re one of us.”

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