a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

How Do You Make a Jew?

Posted on: March 1, 2012

Ingredients Needed:

Kevanah

Rabbis (3)

Mikveh

Books

Time (unlimited amounts)

Dedication

Patience

Patience

Patience

In the 80’s Heinz had these really amazing commercials about how wonderful it was to wait for their ketchup.  They’d have a guy position a bottle (a glass bottle, youngin’s) of Heinz tomato ketchup at a top of a building and they’d show him ride an elevator to the bottom with his hot dog poised under the dropping ketchup.  There were others, I’m sure, all of them in grandiose 80s fashion and they’d all end with the slogan, “Good things come to those who wait.”  Waiting for ketchup seems a bit extreme, just about as extreme as waiting to become a Jew.

A few lines of Torah/Talmudic history on conversion:

“But Ruth replied, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you.  For where ever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your Gd my Gd.  Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.  Thus and more may the Lord to to me if anything but death parts me from you.”  When [Naomi] saw how determined she was to go with her, she ceased to argue with her; and the two went on until they reached Bethlehem.” Ruth 1:16-19

“If a stranger who dwells with you would offer the passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall ten be a citizen of the country” Exodus 12:48-49

“Talmudic Rabbi Eliezar ben Pedat said that the exile of Jews from Israel, the most terrible event in ancient Jewish history, had but one positive outcome, that “the holy one, praised be he, exiled Israel, among the nations for the purpose of gaining converts” (Pesachim 87B).” read more here.

In Genesis Abraham entered the covenant with Gd by circumcising himself and the males in his camp.  He and his wife are given new names by Gd and from that point on they are Jews.  Ruth simply shows an unrelenting desire to continue to honor her mother-in-law in all ways possible, she pleads with her and makes the promise to follow her for the rest of her life and she becomes a Jew.  It’s said that from the line of Ruth the Messiah will come.  The mixed multitude who left with the Israelites out of Egypt were instructed to be circumcised and they could be citizens of the country.

In 2012 in order for one to become Jewish one has to not only go through at least a year of study, but depending on which denomination you convert into you may have to uproot your life to live in a community, you may need to change the way that you eat, you may need to change the way that you dress and you’re required to learn an entirely different language.  Having had conversations with friends frustrated and confused with the conversion process to the point of wondering if going through the motions of becoming a Jew when you already feel Jewish and live Jewish is really “worth it” and reading the same lament on a Facebook Page for Jewish converts I can’t help but wonder, do the best things come to those who wait?

I think there is a great deal of beauty in the process of becoming Jewish.  You do need to learn the basic fundamentals of Judaism, an explanation of holidays, rituals, traditions.  My less-than-a year of study was truly the most remarkable time of my life.  I learned more in one year than I’ve learned in a lifetime and I’ve still not learned anything.  I’ve barely scraped the surface of what it is to be a Jew and truthfully, even though I feel Jewish I’m not sure I’m any more Jewish now than I was before August 17th.  Meaning, I don’t feel like I’ve had a significant change that I didn’t feel before.  Sure I can confidently say without a doubt to most (liberal) Jews that I am a Jew and they will recognize me as a Jew.  Sure I visited the mikveh, yes I cried like a baby as I held the Torah scrolls in my arms and repeated Ruth’s impassioned words before my friends and rabbis.  I don’t regret the process and I’m happy that I experienced it but it didn’t make me a Jew.  What I mean is that I felt that I was Jewish before I stood at the bottom of the mikveh, before I held the Torah in my arms, before I cried at the bima.

To say that my conversion process was easy is putting it lightly.  It didn’t take a lot of effort, in that I was already driven to become a Jew.  So putting in the work didn’t feel like work, it felt like the natural progression of things-even though I had issues with the hoops.  Going through the conversion process may  have made me a Jew on paper, but it didn’t make me a Jew in spirit, it didn’t make me Jewish in my soul-I did that, through my conviction and desire to be a Jew.  Shouldn’t that be have been enough? (Dayenu!)

There’s a famous story of the man who demanded that Rabbi Akiva tell him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, meaning right in that instant.  Rabbi Akiva gruffly drove the man off, with a stick if I remember correctly.  The man then found Rabbi Hillel and demanded the same thing-“Teach me Torah, right now!”  Hillel’s words are famous, every Jews can recite them-“That which is hateful to you do not do to another.  That is the whole Torah, now go study.”  The words are so popular that Christians credit with the words to Jesus, but perhaps Jesus learned them in the Temple.  Hillel’s model was that if one sought out Judaism and wanted it, they should be converted then and there and then taught what it means to be a Jew.  The man who was rejected by Akiva was welcomed into Hillel’s school and became, we assume, a Torah scholar-hopefully one with as much compassion and understanding as his teacher.

Torah is a beautiful gift given and rejected, we are told, by all of the nations before the Jews accepted it.  If someone from one of those who originally rejected it all those millenia ago want to reclaim it, why put large barriers in front of them?

I understand the why.  Being Jew was a punishable offense.  Many Jews died rather than be converted to Chrisitanity at the point of the sword.  Many more went into hiding, taking our religion with us while putting on the facade of a reformed Christian.  Today, in 2012 it is not illegal to be a Jew, you cannot be hanged or burned for being a Jew and still we put people off by placing sometimes impossible barriers in front of them.

***

The number of people accepting Islam into their lives are staggering, both here in the US and abroad.  Christian denominations continue to swell while Jews remain only about 0.2 % of the world population.  It’s not about numbers, it should be about what inspires people religiously, but if we don’t do something where will we be?

Interfaith families often feel rejected in some Jewish spaces, Parents of multi-racial children sometimes feel rejected in their Jewish communities, and converts are given a host of requirements to be a part of a religion they want.  If the same multi-racial family did half the foot work they could easily find a church community where the people would welcome them with open arms.  If an interfaith family can’t be accepted fully into their Jewish space but find acceptance into a Christian space which do you think they’d chose?  I’m throwing out these what ifs  based on conversations I’ve had with countless people in various ways expressing frustrations they feel and my Torah/Talmudic knowledge is limited but it seems, without the scholarship to back up my feelings, pretty obvious to me.  If someone wants to be a Jew, convert them On one foot!

***

Conversion in Erika’s World

Potential Jew:  Rabbi, I want to be a Jew

Rabbi: You do?

PJ:Yes

Rabbi: You know that antisemitism is alive and well, right?

PJ: I do.  I want to be a Jew.

Rabbi: You know it will take a lifetime of learning, right?

PJ: I do.  I want to be a Jew.

Rabbi:You’ll have to change your name, eat foods in a new way, learn a slew of Hebrew, get circumcised, go to the mikveh

PJ:  I know.  I want to be a Jew.

Rabbi:Alright, repeat after me, the word of Ruth,…”

The End.

 

6 Responses to "How Do You Make a Jew?"

Dear BGJ,

Thanks for this beautiful post. I have thought about conversion many times, but I have not taken any major step from fear of being rejected. Your experience is very inspiring.

Best,

Alex

I don’t think you’ll get rejected-and if you do that’s not your rabbi/shul. It’s all about taking that first step. 🙂

There’s a historical reason it’s become so difficult to convert to Judaism – in many places for many centuries, converting was punishable by death, as was proselytizing. The decision to make it so difficult was self-protection.

Definitely. I completely understand they historical “whys” and I think that it’s important to make sure that the potential new-Jew is sincere and really wants to be a Jew.

I couldn’t disagree more about changing the conversion process (might this be a difference between our Reform-ness and Conservative-ness?) when it allows you to integrate into the Jewish community, to learn, to reflect, AND then decide, yes, this is what I want. I can do this.

We do and then we are.

I respect the Catholic RCIA and the Jewish conversion process than others–it teaches some essentials up front, then lets “you in”, and finally encourages you to use the network you’ve learned over the last few months to fly in your new faith.

Jewish identity and halakah have a relationship that I do not find in Islam and Christianity (because they DO seek converts, and our theology says you do not HAVE to be Jewish to be a good person going to heaven). I think our conversion process therefore needs to reflect this theological difference.

I don’t want to change it per se, I just wish it were more available and easier to access for more people. The folks I’ve been talking to who are frustrated are seeking Orthodox conversions, which I’m definitely not an expert on at all. It’s a lot of shape-shifting who they are as people, when all they want to be is Jewish.

The same sort of frustrations I hear from Jews in multi-faith households or multi-racial Jews…That said, I think it’s definitely important to figure out how to make Judaism a part of your daily life. I just wish the barriers weren’t so high-or at least that it was more consistent…

Good point on the idea that one doesn’t need to be a Jew to be “saved” or a good person-I do love that aspect of Judaism. But on the same note, if a person wants to be a Jew the doors should be flung open, should they not? We don’t seek out converts now, but we did.

I think a lot of things should stay in the past and I love how as liberal Jews we’ve adapted to our surroundings and altered Jewish law/tradition to better suit the time and space with which we live-I just wish conversion would follow suit.

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