Interesting Gers: Sammy Davis Jr.

God, what a life. Born in Harlem to a vaudeville performer, Davis faced physical and verbal abuse in an integrated army unit, returned to the states to become first a popular cabaret singer, and eventually, one of the most famous entertainers in the world and for many, many years a lightning rod in America’s discussions around race. Along the way, he converted to Judaism.

As the story goes, Davis was friends with the Jewish comedian Eddie Cantor, who gave Davis a mezuzah as a present. Instead of affixing it to his door, as Jewish law dictates, he wore it around his neck like a necklace. One night, Davis forgot to wear the necklace, and was involved in a horrific car accident in which he lost an eye and was hospitalized. While recuperating in the hospital, he read Sachar’s History of the Jews and spoke with Cantor about the similarities between the plight of the Jewish people and African Americans.   Moved by the endurance of the Jews, and perhaps for other private reasons, he converted in 1961.

I haven’t found much about Davis’s conversion – I don’t know if it was reform, conservative or orthodox. When Davis talked about his faith it was often in a joking manner (“You think you’re discriminated against? I’m a short, one-eyed black jew.” Or “I tried to sit in the front of the bus but the driver said ‘you’re black, get in the back’. I told him I was Jewish and he said ‘get off’”). Serious reflections on faith were few.

Later, Davis would flirt with Anton LaVey’s  the Church of Satan. How seriously, I don’t know. Nor do I know, frankly, how serious he took his Judaism. But he is, without a doubt, an interesting ger.

See all the interesting gers here. 

Some thoughts on Shabbat and Cathedrals in Time

The Sabbath, something E and I in our own way have been attempting to honor. We light candles, we say Kiddush,  but we’re not shomer shabbas (though I did schedule this posting, so it isn’t like I’m blogging on Shabbos!), and we don’t always get the candles lit by sundown.

Still, you do what you can do.

What I think about shabbos, I think about Abraham Joshua Herschel writings on the subject, especially his image of the Sabbath as a cathedral in time resonated with me. One of the things that distinguishes Judaism from Catholicism is the portability of the religion, that celebration and observance are not dependent on the presence of a priest or of the building of a church. Ten Jews and a torah and you’re good to go.

This portability definitely comes in part from oppression, from anti-Semitism, and from having to hide. But Judaism is also a religion of abstraction, of ideas and history and words. Ritual is an important component, but few of those rituals depend on being within a specific place. Judaism is a religion you can take with you. Did the abstraction and heavy reliance intellectual thought that I associate with Judaism today develop because of oppression, or in addition to it? I have no idea, I’m no Jewish historian. At least not yet.

But the ability to take the religion with you and hold the ceremonies wherever one could has resonated throughout my Jewish education. In part through the writings of those like Herschel. But I’m also reminded of a miniature torah scroll the rabbi brought  to my conversion class.  Little more than a foot and a half tall, it was the smallest Torah scroll I had ever seen. Rabbi’s cousin had bought it at a flea market in Japan of all places, and had spent thousands having it restored. It was a pretty special thing. From analyzing the way the scribe had formed the letters, they had been able to discern that the Torah had originated somewhere in Eastern Europe about a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, and that the scribe was either from, or had been trained by someone who was from, Czechoslovakia. Yeah, apparently they can track it down to that level of detail. Amazing. It was a beautiful object and an important thing, I felt honored to be able to be so close to it.

As I stood there in class, staring at this Torah Scroll and trying to imagine the journey it had taken from East Europe to Japan, I was moved by this religions ability to migrate, to protect and to create little cathedrals in time all over the world.

Interesting Gers: Jamaica Kincaid

This week’s interesting ger is Jamaica Kincaid, African American novelist, big time gardener, and convert to Judaism.

Kincaid, who is probably most famous for her novels Lucy and Annie John, hasn’t spoken much in public about her conversion. I read a number of pieces by Kincaid in college, but never once heard she was Jewish until I started doing research for this project.  It seems to be a personal issue for her and she’s been quoted as saying “I don’t know why, but I do feel that God is a private issue.”

I believe, like Martha Nussbaum, Kincaid’s conversion arose because of her marriage to a born Jew, in this case, Allen Shawn (of the famous in Manhattan Shawn family), but I could be wrong.

Though Shawn and Kincaid have divorced, Kincaid is still active in her Reconstructionist Shul in Vermont, reading her work at various services. Somehow it seems fitting that a woman who has had a life as interesting as Kincaid’s finds herself at home in a congregation which has an interesting history of its own.

Interesting Gers: Martha Nussbaum

Almost five years ago now, I converted to Judaism. I did so because of a complex set of personal reasons including spiritual growth, intellectual development and love. When I was going through the conversion process, I gazed at my own navel a lot on a now defunct blog where I also wrote a couple of pieces about other who converted. The reasons I converted are complex and personal. I’m might rehash them here one day, but not today. Today, I’m going to share an edited version of one of a series of posts I wrote examining the lives of other converts, or as they are sometimes known “Gers/Gegiyoret”.  Here’s one.

Let’s start with Martha Nussbaum, one of the most important political philosophers working today. If you follow contemporary thought, you know who she is. Nussbaum teaches at the University of Chicago, has written a number of books, including the must read Sex and Social Justice*, and writes on current political issues for the New York Review of Books and other periodicals. She is one of American’s few, true “public intellectuals”. Some people I respect dislike her, usually because of her takedown of Judith Butler.**  Her grounding in classical thought and her ability to teach philosophy in a legal theory setting make her one of my intellectual heroes. And whether you love her or hate her, you have to admit she is ridiculously smart.

She is also a ger.

It is not easy to find information on Nussbaum’s conversion. It would seem that, like many converts, she originally converted at least in part for love when she married Alan Nussbaum. However, long after she and Alan Nussbaum divorced, she stayed involved in Judaism. In fact, she had her bat mitzvah relatively in 2008.

At her bat mitzvah, Nussbaum gave a d’var Torah. Here is an excerpt:


As life goes on, if all goes well, we gradually become able to see others as whole people who have needs of their own, and we develop genuine love and concern for them, and guilt about the excessive demands we have made of them, and probably still want to make. Both of our texts emphasize this capacity for concern by focusing on the need to confront the other “face-to-face,” panim b’fanim in Deuteronomy—an idea suggesting the acknowledgment of the other as an end and not merely an instrument of one’s desires. (The eleventh-century commentator Rashi remarks that a face-to-face interaction requires honesty and the suspension of manipulative and dishonest behavior.) In the Isaiah text, similarly, we see that we must all bring messages of joy and consolation not only to ourselves, but, above all, to others, to our fellow citizens in Zion. The imperative, “Comfort ye my people” is a plural, and though many commentators see this as a reference only to a group of prophets, others—prominently including the sixth-seventh century liturgical poet Eleazar Kallir—hold that the addressees are us all, the entire congregation. . .  So, we all should bring messages of concern and consolation to all, and there appears to be no reason, given the universalism of the text as a whole, not to take this to mean the entire world.

You can read the whole piece here.

Nussbaum hasn’t shared the exact reasons for her conversion, though she has been quoted as saying she had “an intense desire to join the underdogs and to fight for justice in solidarity with them”*** and that she had “kind of gotten to the end of my rope with Christian otherworldliness. I wanted a religion in which justice was done in this world.” Both interesting, and I think political reasons for conversion. I have no idea why she chose to have a bat mitzvah in her sixties. I’d love to ask her.

Regardless of her reasons, her intelligence and sense of justice is a great addition to the Jewish community and she is certainly an interesting Ger.
*Nussbaum is also a player in one of the great gossip scandals of the intellectual elite. She was involved for many years with Cass Sunstein before Sunstein ran off an married Samatha Powers. That whole thing is a discussion for another blog.

** Which was, perhaps, mean spirited and with which I certainly disagree on some points. However, even those I know who hate Nussbaum must admit she also raised some pretty good points.

*** I’ll acknowledge that this is a very fraught reason for conversion. Is underdog status something we can just claim, or must it be given by those favored to win?

Review: Drazin’s Maimonides

Maimonides: Reason Above All
Israel Drazin

This is an odd little volume on the great Jewish thinker, the Rambam. Perhaps its worth a read for someone like me — a novice Jewish scholar. There is a lot of good introductory material here, but the book is kind of all over the place. Chapters focus on the biography of Maimondies, his influence on his son, philosophers who agree with Maimondes, and those who do not, plus a whole lot more. It feels that much of Judaism gets five pages, but almost none of Judaism get more. The book attempts to address big questions, like the role of mysticism and rationality in Judaism, and small details like why we put salt on our bread on Shabbat.

If anything holds the book together it is Drazin’s conception of Maimonides as the great hero of a rational Judaism. If you have any interest in Judaism or Jewish thought, you know Maimonides, one of the greatest philosopher scholars in the history of Judaism his works, most notably the Guide for the Perplexed are still read today. As a Jew, (yes, my name is Sean and yes I am Jewish. It’s a long story) one of the most compelling aspects of the religion for me is that it welcomes an intellectual approach to a religious practice. Approaching Judiaism as a set of rational guidelines for living owes much to the Rambam, and it is very much the way that I practice Judaism. Drazin spends a lot of time on this rational Judaism that has developed out of Maimonides and the book’s discussions of it are informative. But I wish Drazin delved more into the distinctions between a rational approach and a mystical approach to the religion.  Perhaps that is too much to ask from a single book.

Not recommended.

Notes on Jewish Conversion

Originally written for another website. 

As someone pursuing conversion, one of the things I find it important (and difficult) to balance between enthusiasm and fetishization; between interest and hobbyism*. I’m excited about Judaism, I love diving into new areas of study and this is an area of study big enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, but as I get deeper into this I need to remember two things.

  1. This isn’t like any of my other interests. This isn’t an interest, it is a change in life and it needs to be treated with a serious and rigor that I don’t often bring to interests. Becoming a Jew isn’t like getting interested in the rules of cricket. It is much, much more and I need to be aware of that.
  2. I think it is easy in the first blush of conversion to get very wrapped up in all things Jewish and to almost fetishize the people and the culture. I do not want to do that. I want to remember that my excitement can be off putting, that it can appear that I am treating a living culture like an anthropology project – something to be analyzed and dissected.  Judaism, especially certain aspects of the intellectual life Jewish life, are very exciting to me right now, but I have to realize that doesn’t mean that I can’t be offensive in how I discuss them or talk about them.
  3. I need to remember that being a Jew means a lot of different things to different people. Many of those ways of being Jewish will be something I will never understand or participate in. As an adult convert to Catholicism will never know what it felt like for me to be an altar boy, I’ll never understand what it means to grow up in a Jewish home. The experience of the convert is necessarily different and one should pretend that it is otherwise.

All that said, I’m learning a lot, and I am excited about where this is going. If I can stay self aware about how I handle this process, I think it is going to be great.

*I totally made that word up.