As regular readers of this site might know, I’m what they call a “jew by choice” or, in the parlance, a Ger. It’s a bit of a strange place to be and I’m fascinated by the stories of other people who’ve also decided to convert to Judaism. On this page, I collect short pieces on interesting people who decided to convert. Check it out:
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.
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?
Since I stopped updating regularly here, I’ve taken substantial steps toward converting in the conservative movement. I’ll give you a recap of how all this went down.
First, around the time of my last post, I had started attending conversion class with a conservative rabbi h ere in the D.C. It was a great experience. The class was roughly half couples in the same situation as E and I, where one half of the couple was Jewish by birth and the other was considering conversion. (interesting note – I was the only man seeking conversion; in all the other couples it was the woman who was converting). The other half of the class was single woman going through the conversion process by themselves. The class was an overview of Jewish theology and tradition as well as a place to discuss the challenges faced in conversion. Issues of melding the families, handling Christmas, raising kids, etc. were discussed at length along with the rules of kasrut and how to pray the sh’ma. I gained an enormous amount from the class and now, two months after the class ended, I am still processing and attempting to remember all the information I learned there.
Converting to Judaism can be an overwhelming process. If you’re like me, you know the broad outlines of the faith, but there is so, so much to learn. It can seem daunting. Taking in the outlines of Judaism is a classroom environment was very helpful for me, and I’d recommend it to anyone else considering conversion. Working one on one with a rabbi (which is the stage I am in now) is essential, but I think if you’re starting from square one, a classroom setting is a good way to go.
As the class ended in February, I met with the Rabbi one on one. That conversation was both an examination of where I am in my journey and a discussion of next steps.
E and I are at this point living some of the traditions. We’re celebrating Shabbat when we can (E and I are often separated on Friday night due to her being in NYC and me being in DC), but we’re not regular members of a synagogue, and I cannot read Hebrew. Me learning Hebrew and us finding a shul in which we feel comfortable are the next concrete steps we need to take and I hope, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be going before the beit din by the end of the summer.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 not 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.
Just a quick post today to note what the reading will be for the conversion I am taking and some thoughts on study:
The text book is Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition and Practice
The bible we’ll be using is the JPS Tanakh
Other recommended reading is:
And, because I am insane and obsessive, especially when it comes to books, I have also bought
These eight books are going to be my starting point in study, but I expect to head off in a number of tangents along the way.
I am really excited about this process, there is so much to learn and so many other avenues to explore, including for me looking into Gershom Scholem’s work, the codification of much of Jewish tradition in the middle ages, the place of Jews in the Frankfurt school, and much, much more. As this blog develops, I hope to have it branch off into both personal meditations on my own journey in Judaism, but also more general writing about aspects of Jewish history and theology that interest me.
The meeting with the Rabbi last night went very well. He was as warm and welcoming in person as he seemed on the phone and I feel very lucky that my first experiences with conversion have been with someone like this.
Sitting in his well-appointed study, we spent some time just chit chatting, E told him about her back ground in a semi observant home, I talked about my interest in converting and we shared some of the up and downs we have had with E’s family around my not being Jewish (more on this in a later post). After which he gave us a rundown of what his class will be like.
The program is set to be 18 weeks of study with other people considering conversion. It will meet once a week. I asked about the concerns with converting with a conservative rabbi and he had a thoughtful answer which boiled down to – it’s up to you, but he outlined some of the pros and cons of an orthodox conversion.
An Orthodox conversion isn’t going to be challenged by anyone in the future, i.e., no one will doubt you’re Jewish*;
No one is going to doubt your children are Jewish (thought this isn’t as big a deal for E and I since she is definitely way Jewish); and
Though E thinks this is not going to be an issue, I worry her family will not accept this as a real conversion unless it is an orthodox conversion. It is one of the ironies of conversion that the convert is generally held to a more rigorous standard than what those who are born into a religion. There are things in E’s family from which I am excluded because I am not Jewish, it would be extremely frustrating if I were to continue to be excluded from those things after conversion.
Converting in an orthodox manner means kabbalat ol ha’mitzvo., Meaning, I would need to accept the yoke of the rules of Judaism. All the rules. That would mean either never eating in my parents’ home again, not going to my sister’s wedding or my nieces and nephews baptism or lying to the beit din. I am not excited about either idea.
As the rabbi** said, no one follows all the rules, the important thing is to understand the importance of the rules and to do as best one can. I’m down for that, but that is not enough for Orthodoxy.
Additionally, I think that when it comes to picking a shul, E and I will be much more comfortable in a more egalitarian synagogue. I would prefer mixed seating; it would be nice if E could be on the Bimah. Conclusion Right now, I am leaning heavily towards a conservative conversion. I have some more thinking about it to do, but conservative seems like the right approach***.
Either way, we have signed up for the course the Rabbi teaches beginning the first week of October. I am already extremely excited.
*As long as you convert with a Rabbi approved by the Orthodox Rabbinate currently calling the shots in Israel.
** This guy is going to figure heavily in my life I think, I should come up with a witty nickname for him.
*** Can I tell you how little I know about Judaism that I was shocked to find out that conservative is really liberal while reform is like far left. I really thought conservative was like Orthodox light when really it seems to be more like serious Reform, if that makes any sense.
I went to my first Rosh Hashanah services this weekend with E. As my previous post mentions, we choose the services at Georgetown which were, I guess, conservative in nature (Mixed seating, mostly in Hebrew, no acoustic guitars). The place was packed with students and families. A couple of observations on the holiday and services:
1. The majority of the service was in Hebrew, but the prayers books thankfully had translation. I’ll admit to not understanding much of what was going on. I understand the importance of Rosh Hashanah as celebration of the New Year, but the relationship of the specific prayers in the service to the holiday is something I definitely didn’t understand entirely.
This is not to say I wasn’t moved, I was, but more for the larger reasons I am often moved at Jewish ceremonies. The enormous history and tradition in these ceremonies is awe inspiring, that they have been carried on for so long in the face of such opposition is astounding, and the fact that young Jews like E and the many Georgetown undergrads who were at this ceremony, are committed to carrying on the traditions into the next generation is a testament to the power of the religion. That, and the use of a Torah scroll that had been hidden during the Holocaust and was now once again being used to celebrate the new year was as moving to me as any of the prayers.
2. People come late and leave early? I had no idea. I was really nervous about making sure to get there on time, but E told me not to worry, that many people would be late, and when we showed up, about half an hour late, she was right. The place was packed, but people continued to stream in for at least the next hour and then, with an hour or so left to go in the service, people started to leave. This does not happen in a Catholic Church.
3. The rabbi was clear, but his sermon wasn’t particularly inspiring. Twice he mentioned the Kabalistic interpretation of the reading, which in my ignorance, I found interesting. I thought Kaballah was a more fringe element in Judaism, but apparently not.
4. On Sunday, E and I couldn’t make it to services again, but we did do our own version of Tashlikh in Rock Creek Park. I know this is supposed to be done with a congregation, but at least we did it, and it was strangely beautiful praying together on the side of Rock Creek Parkway. I really enjoyed it.
Rosh Hoshannah starts tonight, and E and I will be celebrating it in our home. Tomorrow, we’ll be going to services at the Jewish Center at Georgetown. Much discussion went into where we’d be going for these services. In years past, E has gone to a more orthodox congregation, one that has a mehitzah. This year is the first year I am attending services with her and she worried that while the service itself is likely to be confusing, it’d be even worse if I was all alone through it. So, we’re off to the more reform synagogue, if it is awful and E can’t stand it, we’ll be back to the more traditional service for Yum Kippur.
The mehitzah thing is one of the many, many issues I imagine we’ll have as we go through this process. While I have a lot to learn about Judaism, I am uncomfortable with the idea that men and women can’t pray together. The idea that the separation of the sexes will lead to less distraction seems to both deny the existence of homosexual desire and the fact that the separation may make the mystery of the opposite sex even stronger.
On the other hand, I am a big believer in tradition and seriousness in religious practice and am frankly not all that interested in hippie dippy reform stuff. I am hesitant about all water down versions of faiths. If the mehitzah is part of the service, who am I as a new comer, and, as of now, a goy to disparage it? Then again, can’t we find a balance? Can’t we have both tradition and equality? Is there some way to be egalitarian and not also have acoustic guitars? These are the questions that E and I talk about as we wrestle with what our place is going to be in the spectrum of Jewish observance.
As our story begins your narrator, me, the Ger, is a thirty four year old man raised in a reasonably observant Irish Catholic home. The Ger was confirmed in the Catholic Church and then basically never went to church again. For years he wasn’t very religious at all. At times, he was downright hostile to the idea of spirituality. Then, two and a half years ago, he met a wonderful woman who we’ll call E, and things began to change.
E was raised in a reasonably observant Jewish home. She went to the high holidays, her family often did shabbos dinner, and she often attended synagogue, but she doesn’t keep kosher and her Hebrew is a little rusty. Being Jewish is hugely important to her, and the Ger has now been to his share of joyous Jewish weddings and somber and moving Jewish funerals. At first, when conversion was brought up, he stubbornly refused. He was born an Irish Catholic and by God, that was how he’d die. But things change, and slowly the wonders of the religion and traditions started to affect him and the Ger got to thinking about how powerful it all was the relation to God through a combination of intellectual discourse and spiritual belief. The beauty of the ceremonies and traditions and he started to feel a real calling to be part of all that and to share it with E and be a model of the good Jewish man to he and E’s theoretical children.
So the Ger started thinking about converting. At first he did so half in jest, bringing it up for a laugh to feel out the waters, and then, more and more seriously. He began reading about it on the internet, he began buying books and now, in a couple of days, he has his first appointment with a Rabbi to seriously discuss it, and he is scared to death.
Right now, I don’t know where this is going to go. I think I am going to convert, but I still have reservations. I am still thinking it through. I want to use this space to discuss the excitement and concerns I have about conversion, Judaism and Jewish history. Let’s see how it goes.