Religion & Beliefs

Ex Post Facto: The Etiquette of Welcoming Converts

So you wanna be a Jew? The Talmud says: Our Rabbis taught: One who comes to convert at this time, they say to him: 'Why did you come to convert? Do you know that Israel at this time is afflicted, … Read More

By / May 22, 2007
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So you wanna be a Jew? The Talmud says:

Our Rabbis taught: One who comes to convert at this time, they say to him: 'Why did you come to convert? Do you know that Israel at this time is afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, and rejected, and that tribulations are visited upon them?' If he says, 'I know, but I am unworthy,' they accept him immediately…" (Yebamot 47a).

Apparently, if you want to be a member of the Tribe you gotta want it bad, and you have to prove it, too. But if you prove it, you’re in, right? Um, not so much. The next page of the Talmud contains a fairly unsavory comment, “Rav Helbo said: Proselytes are as hard for Israel [to endure] as scabs'" (Yebamot 47b). Ouch. So what’s the deal? How are those of us born Jewish supposed to react to converts (or Jews-by-choice, as they’re often called today)? Well first of all, we have to be nice to them. Rav Helbo or no Rav Helbo, the commandment to welcome the ger, the stranger, is all over the Torah. Take, for instance, Deut 10:19 which says “And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” Beyond just a general precept on being a mensch, I’ve heard a number of rabbis speak about precisely what one can and can’t say to a convert. It’s generally accepted that referring to their conversion or to their life pre-Judaism is verboten, because it may cause them shame, or cause them to lose credibility in the community. Basically you don’t want to say anything that will cause the person to be seen as a non-genuine Jew. To some of this that may seem like a fairly obvious ruling. The law against embarrassing people clearly stands here as it would anywhere else (although I struggle with the concept of Jews-by-choice being ashamed of their past to begin with). But the sad truth is that there is plenty of evidence of the Jewish community being less than welcoming to converts. In the book The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians by Judy Petsonk and Jim Remsen, Petsonk and Remsen write about dealing with negative Jewish attitudes about converts:

Try to let someone's first insensitive comment or glance roll off your back. You are an emissary for all converts and need to keep your image in mind. At first, if confronted, be abstrusely polite or disarmingly direct: "Yes, I was born Jewish, but to Episcopalian parents." "Yes, I'm a convert. Have you known others of us?" "I converted and I'm trying to settle into it. Have any pointers?"

If the person is well meaning, it should be easy to fall into pleasant conversation. But if she is scornful, you can turn on a bit more tartness. Tell her there are Irish Jews, Chinese Jews, blond Jews, black Jews–and there always have been. Tell her that Judaism honors you as a righteous convert.

As this is happening, remind yourself of the many people who have welcomed you into the religion. Try to redraw your friendship circle for awhile so that it brings you into contact with the welcomers and not the rejecters. Gail has felt suspicious glances from some parts of the community, but she has tried not to let them penetrate. "To some people I will never be Jewish," she says. "That's the way they feel. But that doesn't mean that I can't consider myself Jewish, just because one Jew in the whole world doesn't feel that I am Jewish."

I wish I could write off Gail’s experiences as the exception, and not the rule, but I recently read Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner, a memoir about a woman from an intermarried family who converted to Orthodox Judaism in college and then became Anglican in grad school. I expected to hate the book based on its premise, but Winner is an unbelievably good writer, and she makes us face some hard truths about the Jewish community. She writes:

So anyway, when I tell the story of leaving Judaism, I can’t begin with the small space for women.

The story begins instead with a lacrosse-playing, Prada-clad college classmate of mine named Sarah. Sarah was a biology major from New Jersey. She had long curly black hair and a wonderful toothy grin. We were at a party one night, a party where I met a beautiful older man, a man who had moved from New York to Israel as a teenager and served in the army and was just returning, and was full of desperate, drunken, profound stories about violence and rape and suffering. I was standing with the men, over by the window, and Sarah leaned over to a friend and, just loud enough, said that I had only converted because I wanted to marry a Jew.

There were lots of Sarahs, lots of pretty Orthodox girls who snubbed me, the convert, never mine all the rules the rabbis piled up forbidding Jews to remind converts of their background. Those small snide remarks, which I should have been able to overlook, those, I think, are where this story begins.

Or possibly it begins with Hank Hirschfield. This was just weeks after the mikvah. He was the older brother of a friend of mine, and met twice, three times, at a bar near Columbia called The Abbey, and he introduced me to his favorite beer, a sweet-tasting red brewed by Belgian Trappist monks. We talked, at that bar, about Torah and God and Tolstoy and the Rolling Stones, and then one night he turned up at my dorm and said really h couldn’t do this, date me he meant, “Because of your conversion,” he said. “Because, you see, I want my parents to dance with my in-laws at my wedding, I want my bride’s family and my family to have giant holiday celebrations together, giant shared Passover feasts and Purim chagigahs. So I could never marry a convert.” I wept that night, cried myself to sleep for the first time ever, and when I woke up, I found that Beth had filled my wall with homemade, hand lettered signs: Lauren is a Jewess, they said, Lauren the Jew, to remind me that I was really Jewish, pay no attention to what Hank Hirschfield said, or how he acted, or how I felt.

It takes a certain kind of callousness not to find this heartbreaking. And yet I’ve heard my friends echo Hank Hirschfield’s feelings. For some reason many of us want a REAL Jew to join us under the chuppah. I was talking about this with a friend, a Jew-by-choice, and she had a fascinating insight. She said she thinks about her non-Jewish life as an ex-boyfriend. This ex wasn’t an awful guy, they had lots of great times together, and they came from the same background and everything, but in the end the attraction just wasn’t there, and they broke up. And yes she still thinks about him, and she’s not ashamed of him, but she has a new beau now, and she’d rather not talk about the ex in front of the new beau because it seems rude. That, to me, was the perfect guideline for situations where I’m unsure what I can and cannot say without offending someone. Think about their non-Jewish life as an ex. While it’s not inappropriate to remind one of something that happened while they were with the ex, reminding them that they were with the wrong guy (or girl) is uncouth. It’s a good rule of thumb for conversations with Jews-by-choice.