About Me · Community

Conversion

Conversion in any form is a rather foreign concept to me.

My motto in life has been largely to perserve and further my legacies and heritages–I am a rather conservative person.

My two heritages are being Jewish and Japanese. I am lucky in that these two leagacies have few conflicting values; in fact, they compliment each other extremely well.

I am also lucky in that I get the two heritages from the “right” parent: My Japaneseness–traditionally a patrlinial heritage–is passed down by my father and my Jewishness–traditionally a matrilinial heritage–is passed down by my mother.

Hence, I can claim that I am both, while there are always those who challenge that: Many hold that, to be an authentic member of the tribe, you have to be “pure.” Actually, I find this attitude to be that of the majority in both Jewish and Japanese communities. Hence, we halfsies turn into human “bridges” or tragically “mixed up” and confused existences forever…But I digress. Let me get back to my main point.
The first point is that I have never converted into or out of anything as far as I know. To the contrary, I have tried to maintain and build my originally flimsy and conditional ties with the communities of my heritage.

Yet, as a “halfsie” (a term I hate, but will use here intentionally), my membership in my respective communities has always felt conditional.

Conditional upon the fact that I know enough about the history of the people, the language, the culture, etc. That is because I lack the physical traits and inevitable mannerisms that I might get if I was steeped in the “pure” culture passed down from both of my parents coming from the same tribe. As a result, ironically, I have become much more educated in both of my heritages a lot more than the average tribal member.

I must say though, being a conditional member is a lonely existence. Constantly feeling like your membership is conditional upon your proper display of knowledge of your people, feeling like you might be under constant scrutiny… I hate it. And I see no reason why anyone else should be made to feel like this–especially on an institutional level.

This is why I am troubled by the developping discussion in Orthodoxy towards converts, Jews by Choice, or those who become Jewish after being born into this world. (see http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c36_a4809/News/New_York.html) Even disregarding the shocking decision made by a certain institution barring not only women from becoming synagogue presidents, but converts as well (!!), the general attitude towards those who want to “become” Jewish, or in many cases, who never questioned their Jewishness (like “Sharon” in the New York Times Magazine article) as guilty until proven innocent, is problematic.

I have been told to my face that I couldn’t be Jewish. Most of them were ignorant Jews who knew very little or cared very little about Judaism and largely regarded Jewishness as a (pure) racial heritage, represented by chicken soup and matzo balls. (Let me not get into the ridiculousness of that right now.) While I found those incidents hurtful, it is also true that I felt more sorry for my friends who were sitting right there next to me not knowing what to do with such a tactless and ignorant comment being directed at me by their family or friends.

But, there was an instance where it wasn’t that. There was a time where the comment, “You can’t be Jewish” was coming from someone for a different reason. I never tracked down that reason, but I sensed that this guy was trying to be more halachically stringent and that’s why he was telling me that I wasn’t Jewish. This actually shocked me. It was the first time that someone who was religious would deny my Jewishness. There was some other prejudice at work here that was “based on halacha“. This is the kind of stringency I smell coming from the Israeli Chief Rabbi: “If you want to claim that you are Jewish, first, prove it.”

I knew of someone who grew up Jewish in the US her entire life, and far as her family knew, she was Jewish from both sides for generations.

She went to Israel, got a little (too) religious. She had a boyfriend and they decided to get married.

The community that her boyfriend and she were now a part of looked into their backgrounds and found out that, “oh no, the girl’s maternal grandmother was adopted!!” Although they knew that she was converted upon adoption, they were not 100% sure if this conversion was in fact Kosher, so they decided that “just to be on the safe side,” this girl had to convert before getting married.

Another really common thing is converts going through many many conversions because they keep having to convert under the “new” standards of the new community they want to belong to. Essentially, their conversion is conditional upon their community accepting that particular brand of conversion. I have heard of and met many converts who converted twice, thrice, sometimes even four times.

The madness has to end somewhere.

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7 thoughts on “Conversion

  1. The problem is the haredi control over the chief rabbinate in Israel.

    And the fact that the chief rabbinate holds the authority to decide the Jewishness of individuals according to the State of Israel.

    And because foriegn converts are anxious to be recognized as Jewish by Israel.

    And because therefore mainstream US Orthodox organizations like the RCA have capitulated to the Israeli standards.

    I understand why Orthodox communities are reluctant to accept Reform converts as Jewish within those communities. Conversion has historically included a good-faith acceptance of mitzvah observance, and Reform does not accept most basic mitzvah observance as binding. (I’m leaving Conservative Judaism out of this comment because that’s less clear.)

    But why should the State of Israel, supposedly secular, not be able to accept anyone who identifies as Jewish to be registered as such. Religious pluralism in Israel has ramifications for conversion issues far beyond its own borders. If Israel simply recognized multiple denominations as Jewish, and registered converts of each of those denominations as Jewish by the standards of that denomination, with all the rights a Jew recieves in Israel.

    Let the Haredi rabbinate simply keep their own lists. They don’t allow someone in their community to marry without thoroughly vetting the Jewishness of the intended bride or groom. They don’t depend on the State’s say-so on someone’s jewishness even now, so why do should they be given domination over something that doesn’t even affect their own community?

  2. I see a danger of not just polarization of Am Yisrael, but also a bleak future of Judaism being represented almost entirely by xenophobic fundamentalism. As the more liberal movements in Judaism remain minimally engaged in Torah study on a lay level, and also less culturally Jewish, the fundamentalists among us grow in numbers and political clout. Charedi rabbis are being kowtowed to for psak halachah, and non-Charedi Modern Orthodox families send their teenagers to blackhat yeshivas in Israel. In short, fundamentalist Judaism is perpetuating itself not only in birth rates, but also in education and proselytization; non-fundamentalist Judaisms are letting Judaism slip away. What’s left is a bunch of charedi rabbis saying that every convert is a goy and that even the air we breathe needs a badatz hechsher. Enough is enough.

    Two things need to be done. First of all, we need to disengage from the chumra game that declares conversions, rabbis, and kashrut invalid, and recognize it for the snobbery and bigotry that it is. Second, we need to direct all of our funding to two things: tzedakah and non-fundamentalist Torah learning. Open-minded yeshivot need to be opened in greater numbers, and day school students need to be able to have their tuition paid for almost in full by communal funds and scholarships.

    There are so many wonderful Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Modern Orthodox talmidei chachamim out there, and their teachings are being wasted on rabbinical students. We need to get Torah into the lay community, and from our own resources.

  3. I’m a baal teshuva of about 3 years and I don’t know anybody who considers somebody with a Jewish mother to not be Jewish…

    Conversions are an extremely complex issue, and I think in this endeavor universally accepted standards should be used so that those involved will not have to go through the trauma of a second conversion.

    I also feel that Judaism has certain standards and shouldn’t be fundamentally liberal. The line has to be drawn somewhere.

    This is one area where I feel forced to sound “fundamentalist” for the sake of the am.

  4. Wow, what a popular post! ;)

    Yehudi Hilchati>

    Thanks for your post on this issue. As I wrote in your blog, I agree with you entirely about how Judaism should function in Israel. I just see that Judaism is becoming more and more irrelevant for the majority of secular Israelis and I find that a shame. The conversion problem is, I think, only a manifestation of one of the deeper problems in Israeli Judaism and the relationship between the Israeli Rabbanut and the American Rabbinate.

    kokusai yudayajin>

    >Enough is enough.

    Yup.

    >Open-minded yeshivot need to be opened in greater numbers, and day school students need to be able to have their tuition paid for almost in full by communal funds and scholarships.

    Yeah, esp. with this thing that convert’s children (which by the way really only affects female converts–notice the misogyny there?) have to be sent to day school for 12years, they should provide for that!!

    >We need to get Torah into the lay community, and from our own resources.

    I would say that “wasted” is strong language, but I think I know what you mean and agree with you that the lay community has to become more educated. This would make us the most educated Jewish generation ever!! :)

    Baruch Pelta>

    >I don’t know anybody who considers somebody with a Jewish mother to not be Jewish…

    Well, perhaps that’s because you are not me. It’s not a lot, but I have had one black hat guy deny that I was Jewish (in France), one son of a Reform cantor act in disbelief that I could be Jewish (in New York), and many others who seemed suspicious with my validity as a Jew (you can read some of my other posts).

    Yeah, I know what the halacha says, but that doesn’t dictate everyone’s actions.

    >The line has to be drawn somewhere.

    I agree with that, and I think that many others do too. The question is, where is that “somewhere”?

  5. Baruch Pelta>

    >1) I hear. Um, what can I say? Stupid people. Maybe the French guy was a crazy baal teshuva just starting out; I dunno.

    Yeah, I know. But I know that because I grew up in Japan where no one ever said to me, “but you couldn’t be Jewish!!” right? On the other hand, ironically, I am quite insecure about my Japanese identity because I constantly had people telling me that I wasn’t (or couldn’t be) Japanese during my entire childhood and adolescense. Hence, I understand why many Jews of Color who grew up with responses like I got only after I was close to my 20s and quite secure in my identity, would feel insecure and not have the guts to say, “well, you are the one who is crazy here so I don’t have to deal with you” and brush off the whole incident. You can read my post, “Why I am happy I grew up in Japan” (or something like that ;) for more on this.

  6. The non-religious Jewish communities barely give a damn about Judaism; no yeshiva needs to be open to them since they shun virtually the entire Jewish religious experience. I agree that a Jewish conversion is valid regardless of the community or beis din. If a convert becomes Jewish via the aegis of a non-Orthodox rabbinical court, and then chooses to ‘grow in torah and mitzvot’ and then chooses to join a religiously more stringent community, then I see no need for a second conversion. The ‘improved’ religious pursuit should be enough. I agree with Ben Gurion’s proclamation that a Jew is anyone who says he/she is; after all, who is anyone to judge. I, as an example, can trace my maternal lineage only 4 generations; beyond that….? So am I kosher? I assume so; the mouthpiece has yet to be invented that will ever succeed in convincing me that I’m anything other than 100% Jewish, and this has nothing to do with race, culture, language, etc. As for your Jewishness Kaguya, who can be sufficiently stupid to doubt it?

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