The Choice: Converts to Judaism Share Their Stories

By Arnine Cumsky Weiss and Carol Weiss Rubel

University of Scranton Press Scranton and London: 2010

image: The Choice book cover

In the foreword to The Choice: Converts to Judaism Share their Stories, Rabbi Lawrence Sebert of Town and Village Synagogue in New York City gives a brief, little-known history of Jewish conversion. He notes that conversion to Judaism is not a new phenomenon. In fact, widespread conversion during the Second Temple period (500 BCE to 70 CE) was, for the most part, regarded positively by Jewish leaders. The maxim that “converts are more beloved to God than the multitude that stood at Mount Sinai,” is attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish in the third century.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, however, the Christian Church invoked severe penalties including death for those daring to convert openly or those who were identified as recent converts. Needless to say, the number of converts dwindled. In more recent times, the number of converts to Judaism has increased substantially. However, there does not seem to be any universally accepted number for those who have chosen to embrace Judaism.

How does one become Jewish? And what are the requirements for conversion? The answers to these questions are not simple. What we do know is that conversion can be a complicated process and difficult to understand, both for Jews and those seeking to become Jews. As illustrated by the stories in this volume and as described by Rabbi Sebert, the conversion process varies according to the branch of Judaism involved and the individual rabbi working with the convert. Although learning about Jewish practices and principles is common among all branches of Judaism, after that demands differ.

“For me, Jewish life is an anchor in confusing times,” one convert said.

Traditional branches of Judaism require an interview by a beit din (a three-member rabbinical court), which may entail questions of knowledge, judgment or attitude, according to descriptions presented in the book. This is followed by immersion in the mikvah, the ritual bath, which for many has deep significance. For men, conversion involves ritual circumcision in which a symbolic drop of blood is taken from those already circumcised, or actual circumcision for those who are not. In the book, one of those profiled had to undergo a surgical procedure that seems a true test of conviction. For more liberal rabbis, requirements are often less stringent and the preparation time shorter.

The book consists of forty-three personal histories of men and women who have converted to Judaism. The stories, generally five to ten pages long, are presented as first-person accounts (“I did this or thought that.”) However, they were written by the authors, Arnine Cumsky Weiss and Carol Weiss Rubel, based on interviews with the subject of each chapter. Presumably, the authors recorded the interviews and then transcribed them, but it is unclear how many of the informants’ actual words were used in preparing the individual stories.

The first two sections of the book are grouped according to the time of life individuals embraced conversion in early adulthood or later. The second section features stories that involve conversion after marriage or remarriage, and the blending of families. The third section features converts who have chosen to become rabbis and cantors, and the last contains two brief essays from rabbis who have guided and counseled converts.

The authors have done a good job in selecting meaningful details for each story and in summarizing material from what must have been much longer narratives. The particulars vary, but the use of similar key words and phrases is noteworthy. Among those words is “searching” and “questioning,” used most often by college age individuals who began to consider converting in their younger years. These young people can be characterized as seekers and thinkers in the realm of religion, sometimes as students of religious studies. For most, religion was a central concern, not a peripheral one.

The critical influence was most often a loving relationship with a Jewish partner.

Other phrases individuals used to describe themselves before conversion are “lost” and “not fitting in.” Stories of broken and dysfunctional families are common in this collection, as are personal psychological and physical challenges. Many were unhappy with the religion of their birth and upbringing, and found Judaism a good “fit” that made them feel authentic and comfortable. As one woman acknowledged, “For me, Jewish life is an anchor in confusing times.” Another woman, raised as a Southern Baptist, reflects the feelings of many when she says, “I never felt I made a choice. I did what I was.” “I was born with a Jewish identity” said another informant, as did one woman whose father was half Jewish: “I’ve always thought like a Jew. Judaism is in my heart, my soul.” The protagonist of a story in Part One describes a “critical mass” leading up to his conversion: the detrimental teachings of a Christian minister in his youth, consequent feelings of rootlessness, and finally meeting and falling in love with a Jewish woman.

The stories in Part Two affirm the importance of prior life experiences followed by a catalyst that solidifies the decision to convert. Not surprisingly, that critical influence was most often a loving relationship with a Jewish partner. One woman, for example, tells a moving story of being a Catholic-born divorced mother of two when she met her Orthodox husband. Now living in Israel, married for twenty-five years with two more adopted children, she proudly proclaims, “I am an Orthodox woman…evolving into the best Jewish woman I can be…When I see my grandchildren sitting and learning with…their grandfather, I feel really blessed.”

The stories are diverse, revelatory, telling, and often touching.

The great majority of stories are upbeat and emphasize the positive aspects of conversion to Judaism — security, community, serenity - but they also illustrate the need for courage and fortitude to face obstacles and opposition, at least at first. Some converts whose stories are told here had to contend with parents who disagreed with their decision to become Jews. Some eventually reconciled; other parents did not. Time and again, informants were sustained by the word: bashert— meaning preordained or fated, especially regarding a mate. As author Carol Rubel wrote about her own history, “[T]he heart follows its own direction. And, sometimes, bashert can present itself as the extraordinary juxtaposition of two opposites. That is just what happened for us.”

Although falling in love may be the most obvious and “traditional” push toward conversion, the stories tell of a variety of influences and circumstances. These include people raised Jewishly whose mothers are not Jewish (a requirement that sometimes sparks initial resentment on the part of people who feel they are already Jews), people whose first conversion in a liberal branch of Judaism is not recognized by the Orthodox establishment, and conversion of babies after adoption. One story features an Anous (from the Hebrew meaning “forced one,” also referred to as Marrano, Converso or Crypto-Jew). A Kulanu colleague, Stephen Gomes, was raised in a Catholic household and discovered his family’s roots in 15th century Portugal, when thousands of Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. He now helps other Anousim in their quests for their Jewish heritage and family history.

The stories collected in The Choice are diverse, revelatory, telling, and often touching. Readers expecting an academic treatise or an organized survey will not find it here, nor was that the intent of the book. However, I wish that the authors had devoted a bit more effort to elucidating the themes that the stories portrayed and that they had paid more attention to the big picture beyond their one-paragraph introduction to each section. That said, those contemplating conversion may find affirmation through identification with elements of one story or another. By condensing and illuminating a variety of scenarios leading to conversion, the authors have filled a gap in the literature and provided role models for those individuals on their conversion journey.