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Saturday, September 20, 2014

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Do we really love Ruth?

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“She’s a convert, you know, but so active in the shul – even more than her Jewish husband!” The words were whispered conspiratorially to me at a bar mitzvah luncheon, as if this information was crucial for me to know. The woman in question had converted more than 25 years ago, had raised two Jewish kids, chants Torah and continually takes Jewish adult education.

“Actually, she’s a Jew,” I whisper back.

It’s true, and I’m not afraid to say it: converts make the best Jews. It doesn’t come naturally to them in the beginning. They work hard at it and want to perfect it. If they’re going to radically change their lives, they believe they ought to do it with purpose and intention. And once they pass the beit din, they don’t feel they’re finished, like a 13-year-old at his bar mitzvah – “Phew! That’s over!”

I’ll never forget the mother-in-law who told her newly Jewish daughter-in-law at the conversion mikvah, “Good! Now that you are officially Jewish you can stop practising, like the rest of us.” What a welcome. What does that say about how much we born Jews appreciate our own heritage?

I spent an interesting and challenging week at a special conference for Latin American Jews this past winter. Gathered there were representatives of Jewish congregations throughout South and Central America. The synagogues shared many common interests and difficulties: small size, isolation, finding Spanish resources and Spanish-speaking rabbis, ignorance, antisemitism and anti-Zionism in their respective countries.

But what they also shared was more surprising: having to deal with an influx of Latinos who want to convert. Indigenous Guatemalans such as my congregation who grew disillusioned with both the Catholic Church of their youth and the new coercive passion of the evangelicals. Native tribesmen from the hills of Ecuador who claim they are one of the 10 lost Hebrew tribes. Those who trace their ancestry to the Mayans, but are drawn to Judaism. And those who believe they’re descendants of anusim, Jews forced out of Judaism during the terrible era of the Inquisition.

Often brown-skinned, often working class, these folks represent a new kind of convert who challenges all stereotypes: not white, not having grown up in a Jewish neighbourhood, not familiar with Yiddishisms from TV, not “marrying in,” and often coming in complete family groups. 

They will surely change the public face of the small, mostly white, upper class, nominally Orthodox Jewish communities in these parts. Some people welcome that change and have no fear of “dilution.” But some people have trepidation that their hard-earned peace and hard-won recognition will somehow be challenged by welcoming these new “others,” that somehow changing the public face of Judaism will existentially threaten Judaism, too. They’re not like us. It’s true. Are we the only “us” to be defined as Jewish?

I’ve heard people say that although someone converts, they will never really, truly “be” Jewish. They don’t really feel it in their kishkes the way “we” do. In the vast majority of cases, this is utterly false. In the vast majority of cases, it’s the passion, interest, skill, knowledge and commitment of the Jew-by-choice that threatens us to the core. It threatens our complacency. It threatens our jaded boredom with our own heritage. It threatens our smug sense of “I am a good Jew even though I don’t do a Jewish thing, ever.” It threatens our security when our kids cease being interested in anything Jewish. It threatens our romanticized picture of who we are as Jews.

On the one hand, we seem to love the “exotic” nature of Chinese Jews, black Jews, and people from various indigenous tribes around the world who practise eighth-day circumcision and don’t eat pork so they must somehow be Jewish. Do you mean that Asian beauty or that Irish boxer you married is also Jewish? How lucky can you get? But on the other hand, we’re downright scared of their taking us – our books, our holidays, our fragile Jewish existence  – on.

At the end of this month, we’ll celebrate Shavuot, and we’ll read the Book of Ruth. We boast that this story is about welcoming the stranger, about the pure intent of the Jew-by-choice, about the love for Judaism a convert has. We tease our converted daughters-in-law that they are like Ruth – better Jews than us.

But do we really love Ruth?

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