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Introduction

Are you curious about Judaism? Contemplating conversion? Wondering what exactly makes someone Jewish? Well you’re in the right place. Join me on my journey.

Hi there. I am not Jewish yet. But I want to be.

I felt I needed to write this to share my experience of converting to Judaism, now that I’ve finally decided to take the plunge.

Why read this?

  • Because you are contemplating converting and have questions, so many questions…
  • You’re interested in what it means to be Jewish explained from the point of view of someone who is not Jewish.
  • You want to understand how exactly Jews can live without bacon.

I plan on writing a series of posts about my personal perspective on my conversion journey, how I feel, what I learn, what is expected of me and how all of this affects me and and my family. I aim to give you a first hand perspective of exactly what the process of conversion requires and what it offers.

I will probably be writing about a whole range of other things that interest me related to my conversion journey. Things like food, parenting, spirituality, food, language, history, family, nature and food.

What is a Jew?

Star of David, family heirloom.
My great-grandmother’s Star of David

Depends on who you ask.

It is not just a religion, but without the religion of Judaism it would not exist.

One thing that Jews aren’t, is a race. You can’t convert to a race. Mind you, no one can give me a consistent answer as to what is the definition of a ‘race’, which is understandable, considering where the concept of race originated. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Many feel that Jews are a ‘race’, but what they actually mean is that they believe true Jews share genetic material. However, the whole of humanity shares genetic material and also, throughout time Jews have intermarried with others, denying this is just lying to ourselves. Insert biblical examples.

I have seen several different descriptions of what a Jew is that resonate with me. One of them is that Judaism is a faith community. This is quite accurate because it says two things at once.

I think that the better description is that being Jewish is an identity.

This is part of why it is so difficult to define what it means to be Jewish, because each individual has their own unique identity. Everyone’s experience and opinion of what constitutes a Jew is based on their own lived experience and traditions.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that one opinion is more important than another, but we have to acknowledge the pluralism of identity inherent in the experience of being human.

Hanukkah 5782

It seems everyone this year is getting into Hanukkah in a big way, all the local synagogues are throwing huge parties. I would suspect that they are super keen to get everyone back to shul after all the lockdowns. I don’t blame them, there are likely to be many people who have drifted away as online services are just not the same. Being physically present with others in the community, not to mention the singing, can never be adequately replaced with online gatherings.

We have put up some lights in our house, I’m starting a new tradition of buying a new light every year…well… maybe only until there are so many that they start to keep us up at night…

I have a plan to make different flavours of latke, thinking parsnip and sweet potato to start with. I like sunflower oil because it’s very neutral and has a high smoke point. I think the sufganiyot are going to bought though.

I look forward to the rededication of my life to Judaism, to move forward into the secular new year with renewed faith and determination to further Jewish causes.

Now to buy a present for my daughter. Hmm. Husband can just have a plate of latkes….

Holidays in the Southern Hemisphere

Although not quite as ridiculous as pine trees covered in snow in 40°C weather, Jewish Holidays are not in sync with their intended seasons.

Pesach, that joyful celebration of the arrival of spring and the freedom of the Hebrews from Egypt, is in autumn. Late the same season is Shavuot, which of course is partly meant to be a harvest festival as well as a celebration of revelation. Sukkot is spring, when the nights are still cool, not warmed by the lingering summer.

Hannukah particularly is really not at the right time for fried foods, being in our summer. Traditional scenes of snow-covered windows glowing with the lights of the hanukiyah are not in evidence, especially when it’s still light until very late.

Tu B’Shvat is nice to have in the summer if it’s been a wet summer as it was last year, but when the greenery is crispy from extreme heat it’s hard to evoke tree-planting season. It seems appropriate though that Tisha B’Av takes place in midwinter rather than midsummer…

Fighting ignorance

Often I’ll see people say ‘oh don’t bother engaging with the bigots, they’re too __ to understand’. Sure, there are many out there who just say bigoted crap to get a rise out of people. But there are many who come from a place of ignorance and genuinely don’t actually understand all the nuances.

Staying silent when people blatantly misrepresent does nothing to reduce ignorance, event though it is often the safer option. For example, the old line that all Israelis should go back to Europe shows complete ignorance about the >750000 Jews kicked out of their countries when Israel was formed. Iraqi Jews who had been in their countries since Babylon, Moroccan Jews who fled the Inquisition, lots of non-Jews know nothing about this.

There will always be a few watching your response who are less rabid, more willing to accept new information. These people are the ones who we can help educate. With understanding hate has a harder time taking root.

Even those who are overt bigots can be swayed, just look at some of the fascinating stories of ex-white supremacists. Often they are coming from a place of disillusionment, poverty or insecurity, and understanding them can help achieve תיקון עולם.

‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.’ – Elie Wiesel.

How Jews look to non-Jews – Part 1

I’m going to try and be objective here, so obviously a lot of this is not how I personally view things. However, I think it’s important to understand some of the negative ways that we are viewed in order to help foster more understanding and hence less hate.

I had very little understanding of what it was to be a Jew before I met my husband, having not knowingly been acquainted with any Jews prior. So yes, ignorant is definitely the word. All I really knew about Jews was that they didn’t eat pork, didn’t believe in the ‘New Testament’, and were often persecuted. That is all.

There are lots of negative stereotypes ascribed to Jews, being a favourite minority for scapegoating throughout the ages.

Jews are too insular. The strong focus on intra-community support has been a big factor contributing to persecution. It has also been a central factor as to why Jews have survived. From the outside it can look as though non-Jews are less important to Jews than their own community, contributing to the stereotype that Jews consider themselves the ‘Holy’ race. This is tricky, because the Jews were set aside to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’, but this mission must be tempered with a large dose of humility, otherwise…well…Nevi’im. Being a minority it is dangerous to lose focus on the bigger community. Petty intra-community squabbles (‘oh those South African Jews are no good, they’ve really changed the character of the local school’) are really ridiculous. Supporting Jewish charities is commendable, because if we are not for ourselves, who will be? But all people are deserving of justice.

Jews always make everything about the holocaust. This is a pretty common one obviously. What many non-Jews fail to understand is that the Shoah is talked about so much in order to ensure it is remembered and hence the chance of it happening again is minimised. I find that referring to all the groups that were slaughtered can help minimise the eye-rolling. Some don’t wish to acknowledge that it was real so ongoing education about it is essential. I suppose it is partly due to a lack of resilience on the part of the Holocaust-deniers, i.e. they have trouble comprehending the depravity of such an event and so minimise it. Mostly though it is just pure Jew-Hatred, because weak people need someone to blame for all the bad things that happen to them.

TBC…

Going back to shul

So many converts will have spent the majority of the last 1.5 years cut off from their chosen community. Reading through material without any other converts around to ask seemingly silly questions. Contemplating how on earth they could ever possibly understand all the intricacies of kashrut let alone follow the majority of them. It must have been a very lonely time, with the goal of joining the Jewish people even further away. It has also not been a good time for Jewish communities around the world for other reasons.

My synagogue has just started having in person services again. I am cautiously excited about being back. I completed my conversion in January 2020, just before COVID really got going, which I am very grateful for in a way.

Going forward our community is going to need all the help it can get. So many will be disaffected and disconnected. Life has been interrupted, so many B’nai Mitzvot (correct plural?) have had celebrations cancelled, weddings delayed. Then there was the severe wave of anti-Semitism that would have helped further distance those who were on the margins of being actively Jewish. Although I hope the positive aspects of being an online community will remain for those who saw increased connection in this period.

I am grateful to be able to start to reconnect with that most central part of being Jewish, the community. The wonder and sense of home coming I felt with my conversion has not changed, it has just been waiting patiently below the surface.

Nature and God

I love thunderstorms

There are blessings for natural phenomena, for rainbows, the ocean, things of beauty large and small.

The blessing for lightning is particularly interesting, as it translates as:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who performs the work of creation.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, עוֹשֶׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית

Electricity as the power of creation. When electrons move away from the orbit of the proton they create electricity. Creativity requires a new orbit, a new path.

Instinctively we know that electricity is one of the primal forces of life.

For thunder we say:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, whose power and might fill the universe/world.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכֹּחוֹ וּגְבוּרָתוֹ מָלֵא עוֹלָם

These blessings are said at the beginning of a storm and do not need to be repeated for the duration of the storm.

I’ve always loved thunderstorms, it is wonderful to now have a blessing for such a glorious natural phenomenon.

Israel – Post 2

It was built as a haven for Jews at a time when no country wanted them. A desperate attempt to save the remnant of an ancient people and religion. It was built on one central premise: survival.

Nothing about that has really changed. Although the fundamental need to ensure the Jewish people’s survival seems to get bogged down in the myriad of issues this country has.

So what increases a group’s chance of survival? Ability to defend itself. Mutually beneficial relations with it’s potential biggest threats. Education. Written records. Wealth. Numbers.

The size of the population has to be the biggest factor of these. A big population of anything rarely needs to fear annihilation.

Israel needs more Jews. Astronomical birth rates are not the answer, any other country can do this. Jews still make up less than 1% of the world population. If Israel is serious about pure survival, it needs to welcome with open arms anyone who dares to join the minority that is the Jewish people.

Visiting Israel

Can’t wait! All this interminable lockdown with small children means I’m longing for the holiday of a lifetime. I’m lucky I can get out to work!

Definitely need a few weeks there. Probably basing ourselves in Tel Aviv תל אביב and doing day trips. Small people need a bit of stability and in my experience it takes 2 nights for them to really settle in anyway…

What parts of Israel will I find really challenging? Which parts will be the most meaningful for me personally? How much falafel can I eat?

Proselytism

Proselytising, or actively seeking converts, has traditionally been discouraged, clearly for several reasons.

I think the most obvious is that Jews who try to convert others draw the ire of those whom do not appreciate their efforts. When you’re in the minority that may not be the best idea in terms of self-preservation.

At several times throughout history Jews have been banned from doing it by others (insecurity?) or by Jewish leaders (fear). Converts are easily suspect of being mutable or insincere in their motives. Even though it is explicitly stated to love the convert, it rubs many the wrong way, mainly those who believe in their genetic superiority. Those that deny the fact that intermarriage has always been.

If you believe that Jews are inherently a people based on shared genetics, then converts are as adoptive children. Do you then welcome their children, grandchildren, as ‘born’ Jews? Where do you draw the line? Technically they are ‘born’ Jews, but there’s many who wouldn’t feel that way.

The other obvious reason for the need for converts I think goes back to the original convert, Ruth. The fact is that a small population cannot sustain inbreeding for too many generations, human genetics needs variety to thrive.

Then there’s the whole numbers game. The more of us there are, the stronger we will be. That’s just survival.

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