Emma Shevah

Conversion: time to end the stigma

There is still much secrecy around being a convert if you are Orthodox, says Emma Shevah

May 26, 2017 10:48

Last month, I did something I never thought I’d do — not publicly, anyway. Until recently, I wouldn’t have entertained the idea. But in April, I wrote in the JC about Pesach in the Himalayas, and revealed a secret I’d been harbouring for 18 years. Which is that I’m a convert.

That might not sound very radical, but voicing it was a huge thing. In the realms of Orthodoxy, converts tend to keep themselves very deliberately under the radar. Close friends of mine knew, and everyone else was on a need-to-know basis. I don’t think my rabbi knows even now because it hasn’t been necessary to tell him yet. Two friends only divulged they’d converted after learning I had, then asked me to keep it quiet.

This concealment is less common in progressive strands of Judaism: I know very public Masorti converts, and their so-what attitude is refreshing. But in progressive circles, mindsets are more open generally. In Orthodoxy, where the law is the law and boundaries are strictly demarcated, it matters who you are, what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. But sadly, even if you’re doing it right, there’s still a stigma surrounding conversion.

The question is why. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah warns of wrongdoing against the ger (the Hebrew word for stranger but also for convert) 36 times; others say 46. The prohibition of mixing meat and milk is hinted at only once. The Torah goes even further, commanding us to “love” the stranger, so you’d think converts would be embraced. Especially as they face a double-whammy of difficulty: converts’ families are often angry, hurt and insulted. A good friend told me when her husband’s father converted, his father refused to speak to him again. When one convert married, her new mother-in-law — a US member — made her promise never to tell anyone. If the situation was reversed and we learned a mother-in-law made a Jewish girl promise never to tell anyone she was Jewish, we’d find it disgraceful.

It’s not easy to convert. Once we (eventually) do, we have gaps at simchas where our side should be, don’t have family to go to for chagim and don’t sit shiva for them, although we can. A female student doctor told me the shidduch world was “brutal” for converts. The irony is, converts know without any doubt that they’re Jewish, whereas events and movements in history mean others can’t be as certain. Rigorous instruction and an extensive curriculum ensure converts have an excellent grounding in Judaism, so they’re both clued-up and committed. They may not inherit a Jewish legacy but they’re establishing one for their descendants, and that’s a beautiful thing.

After my article was published, a convert friend phoned and cried, “You came out!” And it did feel like that. It made me consider how hard it must be for gay people to tell their families and friends who they really are. No one wants to live a lie, but no one wants to be rejected, judged, regarded with disdain, taken any less seriously, or presumed to be any less competent or relevant.

Because once people know, that’s how they define you. It becomes a frame of reference. If you’re learning, it’s because you’re trying to prove yourself. Or you need to catch up. Or you’re playing a game. People see you as a convert first.

I declined book publicity in a Jewish newspaper last year because they asked my publicist whether I was born Jewish. It annoyed me because it was irrelevant: I was Jewish and had a new book out. Why was that the first question they asked?

We underestimate how prejudiced we are, and how damaging it is. Converts are an integral part of the Jewish community who enrich it immeasurably, but still the stigma persists. There are many converts — more than you think. Those with one parent who wasn’t or who descend from lost tribes go through the formal process, but others have different roots. Some look Ashkenazi or Sephardi and blend in invisibly. Others don’t. And they shouldn’t have to.

Esther’s story is of concealment, but on Shavuot, we read about Ruth, the convert, whose father was the King of Moab. Ruth returned with Naomi to the land of Judah, married Boaz, a great sage of the Sanhedrin, and gave birth to Oved, father of Yishai, father of King David, forefather of the mashiach. From converts can come greatness. Ruth famously said, “Your people shall be my people.” If only we were all as accepting.

Emma Shevah is an author of children's books and an educator. Her latest book is  Dara Palmer's Major Drama (Chicken House) 

May 26, 2017 10:48

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