Excerpted with permission from Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (Schocken Books).
A holocaust is a great fire, a conflagration that consumes. When you become a Jew, this word can no longer be generic. It becomes a proper noun that describes one singular event: the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews and two million other human beings. In converting to Judaism, you make the Holocaust your own personal nightmare. One woman who was studying for conversion told her discussion group that she had been having terrible dreams about Nazis pursuing her.
Being a Jew Means Vulnerability to Danger
"What right do I have to subject any children I might have to that kind of danger?" she asked.
The Talmud asked a similar question hundreds of years ago, "What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte? Do you not know that the Jews at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?" Becoming a Jew means voluntarily putting yourself–and your children–on the short end of a very long and dangerous stick.
Although institutional, legal, and cultural anti-Semitism has diminished to a remarkable extent in America, prejudice against Jews is not a disease against which the world has been inoculated. Every year, swastikas are painted on synagogue doors, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated, and revisionist historians publish claims that the Nazi Holocaust was a story invented by Jews to reap the sympathy of the world. Jewish children are still asked by their playmates why they killed Christ, and jokes about greedy, selfish, and sexually repressed Jewish-American Princesses still make the rounds.
As a Jew-by-choice, you become vulnerable to a form of bigotry to which you were previously immune. You are also likely to become even more sensitive to all forms of prejudice and discrimination. It is no accident that Jews are statistically overrepresented in social action organizations since Judaism demands tzedek–justice–for all people.
But anti-Semitism has not only consigned Jews to flames.
It has been a refining fire as well. A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, "Brandeis, you’re brilliant. If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved."
Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, "I am sorry I was born a Jew." His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. "I’m sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own."
The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation. In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Conversion Also Demands a New Loyalty–Israel
Becoming a Jew means that Israel belongs to you, just as the Torah and Shabbat [Sabbath] belong to you. But it’s no easy matter forging a genuine connection to an adoptive spiritual homeland in an unseen and embattled nation on the other side of the planet. And it’s not simple resolving the question of dual loyalties once you are, potentially at least, a citizen of that country.
Of course, Israel is more than a small nation in the Middle East. The land of Israel is embedded in four thousand years of Jewish life. In Genesis and throughout the Torah, Israel was the land that God promised and the Jewish people sought, longed for, settled, fought over, were exiled from, and returned to. In every generation since the destruction of the Jewish state during the first century CE, Jews in the Diaspora turned their bodies toward Israel when they prayed. Israel was a place to send tzedakah [charitable contributions] and the destination for Jewish pilgrims. Israel was a name for the dream of redemption from the suffering of life in Diaspora.
The Zionist movement of the 19th century sought to turn what had been a religious goal of redemption and sa1vation into a political safe haven for world Jewry. That goal was only realized in 1948, after the Holocaust had wiped out one-third of the world’s Jewish population. The nations of the earth had denied asylum to hundreds of thousands of Jews who escaped but were sent back to Germany to die. The state of Israel was founded amid cries of "Never again," and the first act of the newly created state was the enactment of a "Law of Return," which grants citizenship and safe harbor to all Jews, everywhere. Today, of course, Israel is a modern state as well as a metaphor for redemption and safety. At Passover, when Jews end the seder [ritual meal] with the traditional statement "Next year in Jerusalem," the words conjure up real memories as well as a dream of peace. For Jews who have visited or lived in Israel’s capital city, "Next year in Jerusalem" calls to mind memories of sunlight on the city’s renowned limestone and a particular feeling of being at home.
For Jews-by-choice, and indeed for Diaspora Jews in general, visiting the land of Israel is really the only way to create a personal connection to Eretz Yisrael–the land of Israel.
A first trip to Israel is inevitably a watershed Jewish experience, which includes awe at the physical beauty and historical resonance of the place, and an ineffable sense of confirmation in knowing that nearly everyone else on the street–including the taxi driver and the garbage collector–is a Jew, too.
But it’s not all sweetness and light. The status of liberal Jewish converts in Israel (and of liberal Judaism) has long been a source of dismay to many American Jews. Furthermore, the actions and embattled politics of the country have occasioned pain, and even outrage, among some Jews. However, even when ties are strained, the connection remains undeniable.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.