Over the last few decades, there has seemed to be a growing antagonism towards those who are in the process of converting, or who have already converted, to Judaism. This antagonism is decidedly un-Jewish, flying in the face of Jewish law and Jewish history. Today I wrote a poem, which I will turn into a song, to share my heart’s message with the world on this topic.
To give a little more backstory, according to הלכה – Jewish law – someone may not be referred to as a convert after converting to Judaism. That person may only be referred to as a Jew. In addition, משיח – the Messiah – will be the descendant of Ruth, who was a convert to Judaism. Not only that, but she converted at a time that there was no מקווה – the ritual immersion bath, which people now make a massive fuss about.
What’s more, the origins of the Jewish people lie in the story of conversion: שרה ואברהם – the Jewish matriarch and patriarch, Sarah and Abraham – left everything and everyone they knew, to follow the calling of Gd. They and their followers and descendants became known as the עברים – the Hebrews, which in Hebrew means those who cross over.
They crossed over in a few ways – literally, they crossed over the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia, and headed toward the Promised Land of Israel. Metaphysically, they crossed over in consciousness, in belief, and in practice, leaving behind the religion of their families and ancestors, and stepping out on faith into the great unknown, simply following this idea that Gd is an energetic Force behind all of creation – one that has no face or body or gender identity or container of any kind. Against the backdrop of a society that utilized the physical touchstone of idols to understand and interact with Gd, that was a radical idea and paradigm shift. It’s likely that a whole lot of people that Sarah and Abraham cared about thought they had gone stark raving mad.
Imagine stepping out on that quest – risking everything, to follow the yearning of your heart and the knowing of your soul, willing to do whatever it takes to join the Jewish people and the Jewish consciousness and the Jewish ideology, only to have the door slammed in your face.
Imagine now that part of the reason you embarked on this quest was because you discovered that someone in your lineage had been forcibly converted from Judaism to Islam or Christianity, and you felt called to overcome all of the Jew hatred you were taught and that your community feels, to reclaim the religion and heritage of your ancestors. And to also have the door slammed in your face.
What is going on here? When did the positive attribute of Judaism – to refrain from proselytization – swing so far in the opposite direction, that the very people who are the soul and lifeblood of Jews worldwide are now being actively rejected and demoralized? It is shameful and heartbreaking. I personally know, and I also know of, people who have turned their worlds upside down to become Jewish, and have been turned away. Why are we inflicting trauma on people who want to be part of us?
I am one of the most in your face, unapologetic, Jewy Jew-Jews I have ever met. I am the daughter of a convert – a woman with a fiery passion for Judaism. A woman who actively rejected Christianity and studied other religions and chose Judaism and who, in doing so, extracted and emphasized the most beautiful and powerful principles of our religion and heritage.
My mother was a seeker.
Like Sarah and Abraham.
On my father’s Iraqi Jewish side, I am a direct descendant of the original Jews of Mesopotamia. My ancestors were among those mentioned in the תורה, the Hebrew Bible. After the Babylonian exile from ancient Israel 2600 years ago, they lived on the land that Sarah and Abraham originally came from. You don’t get more ethnically Jew than that.
While my mother had an orthodox conversion, the rabbi had been ordained in the Conservative movement, prior to becoming more Orthodox, to what later became called Conservedox. In addition, my mom lost the paperwork verifying that she had an Orthodox conversion (though she found it a couple decades later, just in time for me to make עליה, to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return).
As a teenager, I was therefore subject to the whole b******* debate of who is a Jew, and I actually approached the rabbi at the Orthodox synagogue I attended, about the possibility of getting an Orthodox conversion, just so that I didn’t have to deal with people questioning my Jewishness. But the process felt humiliating, even at the outset, and I came to decide that anyone who would question my Jewish identity – in particular, being that I grew up orthodox – was not someone I would want to be with anyhow, so f*** it and f*** them.
Which all goes to say, I also have a little bit of personal experience – albeit the tip of a massive iceberg – with the conversion process.
With all of this backstory, and with a flurry of posts that I have recently seen on social media about people converting to Judaism and having one hell of a time, I wrote this Facebook post:
“To all Jewish converts, people in the process of converting to judaism, and people who are simply Jew-positive: you are always, always, always welcome in my Jewish tent. I am appalled by the seemingly rising anti-convert trend. It is decidedly UNJEWISH. As in, flying in the face of Jewish law as well as flying in the face of Jewish history. It is complete and utter b*******. If somebody projects that crap on to you, consider yourself lucky that you screened out an a****** from your life. Come hang out with the cool kids like me – parenthetically, the daughter of a convert. Because kids of converts are likely to be the most in-your-face, badass, unapologetic Jewy-Jew-Jews that exist. Like, you know, the messiah, who will be the descendant of a CONVERT. Case closed.”
The post got more activity than any other post on my Facebook page, in about a year, and I realized what a painful issue this is for so many. As I drank my morning coffee, I was inspired to write this poem, with the intention of turning it into a song. I dedicate it to my mother and to all of the converts out there, or people in the process of converting, and to the non-Jews who love Jews and Judaism, who truly are a source of Jewish inspiration and pride.
A few notes about the Hebrew in the poem:
לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך is the passage we are told Gd said to Abraham, which basically means, “Leave your land, and your birthplace, and the house of your father.” I relate to it as the calling of the soul, to risk everything to heed your true essence and embark on the quest to become who you are, no matter what.
משׁיח is the Messiah
עברים are the Hebrews (the original name for the children of Sarah and Abraham, who later became called the people of ישׂראל, which means “he who struggles with Gd” – which to me is also emblematic of converts.
נעשׂה ונשׁמע comes from the most misunderstood and misquoted part of Judaism, namely, how we got known as “the chosen people.” Our tradition teaches that Gd went to all the peoples of the world and asked if they wanted the teachings S/He had for them. Most of those peoples, we are told, asked, “What’s in it?” Following which Gd was like, never mind. The people of Israel, however said, “We will do, and then we will listen.” This principle is central in Judaism – that it is through the doing that one receives. In other words, you don’t wait to become spiritual to pray. You pray, and through that action, experience spirituality.
Ad now for the poem, soon to be a song.
THE CONVERT’S QUEST
לך לך מארצך
The convert’s quest
The most gut-wrenching
Act of faith
All you know
All you love
All you are
To follow your soul
No matter the cost
Leaving lands paradigms family community
To Become Who you are meant to Be
A Living quest of purity truth passion nobility
And vulnerable authenticity
Amidst a world encouraging us to be
And play it safe
Go along with the crowd
But you have said NO
So that you can say yes
To the Gd of your understanding
Who shines brightly through
The Light of your Being
As a beacon for others
Staggering around in the darkness
To follow their quest
Of their own souls
If they would just
Stop look and listen
Mother of the משׁיח
Your Gd will be my Gd
Gd of the עברים
Those who cross over
Those on the convert’s quest
The Sarah and Abraham of our time
Stepping out on faith
Crossing the river Into uncertainty
Toward the Promised Land
The most Jewish Jews of all
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©2021 by Loolwa Khazzoom. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be copied without author’s permission.