Posts Tagged ‘conversion’

When rituals have meaning (or not)

February 10, 2012

Let’s start with an apology: My posts here have been getting fewer and further-between! Between the new job and the old freelance clients, I have found little time to focus on blogging in the past month. I will keep going, but perhaps not quite as often as before.

Meanwhile, as a gesture of atonement, I’d like to share a wonderful column from the latest J Weekly by Editor Sue Fishkoff. I’m on the J board, and was delighted to have helped hire Sue last fall. She is smart, energetic, deeply knowledgeable about the Jewish community and (as you will see) a super writer. I just wish we could clone her so she could both edit and write full-time for the paper.

FYI: If you’d like to see more of Sue’s work as editor and writer, J offers a free four-week trial print subscription by mail for California residents. Or if you’re far from the Bay Area, there is an excellent weekly e-newsletter that links to all the main stories.

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The sacred meets the profound in a rite of passage

By Sue Fishkoff

I’ve always been fascinated by rituals. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through so few — no bat mitzvah, no prom (not cool, it was the ’70s), no graduation (’70s again), no wedding. Nothing sacred to mark the passage from one state of being, one phase of life, to another.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was my conversion ceremony, that magical day when I dunked in the mikvah and joined the tribe.

At least, it should have been magical. Instead, it was odd, somewhat sad, but also kind of funny.

It was the summer of 1977, and I’d spent months studying the laws of kashrut and marking up my copy of Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin’s classic, “To Be a Jew.” I was 19, had spent a year on kibbutz, finished two Hebrew ulpans, milked hundreds of cows, and knew I wanted to formalize the connection I’d always felt to my father’s people.

The monumental day arrived, an August scorcher like you don’t know from in the Bay Area. I showed up at the run-down Orthodox mikvah in Perth Amboy, N.J. and stood in a darkened room while three long-bearded rabbis from Brooklyn quizzed me about traif, asked me why God gave the Torah to Moses and not to Noah or Abraham (a trick question, you have to know the answer going in), and tested my Hebrew.

An antiquated air-conditioner sputtered noisily in the corner. One of the rabbis barely spoke English. I would have giggled if I weren’t so petrified.

I passed — everyone does, apparently — and was shunted off to the changing room where I disrobed, cleaned myself and stepped into the fetid enclosure that passed for a ritual bath. An elderly woman squinted at me and told me to get in the water, quick, quick, the rabbis were coming.

The rabbis were coming? Wait a sec, I’m naked here! I scrambled down the steps and hunched over in the water, folding my arms over my breasts as the mikvah lady growled at me to take my hands away and let the water touch every part of my body. Oh boy, oh boy.

Suddenly she threw a wet washcloth on my head, the rabbis stepped behind a screen to my right, one of them mumbled a prayer, and the mikvah lady hissed at me to dunk.

Down I went, and up I came. More mumbling, more hissing, down again and up again. Then once more — mumble, hiss, down, up. And I was a Jew. No muss, no fuss, dry yourself off and out the door.

In the parking lot, the sunlight nearly blinded me — was it God’s blessing pouring down upon my head? Or just summer in New Jersey?

Again, no Champagne toast, no lifting of chairs, no kicking up of heels in a wild hora. Just me and Aunt Joan grabbing a tuna fish sandwich at the local diner.

Deprived of what should have been a glorious occasion, I decided that my next Jewish step would be marked with the proper solemnity. I was going to have an adult bat mitzvah. And I was going to don a tallit.

Here’s the thing with me and the tallit: I’m all about egalitarianism in shul. I feel uncomfortable behind a mechitzah. I like a woman’s voice leading services. I like being called up to the Torah. But I always declined the prayer shawl. I felt I hadn’t earned the right to wear it.

I was going to wait for my bat mitzvah and do it right. I was going to bask in the ritual.

Then last fall I was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at a Conservative synagogue in Florida. During Shabbat services, I was called up to the Torah, and there was the gabbai smiling and holding out a tallit for me.

I paused, then blurted out, “I’ve never worn a tallit before.” The gabbai hesitated. The congregation fell silent.

I took a deep breath, thought about my carefully laid plans and brushed them aside. How could I offend my hosts? Why was I being so arrogant? I took the shawl, said the prayer, kissed the fringes, and draped it carefully over my shoulders.

And I burst into tears.

Sometimes sacred moments just happen.

A gangster rapper goes Jewish

November 12, 2010

The New York Times had one of those sit-up-and-spit-out-your-cornflakes stories this week, about an African American gangster rapper named Shyne who has become a black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Shyne in Jerusalem / Photo by Ricki Rosen for the New York Times

Shyne isn’t just any rapper. He was the Sean Combs/P. Diddy protege who served almost nine years in prison for shooting into the crowd of a New York nightclub in 1999. But apparently he has thought of himself as an “Israelite” since age 13, and converted to Judaism while in prison. Today his legal name is Moses Levi, he wraps tefillin every morning, and he is studying with some of the most strict ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem.

Shyne/Levi still raps on Def Jam records and maintains parts of the hip-hop lifestyle. “There’s nothing in the Chumash that says I can’t drive a Lamborghini,” he told the Times. “Nothing in the Halacha about driving the cars I like, about the lifestyle I like.”

What attracts him to Judaism, he told the Times, are the rules.

“What I do get is boundaries. Definition and form. And that is what Shabbat is. You can’t just do whatever you want to do. You have to set limits for yourself.

“All these rules, rules, rules,” he said with his hand on an open page of the Talmud. “But you know what you have if you don’t have rules? You end up with a bunch of pills in your stomach. When you don’t know when to say when and no one tells you no, you go off the deep.” 

Now I’m sure there’s more to this, and to him, than the Times was able to fit into a 30-inch story. But like Madonna becoming a Kabbalah devotee, this raises all those little hairs on my neck. 

His Judaism is so different from mine that it seems like they could be two different religions.

He sees a religion of rigid rules; I see a religion of social justice and ethics.

He chooses to enter the sliver of Judaism that is the most gender-segregated, the most patriarchal, where women are completely marginalized from public life. It’s tempting to play armchair psychologist and look at the parallels between the sexism  of hip-hop culture and that of the ultra-Orthodox — Shyne/Levi has moved from one culture that denigrates women to another.

Shyne apparently sees it as a universal truth that, without rigid rules governing every aspect of our lives, we will “go off the deep.”  I see that more as a sad comment on his own character. One of my main goals as a parent — and of just about every parent I know — is to raise children to be capable of making good decisions when there is no one in the room to “tell them no.”

Now, I certainly don’t want to denigrate or discourage converts. And on one level, Shyne’s decision isn’t that unusual. Thousands of African-American men in prison have sought out a similar set of rules and structure by converting to Islam. So why not black-hat Judaism?

Still, something feels askew to me when non-Jews seek out the most arcane, regressive, or extreme corners of Judaism to call their own.

Madonna and kabbalah. Shyne and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. What is it that they see when they look at Judaism?

I fear they are viewing Judaism as some exotic and obscure cult, like I might view an indigenous tribe from the depths of the Amazon. As a romantic “other.” They’re certainly not seeing the daily lives of millions of us, the vast majority of American Jewry, as we struggle to blend our values and our jobs, as we drive carpools to Hebrew school and soccer practice, as we write checks to the ACLU and the dry cleaners and the temple building campaign.

It seems weird to use the phrase “anti-Semitism” in talking about Christians choosing to adopt aspects of Judaism. But what about when the aspects they choose are so extreme or offbeat? 

Would I feel differently if Shyne or Madonna had joined a Reform or conservative synagogue?