Amid sharp fissures in the Jewish community as the first intifada raged, the prolific writer and political activist Elie Wiesel came to Berkeley. Asking a question after a press conference, I mentioned, “I happen to be Jewish.”
“Don’t happen to be Jewish,” he said to me. “Be Jewish.”
That was my turning point. I had never denied my Jewishness, but like my parents and grandparents, I hadn’t exactly affirmed it. My last Shabbat-observant relative on my mother’s side was my great-great-grandma, Yetta, who came from the Old Country. On my father’s side, my American-born great-grandma, Sarah, lit Shabbat candles and said the blessings before ladling clam chowder.
Reading intensively about the intifada, I came to realize that the Israelis were family — even if I didn’t always like what they did — and I began to feel like an outsider at my Unitarian church. I started attending Shabbat services and retreats. Eventually, I joined a synagogue.
For most of my life, I had been Jewish but not part of the Jewish community. By contrast, my friend Ken Adler had been part of the Jewish community, but he wasn’t Jewish.
One night while Ken sat at our Shabbat table, he asked us why he should become Jewish. After all, his beliefs and practices were already in alignment with Reform Judaism. He was an active member of Beth Am, which he had joined with his late wife, and he attended Friday night services and Saturday morning Torah study at the Los Altos Hills synagogue. He was a leader of the Torah Trekkers, a Sunday hiking group. He also sang tenor with HaShirim, a Jewish choral group.
With a name like Adler, Ken had passed as Jewish. But he had been raised American Baptist, and he once believed non-Christians were doomed. His Jewish heritage came from his paternal side, and ironically, he didn’t find out about it until he was 13.
With a little help from Ancestry.com, I traced Ken’s Jewish roots back to the 1870 census, when his great-grandfather, Isaac, from Bohemia (part of the current Czech Republic) had become a wholesale liquor dealer in Newark, N.J. Along the way, Isaac’s son, Moses, aka Morris, married a woman who was not Jewish, as did his son Irving R., Ken’s father, known as Robert or Bob. And so, the family’s Jewishness receded into the past.
Ken was thinking of reclaiming it, but why be Jewish? Would conversion change Ken’s identity in a Jewish community that had already accepted him? My thoughts went back to the words of Elie Wiesel: “Be Jewish.”
“For me,” I said, “it was a matter of standing up and being counted as a Jew. Plus, the music touched my soul. My beliefs did not change when I joined a synagogue, and yours won’t change because of a dip in the mikvah. But you will be standing alongside us, with the people Israel, affirming who you already feel you are.”
In December, after Ken’s conversion, we gathered in the Beth Am chapel, where he related his odyssey. He had rejected born-again Christianity by age 26, but becoming Jewish was not a one-step process. He was nurtured by the support of the congregation, which continued after his late wife’s passing six years ago; by the warmth of Shabbat; by the spirit of inquiry at Torah study; and by the values of compassion, tolerance and social justice.
It wasn’t his immersion into the mikvah but “immersion into the peoplehood of Judaism,” he said at the post-conversion service. It was the connection to his ancestors and the covenant at Sinai, the “communal observance of yahrzeit and Yizkor,” the “sacred remembrance and reminder of life’s transience.”
Why be Jewish? It’s not about getting saved. Instead, Ken was affirming his place in history, reclaiming his heritage and bringing timeless Torah values into his daily life through mitzvot. Great-grandfather Isaac would be proud. I also hope my foremothers would be honored that a distant descendant thinks of them while lighting the candles.
Janet Silver Ghent, former j. senior editor, is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at email@example.com.