|Author and "convert" Daan van Kampenhout sings during Yom Kippur services.
Becoming a Jew
A response to controversies about conversion in Israel, Europe and around the world
-- Daan van Kampenhout
Is Barack Obama black? Everybody seems to agree on it, in the media. Obama: the first black president of the United States! “Black’ however is not always really black. Obama is called a black man, but he comes from a mixed background. One of his parents is white and the other is black. To call him black is, essentially, to simplify reality. Am I a Jew? You tell me. How do you use the term? The answer can be yes or no. If you call Obama black, then I am a Jew. The reality is that I am part this and part that. Just like a bit of blackness makes you fully black in America, in the eyes of many gentiles a little bit of Jewish blood makes you the ‘other’. Some see this partial Jewishness something positive: it adds a bit of mystery to you, it can even make you slightly exotic. Others see it as something negative and you become suspect.
And am I a Jew in the eyes of Jews? Again, it depends on where you stand. According to halacha (Jewish law), there are Jews, there are goyim, there is simply no third option: someone who is partly Jewish does not even exist. If out of eight great grandparents only your mother’s mother’s mother was not Jewish and all seven others where praying and keeping kosher, you are still not Jewish. At the other hand, if out of your eight great grandparents only your mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish, you can join almost any orthodox synagogue. No problem if this great grandmother was the last one to pray in Hebrew and to see a shul from the inside, as long as your mother’s mother’s line has not been baptized, the doors of any shul will open up for you. Welcome, welcome, ba’al teshuvah! You just need some training to catch up.
According to the strict halachic interpretation which does not leave the option of partial Jewish background, I have never been a Jew. What the particular mixture of ancestors is in my case isn’t important: you just need to know that out of the eight great grandparents, the single who needs to be Jewish isn’t. I will not bother you with the further details since according halacha they are irrelevant.
Now, where do you go when (forgive me the next provocative statement) you are Jewish enough for Hitler but not for the rabbis? It puts you in a strange place, to say the least... I have a friend, her mother is Native American and her father is white. When you see her from some angles, she looks like a regular white woman. From another angle however, there can be no mistake: you see a Native American woman. She is not a halfblood, no, she is a double person! I experience myself like that. When you see me, my double-ness is not always obvious. But at some moments, from some angles, it is undeniable. It has made people on the street greet me with both ‘shalom’ and ‘heil Hitler’, depending on their particular identity and background.
Years ago, in Frankfurt’s main train station, I was attacked by a neo-Nazi. I was not wearing a kippa (yarmulke), but I do have strong glasses, dark hair, a (short) beard and (let’s face it) a peculiar nose. And as history has taught us over and over again, the true hunter recognizes his prey. My attacker screamed that Hitler had been a blessing for Germany and the real Nazi’s were the Jews. Immediately an empty circle opened up, all the people around us looked away and took distance. A frightening situation. Very frightening. What to do? After the first experience of fear, came strength. No, this would not happen to me, not again, not to us, nowhere, not in Germany – and I screamed back even louder than he did and pushed him out of my way. The man was so surprised he shut up, stared, and didn’t follow me when I moved away from him. Safely in the train, my body started shaking and couldn’t stop it for a long time. Experiences like this, and unfortunately it is not the only one of this kind I have had, have strengthened my Jewish identity. If I am that easily recognizable as a Jew, I must certainly consider the possibility that I truly am a Jew. Amalek recognizes me in the street and declares me a Jew. What else could I be? Still, halachic reality is that my ancestry does not suffice to make me Jewish.
Leaving the space of strict halachic rulings where only Jews and non-Jews exist, reality becomes immediately more complex.Suddenly a whole new category of humans comes into being: People who are partly Jewish, or formulated otherwise, people with a partly Jewish background. There are scores and scores of people with such a mixed background, in all kinds of combinations, and they can be either Jews or non-Jews. Or, they can be something in between.
How long are Jewish roots in the family system active somehow, still valid, how long can they function as an active ingredient of a workable identity, be it either Jewish, non-Jewish or a partly Jewish one? That is hard to answer.
In his book 'Legends of our time', Elie Wiesel describes how many years ago he was on vacation in Spain, in Saragossa. He spent a day with a tourist guide, who showed him around town. At the end of the day, the guide took Elie Wiesel to his house, and showed him a very old and small document that had been passed on from father to son in his family for many generations. The guide could not interpret the letters and had no clue what the text said, but Wiesel recognized Hebrew and he could read it. It was a letter, from the late middle-ages, from a Jew to his descendants, written at the time of the forced conversions, executions and expulsions from Spain. He told them to remember they are Jews, and he prayed that one day there would come a time when it would again be possible to be a Jew in Spain.
Elie Wiesel was deeply touched. He told the perplexed man: “You are a Jew. Yes, you are a Jew. Judeo. You.” In this case, the last Jewish ancestor lived 500 years ago, in the mythical golden age of old S’farad (Spain). Still, Elie Wiesel welcomed the lost son aboard the tribal ship.
Some years later, Elie Wiesel was stopped in the streets of Jerusalem by a man he did not immediately recognize, until the man said ‘Saragossa’. It was his former tourist guide, who had formally converted to Judaism. After 500 years, the descendant of the Jew who wrote the prayer for his descendants lived again as a Jew.
Although my story is different from this man from Saragossa, like him, I have Jewish roots in my family system and I have ‘become Jewish’. I did not show Elie Wiesel a remarkable parchment of 500 years old to find my way back to the roots, but I did meet Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the prophet) who opened the door for me. I met him in Berlin, former capital of Hitler’s third Reich, of all places. He showed up in the guise of a elderly Jew, in one of my seminars. At the start of the program I talked some and I sang a few songs I had learned in my dreams. Eliyahu asked me: “You walk like a rabbi, you sing like a rabbi, you teach like rabbi! And I see a long line of rabbis behind you, and they stretch out their hands to you. Why do you not take their hands? Why do you turn away from them?” I answered that I felt them behind me myself too, but that I did not know if I had the right to accept what they were offering me, with my particular background. “What?”, he said, “You do not know if you have the right to accept?! I tell you: you do not have the right to refuse!”
This radical turn-around shook me wide awake. Eliyahu in disguise told me later: “We might have been whole once, but here in Europe, after the Shoah (Holocaust), we are defined by our brokenness. We can not discard it, we can not pretend to be whole any more - we must embrace it, because brokenness is what defines us now. It does not matter anymore if you are a ‘whole Jew’ or not. You should stop thinking like that.”
I had many years behind me of not knowing where I belonged, sometimes thinking about possible steps into the direction of an active religious life as a Jew. I had gone through the brit milah (circumcision) in my early twenties, an important step. But I had left it at that, not sure what to do and how to do it, not knowing whose guidance to seek. At some point, I had decided I would only go where I would be personally invited. I was tired of rejections and closed doors, the fears of the stranger I did not feel myself to be. And now, here was an invitation to look back and take what was offered. From then on, in my own way, I started doing that.
Some years later another invitation followed. An old post-Chabad rabbi, Zalman Schachter, heard me sing. He asked me if I had ever thought of stepping into the mikvah. I said I would never ask for it and therefore I never seriously considered it. His words were plain and simple: “When you are ready, I will take care of everything for you. Let me know when it is time.” A bit dazed, I sat down and meditated. The Shema came up, and I started chanting its first six words. My body became a round, hollow structure in which the prayer was singing around. Then it was as if I was no longer singing the Shema, but that it was chanting me instead. My inner space expanded and took on a new dimension. Gradually the words dropped away, one by one, until there was just one left: ‘echad, echad, echad...’ Just one, just one-ness. No more separation, no more partly-Jewishness. No halfbloodedness. No doubleness, but oneness. Oneness! A totally new experience, like seeing a color I had never seen before. Oneness. A new taste. So, of course I said yes to the invitation.
What I understood from this rabbi was that my soul was Jewish but since my body wasn’t kosher (yet) it could not fully enter me. In the Hasidic tradition, there is an idea that after forced conversions or other circumstances which make it necessary for someone to stop leading a Jewish life – their Jewish soul will stay intact and is passed on through the generations until it sees the chance to lead a Jewish life again. Then, the owner of such a soul must be welcomed and be helped to find his or her way back to the tradition. A wonderful image, both as a literal possibility or as a mystic one. The conversion was a necessary step to make sure my body would become kosher and my soul would fully incarnate. I stepped into the mikvah after having gone through all the necessary preparations. Everything was k’halacha.
Now, did that ‘make’ me a Jew? It did not change the particular mixture of Jews and non-Jews in my ancestry. It did not change my soul, my self. Halacha offers an elegant solution by simply replacing my physical ancestors with spiritual ones: it says I am now a descendant of Avraham avinu (Abraham, our father). Clever. But whatever my exact ancestral status quo is and whatever the exact origin of my soul might be, at least both my feet are now in one place. Before the mikvah, I often felt like I was standing with my legs on two different sheets of ice which were floating in the sea, moving independently of each other. I could not go anywhere because I was just trying to maintain balance. Now I have arrived in one place and I can move. Backwards or forwards, to the left or to the right. So, there is truth in saying that I have become a Jew now. Or, better: some kind of Jew, at least.
Jew or no Jew? Some rabbi’s will still declare me a goy. There are so many groups and factions of Jews, and many of them declare themselves the right ones, the true ones. And then all the others are wrong, it is just like the late second temple period. Israel itself is ever more in the grip of orthodox hardliners, and only haredi (ultra orthodox) conversions are still considered valid by the new Sanhedrin. I did not step into the mikve under the guidance of a haredi beit din, so if I would ever move to Israel I can not be buried in the same graveyard as my Jewish partner (who, by the way, comes from a long line of rabbi’s and is 100% kosher. We’ve been together for twenty years.)
Would I be accepted anyway if I wanted to move to Israel? I have no Jewish papers, except my conversion certificate. Many people of mixed ancestry have no papers to prove they are partly Jewish. It was not wise to keep such papers in your home in Hitler's Europe.
It is not that I reject all of this. I have always been respectful of halacha.
How could I want to move into the direction of Judaism and not respect halacha?
Lehavdil – to separate – is a leading principle in all of Jewish prayer and ritual. If anything, to be or to become a Jew means to be or become an expert on separating. I understand the historical reasons for strict halachic rulings. Still, it is painful, not just for me but for thousands of other individuals. Halacha HAS been known to evolve, although it does so only in an excruciatingly slow pace and I can not expect to see any changes that would change my status any time soon.
In my hometown of Amsterdam I have become a member Beit HaChidush, a shul which does not want to take separation as its basic strategy. Very unusual in the Dutch post-war Jewish landscape which is ruled by fear and is split by divisions. In my shul, men and women are not separated, but we pray and lead the services together. Halachic Jews and people with a mixed background are not separated. Both people with a Jewish mother or with a Jewish father can become members straight away, and people with one Jewish grandparent can do so after a year of learning under the guidance of the rabbi. This is not confused with a giur (conversion) process and they do not convert, they simply can become members. Are we doing something very courageous, something long overdue or are we doing something stupid? Honestly, I am not always sure. Maybe we are doing all of it at the same time. I sit in shul among people who are halachically Jewish and people who are not. My shul-members have one, two, three or four Jewish grandparents, in all kinds of combinations. Brokenness defines us all, after the Shoah. The prayers of our ancestors unite us, their melodies make us cry and they uplift us. Jewish identity – whatever it is, I have it. And often it feels like ‘it’ has me. And you, my reader, what do you think? Am I a Jew? And, more important: are you?
Whatever your answer is, and whatever your reasoning might be - when I ask myself this question I know the answer, and I organize my life accordingly.
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