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Who Is Jewish? A Personal Reflection on a Theme in God Is Great, I'm Not

February 2003

In God Is Great, I'm Not, it seems as if the viewer is flipping through twenty-five pages, or moments, of the diary of 20-year-old Michèle and her quest for a spiritual self-identity that will bring order to her life. The film's unique episodic structure--punctuated by quick fade-outs, jump cuts, and wipes--mimics Michèle's erratic quest and allows viewers to "catch" the subtle and powerful nuances of Michèle's experience of becoming Jewish. For some viewers, God Is Great will be a welcome departure from conventional representations of women's lives, and of Judaism.  

Who is Jewish? Much of God Is Great deals with this question and resonates with my own personal experience of "conversion" to Conservative Judaism. "Converts" to Judaism frequently hear from "born Jews" (whose mothers were Jewish) that we are more Jewish than most "real Jews," and that we know more about Judaism than the average born Jew. (Is Michèle becoming too Jewish? Is her born-Jewish boyfriend François Jewish enough?) Although intended and received as welcoming affirmations, these statements also have the unintended flip-side effect of separating Jewish identity into two objective categories--"insiders" (born Jews, real Jews) and "outsiders" (convert Jews, not real Jews)--that obscure the uniqueness and diversity of every Jew's experience of being Jewish.

Seven years after my "official" conversion, and seventeen years after the beginning of my path "to become Jewish," one influence that stands out as very significant is my relationship with my mother-in-law. Ciesche (Celia) lovingly and unconditionally brought me "inside" a Jewish way of life. I learned first hand her lived experiences of generations of Jewish history, culture and tradition, and of anti-Semitism and her survival of the Holocaust. Following the Jewish biblical command "avahat ger, love the stranger" (welcome the convert with empathy), she wove my wanting to know "everything Jewish" into the fabric of our "mother-daughter" relationship--from her relocating my lost "place" in the siddur (prayer book) to our making kreplach (three-cornered pieces of dough filled with chopped meat) together--two balabostehs (affectionate Yiddish term for housewives) in both of our kitchens.

When my mother-in-law died, I was invited by my family and Ciesche's rabbi to deliver the eulogy at her funeral. Standing in front of her Jewish community, a thousand miles from my community, as I (her Louiseleh) spoke about Celia Lopman, I also claimed my Jewish identity to myself. This was an unanticipated moment of my embracing and being embraced by Judaism in the fullest sense of "feeling Jewish." Equally significant was the deep consolation that I received during the shiva (seven days of mourning). Although for years I had been saying the Kaddish (mourners' prayer) on Shabbat (day of rest), I had never said the mourner's Kaddish (said by the bereaved). Standing with my family, the rabbi, and the rest of the minyan (group of ten people, minimum number for saying prayers) in my in-laws' living room, I experienced this prayer for the first time. I felt humbled and exalted by the sound of our voices, by my own "reading" of each Hebrew word and by the spiritual wholeness of the prayer. Saying the Kaddish at Ciesche's yahrzeit (anniversary of her death) continues to comfort, console, and inspire me, as well as provide an opportunity for meaningful self-reflection. The theme of this year's reflection became: I am Jewish and I am, forever, becoming Jewish.

One "subtle and powerful nuance" that God Is Great reveals about Jewish identity is that born Jews and converts to Judaism become Jewish differently, to which I add, each Jewish person experiences Judaism differently. Lumping converts into one category does not necessarily help to understand our unique experiences. Although Michèle and I may have taken identical steps toward becoming Jewish, our subjective experience of those steps differed according to our particular standpoint. On the other hand, since some of my experiences were similar to hers, I am able to "put myself in her shoes" with empathy. To some extent, then, it may be unreasonable to expect born Jews to have empathy for convert Jews in this context.

If converts are to be "welcome" as full participants in Jewish communities, we cannot remain "strangers." There needs to be a shift toward "knowing the convert" whose new "visibility" will require a welcoming beyond the occasion of our conversion. Trusting and comfortable "mentoring" from born Jews (as I had with Ciesche) within the community, for example, could remove some of the "stumbling blocks" to new ways of knowing that would be mutually inclusive and mutually empathic.

This kind of discussion reflects my teaching rabbi's claim: "You cannot be Jewish in isolation." It also gives "permission" to converts to reveal that we have converted. For some Jewish converts, including myself, interests in Jewish religious and communal life and participation in the future of the Jewish landscape are closely connected to the Jewish communities' knowing the subjective experience of our conscious and deliberate choice for a Jewish life and what it is like for us to be Jewish. Opportunities for personal discussions that compare with others our unique experiences of being Jewish would enable us to learn what the experience is for some born Jews and also help validate our own experiences.

The choice to disclose the fact that we are converts is a significant departure from the long-held and respectful Jewish injunction to not distinguish or call attention to a convert's previous religious or non-religious affiliation. Yet it is a choice many converts embrace as a step toward eventual transcendence of the superficial insider/outsider boundaries and one that will pave the way to one day unequivocally welcoming the convert with empathy.

Michele's relationship with Franois, the fact that she attends an introductory Judaism course, reads Jewish texts, learns Hebrew, and fasts on Yom Kippur--these things do not "make Michèle Jewish." They could, however, accompany her to the threshold of her spiritual quest--"bring her to this day"--and meet her on the other side where her identity as Jewish is hers to claim, for herself. Maybe it is bashert (meant to be). The film ends on the twenty-fifth page (not page 25) that we see of a diary that continues . . .

*An excerpt of this article was written by the author for the opening-night film of the 14th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival and appears in the BJFF published collection of film essays.

 

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Plural form of the Yiddish word "krepl," dumplings filled with meat and usually cooked in soup. Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Louise Levesque Lopman

Louise Levesque Lopman, Ph.D. is a Sociologist and Resident Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. One of her research and scholarship interests is women's experience of "conversion" to Judaism.

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