Being Jewish is not about a piece of paper or even the ethno-religiosity of our mothers or fathers. It’s a choice we make every day.
In my nearly 57 years I have met two Gentiles who became Jews. I have no idea if they had ever “converted” and as far as I know, they lead non-observant lifestyles. They became Jews because something drew them to Israel, to Jewish women, to service in the IDF. One tragically lost his leg to a landmine in the Golan Heights. To me, their service in the defense of our one and only homeland, their knowledge of Hebrew and the use of it as a spoken everyday language makes them far more Jewish than any American Jew with a 100% Ashkenazi Jewish DNA according to some DNA testing service or any convert with a certificate from the most orthodox rabbi.
In my years on this earth, I have known many more Jews than just two who have chosen not to remain Jewish. Through intermarriage, through not caring, through simply doing nothing and defaulting to the default state of Gentleness.
Being Jewish is never the default choice, even when you are born a Jew. Being Jewish requires the act of affirmatively, positively choosing to be one every single day of our lives. This choice can be made through a commitment to a life in Israel, and through a commitment to a life of Torah study and religious observance, and simply through feeling one’s Jewish identity in ones very bones, in the very core of one’s being, never being able to imagine being anything else. If your primary self-identification is not as a Jew, you are right: you aren’t one.
I care nothing about “conversions”. These are usually, though not always, acts of deceit, of double-dealing, shameful acts of fraud perpetrated by both the person undergoing the conversion and the rabbi administering it. I do not mean to say that the people who choose to convert to Judaism are bad people or that they themselves are frauds, only that they are doing so to obtain a piece of paper, a certificate, to achieve a bureaucratic objective, be it becoming eligible for the Law of Return, or making sure that their children would be, or marrying a Jewish person in an orthodox ceremony, or any other such thing.
The fraud part comes from the idea that conversion to Judaism, that becoming Jewish, is a religious act. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I imagine that there are some converts, here and there, who, having converted, lead a religiously observant Jewish lifestyle. I am sure that they are a very small minority of all converts. Conversion, and I am talking about the “real” Orthodox one let alone all the others, is a fraud because the converts pretend to be religiously observant for the duration of the process by keeping a kosher kitchen and so on, but as soon as they get their coveted certificates, all that goes by the wayside. This is something that the rabbis doing the conversion know full-well. So the process is shameful, binding two good people in a conspiracy to defraud. But whom are they defrauding? God? Themselves? The Israeli immigration authorities? The rabbi who will officiate at the convert’s wedding? All of the above?
Life is not a matter of absolutes. Sometimes, things have to be done simply because not doing them causes more problems than doing them. Conversions fall into that category. They are necessary because without them we would have bigger problems. But they mean nothing for a person’s real Jewishness.
Throughout history, Jews have never laid a claim to genetic purity. Tamar, the matriarch of the tribe of Judah from whose womb came the House of David was a Canaanite woman who chose to tie her fate to “Jews”. Osnat, the mother of two of Israel’s largest tribes, Menashe and Ephraim and the wife of Jacob’s beloved Joseph, was an Egyptian woman, the daughter of a priest of the Egyptian god On.
Throughout the nearly two millennia in which there was no Jewish polity in our homeland, some Jews chose to relocate when being Jewish in the place they were living at the time became uncomfortable or deadly, and others chose to stay and stop being Jewish. Today, American Jews believe, mistakenly, that the American diaspora is different than any of its predecessors and that their American passports mean that they and their offspring will be able to stay American and Jewish simultaneously. “Nu shoin” (oh well), as my grandmother used to say in Yiddish when I, as a kid, said something that she knew to have been wrong, but saw no point in arguing.
Neither the American Constitution, nor the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, nor the Knesset, nor any other temporally-challenged bureaucratic institution can determine who is a Jew and where Jews can live as Jews. These things are determined by history and by people. By the individual choices that individuals, both Jewish and Gentile, make every single day. As Tamar had shown us, there is no force in the world that can stop a Gentile from tying his or her fate to the Jewish people, and as so many Jews, including, for example, the grandparents of John Kerry and Madeleine Albright had demonstrated, there is no force that can stop a Jew from becoming a Gentile.
Our Jewish road is a long and winding one. It is more often than not very challenging and difficult. It is also, by far, the most rewarding way of living fully as a human being. Some of us, like me, were given this gift, this burden, at birth and we must choose to accept it or reject it with every breath we take for as long as we live. Others, like my ex-Gentile friends, have sought out this path, or perhaps the path had sought them out. If there is anything eternal in this world, it is the Jewish people, our Land, and our Torah. Whether we choose to stay a part of that story, join it, or leave it, it will continue as it has for over three millennia, with or without us.