20 years a Jew: Installment 6 – Conversion and Jewish “Pedigree”

By Athena DeRasmo

I have it on good authority that once the conversion process is complete, that’s it! The convert is no longer a convert; they are a Jew. No discussion or question – being a convert needs no disclaimer. If only this were true. There will always be someone who thinks a particular convert is not Jewish enough, the right “kind” of Jew – or even Jewish at all!

Many factors can influence the perception of a convert’s pedigree. Intention: Was the conversion for marriage, or was it spiritual, or both? Why a person converts may be more important than how a person converts. Affiliation: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or other movement. Affiliation is a huge deal-breaker for some. Expression: Is the convert Shomer Shabbat, attending only the High Holidays, or are they mostly secular? While I was shul shopping in Maryland, congregants would often ask me, “where do you live?” I thought it a strange opening question, until I realized that they were trying to ascertain whether I drove or walked to shul. Then there is the question of Politics: Is the convert right- or left-leaning, are they supporters of Israel, are they ambivalent? Jews are rightfully attached to their political beliefs. But are politics a good yardstick by which to measure a convert?

When weighing the legitimacy of a conversion, what all these factors have in common is the notion that conversion to Judaism is not necessarily a done deal. Rather, it is contingent on varying ideas defining what is a Jew. In 1999, Hungarian Playwright George Tabori said, “Thirty years after Auschwitz the rabbis are still discussing in detail what a Jew is. Everyone knows it, except the Jews. […] I would not be a Jew if the Germans had not reminded me about it […] To be sure, the price for this conversion was too high.”

With the current rise of demonstrative racism and anti-Semitism; with the world-wide Jewish population still struggling to make a comeback from WW2, every Jew must be considered a precious member of the tribe. Degrees of Jewishness and disqualifying conditions erode the most important attribute of Judaism – the persistent belief in family, community, and service.

As someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family, moving from place to place, the idea of a cohesive community was nothing short of miraculous. As a convert, I continue to be ever amazed that Jews aspire to this goal. However; if we are all to participate in Jewish service for the greater good, there can be no exclusivity – all must be welcome – come as you are.

Installment 1 – “The Decision To Convert – Simple, Right?”

Installment 2 – “Why Judaism? What Made It Special (To Me)?”

Installment 3 – “What’s An Orphan To Do?”

Installment 4 – “Balancing Secular and Sacred” 

Installment 5 – “Modest* Fashion and the Modern Woman”

Installment 6 – “Conversion and Jewish “Pedigree””

Installment 7 – “And Then There Was Israel…”