Developing a Relationship With Israel and the Holocaust

Conversion transforms formerly neutral territory into emotionally fraught real estate.

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Excerpted with permission from Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (Schocken Books).

A holocaust is a great fire, a conflagration that consumes. When you become a Jew, this word can no longer be generic. It becomes a proper noun that describes one singular event: the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews and two million other human beings. In converting to Judaism, you make the Holocaust your own personal nightmare. One woman who was studying for conversion told her discussion group that she had been having terrible dreams about Nazis pursuing her.

Being a Jew Means Vulnerability to Danger

"What right do I have to subject any children I might have to that kind of danger?" she asked.

The Talmud asked a similar question hundreds of years ago, "What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte? Do you not know that the Jews at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed, and overcome by afflictions?" Becoming a Jew means voluntarily putting yourself--and your children--on the short end of a very long and dangerous stick.

Although institutional, legal, and cultural anti-Semitism has diminished to a remarkable extent in America, prejudice against Jews is not a disease against which the world has been inoculated. Every year, swastikas are painted on synagogue doors, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated, and revisionist historians publish claims that the Nazi Holocaust was a story invented by Jews to reap the sympathy of the world. Jewish children are still asked by their playmates why they killed Christ, and jokes about greedy, selfish, and sexually repressed Jewish-American Princesses still make the rounds.

As a Jew-by-choice, you become vulnerable to a form of bigotry to which you were previously immune. You are also likely to become even more sensitive to all forms of prejudice and discrimination. It is no accident that Jews are statistically overrepresented in social action organizations since Judaism demands tzedek--justice--for all people.

But anti-Semitism has not only consigned Jews to flames.

It has been a refining fire as well. A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, "Brandeis, you're brilliant. If you weren't a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don't you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved."

Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, "I am sorry I was born a Jew." His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. "I'm sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own."

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.