Louise Kehoe Converts: Why?

In 1939, at the pinnacle of an eminent career as an avant garde architect, Russian- born Berthold Lubetkin, not yet forty years old, stunned his peers by leaving his practice in London and moving with his wife to World’s End, a desolate farm in rural England.  

This move was only one more step away from the truth about his past, already buried beneath a shroud of lies meant to protect him from the curiosity of his own three children. Denied the barest facts of their father’s personal history, his children had no way of explaining his eccentric and volatile behavior: charm and wit mixed unpredictably with emotional and physical abuse. Loving him and hating him in shifting measure, they could never know him. Until after his death at the age of eighty-eight; when his youngest daughter, Louise, began slowly to discover the tragic truth he’d been hiding all his life—a truth that would become the heart of her own.

Having been born and raised in England, where church and state are inseparably intertwined and Christianity is taught in schools alongside the three Rs, I have to admit to being hopelessly biased against the term ‘conversion.’ To me, there’s a distinct whiff of evangelism about it, an odor of sin and salvation which makes me decidedly uneasy. As I see it, conversion is what people do when they want to reinvent themselves, to be born again (as though once weren’t enough) or to protect themselves against the threat of spending eternity being barbecued in the fires of Hell. Conversion is what happened to the Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who experienced a vision of Jesus and thereafter abruptly renounced Judaism, changed his name, and became Saint Paul, perhaps the most famous and influential anti-Semitic Jew of all time (with the possible exception of Karl Marx).

What happened when I became a Jew was not conversion. Yes, it was a religious and spiritual experience; yes, it was a crossroads in my life—a Rubicon, even, for there is no going back. And yes, I am passionate about Judaism, and full of fervent commitment, but if you’ll pardon my pedantry, I still doggedly maintain that conversion isn’t the right word to describe the process of becoming a Jew.

It’s not just a question of changing one’s religion. In my case, for example, I didn’t have a religious affiliation before I became Jewish. My parents were communists and militant atheists who shunned all manifestations of religion and mysticism, and taught me to do likewise— an attitude which got me into endless trouble at my solidly Protestant school. I well remember the awful occasion on which I was hauled out before the entire school, assembled in the auditorium, and made to apologize publicly for having referred to the Holy Ghost in the derisive way my father always did, as the Holy Goat. I regard it as no small miracle that I developed a sense of the divine at all, let alone that it survived the ideological browbeating to which I was subjected as a child. But survive it did, a timid and denomination less conviction that there was more to life than science alone could explain, and that human beings were not the alpha and the omega.

Having learned very early that this secret and faceless deity of mine paid no attention to my requests for material goodies, and obstinately ignored pleas for retribution to be visited swiftly and painfully upon my enemies, I came to expect very little from it other than silent companionship. As to what the deity expected of me, if anything, I could only guess. Christian teaching had it that Hell awaited the unsaved, and with my inherited tendency toward irreverence and skepticism, not to mention my formidable track record for blasphemy, I had little doubt that ‘the unsaved’ included me. However, pragmatic to the core, I put future damnation out of my mind and turned my attention firmly to the present, reasoning in my childish way that God didn’t sound like the sort to harbor grievances, and wouldn’t have any interest in roasting me later if I did what I could to make the world a bit better in the here and now. And another thing I knew, although I very wisely shut up about it: God was God, and Jesus was a man. You see, even then I was a Jew in my soul.

What I discovered only recently, though, was that Jewishness was in my blood as well.

“Happy families are all alike,” wrote Tolstoy, “but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My family’s way sprang from one rich, deep source: the inner anguish of my father, a man who strove diligently, and at enormous personal cost, to conceal his past and his true identity.

The story my parents told me was this: that my father, who was born in Tsarist Russia, had come to England in 1930 and settled there after completing his professional education in Europe, at the universities of Warsaw, Paris and Berlin. His family had all been killed in the Russian Revolution of 1917, my mother revealed. It was a subject too painful for him to talk about, she said, and I believed her. Indeed, I assumed that it was because of the enduring, bitter grief he felt about the fate of his family that he had become such an irascible and difficult man.

For he was a terrible father. Irritable, tyrannical, and capable of savage cruelty to those around him, he seemed to teeter permanently on the brink of rage. Never knowing when the next volcanic eruption might take place, I tiptoed around him and did my utmost to appease him, constantly trying to achieve perfection in whatever I did in order to be able to bring a fresh sacrifice to his feet. But nothing satisfied him: I could never be good enough to win more than fleeting praise, momentary acceptance. What made him behave this way? Even my mother seemed powerless to explain, offering me only the opaque and exasperating bromide that if I just knew him—really knew him, as she did— then I would understand. What she was alluding to, I later realized, was the secret of his hidden past, a secret to which only she was privy, and which, in her loyalty to him, she had sworn to uphold. She died without ever breathing a word of what she knew. It wasn’t until my father’s death five years ago that the truth finally emerged. He left documents which proved beyond doubt that he and his entire family were Jewish, and that his parents, far from having perished in the Russian Revolution, had fled to Poland in 1918, and were still living there when the Nazis invaded in 1939. Along with tens of thousands of other Jews, they were herded into the Warsaw Ghetto and deported from there to their deaths.

The discovery of my hidden Jewish ancestry had a profound effect on me. Forty years old at the time of my father’s death, I had arrived at middle age still dragging the baggage of my unhappy childhood, chafing and stumbling under its formidable weight. Now, suddenly, and for the first time, I could see my father the way my mother had always hoped I would: with a measure of compassion and understanding instead of anger and resentment; and it was in doing so that I was finally able to leave my childhood behind and move on, unencumbered.

But liberation from the past, however welcome and long overdue, was by no means the only or the most important aspect of the unexpected legacy which my father had left. The grandparents I had never known, whose murder had never been acknowledged or mourned in my family, cried out to me from the few pitiful photographs my father had deliberately left behind for his children to find. I felt a need that bordered on hunger to know these people, to connect with them, however belatedly. I began reading everything I could lay my hands on concerning Jewish history, culture, and tradition, both secular and religious. I saw that wherever human beings had struggled for progress and social justice, more often than not Jews had been the catalyst, and I saw how everywhere the Jewish people had been, in every age, hatred had followed them, from the New Testament to the Nuremberg Laws, from Martin Luther to Auschwitz.

The more I read, the more eager I became to know more. My burgeoning library of Judaica soon outgrew my office and began eating up shelf space in every other room in the house. It seemed to me that something was coming alive in me that had long been dormant and inaccessible, as though a part of me which had been lost for so long had now at last been restored to me. Like someone recovering from amnesia, I greeted each new nugget of unfolding Jewish knowledge with a curious sense of deja vu, recognizing not only my father in what I read, but myself as well. For the forces that had molded him and shaped his outlook were Jewish forces: the inherited wisdom and experience of centuries of Jewish life, suffering and survival had imprinted themselves upon him, and it was that same Jewish ethos, impervious to his attempts to stifle it, that had come down, through him, to me.

How could I have been so blind? I wondered, remembering the myriad small ways in which he gave clues as to his origins, how he would sometimes preface a remark with an impatient ‘Nu’, how he occasionally swore in Yiddish (he told me it was German). I remembered how he sometimes brought back from London beautiful, shiny loaves of braided bread, whose taste and texture were so different from the bland white pablum which passed for bread in England in those days. “It’s Polish bread,” he said; and why would I doubt his word? I couldn’t have known that it was challah, nor that in buying and eating it he was taking a furtive and lonely trip back to his buried past. Living as we did in the wilds of rural England, I had never met anyone Jewish to compare him with—and even if I had I would have concluded that these were Russian or European habits, not specifically Jewish ones: he had, after all, lived in many countries and spoke five languages fluently. Besides, my parents had categorically denied my father’s Jewish ancestry, and just to drive the message home they took the precaution of condemning Israel as a Zionist pawn of U.S. Imperialism, and castigated Judaism as an antiquated and pernicious philosophy. How well I recall my father telling me to be grateful that I hadn’t been born into a Jewish family, where menstruation was considered unclean and men began their morning prayers by thanking God for not making them female.

But Jewishness is one skeleton which deeply resents being shut in the closet; indeed, it’s a rare closet that can manage to contain a Jewish skeleton for more than one generation. And although my parents had locked and bolted the door, stuffed the keyhole with superglue and duct-taped all around the doorjamb, that skeleton would simply not resign itself to the darkness. My birthright had been stolen from me, and I was determined to win it back.

“The Gerim Institute offers a 24- week course in Jewish Life, Thought and Practice. Tuition includes the cost of books, and, in the event of conversion, mikveh, and token circumcision for male applicants. To enroll, complete this form, obtain the signature of your sponsoring rabbi, and return, together with check for tuition, to the Institute.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “Press hard: you are making four copies.”

I looked at the form. Name, address, telephone number; married or single, widowed or divorced; religion born into; current religious affiliation—and then, above an intimidatingly vast acreage of empty lines, the most important question of all: “Reason for considering conversion?”

What would I say? How would I explain my extraordinary journey, a journey which had begun in anti-Semitic Imperial Russia long before I was born, and had brought me all the way to the foot of Mount Sinai? I picked up the pen, and, pressing hard enough to make ten copies, let alone a paltry four, I wrote the simple truth; “With all my heart I want to be a Jew, and what’s more I think God agrees with me.”

When you immerse yourself in a mikveh, you must be as naked as the day you were born. Nothing must come between you and the water, not even a wedding ring.

In the twenty years my husband and I have been married, I have only once removed my wedding ring, and that was on the day I went to the mikveh to solemnize my acceptance into the Jewish family. I saw a shadow cross my husband’s face as he watched me struggling to remove this symbol of our unbreakable union, and I well understood why. He grew up in a devoutly Catholic family and had been educated at a school run by the Christian Brothers, a strict order given to instilling religious orthodoxy by means of sheer terror. Although not an atheist, he viewed all religions with profound skepticism, seeing them as more or less pernicious variants of the spiritual and intellectual straitjacket from which he had so strenuously fought free. Never having encountered Judaism before, he imagined that it was simply Christianity without Christ; just another set of dogmas and dire warnings, same hymn, different tune. It amazed him, just as it had amazed me when I first began my Jewish journey, how blissfully free of dogma, how disputatious and how intellectually demanding Judaism is. Like me, he was enthralled with the notion that one is commanded to wrestle with God, to acknowledge one’s doubts and work through them rather than feeling overwhelmed with guilt for one’s lack of faith. The humanness of it, the practical wisdom, the passionate moral foundation of Jewish teaching—these things drew him to Judaism as they had me. He began attending services with me from time to time in the small, egalitarian shul to which I now belong. He has not become Jewish himself (the brit milah is a formidable deterrent for an uncircumcised man in his late forties) and I, in keeping with Jewish tradition, absolutely refuse to proselytize. All that matters to me is to be able to share with him the enormous happiness that the discovery of my Jewishness has brought to me, and the delight I feel in being a part, however small, of the long, proud march of Jewish history.

No: conversion isn’t the right word. Converting implies change, and I didn’t change. I just became more fully what I had always been. And far from being angry with my father for denying me my Jewish birthright, I am actually profoundly grateful; for in doing so he inadvertently bequeathed me one of the greatest opportunities I could ever have hoped for: the enormous privilege of choosing, of my own free will and with all my heart, to become a Jew.