Your People, My People
by Lena Romanoff. JPS, 1990, $22.95
Lena Romanoff’s new guide to conversion makes personable politics out of the issues of conversion. Personable, in that its approach is anecdotal and friendly. Political, because rather than treating conversion as an isolated, individual decision, it focuses on creating communities and relationships that are helpful to converts.
In every chapter, the author’s underlying principle is respect for diversity. Romanoff makes suggestions to converts, their spouses and partners, rabbis and communities, that are aimed at an enlargement of the possibilities for choice and growth. She presents, without judgment, the frustration converts and their families encounter as they strive for mutual acceptance.
Guidelines for conversion from the major movements are included, but Romanoff carefully acknowledges that, “[the] important thing to remember is that each convert must seek his or her own Jewish identity through individual methods, not through the methods or opinions of others.”
Said one convert: “My New York Jewish family was elated when I agreed to convert, but I’m not sure they realized what would not happen: I did not lose my southern drawl; my eyes and hair are still light; I read Hebrew like an elementary school child; and just as I didn’t care for Chinese food before I converted, I still don’t care for Chinese food—Kosher or not.”
Romanoff notes the struggle with history and politics entailed in every conversion, as well as issues arising from a redefinition of personal identity within families and local communities.
One woman describes the pain of learning about the Holocaust: “I found myself crying not for those who perished in the ravages of the concentration camps but for myself—my past ignorance and lack of empathy.”
In a chapter devoted specifically to the “double jeopardy” of Black converts, Romanoff interviews both Black/white couples who have made their homes in largely white, Jewish communities, and those who chose to live in Black, non- Jewish communities.
In the chapter about gay and lesbian converts Romanoff’s consistently accepting stance falters. She makes a point of stating, twice, her own discomfort with gay and lesbian sexuality, which calls into question her inclusion of testimony from gays and lesbians who’ve reconciled sexual identity with a desire to live halachically by opting for celibacy.
Viewed in the best possible light, she is bravely using herself as an example of someone who, knowing her own limitations, has made the conscious effort to separate her distaste for homosexuality from her feelings about who is or is not a Jew. That could have been done, however, without the added affirmation of homophobia conferred by the author’s rather gratuitous inclusion of her own.