Living A Jewish Life, Officially or Not

A beautiful and surprising guest essay.

As I’ve been thinking a lot about race and Judaism, tribe and belonging, the need for boundaries and tradition but also expansion, thinking about how Judaism defies racial categories and also about the notion of Living Jewishly without necessarily Being Jewish, I got a really interesting email.

It’s from a carpenter and graphic designer in Nigeria named Ebuka Igbokwe. He wrote:

A friend of mine who subscribed to Chosen by Choice recently told me about your blog. She's known me for years as a Jew and suggested that I write about my conversion experience and submit to your blog for publication. However, there's an itsy-bitsy bit of detail that is important to note. I'm not really Jewish, in a strictly halachic sense. My parents stopped being Christian when I was 6, and for the rest of my 33 year old life, I've lived a Jewish life in Nigeria. That's a gray area that's hard to categorize, but I decided to to write about it anyway.

I of course wanted to read more. And learning about him introduced me to fascinating stories of different groups around the globe who engage in Jewish practice. Now, this is all fraught, and there’s complexity and debate around who is Jewish, and there are respectful and disrespectful ways this is talked about. My general take is that the world would be better if more people lived more Jewishly.

Some of the strictest voices would say that even after I dunk in the mikvah, even after a million Chosen By Choice essays, that I’m not Jewish. That’s ok. I used to balk at any rule that wasn’t flexible. Now that I’ve seen total flexibility, I’m more understanding of those who want to hold their lines and hold them hard.

(Talk to your local Rabbi for better analysis on this.)

Anyway, I like this essay about a community in Nigeria devoted to living a Jewish life in part because it’s amazing how hard Ebuka and his parents fought to find and learn Jewish texts. It’s inspiring. He will be posting more of his essays here.

This is what he wrote me, edited mostly just to shorten it a bit:

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It's hard to tell where my parents’ conversion story ends and mine begins. Our first Shabbat gatherings of two or three families were held under a thatched shed in a clearing in an undeveloped area in the outskirts of the city of Enugu, a veritable sukkah in the wilderness. We were led in services by a man who became cantor on the strength of his possessing the only copy of a siddur — at least a few photocopied pages of it stapled together. Our prayers were the recitation of Ashre (Psalm 145), Vehu Rahum (a two-verse preparatory prayer) said 100 times, the count kept on prayer beads. The rest of the prayers were improvised.

We would go on from here to Shabbat services in empty classrooms in public schools vacated during the weekends, and the homes of one of our members. In time, and in ways more miraculous than not, we gradually became furnished with siddurim and other sacred books and items. My father acquired his first siddur when I was eight, and I can remember my initial encounter with the Artscroll siddur, with its distinctive italicized English and block Hebrew text beautifully laid out in facing pages. Before this, the bulk of our prayers were general and personal supplications made up on the spot, which I never developed the quick wit necessary to articulate beyond a few minutes. The eloquent and structured prayers set in elegant style and inspired imagery thrilled and spelled me.

Festivals, especially week-long Pesach and Sukkot, were pilgrimage seasons. Members of our small but growing and far-flung convert communities would travel from different towns and cities across the country to convene and camp in a single location (a boarding school during school breaks, an empty warehouse, a struggling resort), for the first three days of the holiday. At some point, we had in the role of overall spiritual leader, a man who had a Rabbi as a friend and what might have been the only copy of the Kitsur Shulhan Arukh in the whole wide community. From this he read sections, between the Minha and Ar'vit (afternoon and evening prayers) for the duration of the camping, in a small rendition of Matan Torah.

My father charged me to pay careful attention through these sessions, as he relied on my memory to carry back halachic knowledge when we returned. Between what my father remembered and what I heard and the recordings of other members of our local community, we enriched our arsenal of mitsvot to perform. Who can forget the feeling of filth leaving and holiness resting on their fingers after their first Netilat Yadayim?

The Pirke Avot identifies four student types: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. Certain environments foster the development of one type at the expense of others. When learning opportunities are few, a sponge-like attitude seems more rewarding. This tendency to soak up learning indiscriminately in response to gaps in knowledge results in a wild and variegated bouquet of information and manifests in practice in interesting ways. Case in point: our pre-Jewish knowledge of leavening in respect to Pesach implicated leavening agents (such as baking powder and yeast) and the leavening and fermentation process itself. Adding to this the Jewish concept of hametz (barley, oats, rye, spelt, and wheat and their derivatives) and kitniyot (basically the bulk of our food staples) forbidden during Pesach, we adopted a brutal dietary restriction that saw us eating only yams, potatoes, and plantains for a week. And these must be eaten timely enough to avoid the natural fermentation of the boiled carbs. Lechem oni does not get any poorer. 

And your sources! From all my teachers I grew wise, says David. But such weird members of faculty! You learned from the pages of a novel with a Jewish setting. You learned from a general-interest book on Hassidim found in a thrift store. You learned from a person who read a certain book (relying on their memory and understanding). You learned from a rabbi who adopted your community for a while, and you learned from a Jew who briefly stopped over. You learn much from a lot of places but you also learn much incorrectly. However, in this learning process, you develop a cross-referencing system for detecting errors and an adaptive mechanism for easy correction. In the things you learn, there may be some that shake your foundations and cause your paradigms to shift. Such as learning that under halacha our status is not considered fully Jewish. Conversion entails the witness and affirmation of three judges, typically rabbis versed in the conversion process, where the convert pledges to uphold the covenant and be bound by the commandments; circumcision; and immersion.

For individuals who have taken our conversion as fait accompli, this can be upsetting. Certainly, the problem isn’t circumcision; our males are circumcised on the eighth day from birth, just as tradition, Igbo and Jewish, demands. And this among other cultural similarities convinced us of a shared history with Jews, such that we considered our conversion more like a return than a first arrival to Judaism. Does this revelation imply that we have been toy Jews all along, playing at keeping the mitsvot, observing without a mandate? Has all our dedication, zeal, sacrifice, and ardent passion in pursuing the Jewish ideal amounted to nothing more than miming gestures? 

While this question of status poses enduring and important questions, a more prominent issue is that life must go on, and one must live his life after all, according to some order, in some fashion. My friend asked me on the topic: all these considered, what will you give your children? Here, I believe, is the nub. 

Not a basketful of doubts, that's for sure. Not an empty basket, either.