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The Holocaust-joke litmus test.
What exactly is Jewish conversion?
There’s one situation that comes up quite frequently that reminds me I am still not Jewish. And that’s Holocaust jokes. (Bear with me.)
I had not realized this before, but these are a major feature of Jewish humor. The first time I’d ever heard a Holocaust joke in my life was at a dinner with a group of Jewish friends right after I started dating Bar. The kitchen was closing and a member of the party stood up and said, “Last train to Bergen-Belsen, let’s order more tacos.” I almost choked.
I grew up in a family where the edgy religious humor was doing grace as, ‘rubbadubdub thanks for the grub, yay god.’ I suspect so did a good chunk of those who got very upset with Larry David in 2017 when he made concentration camp jokes on SNL.
So jokes about Bergen Belsen are the moments where I feel both extremely uncomfortable and extremely *not Jewish.* Do I laugh?? Why are they doing these jokes? Do I pretend to be deaf? I’m at the stage of things where I just watched “Schindler’s List” for the first time. I did this alone (bad idea). Then I called Bar, sobbing and said we have to have at least four children.
So why are Holocaust jokes relevant to conversion?
Because becoming Jewish is a cultural transition. It can’t be taught so much as lived. Similar to how after learning a foreign language in an American classroom, one shows up totally befuddled in that country, completely unable to tell or hear humor.
Becoming Jewish is not a decision like converting to Evangelical Christianity — for many Christian groups in America the question is basically: do you accept Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior? If you do — really do — then you’re in, you’re converted.
Some shuls have stopped even using the word conversion. It doesn’t capture the reality of what it means to go from goy to Jewish. Romemu in New York calls the process “naturalization.” The Kitchen calls it Jewish citizenship. One becomes a citizen of the Jewish world.
Brass tacks for the curious. Here’s how it works for a non-Orthodox conversion:
You find a shul and latch onto it. I quickly discovered a cluster of young, fascinating shuls that call themselves the Emergent Network — Ikar in LA, Romemu in New York, Sixth and I in DC, the Kitchen in SF. They are at the vanguard of a movement to make Judaism less stodgy and in many ways more traditionally Jewish, with hypnotic song and an organic unrestrained vibe (major Reform shuls can feel somewhat church-like). Bari says to use the word neo-Hasidic. Ok.
A caveat: These are usually explicitly left-wing spaces. (I sometimes get annoyed because service can be as much about Trump as Torah, which is a rant for another week.)
Really all the major shuls have 101 programs. Probably the best, most organized is Central Synagogue’s Center for Exploring Judaism in New York.
101 is intense! The classes go about a year, sometimes a little less, with weekly evening meetings (mine with The Kitchen, taught by a hilarious and brilliant rabbi, Tarlan Rabizadeh, were a couple hours every Thursday night). Students are expected to attend shul every week as well, also to meet one-on-one with the rabbi.
Almost all of the classes in non-Orthodox conversion world are based on a curriculum made by the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, if you want to go direct to the source.
Outside of class, I started to explore online resources. There are good FAQ type sites like My Jewish Learning. (I’ll add more here if people send me their favorites!) But the best place I found to learn outside of class was a little site called BimBam. I don’t know how BimBam came into existence, and I don’t want to ask.
Look how cute this is:
So you do the class. You meet with the Rabbi, who is supposed to turn you away three times to be sure you are a sincere convert. That didn’t happen literally with my meetings, but that concept has imbues the conversion process. (More later on this concept, the history of it, and my perpetual argument that the Jews need to evangelize.)
Then there is a beit din (a council of rabbis) where they ask you questions (haven’t done it yet). And last of all you dunk totally naked in a ritual bath called a mikvah.
Those born Jewish can sometimes be funny about conversion. Many have been taught not to ask someone when he or she converted or to ask much about the process, since it is considered rude. The concept is: Once someone is converted, asking about the process indicates questioning their Judaism.
A lot of my Jewish friends balked at conversion altogether, like, why? Why would you want to join a people who are historically (and present day in many places) disliked and so, so persecuted? Most of the Jewish people I run into will or have already married non-Jews and don’t plan on converting those partners.
And there’s the forever debate about race/ethnicity and Judaism. This is also awkward. An atheist, non-practicing Jewish boy in Brooklyn is still Jewish. Certainly Ashkenazi Jews share a common genetic blueprint, and there is among Jews sometimes a sense that ethnic heritage is an essential part of Judaism (I’ve thought about it as we’ve been thinking about a sperm donor…does it matter?). If Judaism’s an ethnicity, you can’t really…convert.
But when I asked a rabbi once, he responded very firmly, a little annoyed. First of all, Jews are already many races. There are Mizrahi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ethiopian Jews. In Israel, European-descended Ashkenazi Jews are a minority. Beyond that, why was I trying to impose my modern categories onto something ancient? Race is a modern construct. Religion as a menu of options to choose and largely separate from tribe — that is also a modern concept. Jews have been around before monotheism itself (they created it!).
Judaism is a peoplehood, he said. Jews are a people. They are a tribe with a shared history and culture, foods, language, beliefs and rituals.
And so with the notion of tribe, this brings us back to humor. Humor doesn’t have too much to do with religion or ritual, but it is very much a part of cultural fluency.
Over these years of becoming Jewish, I’ve been living more and more in Jewish community. I’ve been learning about Jewish trauma and coping, seeing how many dinners end with long conversations around family history and who survived, who didn’t. For the most articulate exploration of this, here are two brilliant essays, one on the healing power of Jewish humor and another on Jews joking about horrific things.
Fast forward two years later to this past Friday, an outdoor Shabbat, a very funny young man stood up and started a routine he called the Reichettes, like the Rockettes…but Nazis. There he was goose-stepping, jiggling and heil-ing. It was horrifying.
And I almost peed I laughed so hard.
As always, please do some tzedakah (giving, making of better world) this week. Maybe this week it’s not financial but interpersonal. A lot of people in my life have been reaching a new depth of loneliness at this point in the pandemic.
Judaism emphasizes community. You literally cannot do many Jewish rituals alone. And living close is key — a person keeping Shabbat cannot drive. Think of a friend who’s single or who’s especially isolated. Give them a call.
See you next week! Sorry this one came on a Friday instead of my goal of Thursday night posting. I’m in Miami reporting a story and…well…it’s gorgeous here.