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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

A convert in times of crisis

We happened to be away from home the weekend of October 7th — in Orlando, at Disney of all places. My husband has some work there. We returned to Orlando this weekend for the first time since 10.7 and the condo and surroundings were suddenly live-wires of remembered trauma. I sat anxiously in the bed I was in when I got the text from my Mother-in-Law that they were in a shelter and were fine. I walked on the green-roof with my kids, which brought back to me Hamas’ initial declaration that they would publicly behead hostages until the siege was lifted. I starkly remember this moment perhaps most of all, as that was when the happy facade I’d put on for our children crumbled and I called my parents sobbing, crying over and over for what I described as “my people, my family, my friends.” A declarative statement I first made over fifteen years ago, when I chose to covert to Judaism. 

I’m an odd convert of sorts, in that I’m not overly observant, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more committed to the Jewish community. My entire academic career, professional identity and most of my personal life revolves around it. The significant thing, perhaps, is that my initial Jewish identity is one rooted in historical trauma. While I had long been obsessed (may be an understatement) with Jewish history, my desire to become Jewish did not coalesce until the summer of 2007 when I was in Poland. It was in this crucible of the death camps, where so many were killed simply because of a mantle of identity that they had not necessarily chosen to shoulder, that I was inspired to take that yoke upon myself. To put it mildly: I knew what I was getting into when I chose this. But the years have passed and the world has changed. As Israel, and lately more and more the Jews, face increased isolation on the world stage, the significance of this choice has changed with it. 

Times of crisis are ripe for reflection. It is easy to choose this identity when you’re standing under a chuppah, dancing at a wedding, walking a track at a summer camp in Muskoka with your kids, or eating your favourite Iraqi soup in the shuk. It is much harder to reckon with this choice when faced with devastating violence, antisemitism, dehumanization and fear. I have to admit, when I chose this life, I never imagined I would choose this. I have fallen so many times, shed so many tears, worried about my children’s future many hours into the night — a future, it never really occurred to me, might be in question. And from October 7th until sometime mid-December, I have to admit, I walked like a ghost through the world I had chosen.

I sometimes wonder if converts can inherit the generational trauma of the Jewish people. While I somehow doubt that epigenetic trauma-by-proxy exists, I personally feel like my actions and reactions in the past few months have been deeply informed by the traumatic nature of the Jewish history that I study. The Jewish story in the West has been marked by periods of subjugation, privation, and fear, with the violence reaching its zenith in the Holocaust. It is this last era that is my academic focus. Some of my friends and family attributed my inability to cope in October and November as a result of the fact that I was born outside of the community — I had never been “prepared” for it like they have. But I think it’s more than that.

As a historian, I cannot help but try to understand today through the past, how history has informed the present moment. I read the papers, I engage on social media, and I see stark similarities to the mid-1930s. I sometimes feel (inaccurately) like I’m experiencing some of what Jews in Germany did; that this need to make students understand the relevancy of that period to their lives today has taken over mine. In a recent class, I was parsing Hitler’s 1939 speech before the Reichstag, and I felt a cold swell of fear as I realized how much of the terminology he used to describe Jews in society, how he manipulated history to serve his political ends, how easily he could justify violence against us by arguing that we brought it on ourselves— these are all words we’re seeing variations of right now.

I feel a great fear for my children and guilt towards my parents; I know that their lives are suddenly much, much harder, with a daughter, son-in-law and three beautiful grandchildren under threat. While my father is firmly supportive of the State of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, he is particularly troubled by the scale of the war — both because he is a moral man and no one wants civilians dead — but also because it’s unleashed a wave of antisemitism abroad that he feels Israeli policy should be shaped by. His political opinions are becoming motivated by fear of what could happen to his own family should Israel continue to fight the existential war that they are now in. While we joke sometimes about how they’ll use their wine cellar to hide us should the need arise, the jokes are too veiled with real anxiety and sadness to be funny for long. The guilt is, at times, overwhelming. So too, sometimes, is the fear for my children. When I chose this for myself, I chose it for them. And now, they go to school surrounded by police, and sometimes my daughter asks me why people hate us so much. Maybe what I inherited was all of the trauma, and little of the resilience that was built alongside it. But no, that resilience is there too. In me, in all of us. In going to work every day, in sending our kids to school, in being visibly and proudly Jewish.

It’s made even perhaps more complicated by the knowledge that people like me are sometimes used as pawns in the internal Jewish wars. Conversion is a deeply felt and emotional issue in the Jewish world because at its heart is the question of authenticity and power: who has enough of it to welcome the non-Jew in. So that anxiety is furthered and heightened by the fact that in my care and love for Israel, I’m also aware that there are many in the Rabbinate or the government who would not even recognize me as Jewish. And what if we decide one day that circumstances here compel us to move to Israel? Would my need to flee North America because of my Judaism be complicated by not being considered Jewish ‘enough’ for Israel? To once again have a future in question, because the goal posts for acceptance seem to shift constantly with political and religious tides?

Ultimately, to be a convert in this time of extreme crisis is not an easy one. But it is perhaps more meaningful now than ever. To choose to be a member of the Tribe (which is an oxymoronic statement if I’ve ever heard one) is a commitment that some would question the sanity of at times. Why go from the dominant culture to a marginalized one? Why join a group for whom hatred is pervasive and evolving? Why become the ‘other’ that so many identities are coalesced against? And while I little look to the Bible for comfort or inspiration, I’ve never felt closer to its most famous convert, Ruth. It is she that I look to now. Perhaps choosing to be Jewish after October 7th is the ultimate expression of her commitment: I will go where you go. Your people, my people. Your God, my God. 

Yalla. 

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works as a Jewish history teacher. She writes about Jewish food history on Substack @bitesizedhistory and talks about Israeli history on Insta @afanjoysilver.
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