Lag B’Omer is the day we resume the celebration of weddings, get haircuts, go to concerts.
Fifteen years ago, Lag B’Omer was the day I was finally allowed to come home.
It started with a phone call the week before. It was one of the worst phone calls I could ever imagine receiving. Later on, I would be told that I was fortunate to receive the news at all, that I found out then, and I wouldn’t have to wait many years only to discover it at the worst possible time.
The voice on the other end of the line belonged to a rebbetzin I respected and still do.
“I heard that Rabbi X, you told me he did your conversion in New York, anyway, the Rabbanut has taken Rabbi X off the list. His conversions are not considered kosher anymore.”
I felt a quick wave of shock, but then wondered why I was worried at all, even wondered why she was calling.
“Why should I be worried?” I responded. “I completed my conversion with Rabbi X in 20_ _. That was years ago. So it should be fine.”
There was silence. The rebbetzin took a long breath.
“It doesn’t work that way. The Rabbanut has decided none of Rabbi X’s past conversions are kosher either. You see, they can only judge him based on the past, not the future—”
“But why? What was their problem with him?”
“They said he did too many conversions..”
“So that makes them all bad?”
“They just said he did too many conversions,” she sniffed back her emotions. “Look, this is awful. I don’t understand how they come to their decisions. But you needed to know.”
What followed was a flurry of phone calls and in-person conversations that were about me but didn’t require my input. I felt like the subject of a Talmudic debate, the goring ox, perhaps, or that egg laid on Shabbat that the sages disagreed about what exactly to do with.
After a halachic debate was hashed out among several parties, a posek decided that, until a definitive decision was made by the Rabbanut, I should take my 9-month-old baby and live apart from my husband until it would be determined whether or not I was actually married. For a week, I lived with the rebbetzin who called me and was absolutely uncertain about what the outcome would be. Finally, after a week, on Lag B’Omer, I received the news that Rabbi X’s conversions would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and my conversion and a few others were approved. I was free to go home, and my status and my son’s status were unchanged.**
I was told that I was lucky to have such an outcome. Many converts are not as fortunate as I was.** An Orthodox rabbi whose conversions have been recognized for decades can be removed from the Rabbanut’s list, leaving scores of converts uncertain of their Jewish status. In addition, there are conversions that are revoked because the convert is no longer observant in a way that exactly resembles their earlier self at the time of the conversion. This not only has implications for the convert, but their children and grandchildren.
Few people discuss this problem or even realize it exists, in spite of occasional news stories on the topic of conversion canceling. The stories appear in newspapers, but may not hit home for many, because it is rarely if ever discussed by the people who go through it. After all, how many people would want to come forward and say that something like this happened to them or people in their families? Who would admit there was ever a question about their Jewish status, something that affects literally every facet of our lives in Israel, from friendships, marriage, schools, citizenship, shul membership and burial.
The initial idea for the play In a Stranger’s Grave came from the Greek tragedy Antigone. The protagonist, Antigone, is not allowed to bury her brother because of the religious and political objections of the king. While writing the play, I explored an important principle of Greek tragedy, catastrophe, in which every aspect of the protagonist’s life is turned upside down in a short space of time. Unfortunately, I understood how the canceling of a conversion can turn a family’s life in Israel entirely upside down in a tragically brief amount of time, and therefore, I chose this as the subject of the play.
I am pleased and grateful that Yael Valier of Theater and Theology chose to direct In a Stranger’s Grave at the Khan Theater. Those who see it will witness what many converts and their families in Israel experience, fear and never discuss.
Miriam Metzinger is the author of In a Stranger’s Grave appearing a the Khan theater in Jerusalem May 21, 22, June 4, 5, 11, 12, 13. For tickets, click here.
**This was true until two years later, when Rabbi X’s conversions were taken off the Rabbanut’s list entirely, even those like mine that had been initially validated. We had to do what is called a giyur lechumra, or a new semi-conversion. I added this in footnote form, rather than to the body of the article, to convey the sense that, for a ger or geyores in Israel, there is no end to the “article.” There can always be a footnote indicating a different outcome. The Rabbanut can always change its mind.