David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world
Featured Post

It blew the pacifier right out of my mouth

Ten-month-old Tali has an unpleasant surprise in store for her
We need to act before Tali decides to pack up and leave
We need to act before Tali decides to pack up and leave

10-month old Tali protests the limitations of the new conversion law

Me it doesn’t help, this new conversion law. I’m only 10 months old and maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about getting married yet, but I heard my grandparents talking about the whole thing over Shabbat lunch the other day and it was like a blow to the belly that blew the pacifier right out of my mouth.

“They still won’t recognize Tali as being Jewish, you know,” grandpa said, giving me a big hug. “Twenty or 30 years from now she’ll have the same problem her mother did unless something big changes.” He tried putting the pacifier back where it belonged, but I was in no mood to be pacified and spit it out, scrunching up my face and starting to make little crying noises. I didn’t understand exactly what they were talking about but somehow I was suddenly feeling very vulnerable.

Me not Jewish? Nothing in my entire 300-day long life could have prepared me for this. My earliest memory, in fact, is of the wonderful synagogue celebration during which I was named. I felt so proud as both my parents, beaming, were called up to the Torah, me in their arms. “May God Who blessed our mothers Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah bless this beautiful little girl and let her be called Talya in the House of Israel. May she be raised in health and tranquility and, as she has entered into the covenant, may she enter into a life of Torah and good deeds and, one day, to stand under the chupah,” intoned the rabbi, reciting the very first words I can recall hearing. Covenant. Torah. Chupah. And now, out of the blue, my entire world had been turned upside down. Health I still have but the tranquility has disappeared, and I’m not even a year old yet. I kept listening, hoping for some sort of explanation.

“Doesn’t the State of Israel recognize Valerie’s conversion,” asked one of the guests, apparently referring to my mom, though this was news to me as no one had ever mentioned it before.

“The State, yes, but not the Chief Rabbinate,” grandpa explained. “A Conservative conversion isn’t recognized by the religious establishment, so as far as it is concerned, Tali’s not Jewish, which means she won’t be able to get married here in a state-recognized ceremony either.”

My tiny heart was beating faster and faster. As the conversation continued things started becoming clearer, but what I was learning didn’t make me feel any better, only angrier. It turns out that my grandma on my mom’s side isn’t Jewish at all, only my grandpa. They came to Israel from some place called Russia when mom was just a little girl, but though she went to a regular Israeli school, served in the Israeli army, celebrated all the Jewish holidays, and felt Jewish, she wasn’t registered anywhere as being Jewish. It made me sad to hear that she had spent the first 12 years of her life hiding the fact that she was Jewish from her friends in Moscow and the next 12 years hiding from her new friends in Israel that she wasn’t. As a teenager, she’d been ready to have an Orthodox conversion, but they wouldn’t have anything to do with her because she wouldn’t promise to conform to their lifestyle. The Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel opened its doors wide.

So, while the new regulation governing conversion that the Government passed last week will allow more Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions for those who want them, it’s not going to help me or mom, or anyone else who has already had a Reform or Conservative conversion, or who wants to have one in the future.

“In some ways, it might even make the recognition we are looking for more difficult,” grandpa said. “I’m glad for those for whom this is an answer,” he explained, “but by relieving the pressure to find a solution for the 300,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to halacha, it’s likely to make our fight for the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism even tougher.”

I started flailing my little legs in protest. This isn’t the kind of Jewish state I want to be growing up in, and it isn’t the kind of Jewish state the vast majority of Jews in the Diaspora can identify with, not to mention the growing segment of Israelis who understand that there is more than one way of being Jewish, and that there also needs to be more than one way of becoming Jewish.

“Why is she squirming so?” grandma asked, trying to calm me down, but I refused to be soothed. This was all so maddening. And not yet having the ability to articulate my frustration only makes it worse. Until I do, I need you to be my voice. Please. Tell MK Elazar Stern that I really appreciate his initiative and the intention behind it, but that it doesn’t go nearly far enough in terms of making this country home to the entire Jewish people that it was always meant to be. Until that happens, I intend to keep kicking and screaming, while refusing to accept any pacifier meant merely to shut me up without addressing the reason I’m crying in the first place.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts