Ruth, the First Convert – In Today’s Israel She Would Never Have Been Accepted As A Jew

Numerous times I have been asked to recount my personal story and I can’t understand why. My story is by no means unique, but any time I am with a group of Jews whether at a Shabbat meal, an Hadassah gathering, or the synagogue where I converted, I am asked to relate my Jewish Journey. At such gatherings I try to stay quiet. I try not to be noticed, but inevitably it happens and the questions come. I was even asked once to be filmed before a program called “Interesting Lives”. I politely demurred.

Without fail, when I am among those raised Jewish who have had the honor and privilege of growing up in a Jewish home, knowing who and what they are, with histories and stories to tell, here I am the “Jew by Choice”, and they want to know. They are genuinely interested and the questions come. Of course most of the time I try to deflect the conversation or politely refuse. I am not ready and am slightly embarrassed. I don’t like to speak about myself and to me my life does not seem all that interesting partly because I am still living this journey and partly because I have not yet reached my Aliyah goal. I am still bumbling through this morass of religio-political government bureaucracy that is Israel.

I did not lose a grandparent at Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. I did not lose anyone in the Holocaust that I am aware of. I grew up in a Catholic home living an ordinary life in the Midwest, or so I thought. Something was always a little off especially with regard to our Calabrian grandfather who never attended Mass or spoke a word of English. My cousin JoAnn and I thought perhaps he was Italian Mafia and we would laugh at the thought. This was before the movie “The Godfather”, but even in those days if you were Italian, you knew what the Mafia was.  After all there are people with our grandfather’s last name, almost assuredly relatives, living in both Calabria and Sicily.

The Italian language resonated in my ears as a young child, especially when I was being scolded for stealthily removing his snuff can from his back pocket and helping myself to “a pinch”. I don’t know which was worse, swallowing the juice which burned my throat and made me sick, or being scolded in Italian with lots of hand and arm gestures. But I loved this man dearly and wanted to do everything he did, so if he chewed snuff, by golly so would I.

Shavuot is this week where we Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and  we read the book of Ruth, the Grandmother of King David and the first “Jew by Choice”.

During the time when the Judges ruled there was a famine in the land of Israel. Avimelech of the Tribe of Yehuda and his wife Naomi left their home and traveled to Moab with their two sons. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Yehuda. Avimelech and the two sons subsequently die, leaving the two daughters-in-law and Naomi widows. Naomi decides to return to Israel after the famine is over taking her daughters-in-law with her. After entreating the two girls to return home to their families, one decides to return to Moab, but the other daughter-in-law Ruth decides to stay with Naomi, taking her G-d as her own and pledging herself to her mother-in-law and this new G-d. They return during harvest season and Ruth subsequently marries Boaz a wealthy land owner and distant relative of Naomi, thus Ruth becomes our first convert.

Today in Israel, Ruth the grandmother of King David would be hard pressed to have her conversion accepted. Those were pre-Temple times and becoming a Jew and being accepted as such in Israel was much easier. Today there are many factors which influence which conversion is accepted and which is not. These are accompanied by many pitfalls, trials and frustrations along the way which test your sincerity and obstinacy. It can take months, sometimes years if you want to make Aliyah and return home to Israel. I must say that there is good reason for this in many cases, so on the one hand I don’t blame them, but on the other for the truly sincere without proper guidance it is very difficult at best, if not impossible for some. Many sadly give up. It is not for the faint-hearted.

There is a Yiddish term called “Pintele Yid”, which means “Little Jewish Spark”. I love this term and it seems to resonate within me and helps me understand who I am why I have given up everything to return to what my ancestors once were and to live in Israel. To most, what I have done seems in the light of rational thinking, “mishigas”, another Yiddish term meaning “craziness”, but I cannot help myself. People will inevitably say to me, “but you had a choice” and I answer “no I did not!” That I believe is “Pintele Yid”.

As it turns out, my Calabrian grandfather was not Mafia, but he did leave me with something priceless, a legacy, an inheritance that extends to the land of Israel, all the way back to our forefathers and foremothers, Abraham and Sarah, all the way back to that first Shavuot at Mt. Sinai and our covenant with our Creator. My grandfather was a “secret Jew”. Even in America he was hiding this fact. By blood, I am Bat Anusim, a descendant of Morranos, Conversos, or “forced ones”. I am descended from Sephardic Jews going back 500 years to the Spanish Inquisition.

That little Jewish Spark was smoldering within my soul from birth and because of a short video put out by Rabbi Barbara Aiello called “The Secret Jews of Calabria”, and subsequently sent to me by a dear Israeli friend who smelled the smoke of burning embers, I discovered my grandfather’s secret.  The spark, my Pintele Yid exploded into a flame. I have converted to Judaism and am in the long process of trying to make Aliyah as a convert.

Although Jewish blood flows through my veins, I had to convert in order to be accepted as a Jew and make Aliyah. I want to come home to Israel and be accepted for who and what I am. Even though I am a Jew by blood, I had also to become one by halakha (Jewish Law). I have come full circle. After 500 years I am returning to what we once were. Did I have a choice? No, not in my mind. I have come home to the one true G-d, the Torah and have reunited with my people.

Because of our sins we were scattered from one end of the globe to the other. I tend to believe that somehow we all stood at the base of Mt. Sinai, every Jewish soul. When we were scattered, many of us down through the generations did not know who or what we were, but HaShem knew and placed that Pintele Yid within our souls to act as a magnet, a flame that can never be extinguished – the flame that would one day draw us back to Him, back to the Torah, and back to our land, Israel.

The Tanach prophesies the “Ingathering of the Exiles”. In Isaiah HaShem promises this ingathering and our redemption:

“But now, thus says the Lord, your creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you O Israel, do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine!….Do not fear for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, give them up! And to the south, do not hold them back. Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth…Even from eternity I am He; And there is none who can deliver out of my hand; I act and who can reverse it?” (Isaiah 43)

At Sinai we were given the Torah, wed to our Creator and King, promised a land and I believe given a Jewish Spark, a Pintele Yid waiting to burst into flame when its time has come. I believe that time is now because all over the world, sparks are igniting, bursting into flame that will cause the greatest Ingathering of Exiles back to our land back to the Torah and back to our Creator that the world has ever witnessed. Baruch HaShem!


About the Author
Devorah Tikvah Besand is retired, formerly from the Big Island of Hawaii. She has a degree in Biological Science and double minors in both History and Literature.
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