Harold Behr

The Conversion of Selwyn Seligman

The learned and pious ancestors of the Seligman family turned in their graves when the news filtered through to them that their youngest descendant, Shmuel Yochanan, better known as Selwyn Jeffrey, had chosen his prospective wife from among the ranks of the Gentiles.

In the secluded grounds of a select Johannesburg suburb, the Seligman house was shrouded in an oppressive gloom. Even the expressions on the huge faded portraits of old Mr Seligman’s parents appeared sadder than usual. Selwyn’s parents underwent a similar change in appearance, but being both alive and articulate, were able to express their sentiments more forcefully. When the news broke, Mrs Seligman took to her bed, as was her custom in the face of family crises, and immediately began conducting her campaign with a vigour which belied her feeble health. In a voice charged with emotion, she regaled him with lurid anecdotes of disastrous precedents. When this failed she spoke darkly of the consequences, working her way progressively through the possibilities of ostracism, alienation, insanity, suicide and eventually total destruction of the family. Selwyn’s vocabulary of Yiddish invective, already considerable, increased tenfold, but he had made up his mind on this crucial issue, and no amount of appeals, curses or threats could deter him.

The introduction of Barbara into the family circle, far from acting as a palliative measure as he had hoped, served only to aggravate the situation. Her charm and friendliness were interpreted as the wiles of a wanton hussy. Her beauty was compared to Delilah’s.

Gradually the forces of the opposition were increased. Relatives and friends of the family expressed sorrowful disapproval. Finally they invoked the aid of the Rabbi, a noted bleacher of black sheep. He insisted on having a long talk with Selwyn in camera , but the exchange was a dismal failure. Selwyn was not the argumentative type. He listened deferentially while the Rabbi rumbled through a couple of centuries of fatherly sayings, but it was the Rabbi who emerged from the encounter grim-faced and thoughtful. While the Rabbi consulted with the anxious parents Selwyn groomed himself for a lunch-date with Barbara.

When the inevitability of the situation dawned, the parents resigned themselves to their son’s marriage and their own premature death from fardrus. The only redeeming feature of the whole affair was that the girl was willing to be converted. Barbara applied herself assiduously to the task of becoming a member of the Jewish faith. She underwent a stiff course in Jewish studies, familiarised herself with Jewish ritual and attended synagogue regularly. In the end she acquitted herself so well that the Rabbi was tempted to make the same programme and test compulsory for all Jewish girls on the verge of matrimony.

They were quietly married, with only the close relatives present, and there was no reception. As the couple drove off Mrs Seligman sobbed against her husband’s shoulder. The bride’s mother was seen to cross herself.

The marriage was a happy one, but a slight difference in religious outlook soon became apparent. Barbara’s insistence on observing the minutiae of kashrut was mildly irksome to Selwyn, who had not been averse to the occasional buttered sausage roll or hamburger. But he soon became accustomed to the new regime, and it was not long before he developed a fluency in reciting the kiddush on Friday evenings which his more heathen friends could not help admiring. And as for the preparation of gefilte fish and gehakte herring, Barbara had proved that this was not an inherited but an acquired aptitude, and Selwyn had no complaints on that score.

Barbara, for her part, continued to attend the Rabbi’s Bible study groups. She was an avid reader of novels with Jewish themes and soon became something of a Zionist. She was puzzled and irritated by Selwyn’s apathy on such matters. She would often question him on some matter of Jewish interest, but he was so hopelessly ignorant that she always had to turn elsewhere for enlightenment.

One evening after supper, they were both absorbed, as usual, in their reading matter, she with ‘Contemporary Jewish Thought’, he with the evening newspaper. Suddenly she looked up. “Darling, what does the abbreviation Rambam stand for?” she asked sweetly. Selwyn looked up mutely from the soccer results. The question had never occurred to him, and he intimated as much by a non-committal shrug of the shoulders. Her reaction shocked him. “You call yourself a Jew!”, she said vehemently. “If you must know, I find your ignorance of Judaism positively disgusting! In shul you can’t even find the place in your siddur. Yes, don’t worry, I’ve watched you. You stand there with a vacant look on your face and then glance at the page number of the man next to you. And don’t think I haven’t noticed the way your eyes rove around the balcony during the sermon. You can’t speak Hebrew and you can only swear in Yiddish. You haven’t a clue about Jewish history except what you saw in ‘Exodus’. You’re a disgrace to the Jewish people!”

Selwyn was shaken. That night, for the first time since his bar mitzvah, he was moved to take active steps to improve his Jewish education. He scanned the shelf containing his wife’s modest collection of Judaica. Eventually, he plucked a book from its place and retired to bed with it.

Barbara had already dozed off when she became vaguely aware that her husband’s bedside lamp was burning longer than it had ever done before. Curious, she cocked open an eye and saw him frowning intently into the pages of a musty-looking book. She focused on the title. It was Maimonides’s ‘Guide for the Perplexed’. She smiled and went to sleep.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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