Conversions by Stephanie Barbé Hammer

convert = 1a: to bring over from one belief, view, or party to another b: to bring about a religious conversion in 2a: to alter the physical or chemical nature or properties of especially in manufacturing b(1): to change from one form or function to another (2): to alter for more effective utilization (3): to appropriate without right c: to exchange for an equivalent <convert foreign currency into dollars> <convert a bond>

#1:  Michael, row the boat ashore

The girl is eight. She is white. She is Christian. She lives in Manhattan. East Side. It is 1962. Her babysitter – a white lady from the South someplace – is in love with Israel. She is an ostensible Christian too, but she loves her Jewish Doctor.  She will go to Israel with the doctor someday she says.  Israel is the real Promised Land. The two sit in Chock Full O’ Nuts which has swivel stools and neatly cut brownies and paper cups, and it’s not fancy but it’s clean.
Israel is where the Bible happens.  It’s the Jesus place.

Promised Land = brownies = stories = secrets about doctors = love = happiness.

During this same time, the girl learns swimming in an indoor swimming pool.  She rows a boat in Central Park.
During this same time, the girl goes to Sunday school at a Presbyterian church in a fancy but uncomfortable party dress with a petticoat that pricks her skin. Why does Jesus die? “The Lord is my shepherd” is a poem. The stories don’t make sense but the poems do. “If I forget you oh Jerusalem.” And then that scary ending.
During this same time, something happens.  One night the girl wakes up in the middle of the night and hears angels.
The girl tells the babysitter.
“Of course you heard them,” says the babysitter.
The girl tells her mother. The mother’s face gets hard and immobile. The mother does not like God-talk.
So the girl does her tell to the babysitter instead at Chock full o’ Nuts, and at the playground, and on the bus around town about God and angels, and the Jews, and Israel, and how they—the speaker and the babysitter (and the handsome Jewish doctor)—are all going to go there, and they will have happy adventures on camels, harvest crops on farms, and see angels maybe or not. And the brownies will rain down like manna from Heaven.
The girl imagines and speaks these stories, and the babysitter says her own tales back to her.

Gospel = Old English gōdspel = good + tale.  A positive narrative incantation.

This is the beginning of wanting to write. The girl writes a poem and shows it to the babysitter. She likes it.

#2:   The Jews

The babysitter is fired. The mother gets the father to fire her because the babysitter says the girl’s life is too regimented. Too structured around achievements: grades and musical instruments and the display of various talents. How dare a servant assert a point of view.
The girl forgets about Israel. But she knows a lot of Jewish people. Most of the girls at her private school are Jewish. Both the parents have Jewish bosses.
She sees a production of The Diary of Anne Frank at her school.  Older girls she knows play these grown up characters in a play that is scary and sad.  A siren goes off.  Everyone dies, except the father.
She comes home in her uncomfortable blue uniform (a dress—pants are forbidden at her school) and asks her mother, “Did that story really happen?”
“Yes,” says the mother. The girl stands in the yellow kitchen. She feels numb except for her feet, wiggling in uncomfortable regulation blue shoes.

#3: Confirming

It’s 1967 and the girl is thirteen. She prepares for confirmation in the Episcopalian Church on Madison Avenue. She doesn’t have any friends there. The girl’s father has moved churches a year earlier because her other Sunday school bussed the white kids up to Harlem. She doesn’t remember this part clearly. But the father insisted they change and they do.
The confirmation class teacher at the Episcopalian Church is young and enthusiastic. He asks questions, he wants to know what the students actually think.

He is the girl’s first intellectual.
He asks a surprising question: “Does Jesus matter to you?”
No one wants to answer. There are old wooden desks and the chairs creak.
The girl raises her hand.
“No,” she says. “God matters to me, but Jesus doesn’t.”
The teacher nods.
He leaves the fancy church less than one year later.
Interim – religious questions cease to matter.  The father has a mistress. The girl knows.  The mother knows.  The father loses his job.  The mother moves from part time to full time work.  It’s a matter of survival at home.  And getting out.   The Exodus.

#4: a book

Senior year of college (1976) a Greek classmate gives the girl a copy of Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. The girl reads it and realizes: Jesus = Jew.
Like the girl’s plethora of boyfriends, guy-buddies, and lovers. The exotic last names: Lazar, Minsker, Epstein, Klinkowitz, Rosenberg. And finally, Cohen. The girl understands that the paintings of Jesus are all probably wrong. Jesus has black curly hair, brown eyes, an elegant, large nose, and is decidedly Middle-Eastern-looking.

#5: She who Observes

It is 1983. The girl’s Jewish fiancé buys a co-op apartment in the East Village with the money he makes as a lawyer. The apartment is far from the parents, who do not like the subway.  The apartment is a loft with green walls and structural pillars inside the closets. The girl is quasi-unemployed. She wants to become a professor but there are few jobs. So she teaches two courses at SUNY Stony Brook. Writes scholarship on the literature of the 18th Century for publication; writes poetry in secret. Writing is hard. There are so few chances to get anywhere with anything. There is a sense of hopelessness about her personal future.
Then, the fiancé’s youngest sister comes to visit from Israel.
The girl likes the fiancé’s youngest sister, although the fiancée and the rest of his family say she’s difficult and even weird. The sister is spiritual, loves to read, is into organic food, and is kind of a hippie. The girl gets tickets to concerts and shows for this visit. She feels excited.
But the fiancé is quiet.
“My sister is changed,” he says. “She has become orthodox.”

Orthodox = from Greek orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + doxa (“opinion” or “belief”, related to dokein, “to think”

“They call it ‘frum,’” he explains.
“Like German!” the girl says.

Frum = from the German fromm, meaning “devout” or “pious,” is a Yiddish word meaning committed to be observant of the 613 Mitzvot, or Jewish commandments, specifically of Orthodox Judaism.
The frum sister arrives in the East Village apartment. She no longer wears pants. And although it is a humid, sticky New York summer, she wears a shirt with long sleeves.
“Modesty,” she explains. The girl thinks of the Pilgrims and the Quakers.
The sister goes to the theater events unwillingly. Sits at Mostly Mozart, with her fingers to her forehead.
“I’m not supposed to go out,” she says. “But I want to honor my brother.” She mentions the “days of awe.”
The girl does not understand.
“For God’s sake,” she says to the almost husband.  We have tickets to Wendy Wasserstein, and what can be more Jewish than that?”
“Maybe she’ll get over it,” the girl’s mother suggests.
She doesn’t.
“At least she’s not a Scientologist or a Jew for Jesus,” the husband says.

#6: what is in a name

The girl gets a job at a university and she and the husband move to Southern California.  The girl’s mother-in-law starts studying Bible in Los Angeles, or as she calls it, Torah. The girl goes with her to an orthodox shul (like German for school) to study with an orthodox rabbi.  The girl and the mother in law have to wear dresses (just like the old days). The class is all women and they all sit quietly, while the rabbi, who wears all black, declaims about people who sound vaguely familiar to the girl.
This all looks like the private school – only Jewish.
“Yaakov steals the blessing from Esav,” the rabbi says.
The girl thinks, “I know this story. But the names…are…strange.”
The rabbi continues talking while the women sit.
That’s when the girl gets it: The biblical names have been translated. Anglicized.
The girl will always remember that names have a history and a language.
But no one talks in class.
Except for the mother-in-law.
“Just a second, Rabbi,” interrupts the mother-in-law. “I mean—this Yaakov—he’s TERRIBLE. What the heck is he doing stealing his brother’s blessing?”
The rabbi stutters. He does not have an answer.

#7: choosing first person

The girl converts to Judaism because: there is always a lot of great food to eat in the mother-in-law’s house; the girl wants to resolidify her commitment to her husband; the girl’s seven-year-old daughter fights with another girl at her school who says that the daughter isn’t Jewish because the mother isn’t; the girl feels bad about the Holocaust; you can and are actually supposed to wear comfortable clothes on Passover (pants); the girl feels admiration for the mother-in-law, and the girl feels the need, the wish, to write like Gertrude Stein, and Marge Piercy, and Gertrud Kolmar, and Rahel Varnhagen, and Dorothea Schlegel (nee Mendelsohn), and Helene Cixous, and Anne Frank, and Aimee Bender, and—yes—Wendy Wasserstein.

Jewish Women Writers = the closest truth.

The girl who wrote the poem converts in order to give birth to the “I.” This “I” writes, acts, and speaks in solidarity with tough broads stretching back from Barbara Boxer to Emma Goldman all the way to Devorah—the only named female tribal chief of the Ancient Hebrews.
The girl walks over to the rabbi, but when he hands her the Torah, it is I who reaches over to take it.
I write and publish a poem called “Torah Bones” that describes this moment: embracing the scroll in no way resembles holding the codex; the huge bundle of biblical writing feels like a baby, not like a book.
I choose Devorah (Deborah) as my Hebrew name. Said to have been a precursor to Joan of Arc, Devorah may have ridden—according to certain sources—into battle wearing a breastplate and carrying a sword.
The name is also connected to the Hebrew “Dabar”—which means “speech or word.”

#7: So now what?

My orthodox sister-in-law is present at this ceremony of conversion.
We—my husband, my daughter, my mother-in-law, father-in-law, and my sister-in-law—go out for lunch afterwards in Los Angeles. Kosher restaurant. Run by Steven Spielberg’s mother.

#8 I love her, but…

I love my sister-in-law. Despite. Orthodoxy.
She can’t show her hair in public. She can’t eat a cheeseburger or eat in most restaurants. She can’t go up on the bima (temple stage). She can’t sing in front of men. And the girls can’t be rabbis. And can’t form a minyan—the core group of ten needed to conduct a religious service. And don’t often apply to the good colleges they have every right to get into and attend. And can’t even think about being gay. Or having kids that are.
The can nots =  hard for me.  They remind me of my parents, and of the school I went to and of the East Side, and of everything I’ve sought to escape from.

#9: A Failure

The memory that breaches the love affair with Jewishness = this.
It is now either 1997 or 1998, and we are driving on the Jericho Bypass. Jericho, State of Israel (although it’s actually in Palestine), not Jericho, State of California.
The road leads to the Galilee. Which is where my sister-in-law is taking my husband, our daughter, and me. Driving in a rented car with Israeli plates.
The sister-in-law sits in the front seat next to the husband who is driving.
She says, “Be careful of the turns, because if we end up in the wrong section—well, if the Arabs see the Israeli plates, they get angry and they stone you.”
“Why?” says the daughter. She is nine or ten.
We take a wrong turn.
Into a town called Nablus.  There’s not much there.
We see two lines of girls in blue headscarves and pants. Walking on the side of the road.
“DRIVE,” yells the sister-in-law.
Do I say the following or does the daughter?
“But these girls look like us?”

“Us” = “you” = the orthodox sister-in-law = orthodox religious girls who cover their hair, arms, and legs.

“THEY’RE WEARING PANTS” is the sister-in-law’s answer.
Oh yes. Orthodox Jewish women are forbidden to wear pants.
Why does it always come down to pants?
“Oh,” says my daughter.  “Are they …?”

“Muslim” = “Palestinian” = words we are afraid to speak.

We bear down onto the streets of the now identified but unnamed enemy. The husband says, “Where do I turn?”
“HURRY” is the answer.
Absolutely nothing happens to us.

#9: Multiply

I come home from Israel. My mother-in-law dies. My sister-in-law marries a widower with seven children. My husband’s baby brother becomes orthodox too; he marries a girl who is a dancer. She becomes orthodox to please him. He and sister-in-law #2 produce many children, and suddenly—
There are more members of my husband’s family who are orthodox than who aren’t.

#10: Knock

A few years ago I sit in our family room in Los Angeles. I watch a movie called Paradise Now that a former student told me about.
I recognize Nablus. In the movie the highway we drove on is blocked and the protagonists look at a Jerusalem that they cannot physically enter, although they can see it right across the road.
The Palestinian blows himself up in a bus.
I turn the TV off.
I find my husband, who is sitting in the dining room. He says he won’t watch a movie about suicide bombers.
I say, “Judaism is a ruin—a mass of contradictions where we have become the thing we hate.”
And he says, “This realization makes you truly Jewish.”
The doorbell rings and then someone knocks hard on the door.

Schnorrers =  Beggar or Sponger in Yiddish.  Also occurs in German to describe a person who frequently asks for little things, like cigarettes or little sums of money, without offering a return, and has thus come to mean freeloader.

These particular schnorrers are a group of Orthodox Jewish men in black suits and black hats . They come almost every night in our neighborhood.
The husband opens the door but tells them no.

“I need to spend time with my family,” he says.
“WE are your family,” one man shouts, pounding on the doorframe.
I walk to the front of the house, where my husband is standing, arguing with the black hats.
I look in the eyes of the angry beggars. They resemble my husband. They all resemble Jesus.
I get my purse and open it.
I extend a five-dollar bill towards the leader.
With that cash I want to exchange currencies = transform hostility into trust.
Bevakasha, I say.

Bevakasha = “Please” or “You’re Welcome” in Hebrew

Can one word bring opposing energies into an actual, living connection?
We linger at the open door.
We listen.

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