By SHEREE R. CURRY
Reflections of African American women converts.
The biblical Ruth, one of only two women in the Bible who have their own book, was a convert to Judaism. She left her family’s heritage to endure the hardships of a convert. She made the decision to follow the laws of Moses and never turn back despite the great difficulties she had to endure. Still, she became an accepted member of the Jewish people and the grandmother of King David. Her role is an important one in Jewish history, and it is not too unlike the stories of other female converts to Judaism, especially those of African American women who discover their Jewish neshama (soul) in their adulthood.
The journey to one’s Jewish soul may have several bumps along the way, but those who choose Judaism for genuine reasons often find that they were on that path long before they themselves had the revelation that, at their core, they were already Jewish. While African American converts often report that they are well-accepted by other members of their adopted religion, there is no doubt that the color of their skin is forever a reminder to Caucasian Jews that their history appears different. However, they found unconditional support from their nucleus family, particularly their mothers. For those, however, who want to think differently of these women, consider their strength and perseverance as they live a Jewish life in a world that still believes Jews are “white,” when in reality, we come in all shades and races.
Ahuvah Gray was 50 before she formally converted to Judaism on April 2, 1997, but her journey began long before the first time she was turned away by a beit din (rabbinical court) in Israel when she sought to formalize the life she had been living for so many years. Her journey began, in some ways, in her childhood as she would visit her grandparents in Mound Bayou, Mississippi where she had come to feel a deep connection to the Book of Psalms. “The Tehillim [psalms] that my grandmother taught me at an early age made a profound impact on my life,” she says.
Gray, once an ordained minister, was raised in a family with a strong spiritual background. A question she and many other Jews of African American descent, including myself, say they encounter a few times a year from inquiring white Jews, is: “How did your family feel about your decision?” It is as if they ask this question expecting to hear that we were banished from our Christian families, written out of wills, never to be heard from again. I think many are shocked by the answer that our mothers encouraged our decisions, were at the root of our faith and spiritual dedication or at the least were quite supportive of our decisions – being encouraging of their children the way that all mothers should be toward their offspring.
Gray, whose birth name is Delores, even credits her mother and her grandmother as the backbone behind her strong religious identity. There were times, she says, that “I could hear my mother’s voice reverberating, ‘Delores, God is going to do something very special in your life.’”
Even when her mom’s own life was failing, Gray’s mother continued to encourage her daughter in her journey to Judaism. “How are your studies progressing?” Gray’s mother asked her on the phone one day as she was studying in Israel at a time when her mother began to feel unwell. “Just the way I expected it to be,” Gray recalls. “My mother was more concerned with my Hebrew studies than her own welfare.”
“Would you like me to come home?,” Gray asked her mother.
“No. Don’t you stop your studying! Stay there and learn,” her mother responded. “I know you love what you’re doing and you sound so happy every time we speak.”
Gray, who at the height of her career owned a Los Angeles-based travel business and led Christian tours to Israel for more than a decade, did not know at the time that her love of Israel, Judaism and the Bible would lead her to choose Judaism – let alone make aliya and move to the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. Her revelation came one year on the Shabbat following Tisha Be’av.
“I was praying from my siddur when all of a sudden I became very emotional. I fell down prostrate in the middle of my praying and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, I think I am a Jew!’”
She says it was as if an earthquake had hit the core of her being. “A moment of truth had touched my deepest feelings. It explained why I had undergone such emotional and religious turmoil in the past years. My neshama, my soul, was seeking the God of the Jewish people. When I finally rose to my feet I was a changed person.”
Prior to that point, Gray had stopped attending services on Sundays, and no longer observed any of the major Christian holidays. “I simply couldn’t connect with the liturgies or the sermons. The last time I attended a Christian service, I was with a friend at her place of worship. I heard the pastor say that the Jewish people had to accept the new messiah.”
Gray, who outlines her story on her Web site, www.ahuvahgray.com, and in a series of books, including her latest, Journey to the Land of My Soul, says it did not sit well with her that one religion would consider another so wrong. “My prayer was that I should be able to resolve the tug-of-war that was being waged inside me: Judaism versus Christianity.”
So to continue her journey to find an answer for herself, Gray began studying in Israel. Her mother’s main concern for her daughter as she led pilgrimages to Israel was that she had traded California’s earthquakes for flying bullets from Palestinian attacks against Israelis. But her mother was encouraging of her daughter’s transition. “We understand, Delores. You have to do God’s will. Are you still praying three times a day and reading your Bible?” She was.
Her dad was also quite supportive. “Just keep studying God’s word. Remember my motto: If you get stuck on a verse and don’t understand, stay with it and don’t go any further until you get an understanding.”
Gray’s mother, Christine Franklin Gray Buckner, was buried on December 23, 1994. Gray gave the eulogy.
Meira Leahy also credits her mother for instilling a strong spiritual faith in her that led her on the path to her own journey to Judaism, which began for her nearly 20 years ago at age 23. Leahy, who lives in a Minneapolis suburb with her husband and five kids, leads a frum and observant life. Although she had her bat mitzva after conversion as a Conservative Jew, she later took steps to also convert to Orthodoxy.
She says, “My grandmother taught me a very important lesson in prayer. She was very supportive of me. She would always tell me to pray the psalms every day. She would say that there is power in King David’s psalm. She is a very religious Christian woman and she came to my bat mitzva before I became Orthodox.”
Her mother is equally supportive. “My mom has always been a really good friend to me. When I decided I was going to become Jewish, I told my mother first. I was really surprised. I said, ‘Mom, I think I am going to become Jewish.’ She said, ‘I am not surprised. I saw this coming a long time ago.’ She said, ‘I only request one thing of you. If you think this is how God wants you to serve this world, don’t let anyone stand in your way, not your family, not the pastor at church. If you are going to do it, do it wholeheartedly.’”
That doesn’t mean that Leahy’s mom didn’t challenge the complexities of her daughter’s observant lifestyle, especially that of kashrut. One day her mom announced she was coming to visit her daughter’s house. “She said she was going to bring any food she wanted to my house because she is my mother. I let her know it was my house, I’m grown and you don’t pay rent here.”
That didn’t sit well with her mother, but her mother appreciated that her daughter stood up for her convictions. Her mom respects her daughter’s choices and has learned what she could about her daughter’s lifestyle so she can better support it.
“My mom knows when candlelighting is, when Yom Tov is; She will not call us on Shabbat. It is nice that my children’s Christian grandmother respects their Jewish identity,” says Leahy.
Leahy, 43, adds that years after her conversion, when she decided to marry her current husband Moshe Leahy, her parents were more concerned whether her husband would be decent to her, make a living, be a good father, the same thing any parent would worry about when their daughter gets married. “It is very positive coming from a ‘black perspective,’ if you want to call it that. Unfortunately it wasn’t like that with his family,” she says.
Leahy finds that white Jews seem to be the ones who have more issues with the color of her skin or that she is a convert than she or her family have. “Back when I was younger and we were first married, people would mistake me for the babysitter or they would assume my kids were adopted and they’d ask, ‘Where did you get them from.’ I’d say, ‘Hashem gave them to me’ or ‘I gave birth to them at the hospital and brought them home.’ I am comfortable in my own skin and comfortable with my own identity. And my kids are, too, because I don’t have any qualms about who I am and how I live my life.”
Courtenay Edelhart, who is biracial – the product of an African American mother and white father with Jewish ancestry – received support from her family as well. Her mother was raised African Methodist Episcopal but left the church to join the New Age movement long before Edelhart was born. Her mom meditates daily, consults psychics and believes in reincarnation. Edelhart’s paternal grandmother was a Christian Scientist and her paternal grandfather was the Jewish son of a rabbi. Her late father had no formal religious affiliation growing up and identified as an atheist, but converted to Judaism as an adult because his first wife insisted on it as a condition of marriage. The marriage only lasted a short time. He met Edelhart’s mother as he was going through a divorce.
“Their parenting philosophy was to let me and my twin sister, Ashley, choose our own spiritual path when we were old enough to decide. They never tried to impose their views on us. My sister never picked anything and is raising her children secular.”
Edelhart, 43, went to the mikve to become a Jew shortly after college, about 20 years ago.
Neither one of Edelhart’s parents, she says, believed much in following convention, or settling comfortably into the station they were born into.
“Both had overcome miserable childhoods. Both were the first members of their families to go to college. Both befriended and loved whomever they pleased in an era when few others ventured out of their cultural comfort zones. Neither of my parents thought anything at all of entering an interracial, interfaith marriage. They very much wanted my sister and me to think critically and independently, too,” she says.
“When I told my atheist, Jewish-in-name-only father I was converting to Judaism, he laughed and said mischievously, ‘What did I do wrong?’ My mother, I think, was just relieved that I hadn’t chosen Christianity. She was raised in the segregated South by a mother who called herself a devout Christian but was, in fact, a cruel, emotionally abusive woman. Christianity was, to my mother, a symbol of a past she very much wanted to leave behind.”
Edelhart, a single mom who adopted two African American children – a boy and a girl, after giving up on finding a husband (“I am too black for Ashkenazi Jews and too Jewish for Christian blacks,” she quipped), says her children, who underwent conversions by age two – will experience Judaism in a way very different from what she found when she converted as a young adult. Both of her children attended Jewish preschools that were racially diverse. The temple they belong to in California outside L.A. has a female rabbi and congregants who are black, Asian and Latino. Her daughter, seven, will attend Jewish camp this summer for the second year in a row. “She was not the only black child there last year and will not be the only black child there this year,” she says. “My son, four, is not yet old enough for camp.”
Edelhart says the only real conflict that has come from her decision to practice Judaism is Christmas. “Although my 72-year-old mother hasn’t attended church since she was a teenager, she’s a big believer in the secular aspects of Christmas. I don’t put up a tree in my home, but I participate in my family’s celebration. We gather each year at my sister’s house. I draw the line at the Santa Claus myth. I am absolutely adamant that my children will not be raised with that lie. My mother still hasn’t forgiven me for it. She thinks I’m robbing my children of the magic of the holiday season. This is something we’ll never see eye to eye on. But other than that, she fully supports my choice and is proud that I am raising my own children to know and love God.”
Sheree R. Curry, an award-winning journalist and editor of BlackandJewish.com, had a formal conversion to Judaism at the age of 18 and is supported by a mother who encouraged her daughters to choose their own religious identity. She lives in a Minneapolis suburb with her two sons. They frequent events at the local Aish Center, walking distance from their home.