Monday, June 10, 2019

Playing with the Grave Issue of Conversion Annulment

7 Sivan 5779.


It's unusual for a play to keep me from sleeping well. But I was in for one of those patented tossing-and-turning nights after watching Miriam Metzinger's play at Jerusalem's Khan Theater a few days before Shavuot.

Directed by Yael Valier as part of her debate-provoking Theater and Theology series, In a Stranger's Grave strikes very close to home for me. Two religious Jewish sisters prepare for the funeral of their mother in Israel, only to receive the shocking news that the burial society will not allow her to be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery next to her husband. Their once-pious mother had discarded Jewish observance after the death of her husband, resulting in the rabbinical court questioning her original commitment at the time of her conversion to Judaism decades before.

When my husband and I converted to Judaism in 1989, we were deeply touched by Frankfurt's Chief Rabbi's words just prior to our immersions in the mikvaot: "What was before no longer is. Once you go through this process, there is no undoing it. If chas v'shalom you would decide not to live as Jews, you would still be Jews, and would have to answer to God for failing to live up to your responsibilities." He said these words as a "last chance" for us to change our minds. But what resonated for us was "once a Jew, always a Jew," and with that privilege came responsibility. We understood that our Jew-ness could never be taken away.

In 2008, our world shifted tectonically. The unprecedented annulment of conversions that had been supervised by Rabbi Hayyim Druckman changed the lives of some of our friends, and created a ripple effect causing converts everywhere to doubt the security of their status within the Jewish family.

Throughout the following decade, we were personally affected by the Rabbinate's hesitation to accept conversions as valid which had been performed outside Israel. Were it not for the extraordinary efforts of our yishuv Rav in advocating on our behalf, not one of our four sons would have been permitted to have a kosher wedding in Israel.

Metzinger's play fairly addresses many questions. In the words of Yael Valier: "Can anyone but the convert judge the sincerity of her conversion? Can Jewish status be annulled? Can the pain of the individual ever trump the needs of the community? Must a society take risks that could lead to the erosion of its own values?"

The play's characters struggle with these questions, and the audience feels them, along with the conflicting and shifting loyalties toward and between the sisters, portrayed by Devorah Leah Jaffe and Avital Macales. Macales plays Esther, the central figure in the drama, whose sanity threatens to desert her under the weight of this life-altering emotional earthquake. Jaffe plays her sister Chana, struggling to keep her family together, even as she and Esther face the reality that it is not only their mother's Jewish status that is in question...

As a convert, I found all my anxieties welling to the surface, as the debate raged on stage. I tried to be fair to the rabbi representing the burial society. Played by Howard Metz, the rabbi's concerns for the larger Jewish community were deftly but compassionately expressed. Bakol Ruben Gellar, Charles B. Davies, Mordechai Buxner and Syma Davidovich all played the roles of friends, family and colleagues whose loyalty to the two sisters fluctuates sadly and believably throughout the story. (I joked with these actors after the play that it was good there was a question-and-answer period following their performance, because it gave me a chance to get over being mad at them.) Our hero is Rabbi Aaron, played by David Golinkin. In essence "playing himself," as Valier pointed out, Rabbi Golinkin argues passionately on behalf of the inviolability of conversions, bringing many textual proofs to support his position. Happily, the play is allowed lighter moments through Aharon Naiman's characterization of a police officer, during humorous and tender moments with the volatile Esther.

After the play, there was a discussion between Valier and Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, himself a convert. Their discussion and the audience's questions touched on the personal as well as the larger Jewish community's needs. Not surprisingly, a large part of the discussion centered on whether the needs of the Jewish community are being met by the rulings of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

I hope that the discussion will continue well beyond the drama depicted on stage in In a Stranger's Grave. It is an important discussion with far-reaching ramifications. This is not an easy play to watch, but I strongly recommend you take the chance of a sleepless night. Our Jewish family — our greater Jewish family — needs to address the questions Miriam Metzinger's story so adroitly presents.

In a Stranger's Grave is sold out! To be put on a first-to-know list in advance of our fall run, you are encouraged to send an email to Contact@TheaterAndTheology.com.

Photo credit: Yael Valier



14 comments:

  1. Ruti, this entire issue IMHO is so outrageous and even anti-Jewish, and I'm not a convert. I once, when things in the Rabbanut were easier, helped translate from Hebrew to English for a friend undergoing conversion. It was so emotional for me. I had no doubt of her total sincerity. Years later, after some awful traumas, she stopped fully living as a Jew, but there are born Jews who do the same.

    I find the premise of the play so disturbing that can't imagine watching it. But I'm weak and won't do a Holocaust tour either.

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    1. We definitely share our desire to avoid doing Holocaust tours, and for the same reason. I knew this subject would be difficult; but I really appreciated hearing the voices of those, such as yourself, who are standing up for geirim and fighting with Torah as their weapon and armor on our behalf.

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  2. I find the idea of an "annulment of a conversion" extremely upsetting. I 'adopted' an Afro-American woman who unlike her husband had a Conservative conversion in the USA and wished to have an Orthodox one here in Israel. A more sincere, Torah-loving woman I have never met. We became and remain as close as sisters. What the heck does it mean that someone can ANNUL a conversion Ruti? Is this possible if as in the play a convert ceases keeping Mitvot? I would not want to think that ANYTHING could endanger my friend Mazal's status as a Jewess. I'd appreciate your clarifying this for me. I would like to add that every convert that I have had the zechut to know has been a remarkable Jew/ Jewess in every way. BTW, I saw Avital Macales in another play and she is a superb actress. Thank you for this thought provoking post!

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    1. The phenomenon of conversion annulment is fairly recent, as you see referenced in the post. (Here is one of the many articles on the topic: https://schechter.edu/a-responsum-regarding-the-annulment-of-conversions/.) It is one of the deeply troubling aspects of the (I'm sure well-meaning) Israeli Rabbinate's interpretation of many of its functions. May we blessed to see developments that will bring the Rabbinate and the varied Israeli Jews they serve closer in our understanding. Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo is worth listening to on this and other subjects. I also recommend Yael Valier's probing questions as presented in her Theater and Theology series. It is important, I think, that we keep asking respectful questions. The Judaism my excellent rabbis taught me encouraged this.

      Avital is indeed a marvelous actress! I have also enjoyed many of her performances: one of the benefits of life in Gush Etzion is easy access to the Raise Your Spirits Theatre group.

      Kol hakavod to you for making a haven for Mazal! May she continue to thrive as part of our Jewish family, for long, healthy, happy years.

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    2. Ruti,I just read the article you referenced: https://schechter.edu/a-responsum-regarding-the-annulment-of-conversions/ Interesting discussion laying out the ruling made in 2006 and the basis. I see that there was a change in the ashkenazic approach based upon a 1896 ruling in Lvov that has become the Haredi approach, throwing out 1800 years of Talmudic discourse which has roughly followed what the Sage Hillel said: Love thy neighbor as they self, all the rest is commentary: Go out and Learn.

      This is another example of the Haredization of Judaism which says there is only one view and only one way to go and no longer allows the individual to find his or her direct path to connecting with GD.

      For 1800 years the approach to conversion was you teach the potential convert some small mitzvot and some big mitzvot you tell them what the consequences of failing to do the mitzvot are and if they still want to proceed, you teach them about Brit and Mikvah, you do the Brit and Mizvah and like every other Jew, you say you have a lifetime of learning how to do the mitzvot.

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  3. Ruti, I don't understand the rationale, the halachik basis for cancelling an old conversion. In the Torah, we're told never to discriminate against converts. A convert is considered a "new person." Just like any other Jew, some sin. And the fact that such a "cancellation" affects the lives and status of all descendants to me is a halachik horror. Evil.

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    1. I agree. This path is dangerous for all concerned, whatever the concerns for the perceived "greater good" of the community. May we see times of clarity in this and other matters that affect our Jewish family.

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  4. Gd willing. We need to see Elisha and not Eliyahu

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  5. This post is included in Shiloh Musings: Jewish Israeli Blog Roundup Sivan, 5779, June, 2019, along with some other interesting blog posts.



    I'm glad you're blogging. Meet the other bloggers.



    Shavua Tov

    Have a Great Week

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  6. Thank you to everyone who cares about this subject. For your information, the play is making a comeback at the Khan Theater in early September. Tickets and information are available at www.TheaterAndTheology.com. Looking forward to seeing you there!

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