Soul Changes: How Queer is Conversion? Part 1

Rabbi Josh Lesser

Joshua Lesser has served as the Rabbi at Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, Georgia for ten years.  As an LGBT civil rights activist and as a life long learner, he is proud to be one of the editors of  Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. He is the founder of The Rainbow Center, an organization to help address gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion in the Jewish and greater community.  An interfaith bridge-builder he is a past president of The Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta.

Like the LGBT community, Jews don’t recruit.  (Though I have been known to chant at Shabbat services “Recruit, recruit, recruit 2% is not enough.*[i]) But just like the LGBT community, we never mind discovering that someone else is Jewish too, or even just questioning and exploring.  Just because we don’t proselytize, does not mean a person can’t convert to Judaism.  Jews are often surprised that someone would want to convert, after all in our beliefs everyone has a place in the “world to come” [ii] so what’s the impetus to make the change?  Taking on yet another outsider status?  Pissing off your parents?  Transmuting your love of passionate arguing into a spiritual practice?  Or do we just look to Seinfeld for the answer to why convert—where the obvious answer is for the jokes.[iii] Which are pretty great, though Charlotte “Goldenblatt” from Sex and the City would remind us that love is the answer to the question.[iv]

Admittedly, becoming Jewish is more complicated than just joining a religious faith and certainly us rabbis in our role as the ambassadors to those who want initiation into the tribe make it difficult where a simple proclamation of faith will not do nor just a dunk in the waters.  Instead, there is a long course of study, participation in a community, a conversation with a bet din[v], a full or ritual bris[vi] for those with penises, and a dunk in the mikveh.[vii] So why would anyone go through the bother—when anyone can have lox with their bagels, or a matzoh ball in their soup and live their life Kosher-style.

But for some people, conversion is not a choice.  They have a Jewish soul trapped in a goyishe[viii] body. This is where conversion is definitely queer.  My sophomore year in college[ix], on my first day in my dorm, down the hall from me was Bradley Pitman, a freshman from Liberal, Kansas.[x] Adorably 5’5” (my height), with a blond mullet, beautiful  blue eyes; he was very friendly.  But what really rolled my scroll was the Jewish star around his neck.  When I asked how many Jews were in Liberal, Kansas, he replied not very many and then confessed that he was not Jewish—well not yet.  He then looked at me and said, “Will you help me convert?”

Brad became my best friend that year.  I had a mad crush on him, though I was closeted and I loved what I called our “Calvin and Hobbs” relationship.  When I would get home from class, Brad would be hiding somewhere in our dorm waiting to pounce and wrestle me to the ground.  (Come to think of it, perhaps I was not the only closeted one.) When we were not wrestling each other, we were wrestling with issues of faith.  I helped him with his Hebrew homework; he was angry I was taking French. He confessed to me that ever since he was 10 years old that he would feign sick on Yom Kippur and stay home and fast.  His unwavering support and connection to Israel was as much as proof as his admission to once discovering a jar of gefilte fish and eating the whole thing in one sitting.

Brad and I would take trips in his blue mustang to downtown Chicago, and often blast AC/DC out the windows and howl at strangers. I was mortified.  There was nothing Jewish about him on the outside (in my experience), but all he ever wanted to talk about was Judaism. Brad was a Jew in his soul—mullet, AC/DC and all.

While I do not know if Brad ever converted, he left Northwestern University[xii] after a year to go to Texas A&M where he fit in better, I never doubted that he was Jewish on a soul level.  But I wondered if he was concerned that he couldn’t pass at Northwestern and needed to return to a more comfortable environment, how would his outsides ever match his insides Jewishly, which is far more profound?

One of the things that many people struggle with who explore conversion is how does one authentically become Jewish.  And what does the concept of being authentically Jewish even mean? Reverse nose jobs? Observing the rules of the Sabbath? Protesting anti-Semitism and other forms of social injustice? Eating pastrami and kosher dill pickles? Rocking a kick ass Jew-fro?  How does one belong and feel Jewish?  Is it how one looks[xiii] or is it where one goes to pray or how one behaves?  It is all of these questions that beg to be asked on a soul level that has me see conversion as a queer act.


-to be continued

[i] Back in my Queer Nation days, we would chant Recruit, recruit, recruit 10% is not enough to play on straight fears. But don’t worry, that’s a joke. I don’t really say that out loud at services—just under my breath.

[ii] Olam Habah, literally means the world to come and for some Jews it is a belief in a heaven like place or time.

[iii] I would be remiss if I did not mention the awesome episode of The Family Guy, where Peter decides to convert his son so that Chris will become smarter and have better success in life. He takes him to the Bar Bar Bar Mitzvah chapel in Las Vegas.

[iv] Charlotte York from Sex and the City converted to Judaism in order to marry Harry. And for real, why do the good Jewish husbands on TV get portrayed like Harry Goldenblatt on SATC or Cyrus Rose in Gossip Girl. Why can’t they be cast with someone like the two leads in the classic gay flick Jeffrey, Steven Weber and Michael Weiss—both hot Jews.

[v] Literally a court, but in reality a group of 3 knowledgeable Jews (sometimes all rabbis) who discuss with the potential convert

[vi] A bris, meaning covenant is a circumcision. For those already circumcised, many rabbis though not all, require a many to have a drop of blood taken from the place of the circumcision scar on the underside of the penis. Sounds terrible, but trust me, if you have one, you have done worse with your zipper!

[vii] A ritual bath, this is the ritual where baptism emerged from.

[viii] Yiddish for someone who is not Jewish. Can be used derogatorily, but in this sense I mean it lovingly with tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek.

[ix] All the best stories start that way.

[x] A misnomer, if I ever heard one.

[xi] Bad Jew that I am, I have never even tasted gefilte fish (lox or chopped liver, for that matter) even when my grandmother made it from scratch.

[xii] I feel like I had some responsibility in Brad leaving after not returning a mixed signal of affection. Heartbreaking.

[xiii] It is important that people know that Jews come in all races, sizes, shapes, classes, orientations and genders. The emphasis on the Eastern European Jewish experiences has placed a false image of what a Jews look like and what a Jew does in our heads.