A guide to becoming Jewish

Jennifer S. Hanin was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish man.  Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is the distinguished spiritual leader of Kehillat Israel, the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world and a landmark on Sunset Boulevard in the Pacific Palisades. Together, they are the authors of “Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion” (Rowman & Littlefield, $22.95), which they describe as a “gutsy guide to entering the tribe.”

An insistent lightheartedness and more than a few comic moments enliven “Becoming Jewish,” starting with a jokey preface by comedian Bob Saget: “I was circumcised. Thank God by a professional. That is not something you want done by a novice.” The authors, too, are full of banter. “Conversion is a serious business,” writes Hanin, “but it doesn’t mean you need to down two pots of coffee to wade through it.”

The authors assume they are addressing a prospective convert to Judaism. “While achieving your conversion isn’t as a gut wrenching as auditioning for “American Idol” (though the bimah may feel every bit like a stage), it does require discipline and dedication.”  But I suspect that a good many Jewish spouses and partners will be reading the book over the shoulders of their beloveds, if only because, as the authors point out, the motivation for conversion is often the prospect of marriage or the responsibilities of raising children in a mixed marriage.

Indeed, Jewish readers will be surprised and enlightened by some of the details of the conversion process.  They point out, for example, that the process of conversion begins with the rabbi who instructs and prepares the convert, but it ends with a ruling by a bet din.  Even here, however, the authors offer a joke to lighten the moment: “You would have to present a deep conflict for them to have reservations about rubberstamping your conversion,” they write about the bet din,  “like wearing a kaffiyeh, crossing yourself, or whipping out a BLT.”

Reuben and Hanin describe the conversion process with both sweep and precision. It begins with the selection of a rabbi who will conduct the conversion and ends with a dip in the mikveh.  Along the way, they discuss the implications of adult circumcision, the choice of a Jewish name, the study of Hebrew, the celebration of Shabbat and the holy days, the keeping of kashrut, the challenges and responsibilities of raising Jewish children and the other rituals and observances of Jewish life.

The authors also invite us to ponder what Judaism is, what it demands of us, and what makes someone a Jew.  They sum up Judaism as a matter of “believing, belonging, and behaving.” But they point out that belief is probably the least crucial element in contemporary Judaism outside the highly observant denominations.

“[B]eing part of an ancient and extended spiritual family of Jews…forms our primary sense of religious identity,” they explain. “This is why so many nonobservant Jews are still passionate about being Jewish.” And, for that reason, “believing takes a backseat to belonging and behaving when it comes to Jewish identity.”

They also deal with the unique issues of conversion with sensitivity and compassion. “Becoming Jewish doesn’t mean amputating your past,” they write. “You can be secure enough in your own Jewish identity to experience sacred, moving moments that other religious traditions evoke. This is definitely a case in which you can go home again, and if you want to share your parents’ holiday or any other relatives’ celebration, feel free.”

I expect that more than a few copies of “Becoming Jewish” will be purchased by Jews and handed to non-Jews in order to open a conversation about conversion.  Indeed, it seems that the authors expected and intended the book to serve that function. But I am also convinced that the Jewish men and women who open and read the book will connect with traditions that they have forgotten or perhaps never knew at all.  In that sense, the book offers a path into Judaism for both the Jew by birth and the Jew by choice.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.