December 18, 2018

Choosing Judaism: My Father’s Story and My Own

At a recent Shabbat, a guest at our services asked the person staffing our welcome table, “Is the rabbi here Jewish?” What the person meant was, “Is the rabbi a convert?” Many have shared with me over the years, as our congregation has grown, that acquaintances of theirs have told them, on good authority, that Rabbi Finley “is not really Jewish.”

I don’t think most people who talk about the Jewishness of converts know how hurtful their speech is, or perhaps they don’t know that hurtful speech is against Jewish law. Maybe a bit of my story will show you what I mean.

My father, Jim Finley, converted to Judaism in late-1968, as part of my family’s return to Judaism. He studied around the same time as me — my Bar Mitzvah was in January 1969.

Born to Catholic parents and orphaned at a young age, my father’s first connection to Judaism came from his great-grandfather, whose family name was Finola, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew from Spain who moved to Ireland. The name was changed to Finley, and then others, inexplicably, changed Finley to Harris.

After graduating from high school in 1935, my father befriended several Jewish Socialists when he went to work with the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps in Idaho. He felt a kinship with them and their politics.

During World War II he and his buddy, a Jewish guy named Len Rosen, were drafted. He was shipped over to England in 1943, where he met my mother. They were married in a civil ceremony in 1944 .

My parents did not know what to do about religion. My mother was raised in a non-observant home — her grandparents were Orthodox, but her parents were secular.

After years of traveling around the U.S., my parents settled in Anaheim in 1955 and my mom’s Jewish relatives moved here from England.

I remember our family packing up for the beach on Sunday mornings as our neighbors headed off to church. I asked what religion I was. They told me that my dad was brought up Catholic, but never really believed in it, and that my mom was Jewish. They said I could be whatever I wanted and bought me a paperback called, “The Religions of the World.” I decided I wanted to be a Buddhist, but when I saw Buddhists immolating themselves on the streets of Saigon in the news in 1966 I decided against it.

Everything changed in June 1967. My mom broke a dish while she was listening to the radio and I noticed she was crying. I asked her what was wrong. She told me about Israel, and that the Arabs were threatening to invade and kill all the Jews. I asked, naively, why that concerned us.

My mom and dad then sat me down and told me about Jews and the Holocaust and Israel. Then they said, “We are a Jewish family, and since mom is Jewish, you are Jewish.”

My mom’s uncle, Samuel, who lived nearby, urged them to get me bar mitzvah training. We were living in Compton at that time and joined the local Conservative synagogue. I began Hebrew school and my dad started his preparation for formal conversion, which took place 18 months after the Six Days War. My dad went through the beit din in the rabbi’s study, and later was on the bimah, reciting the Shema.

My entire family, including my two older sisters and my younger brother, became extremely active and went to synagogue every Friday night.

After I got involved in Jewish life, I regularly heard the following:

1. You don’t look Jewish.

2. Finley, what kind of name is that?

3. Are you a convert?

In my naiveté at the time I did not know that Jews had a look or special names, and I wondered why Jews were so interested in whether I had converted or not. I would unabashedly explain that my dad was a convert, until I was told by a rabbi at a USY conclave that people are forbidden to ask a person if they are a convert or not, or remind a person of their non-Jewish heritage, because it implies that there are different kinds of Jews.

I started saying that Finley used to be Finola and that my red hair and fair looks come from my mother’s Lithuanian side. Our family decided that my dad’s conversion would not be a topic for public discussion. My parent’s circle of Jewish friends in Compton, and later, Long Beach, either knew or assumed that my dad had converted, so it was never much of an issue.

My life has been a been bit different.

In 1980 I was preparing to move to Israel and went to a conference on aliyah. My Hebrew was decent since I had lived on a kibbutz for most of 1977. I overheard a Federation staff person say to another in Hebrew, looking at me, “What’s this shaygetz doing, wanting to make aliyah.” Shaygetz, an ugly Yiddish word used to denote a non-Jew, is the male equivalent of shiksa. Both words come from the Hebrew shekets, which means an object of disgust, an impure, crawling animal.

I remember when I gave my first drash at the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am. I had been a student rabbi for some years, but had never spoken there. I spoke with passion. Afterwards, a group came up to me, grinning. “Now we understand. You used to be an evangelist preacher, right, and then you converted, right?” These were learned Jews. “No, I was born Jewish, and even Jews can be passionate about Torah,” I said.

Many converts, and children of male converts who do not have typically Eastern European Jewish last names, tell me similar stories.

Jewish law clearly says that once you are Jewish, born or converted, that’s it. Jewish ethics state that you don’t bring this stuff up to people, because it can be so wounding. But people do it all the time. I still hear it constantly, and even more lately, as our congregation’s reputation grows, and mine along with it.

A few years ago, I spoke to my parents and asked them if I could violate my dad’s privacy on this issue, and tell people that he had converted. I wanted to speak out occasionally on this issue, and would need to bring it up. They gave me permission.

I speak out about this at my synagogue, Ohr HaTorah, where we have a strong ethos of welcoming others and not stigmatizing people because they are not born Jewish or are intermarried. A large segment of our congregation is not born Jewish — many of our members come from the introduction to Judaism class at the University of Judaism and have undergone conversion under Conservative auspices.

I have let it be known to our nominating committee for our officers that I expect converts to be generously represented in our officer body and synagogue leadership.

I have inherited a passion for justice and speaking out from my dad. The fact that my dad was a convert has made me a better Jew and probably a better person — certainly a better rabbi.

At Chanukah time, we celebrate our preserving Judaism from the might of those who wanted to destroy us. We celebrate our victory with light, representing God’s light, the light of Torah, and our mission to be a light unto other nations. A great element of that light we hope to radiate to others is how we treat each other, in our personal and communal lives. I have to say, in this area, the Jewish community has a lot of growing to do.

The next time you want to ask a person about his name or looks, ask him instead, “What did you do last Shabbat?” or “Heard any good Torah lately?”

And the next time someone wonders if someone else is born Jewish or converted, simply ask, “Why does it matter?” No doubt, we’d all be a lot better off if we would care more about the lines of our own Jewish practice than caring about the lineage of another person.

Mordecai Finley is rabbi at Ohr HaTorah and co-rabbi at Makom Ohr Shalom