When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel

Here are some highlights from this 2017 book:

* To illuminate the core tensions that concern the protagonists of this book, it is instructive to begin with an alternative conversion policy route suggested in the early 2000s by a prominent Orthodox Zionist rabbi: the enactment of conversion en masse. The plan, which was immediately rejected by other rabbis and policy makers, completely disregarded the dominant halakhic understanding of conversion as the sincere commitment of individuals to religious observance. Instead, this rabbi insisted upon the existence of a national demographic crisis, thus justifying in its name a quick, single act of mass conversion. Because his proposal, oriented toward collective, national goals, threatened to render hollow the conversion ritual, sapping it of both personal agency and religious sincerity, it had no chance of being widely embraced. As a religious ritual, it sounded not only overly thin; it also seemed too direct, too crude, and too naked a demonstration of the state’s national stakes in Jewish conversion. In that respect, his policy recommendation, and its aftermath, offers a productive point of departure for understanding the conversion system at the center of this book: one that is formally dedicated to the sincere religious conversion of individuals, but ill suited to address its pressing national goals.
The rabbi, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, laid out his manifesto in a 2003 article published in the Israeli magazine Eretz Acheret under the provocative headline “Mass Conversion Must Be Carried Out.” It was not the first time he had delivered this message. In the tone of an ostracized prophet of doom, Rabbi Bin-Nun urged the public to listen to what he had been saying for some time: that large-scale non-Jewish immigration from the FSU had created a real national catastrophe and now required an emergency response. The “disaster,” as he called it, was imminent.
He reminded his audience that the many non-Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel did so under the generous auspices of the Israeli repatriation law (the expanded Law of Return) and as a fulfillment of the grand Zionist scheme of return to the promised land. Even though the state does not recognize these non-Jewish immigrants as Jews—that is, according to the matrilineal principles that govern Israel’s system of Jewish identity—it has nonetheless absorbed them as Israeli citizens under the privileged, and politically sacred, category of olim . These immigrants frequently identify and pass as Jews and, in general, are well integrated into Jewish Israeli society. Because of these factors, Rabbi Bin-Nun implicitly argued, non-Jewish FSU immigrants do not just actualize a fundamental Zionist script and fortify Israel’s Jewish majority; they simultaneously threaten the boundaries of the Jewish population (as defined in Israel by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment) and unavoidably sabotage Israel’s ongoing Zionist struggle to secure a Jewish majority. Conjuring dark images of impending doom, Rabbi Bin-Nun positioned these non-Jewish FSU immigrants between the Zionist dream and its downfall, depicting a scenario that begins with the immigrants’ social integration and intermarriage with Jewish Israelis, and ends with nothing less than the loss of Jewish sovereignty:
“Worst of all, Jews will not only become a minority in Greater Israel—that’s already happening now—Jews will become a minority even in a contracted, shrunken State of Israel. The Jewish State might even turn into a Jewish autonomy, viable only by the grace of foreigners. The elders of the ultra-Orthodox [ Haredi ] community will mock us and claim: “We told you so! After all, the writing was on the wall!” All the enemies of Israel will rub their palms together in glee: The Palestinians, the radical Muslims, the anti-Semites of Europe, and the devout Christians.”
The emergency measures proposed by Rabbi Bin-Nun mirrored the enormity of the horror he described. His conclusion was clear: the State of Israel must summon the political courage to carry out the mass conversion of non-Jewish FSU olim. He argued that the current state conversion system—manifested in the broad network of conversion institutions operating for some two decades under the aegis of the state—had failed to meet the portentousness of the moment. Certainly, Rabbi Bin-Nun acknowledged, the extant system had some degree of merit. After all, the state’s conversion efforts have been informed by the Zionist imperative to convert non-Jewish olim on a large scale. In particular, his colleagues in the rabbinic conversion courts, Orthodox rabbis like himself, perform what he deemed “sacred work” (ibid.) on behalf of the Israeli state, while stretching what they perceive to be the limits of Jewish conversion laws.
But the conversion system, he went on to argue, simultaneously undermines prospective candidates and undermines itself, because of its meticulous, unrealistic focus on religious obligations. Insofar as the work of conversion agents depends on the converts’ “acceptance of the commandments” ( kabalat hamitzvoth )—that is, in the rabbis’ interpretation, adherence to a specific Orthodox lifestyle—the conversion procedures undermine the state’s own goals. The sociological profile of FSU immigrants only highlights the conversion policy’s basic dysfunction. Rarely inclined toward religion, and generally blending into secular Jewish Israeli social milieus, these non-Jewish olim are hardly good candidates for a religiously oriented conversion process. This is why Rabbi Bin-Nun pressed the state rabbinic institutions to favor an exceptionally lenient halakhic policy that would permit the state to dramatically ease (if not totally eliminate) the requirement that candidates accept the commandments. To justify such a policy both publicly and rabbinically, he pointed to the precedents in halakhic literature for minimizing the centrality of accepting the commandments and stressed that in the current emergency situation, Israel’s rabbinic authorities do not have the luxury of a less dramatic response.
A few years later, in 2006, at a public conference on conversion, which I attended, Rabbi Bin-Nun distilled the essence of his notably lenient halakhic approach into a concrete action plan:
“I want to talk about how we should cope with a mass multitude of gentiles, those who are not Jewish by halakha but nevertheless live amongst us. Maimonides states that anyone who is circumcised and has undergone ritual immersion [tvilah] is retroactively a convert. This is not to be undertaken a priori, but it is valid retroactively. I have been arguing for fifteen years that the current situation in Israel is one that requires retroactive judgment. A priori, the question would be whether or not to have brought non-Jews into the country in the first place, and my answer is that we must be much more careful and strict than we are today. Our situation is one of retroactive judgment because non-Jewish immigrants are already here. Those who pose stringent conditions on conversion make light of the Jewish character of Israel, and open the gate to assimilation. I propose that we convert everyone in an act of mass conversion. We will create an impressive, moving ceremony on the eve of the Day of Atonement [ Yom Kippur ] or on the Festival of Weeks [ Shavuoth ] on the beach in Tel Aviv. Everyone will call out together “Hear O Israel” [ Shma’ Yisrael ], “We will do and obey” [ Na’ase venishma ], then sign a document before an authorized rabbinic court, and that’s it. We should do this recurrently for 10–20 years, and solve the problem. When I first introduced this idea, everyone looked at me as if I were crazy. Why? Because conversion is, as you know, an individual, personal matter … [but] if we really want to solve the problem, we need to scale up, and therefore avoid insisting that non-Jewish olim accept the commandments but, rather, inform them that they already have. We need to do all this as quickly as possible.”

* What makes Rabbi Bin-Nun’s idea so compelling is how, as a solution to a perceived national emergency, it simply rendered the religious sincerity and personal agency of potential converts immaterial.

* In relation to Moran, critics might emphasize how, just six months after the conversion process, she had already traded in her skirt for jeans. Or they might point out how she openly shares with an ethnographer stories that must differ in spirit from those she told the conversion agents. Indeed, her stories to me were different—like the one about how much she hated wearing skirts, and how one day, only a few months into the conversion process, she already felt she “couldn’t take it anymore.” Pulling out jeans and a tank top from her dresser, she put them on and walked outside, her face shielded by sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat in case, god forbid, someone might recognize her on the street. Or her story about the day she immersed herself in the mikveh (ritual bath), a story that also features blue jeans. She abhorred the mikveh experience. She had arrived there depleted and angry, wracked with ambivalence about the whole process. Other converts sometimes shared with me the excitement and joy they felt about the symbolic meaning of rebirth and repair and the ceremonial experience of being accepted into the national fold; Moran felt none of this. Instead, apologizing for the graphic depiction, she described being forced to submerge herself “in that pee water” (“sorry, the water was just warmish for some reason”) and then explained that what followed was the happiest day of her life: “After immersing myself in that ‘amazing’ mikveh, I left the place, went straight home to shower, and went out for the first time in a long while in jeans and a T-shirt. I was so happy. I felt so liberated, as if I had shed a building, eighty tons dropped from my shoulders. I didn’t have to put on sunglasses and wear a wide-brimmed hat. A huge joy, what can I say, a huge joy.”

* The perception that converts from FSU backgrounds (henceforth “FSU converts”) lie during their conversion process permeates Israeli public spheres. The Israeli press, social media, and even the protocols of Israeli parliamentary committees all reinforce the idea that state conversion could very well amount to an elaborate sham. These public debates are polyphonic, encompassing an array of ideological voices. Jewish Israeli citizens of all religious orientations, including secular Jews, traditional Jews, religious (Orthodox) Jews, and ultra-Orthodox Jews; 4 liberals seeking to separate religion from state and their opponents who support state intervention in religious life; FSU immigrants who underwent conversion and those who openly refuse to do so; and groups identified with lenient and others with stringent approaches to halakha—all these interlocutors, for various reasons, look upon the extant state conversion policy with suspicion. In the less public domains of the conversion debate, like the social contexts where the conversion process actually takes place, the concepts of sincerity, deception, and lies constitute the chief obsessions of all parties involved. During my fieldwork, this is what everybody talked about.
These kinds of preoccupations are not unique to the case of FSU converts in Israel. Concerns about converts’ honesty, purity of intention, and trustworthiness—that is, about whether they might be motivated less by religious intentions and more by political or material interests—animate a broad range of conversion contexts. In the Israeli setting the case of Feres Mura immigrants from Ethiopia offers the most immediate parallel to the situation of FSU immigrants. As Don Seeman documented, mutual suspicion animates the relationship between the Feres Mura and the Israeli state. On the one hand, state gatekeepers suspect Feres Mura immigrants of cynically using Jewish conversion to flee oppression and poverty in Ethiopia. On the other hand, the immigrants themselves suspect that Israel’s rabbinic establishment has sought to trick them into conversion (Seeman 2010).

* The rabbis in the conversion court also winked at candidates. From the outset the conversion court functioned as a disciplinary and judicial setting. While these features were indeed central to the sociality of court dynamics, “softer,” collaborative dramaturgical dynamics informally unfolded there as well. Court agents clearly engaged in interrogative practices and suspicious discourses in an attempt to expose “performers”; but they also helped conversion candidates manage their fragile performances. The dramaturgical collaborations that marked these conversion performances were laden with interdependencies and comitragic moments that sometimes bordered on the absurd. Such performances remind us that, as much as conversion candidates need the state in order to be considered Jewish, the Israeli nation-state also needs converts in order to produce and reproduce its own Jewishness—its political reality as a Jewish state.

* Rabbi Rosen speaks of non-Jewish women as land mines that must be swept away: “In Israel, every conversion is like a mine swept away; the foreign women will marry and have children, loyal citizens of Israel. It is a commandment to clear away such mines”

* During an intersession break of the conversion court, Rabbi Naftali, a rabbinic judge, shared an anecdote with his two colleagues, Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Yosef: “Usually, people invite me to speak about conversion. Several weeks ago, I was invited to speak about fertility. At first, I had no idea what to talk about. But later I thought to myself, ‘oh well, what’s the difference really? In both cases we are devoted to making as many Jews as possible.’” All three judges burst into laughter; I laughed too.

* “Why do I need to go through hell and lie?” asked a former Israeli who immigrated from the FSU as a child, in a news article about non-Jewish “Russian” olim who later emigrated ( yardu ; lit. “descended”) from Israel. “In all conversion cases,” she continued, “women lie to the rabbinic court. Not one woman I know intended to observe the commandments, even though the point of conversion is to become religious. Conversion creates armies upon armies of liars, and they stand together and laugh about it” (Edelman 2014). In contrast, ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who insist on sincere and lasting commitments to religious practice as the central condition of conversion, accuse Orthodox Zionist conversion agents of making a mockery of halakha in the name of their Zionist ideology.

* Speaking from quite different religious and political perspectives, liberal Orthodox rabbis and religious academics share a growing public criticism of the rabbinate. They argue that its harsh conversion policy simply leaves conversion candidates no other choice but insincerity and thus institutionalizes deceit within the conversion process. These critics describe conversion as a process of self- or mutual deception. As Yedidya Stern, the vice president at the Israel Democracy Institute and a religious public intellectual, writes: “In practice, most non-Jewish olim are not interested in religious observance, they consider themselves to be joining a nation, not a religion. They don’t want to be different from the secular Jewish majority in Israel, and don’t understand why they must fulfill a requirement that most Jews don’t. The result is that in order to convert they must wear a mask. The path into Judaism and full integration into the Jewish nation passes through a lie.” (Stern 2011:19)

* In an article entitled “The Renewed Polemics of Conversion,” published in a journal of Jewish thought devoted to the issue of conversion, Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes (2008) who, like Rabbi Stav, is identified with the liberal Orthodox camp, coined the term wink-wink conversion . Brandes writes that Zionist Orthodox rabbis in the rabbinic conversion court are bound by dual loyalties: to Jewish law and to their national responsibility. Because of this article’s public resonance (see Abraham 2009; Edrei 2010; Rosen 2010), it is worth citing at length Rabbi Brandes’s description of the outcomes of this duality:
“[As a result], a middle way has emerged, one which officially requires acceptance of the yoke of commandments but tolerates the fact that many of the converts do not sincerely intend to fully accept them. This intermediate approach is well known to teachers in the conversion ulpans and to the conversion candidates themselves. The latter know that when they stand in front of the court they will have to answer its questions in a manner that makes them appear as though they seriously intend to observe the commandments. The rabbinic court ignores the high likelihood that the vast majority of these converts do not intend to join religious society and adopt a fully-observant lifestyle, and both parties are thus satisfied … this approach is extremely harmful, not only to halakha but also to the conversion process. The converts understand that in order to join the Jewish faith they must collaborate in a process of lying and self-deception which is encouraged by the rabbis—an entire gang that has banded together for a kind of trickery and sophistry that lacks both integrity and decency.”

* When I argue that dramaturgical principles organize winking relations, I mean that converts learn to manage impressions and play roles in order to pass as proper converts. This terminology draws heavily on Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective on social interaction (see Goffman 1959, [1963] 1986, 1971, 1974). Taking theater as his key metaphor, Goffman offers a microsociological understanding of how people, like actors, perform their identities and roles on stage in front of audiences. To the extent that everyday situations can be compared to interactions between actors and audiences, their success depends on an agreed-upon definition of the situation as well as on the boundaries between front stage, backstage, and off-stage domains.
Going against the popular notion of wink-wink conversions, in which converts blatantly learn how to lie and feign piety, I will show that converts learn from teachers, rabbis, and other bureaucrats how to present a persona sufficiently worthy of conversion despite, but also precisely because of, the public and rabbinic suspicion toward them. They do so by investing themselves in the management of what I call conversion performances —performances that will diminish bureaucratic suspicion and thus help evade the public designation of “wink-wink conversions.”
If it is true, as Rabbi Brandes writes, that conversion candidates “know that when they stand in front of the court they will have to answer its questions in a manner that makes them appear as though they seriously intend to observe the commandments” (Brandes 2008:93), then how do they know this? Who teaches them their role as converts? How are they assisted in the staging, direction, and presentation of their personas? And what does it take for them to perform these personas correctly? Because these winking relationships are dialogical, I ask not only how the candidates learn to present believable personas to conversion agents but also how, throughout these dramaturgical processes, conversion agents present their own professional personas to candidates, and whether candidates believe them.
This book is concerned with the mechanisms, practices, and tensions involved in the presentation of selves in the everyday life of Israel’s conversion policy.

* Because performances take place at all times, even when the performer does not strategically intend them, role playing should be understood in terms much broader than simply lying. In other words, to say that someone plays a role is not to say that he or she is pretending. Goffman places human behavior on a dynamic continuum between sincerity and cynicism, between a person who believes his or her own performance and one who does not. Regions defined as backstage do not necessarily contain a greater inner truth about a person; they do not constitute a space in which the “real” person behind the mask is exposed but merely express another layer of that person.

* even as conversion agents continuously interrogate and question the sincerity and trustworthiness of conversion candidates, they also help shape the persona and orchestrate the performance that candidates are in the process of making.

* that most FSU immigrants do not seek to undergo conversion only sharpens the conversion agencies’ efforts to succeed with the relative few who do seek out conversion.

* most of the converts in Israel today are women. 11 The stakes, then, are high for both sides of the conversion encounter—so high that each becomes enmeshed in a relationship of mutual dependence. As I will show, these relationships hinge on the conversion performance.

* The term conversion is somewhat inadequate for discussions of Jewish giyyur. Its shortcomings derive from its inherent Christian bias (see Gooren 2014); while the term emphasizes religious experience, manifestations of faith, and transformations of the heart, giyyur foregrounds daily praxis, religious law, and the reorganization of daily life. Giyyur does not, of course, disregard belief or spirituality entirely but instead frames them as outcomes of compliant religious practice entailed in one’s covenant with God. Relatedly, whereas a Christian convert joins a confessional community, a Jewish convert joins a group constituted by kinship. Because of its inherent Christian biases, the term conversion fails to capture the ethnonational meanings that form an inseparable part of Jewish identity.

* During the Second Temple period Jewish communities developed conversion ceremonies: circumcision for males to physically mark membership in the covenantal community; a declaration of acceptance of commandments before a judicial court (comprising three men who represent the community); and, finally, ritual immersion for both sexes to symbolize the transition between the convert’s old identity and his or her new one as a Jew. …By establishing these rituals, the rabbis attempted to prescribe social order by fixing boundaries that had hitherto been ambiguous and permeable (Samet 1992, 1993). Whereas in prerabbinic eras conversion had marked a personal and chaotic process, in the second century CE the rabbinic sages introduced set standards, verifiable criteria, and public supervision.

* from late antiquity to contemporary times, of two rabbinic paradigms regarding this issue, arguing that they offer distinct, even contradictory, perspectives on the meaning of giyyur. According to one paradigm, the acceptance of the commandments is the core criteria for valid conversion (see also M. Finkelstein 2006), while the other paradigm emphasizes the bodily rituals that frame giyyur as an act of rebirth into the kinship-based Jewish collective. 13 In the sixteenth century the great canonical code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch , attempted to settle the issue. However, it left the meaning of “the acceptance of the commandments” unclear.

* Because eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Jewish communities were both numerous and dispersed, and because Jewish modernity and secularity manifested themselves differently in various communities, rabbinic attitudes to conversion were far from uniform. These attitudes reflected a variety of ideological and pragmatic positions toward the shifting circumstances of the Jewish experience (Edrei 2010, 2013; Ellenson and Gordis 2012). Rabbis were divided over how to synthesize policy considerations with interpretations of conversion laws (Sagi and Zohar 2007). In particular, they argued over which option constituted the lesser evil: should they stringently interpret the halakhic requirements, even at the price of shrinking the Jewish community, or should they sacrifice halakhic stringency in order to include intermarried couples and “save” the Jewish community?
Jewish modernity presented the possibility of not only a secular identity but also a national one, thereby dividing the two anchors of Jewish identity (religion and ethnicity) and consequently further complicating the discussion of conversion. In the context of the Zionist revival, especially after the establishment of Israel, questions about the meanings of “the acceptance of the commandments” were entangled with questions about whether conversion entails, primarily, an entry into the Jewish nation or into the Jewish religion. These entangled questions linger throughout the sociopolitical history of conversion to Judaism in Israel, including the contemporary context of the national mission.

* The importance of the state lies in the connections it fosters between subjectivity and bureaucratic practices and between ethnonational and religious identity politics. Whether religious converts realize a new affiliation with a religious minority or a religious majority, they redefine and disturb the taken-for-granted nature of these connections (Viswanathan 1998). Depending on its direction, religious conversion is read either as a departure from the national consensus or as an act of incorporation into it (Gellner 2005; Kravel-Tovi 2015; Marzouki 2013; Ö zy ü rek 2009a).
Given these political sensibilities, it is not surprising that modern nation-states—including secular democracies—often take active roles in regulating conversion to and from religious minority groups. To note only a few examples, such involvement is starkly illustrated in Indonesia, a constitutionally secular state, which extends citizenship only to individuals who belong to one of the few official religions (Spyer 1996), and requires conversion for official endorsement of interfaith marriages (Connolly 2009). Such involvement is also evident in Turkey, where conversion is understood as a threat and source of pollution to the state’s homogenized national body. These national anxieties are demonstrated by the secular Turkish legal system, which upholds exclusionary policies toward converts who defy the hegemonic equation of Turkishness with Islam. For example, communities of Christian converts are denied official recognition of their minority status, and descendants of forcibly Islamized Armenians Armenians who attempt to return to their roots are denied state permission to adopt Armenian names. In India the conversion of Hindu individuals and groups to both Islam and Christianity disrupts the delicate balance that the secular state tries to maintain between religious communities. It also undermines the essentialized link between being Indian and Hindu. As a result, both nationalistic Hindu movements and various arms of the Indian state pursue legislative and governmental initiatives to restrict potential conversions.

* Israel can easily be included in the list of states where the politics of conversion intersect with the politics of the nation-state…

* In order to help conversion candidates make it in the rabbinic court, teachers shaped the conversion process as a performance revolving around religious observance. Above all, that performance centered on the presentation of a subject who has undergone a significant religious rite of passage in becoming an observant Jew. In contrast to the Evangelical conversion Susan Harding describes as an “inner rite of passage” (2000:38), this Jewish rite of passage is remarkably external—visible, intelligible, and assessable by various audiences—evoking the sense of a “rite of passing.”

* Dvir: Everyone will have a host family, hopefully a religious one, a family that you can learn from, that will accompany you. This is required with the purpose that following your conversion, you will have some sort of support. You know, you are thrown into a mostly secular world and the point in conversion is to continue to observe Torah and commandments. The court won’t approve someone who doesn’t have a host family. It’s helpful if the family writes a nice recommendation letter, and it is even better if families families show up in court to persuade the judges that the convert is indeed serious and intends to observe commandments.
Yulia , a vocal and dominant student in class, raised her hand : Do we have to visit them every Friday night?
Dvir , laughing : It isn’t mandatory, but the more the better. They should be on your side. You will figure out yourselves what that means. The synagogue also should get to know you.
Yelena: What does it mean “the synagogue should get to know us”?
Dvir: They should make your acquaintance—the gabbai [sexton, a person who assists in running the synagogue services], the community. Walk up, tell them you are undergoing conversion.
Yulia: But women aren’t obligated to go to the synagogue.
Dvir: True, but since you want to undergo conversion, the judges expect you to be super-Jews.
Olga: But the gabbai is a man, so how will he see that I’m there?
As men and women do not mix in the synagogue, this question catalyzed a sequence of ironic suggestions: “Send over a paper plane from the women’s section”; “Ask him to stamp your ticket”; “Wave hello from above”; “Use your regular whistle”; “Text him.” The class laughed. Dvir joined in the laughter but then tried to return to the message at hand: “Again, each of you should figure out on her own what it means for the synagogue to get to know you.” The first part of the class ended. While most students went out on break, several remained. Circling Dvir, they attempted to attain clarification.
Ora: Can we go to a Reform synagogue? They have good vibes.
Dvir , smiling and responding gently : Our orientation is Orthodox and that is what the court prefers. We are less about vibes and more about commandments.
Ora: How will I find a synagogue?
Dvir: You step outdoors, turn right and left, open your eyes. Typically, you will recognize the building.
Lydia: And how do you begin? I can’t just go alone. How would I know how to pray?
Dvir: We will teach you here and, in addition, you should find someone there who can guide you.
Lydia: I don’t know about that. Should I disturb someone in the middle of her prayers?
Tanya , amused by the scenario : Yes, in between all the swaying back and forth and side to side.
The gathered group burst out laughing.
Yulia , uncharacteristically quiet until now, turned to Dvir, concerned : I also have a question. Is it possible to have a host family that is traditional rather than a real religious one? It’s just a family I’ve been with for years. They really adopted me, and I have been spending so much time with them.
Dvir , laughing : What do you mean by “traditional”? What is their Sabbath like?
Yulia: They do everything, Kiddush [benediction over the Sabbath], they light candles. Sometimes they go to the synagogue.
Dvir: So what is the problem? From what you are telling me, they are religious, not traditional.
Yulia , hesitatingly : They don’t actually observe everything.
Dvir: What is the issue? Do they drive on the Sabbath?
Yulia: Yes.
Dvir , laughing : So a religious family is preferable. That’s what the court prefers. But make sure you don’t join them on their car trips on the Sabbath.
Yulia: I can do that, but I really want them to be my host family.
Dvir: Wait; is it your boyfriend’s family?
Yulia , pausing, replied shyly : Yes.
Dvir: Do you intend to marry?
Yulia: You could say so.
Dvir: Will they write a letter for you?
Yulia: That’s another problem. They don’t know I’m not Jewish. It is only my boyfriend who knows. They must not find out.
Dvir: So you want them to be your host family without them knowing about it?
Yulia , suddenly aware of her request’s oddity, laughing : Yes.
Dvir: That seems a bit too complicated, and you can’t get by without a letter. If a wedding is in the air, then I need to see the guy, to make his acquaintance. Let him come to the classes here so that I can get a sense of him.
Yulia: Look, it is serious. Why does he need to come? He is a born and bred kosher Jew. He knows a lot. Why does he need to come?
Dvir: Because if he is part of you, part of your life, we need to get to know him.
Lydia , who had stood aside listening, interrupted : What do you actually expect from us? To become like all those returnees to the fold or just be traditional?
Dvir , smiling : What do you mean by returnees?
Lydia: You know—all included, [observing] everything.
Dvir: Look, we will learn about conversion in an orderly manner, but in principle, yes, observance of commandments is a central tenet that the court is strict about. Yes, you are expected to keep Sabbath and keep kosher. The court will want to see that you observe, and the family has to testify that they saw you observe. Yes, they [conversion judges] expect it.

* Yosefa, an experienced teacher at a Ministry of Education conversion ulpan whom I met in the conversion court, told me in an interview how she had devised a way for female students to make themselves visible to the gabbai. More interesting than the solution itself was the way Yosefa spoke about her responsibility to guarantee students’ visibility.
“I have to guide them how to make their entry. I had a student or two. They were together. They went to the synagogue, went in and went out. Eventually they needed to get a letter from the rabbi that he had seen them at the synagogue. He said, “I never saw them.” They had seen him, but he hadn’t seen them. And he didn’t want to give them the [recommendation] letter. Now, after such an incident [I decided I will have] no such thing. I told them: “You go up to the rabbi, speak to him, and every Friday, every Sabbath you wait for him to come out and you say to him ‘Shabbat Shalom.’ Then he sees you. Otherwise how will he see you?” Do you understand? I have to become involved in all these things.”

* Not surprisingly, the classroom itself became, if informally, a critical front stage in the rite of passing. During the conversion ulpan Avner, Dvir, and Rabbi Yossi often positioned themselves as audiences and as future recommenders for the students’ performances. They made repeated remarks such as “our endorsement carries a lot of weight,” and “of course we will vouch for you.” Because teachers were indeed such an important audience of their rite of passing, students expended substantial effort in managing both their conduct and appearance in class.
Early in the course, nearly all the students had arrived wearing trousers or low-necked tops. Only two months into it, they began appearing in below-the-knee skirts and closed-necked shirts. The first to set this standard was Sylvia. Being the oldest (in her forties, while the others were in their twenties or thirties) and one of two candidates without an FSU background, as well as one of two married students, Sylvia already stood out as unique. It was fascinating to see how in the third or fourth session, Sylvia’s new appearance in a long dress with sleeves below the elbow ignited frenzied debates during breaks, eventually compelling her classmates to adjust their appearance accordingly. They worried that her performance would outdo theirs. Gradually adhering to a similar religious dress code, which would remain generally consistent throughout the process, students comported themselves by strategically passing as good-enough candidates, broadcasting personas whose legible signs their teachers had taught them. For some, this alteration also served to hide what would be considered legible signs of their secular bodies; namely, tattoos on their arms and legs.

* How do conversion teachers pedagogically address their lingering doubts that students may be insincere, perhaps displaying an empty and deceitful religious performance? In interviews some of the teachers described employing a tense pedagogy of suspicion: “We must admit that we don’t have x-rays for examining souls,” said Danny, a Mali teacher, “but I examine how they [students] pray. You can tell within three minutes, even less, within thirty seconds, whether a person is [really] praying or just saying that he is praying.” Rabbi Shlomo, also a Mali teacher, recounted a comparable strategy: “Let me tell you, the simulations I conduct towards the end of the course reveal to me many things I did not find out during these ten months, and the two Sabbaths we spend together are also a tremendous test.… I see things there that can’t be seen in everyday reality. You can’t keep up an act for twenty-four hours.”

* Such was Rabbi Yossi’s account to the class of a sincerity problem that had come to light when a court panel discovered that a candidate had driven in a car on the Sabbath during the conversion conversion period. Her entire process had been tarnished by this revelation, even though she had observed other Sabbath commandments and her conversion was of great personal significance to her. One time, Dvir spoke in class of a candidate who had not disclosed in court her romantic relations with a Jewish-Israeli man. He presented the sincerity problem this convert had created, implying by his omission that her religious observance had thereby become largely irrelevant.
Throughout the conversion course Dvir repeatedly warned the students against the danger of lying; it did not pay to lie; a lie was easily discovered.

* One of the class’s best students, Kati actively participated, almost never missed a class, and often raised practical religious questions that indicated she was, as Rabbi Yossi described to me, “an extremely serious and promising convert.” Dvir reported:
Two weeks ago Kati approached me during break, telling me that she has a boyfriend. I explained to her that he must accompany her to class so we can form an impression of him. She argued for a bit, telling me that he is traditional. She told me his name. You wouldn’t believe who he is, Rami Ganot [my pseudonym for a famous PR professional]. Last week he showed up, this Rami Ganot, sat for three hours and didn’t say a word. Then he spoke. Boy, did he speak.
There is no way to best him. He is so quick and he has a counter-argument for everything. We argued about whether he should attend the classes and I was unable to persuade him. Finally he told me, “So she’ll say that we broke up.” Yesterday she came and told me they had broken up. I really don’t know what to do now. Ignore it? Speak with her? Believe her? I don’t think I believe her.
Rabbi Yossi sat beside me listening attentively; he had no insight to offer but suggested Dvir speak with Rabbi Iram at the seminar. Dvir indeed approached Rabbi Iram during a break. He briefly recounted the story, and Rabbi Iram advised him not to do anything at the moment: “At the very most, write it down later in a separate letter to the court.” Around a week later Kati shared with me privately that she had a boyfriend but did not reveal his name.

* Kati underwent conversion with the first round of conversions in the class. A few months later a local newspaper’s gossip section featured a picture of her wedding to Rami Ganot. Some three years later I saw on her Facebook page photos of her new family. In a few of the photos I noticed that Kati was still wearing the Star of David pendant.
Did Kati lie during her conversion performance? The answer is probably both yes and no. Did Dvir lie in his performance as a conversion teacher? Also probably yes and no. Do these questions help us understand the complexity of the lived experience, relationships, and messages making up the situation I have been describing? Again, yes and no. Yes, because the dual answer to these questions illuminates how the dichotomy between sincerity and insincerity breaks down under the impossible circumstances in which the national mission unfolds. No, because the attempt to understand Dvir’s nontrivial decision to unequivocally support Kati’s rite of passing is, in my opinion, a much more interesting endeavor. Dvir did not believe Kati’s official story but chose to collaborate (some would say connive) with her and—unbeknownst to her—rescue her “too perfect,” “too sweet” to be true conversion performance.
When challenging Kati, Dvir did so privately, backstage. During “on-camera” discussions with Rabbi David, Dvir played an undercover member of her team. He could not reveal to her what he had done on her behalf because he, too, had to save face as a teacher and he also hoped to educate her. For someone who idealized the notion of a sincere performance, Dvir both compromised his principles and took a risk. Rabbi David might have suspected that Dvir too had a sincerity problem, potentially marring their working relationship and Dvir’s ability to advocate for converts. “Yes, it was a difficult dilemma, but that’s what I decided,” he had said laconically, telling me all and nothing.
At Mali’s pedagogic seminars Dvir met with other teachers who, like him, were often troubled by dilemmas of advocacy. How can a teacher recommend students who do not inspire trust to court representatives and rabbinic judges? Should secrets and known lies be exposed to the court, preserving sincerity in front of the court but violating relations of trust between teachers and students? How can teachers maintain personal, professional, and religious integrity without dooming certain candidates?

* Sincerity is interactive in nature. In various Christian contexts, anthropologists of conversion document how converts interact with their new communities as sincere speakers of the language of faith (see Harding 2000, Keane 2002). Peter van der Veer also points to this interaction: “Sincerity of conversion is not only an interior state, but is located precisely in a performative act of communicating to others that one’s sincerity is anchored in an interior state of self-questioning and self-accounting” (van der Veer 2006:11).
However, as Jewish Orthodoxy emphasizes religious, sometimes public, practice rather than an interior state of belief, we would hinder our understanding of sincerity or sincere speech about Jewish conversion if we only considered the relationship between words and inner states. In a religious setting evoking normative mottos such as “hearts follow deeds” ( acharei hama’asim imashchu halevavot ) and “We will do and obey” ( Na’ase venishma ), a setting clearly not premised on the semiotic production of inner truth (see Carr 2013), we are obliged to recognize the role of words in relation to deeds.
Indeed, in the conversion court words did not primarily reference inner states, such as beliefs, emotions, thoughts, or intentions; these inner states were not important in themselves. Rather, words exchanged in the rabbinic court were mostly linked to real deeds and actualized commitments in the world: “I light the candles”; “I listened to Kol Nidrei [lit. “All Vows”] on the eve of Yom Kippur ”; “I am strict about eating only kosher food.” Judges regarded these claims as sincere only so far as candidates provided additional and facile articulation of their respective deeds: the blessing over the candles and the exact time set for lighting them (which changes weekly); the opening of the Kol Nidrei prayer or knowledge of its ritual significance; practical rules for keeping kosher in one’s own kitchen (such as how to separate dairy and meat foods in the refrigerator or how to manage with only one sink). Rabbinic judges extended converts’ words the greatest currency when those words were supported by demonstrated performances. When they were unsupported, judges reprimanded candidates about creating a sincerity problem for the court. Candidates passed when they demonstrated sufficient coherence between their life setting and religious conduct and their declaration of intentions and commitments. In these cases, they earned judges’ trust and positive appraisal: “We are impressed with your sincerity”; “We have no doubt you are sincere.” 4 Conversion performances were trials of sincerity.
To be sure, judges did not completely disregard the relationship between candidates’ words and inner states. To some degree, they expected to learn about the intentions and emotions fueling converts’ personal recounting of their paths toward conversion. Judges also asked some questions about Jewish tenets of faith and took candidates’ affective declarations of oaths as evidence of true religious commitments. Furthermore, I did at times hear judges suspiciously speculating about some candidates’ “real intentions,” concerning whether they expressed what they “really felt” and “really intended to commit to.” Nevertheless, because of the court’s orthopractic orientation, candidates’ internal, subjective states of intent and commitment were generally understood as measurable constructs evidenced in the empirical link between words and deeds.
For my interlocutors at the conversion court, this marginal significance attributed to inner truths was grounded in, and justified by, a significant principle in Jewish law—“Things of the heart are not things” ( Dvarim shebalev einam dvarim ), meaning that unspoken intentions cannot constitute valid grounds for legal decisions. Conversion judges often raised this principle in their closed discussions, generally when disagreeing about a particular candidate’s merit. In so doing, they reminded each other that according to Jewish law, their debate must not focus on inferred intentions but follow clear, observable evidence. In the context of wide rabbinic and public discussions of conversion, senior judge Rabbi Israel Rosen names this principle as validating the conversion court’s working methods, including basing decisions on in-the-moment observations. Referring to this “halakhic safety net” he writes:
“Halakhically-wise, we lean to some extent on the opinion that in conversion, as in property, marriage, and divorce laws, “Things of the heart are not things.” Here is not the place to detail about which Jewish legal scholars do or do not hold this view.… One can find converts with integrity who, within time, have become more religious, and hence have started to have retrospective doubts about the level of sincerity they had had when they were authorized as Jews. Now, after two or three years, they want to re-convert with full conscience. It is inconceivable to think of opening a new track of “upgrading” conversion! No, it is not our way.…
We judge each convert favorably, relying on the fact that we don’t have before us any concrete counter-evidence, and, of course, no explicit expression on the part of the convert that conveys doubts about some of the commandments.
(Rosen 2010:212)
The implied logic in Rabbi Rosen’s words—converts should be presumed credible and sincere at the time of the conversion procedure—allows him to fully accept court performances. The emphasis on what converts demonstrate at the time of the giyyur procedure is prevalent in rabbinic discussions of conversion in modern times (see Sagi and Zohar 2007). In the course of my fieldwork I encountered this logic several times. For example, Rabbi Levin, the court representative, explained to me why he was not troubled by reported evidence of low levels of religious observance among approved converts: “I’m not alarmed by the fact that converts do not observe commandments after conversion. Life is dynamic and unexpected. Various streams pull them after conversion. They meet a secular boyfriend. They get confused. They become tempted and observing becomes impossible. We have to remember that we examine them at a very sterile, static moment, and I can only check whether at that moment they keep [commandments] or not.”
Multisited Performance
“We really don’t know as much about converts as people think we do. This is why the convert must show us the right signs and present the right figure, and I am extra cautious not to take it even further and say “the image” of “a real convert.” Even the convert’s friends have to think she is observant.”
—Judge Rabbi Bar
Despite thorough interrogation of conversion performances, rabbinic judges remained aware of the uncertainty of their assessments of candidates’ sincerity and hence their susceptibility to empty and deceptive performances. Thus they expanded their field of vision to outside the court to compensate for their blind spots. In so doing, they constructed court hearings and the entire conversion process as multisited performances—spectacles of legible signs delivered by arrays of meaningful witnesses, including conversion teachers, synagogue sextons, host families, and the court’s own representatives. At the court individuals positioned in all of these categories served as witnesses to the reliability of conversion performances, whether in writing, over the telephone, or in person. Synagogue sextons ( gabbaim ) tended to send letters of recommendation, whereas adopting families often sent representatives (usually host mothers who, expectedly, were more active than host fathers in guiding female converts) for court appearances.
In their testimonies, witnesses generally focused on those legible signs of religious conduct that candidates broadcast on their way to the conversion court. The language witnesses used to describe these signs was both empirical and impressional, referring not only to what candidates had been observed doing (lighting candles, reciting blessings over food, dressing appropriately, and the like) but also to general impressions they had made along the way.
To one candidate’s benefit, her host mother noted her integrity: “She seems like a strong person with great willpower.” Another host mother applauded her candidate’s progress: “I saw her totally immersing in religious life. I can tell she did it with true intention.” A third candidate was not as fortunate when her host mother told the court: “I evaluate her as an easily tempted woman.” Yet another host mother described her candidate as “amazing”: “She goes to the synagogue even more than I do. I admit, I get tired sometimes, but unlike me, she is very strict and consistent.” This positive feedback elicited a pleased response from a judge: “Wonderful, the most important thing is that you saw her do all that and you know her as someone who observes the commandments.”

* conversion seems to naturally progress toward narrative, calling for new chapters in one’s biography, precisely because it marks a fundamental shift, a new direction one takes in life. Such a shift supposedly lends itself well to reflexive narratives. Indeed, the ethnographic problem that engages me in this chapter lies exactly at the intersection of narrative and change—that is, in the requirement placed on conversion candidates to write, tell, and, ultimately, perform a story of change.

* Conversion narratives are rhetorical, reflexive mechanisms through which converts provide accounts to themselves and to various audiences of the changes they have made. Such accounts are assumed not only to reference but also to constitute the sense of change that underscores the personal experiences of conversion (Harding 2000; Stromberg 1993). Often, such an account is called for by the congregation or polity one seeks to join and thus functions as a public rite of passage. Such ritualized modes of conversion storytelling implicate narrators and listeners in extensive processes of socialization, gatekeeping, and the corroboration of communal identity. To the extent that such accounts are always culturally formatted and historically situated, they have much to tell us about the broader religious and linguistic relations in which these personal experiences are embedded.
Conversion to (and within) Christianity, with its overriding metanarrative of redemption, has provided a particularly rich set of contexts in which scholars have demonstrated how conversion is culturally constructed through narratives of change. As Joel Robbins writes: “Most forms of Christianity provide their adherents some forms of disjunctive narrative by virtue of plotting conversion as a decisive break with a past self”

* Equally suggestive, conversion to communism, with its own metanarrative of salvation, has been theorized as a domain that is highly conducive to narratives of transformation. For example, Igal Halfin’s (2006, 2011a) account of 1920s Bolshevik political culture examines how autobiographies of Soviet citizens were regimented to conform to a binary and linear logic of political conversion. Publicly performed and scrutinized, “red autobiographies” were constructed to move from darkness to light, thereby delineating the old, yet-to-be-saved self and a new, true revolutionary one—a self worth including in the community of the elected.
Conversion narratives do not necessarily have to follow a radical, binary logic of transformation from an old to a new self. In fact, the broader and more significant argument for my purpose is how institutional and religious ideologies shape and ultimately script the stories individuals must tell about the changes they undergo. 2 For example, Lynn Davidman argues that secular Jewish women who return to Orthodoxy learn to narrate their conversion as a continuous and growing attraction to the values of Orthodox Judaism, rather than as an abrupt change in their biography (Davidman 1991:84). By listening to stories of veteran converts, newly Orthodox women learn to emphasize, in their own stories, the feelings of disenchantment they had long held about the liberal, modern promises of the secular world and the fascination they had always had with an observant Jewish life. Tellingly, when Davidman listens to those who converted out of Orthodox communities, she discovers they have no parallel ready-made accounts and that they remain “scriptless” (Davidman 2015; Davidman and Grail 2007).

* the rite of passing depended to a large extent on narrative performance.

* The task of telling a story of becoming something new turned out to be tricky for the conversion candidates I met. On the one hand, the three teachers occasionally encouraged them to stress their Jewish roots and upbringing, thereby portraying conversion as a natural evolution in the lives of those who already feel and live as Jews. On one occasion, when the class joked about Jewish food, and Helena recalled with a tinge of nostalgia how she loved her Jewish grandma’s special chicken soup, Avner responded, “You can mention it when you meet Rabbi David.” The class laughed, but Avner was quick to emphasize: “I’m serious. I truly think it would help the rabbis sympathize with your situation. It shows them how authentic you are, and how natural being Jewish is to you.” On another occasion, Dvir referred to Yulia’s memories of a Zionist youth group she attended before her immigration to Israel, indicating to her in passing that she “should bring it up” in her upcoming interview with Rabbi David.
Yet candidates could not simply speak as Jews and tell a story of conversion as a static process—as an event devoid of any aspect of becoming something new. Such a possibility might indicate that conversion was a superficial, strategic move, conducted only for the sake of bureaucratic and social benefits. Narratives had to revolve in some way around the idea of conversion as a deeply transformative change in identity, rather than a purely legal change in one’s status.
In light of this double message regarding continuation and change, it is no wonder that conversion students often expressed confusion about how much change they should stress in their stories. In the rare cases when candidates emphasized to Rabbi David that they “already are Jewish,” they opened themselves up to critique in ways that sometimes led the conversion situation to break down. The following example reveals how a conversion candidate’s failure to adhere to the narrative framework of becoming something new can disrupt the conversion procedure.
Rabbi David: Why do you want to convert?
Roni: For me, it is not really a conversion, it is more … as far as I am concerned, I’m Jewish.
Rabbi David: But you are not.
Roni: My father is Jewish. For me, conversion is more of a formal thing, to follow the rules of the Rabbinate.
Rabbi David , in a protesting voice : Of the Rabbinate?
Roni , moving uncomfortably in her chair, searching for the right words : Of tradition.
Rabbi David , crying out : Of tradition?
Roni: Well … of religion.
Rabbi David: You need to understand. It comes from the Bible. It is not something made up by rabbis with short or long beards. These rules come from God.
Roni: I know they come from God, but the rabbis continued God.
Rabbi David , seeming at this stage desperate and impatient, trying a new strategy : So why do you want to convert if you are already a Jew?
Roni , appearing to think the matter over, delaying her response : For me, my identity is not complete until it’s written on my ID card that I am a Jew.
Rabbi David , concluding teasingly : So, basically, you’re just after the registration.
Roni , seeming exhausted and confused : Not only that. Judaism makes me a better person. It gives you moral rules to live by. It fits me.
Rabbi David , glancing at his cell phone and realizing how late it has become : Keep working and think things over.
The fact that in her self-representation, Roni did not narrate a story of becoming something new caught the attention of Rabbi David. Not only did Roni deny the authority of God, the rabbis, and Jewish tradition to determine her identity (a claim that I usually heard only in personal and confidential conversations I had with conversion candidates); she also breached the basic conversion scheme of becoming something new. Relating to the bureaucratic procedure in reductionist terms, she left little room for conversion to function as something that makes a difference in her biography. Once she realized her mistake, she turned to the seemingly safe anchor of conversion as a pathway to a religiously informed moral life.
A few days later, when I caught up with Roni, she told me how troubled she was after the meeting. Having seen Rabbi David’s reaction, and after comparing her experience with that of her classmates, she explained that she knew better now what to say to Rabbi David next time: “It is so twisted. Conversion is so important for me precisely because being Jewish is so important to me. But somehow he got me talking as though I don’t care about conversion. I didn’t know how to redirect the course of the conversation, and I just kept making mistakes.”

* I did not hear stories of spiritual transformation. The converts I met were not motivated by religious insights or a search for life-changing meaning. Not one of them would have voluntarily adopted (even temporarily) a religious lifestyle had this not been a precondition for conversion; not one of them would have chosen conversion unless she felt it was right, even necessary, for herself and her family, social status, and bureaucratic standing. Conversion did not transform their lives entirely, nor did it cause them to view themselves differently.

* It points at creative maneuverings made precisely by those who attempt to meet—or give the appearance of meeting—formal rules, while simultaneously tracing the indeterminate and interdependent nature of these efforts. Thomas Szasz’s insights about the mechanisms of lying give particular clarity to what I argue about winking:
The value of lying derives not so much from its direct, communicative meanings as it does from its indirect, meta-communicative ones. By telling a lie, the liar in effect informs his partner that he fears and depends on him and wishes to please him: this reassures the recipient of the lie that he has some control over the liar and therefore need not fear losing him. At the same time, by accepting the lie without challenging it, the person lied to informs the liar that he, too, needs the relationship and wants to preserve it. In this way, each participant exchanges truth for control, dignity for security. Marriages and other “intimate” human relationships often endure on this basis.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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