Why is Nobody Here Talking About Conversions?

First, a disclaimer: There are many good reasons not to speak about one’s own conversion. It is an individual legitimate choice, it is private and nobody’s business, and in halakhic terms, a converted Jew is bound by all obligations and duties as any other Jew. A few historical exceptions notwithstanding, Judaism has always maintained a permeable boundary, as Rabbinic Judaism has defined Jewish ethnicity not only in “biological,” but also in legal, halakhic terms: The Jewish collective is “made” out not only of genealogical Jews, but of genealogical Jews, whose bodies are constituted by the law, and are, as such, its intelligible subjects. They are legal-ethnic entities, and therefore, a legal process – conversion – can “give birth” to a Jewish body and make it part of the children of Abraham, Yitzhak and Jacob. In this sense then, it is insubstantial to mention the particular “birth-process,” through which one has come into being.

However, Berlin 2015 is unlike Pumbedhita 500 CE, and also unlike most other places in the contemporary Jewish world: We are not dealing here with an organically grown Jewish community, which absorbs converted individuals, but the other way around: Berlin’s Jewish community consists in large numbers of Jews, who have no or almost no historical past as Jews, no memory of Jewish community- and/or family life, and little or no knowledge of Jewish texts and hermeneutics. In Berlin, Jewish communities consist of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, among them a few “returnees” to the Jewish faith, or converts.

Given these characteristics, one would assume there to be some active, conscious, self-reflective engagement among Jews about the meaning and implications of being a “new Jew,” forming a Jewish community, in a city whose “original” Jews were murdered 70 years earlier, in part by the new Jews own ancestral generation. But there is no such talk. With a very few exceptions, converts to Judaism do not self-identify as converts, and my question is why this is so.


Back in Jerusalem, I usually did not identify as a convert unless the course of the conversation demanded it (aka, when questions about one’s family-history arise and so forth). The reason was, simply, that I wanted to avoid people’s weird comments – “but you look so Jewish,” “so you know more about Judaism then I do,” or “what a sadomasochistic decision.” Here in Berlin, however, the situation is a “little” different: I am all the time identifying as a convert, not because people here say less weird things, but because of my unease with Germany’s philosemitic desires (out of which I myself have, of course, evolved).

Germany’s non-Jewish majority displays a specific desire for Jews, a desire less for the Jew in and of himself, but for the Jew as someone, whose being is relevant to one’s own, non-Jewish, German history and self-perception. The Jew is, as I’ve written elsewhere, the ultimate guarantor of the “new Germany.” Being the ultimate victim, he is the most sublime witness of Germany’s transformation, the one who has authority – by virtue of Jewishness – to testify. The specific German interest in the Jew on the one hand, and the specific nature of Germany’s Jewish community on the other, thus make a disquieting picture: Germans, who converted to Judaism, testify to Germans who did not convert to Judaism, a win-win situation for both parties. Jews and non-Jews are placed on opposed benches of the courtroom, though in effect, they share the same bench: The deal presupposes a philosemitic framework, and the tacit consent of both parties not to question the Jew’s status as ultimate witness and to regard Germany as, indeed, worthy of a certificate of transformation. The political value of this testimony, of course, collapses like a house of cards once the witness and the witnessed are being exposed as one and the same person: When both the Jew and the non-Jew share a Nazi past, never occupied a minority-position in religious, cultural, sociological and political terms, and share a hegemonic space characterized by philosemitic desires, there is not much the Jew can testify to…the best witnesses of Germany’s transformation are, in this sense, not converted Jews, but Muslims.

In a way, contemporary Jewish Germany is thus trapped in a situation reverse of the one in pre-war Germany: Whereas in the past, Jews discussed different ways to re-define Jewishness in light of assimilation and acculturation to Germany’s Christian majority-society, today, at stake is not the assimilation of Jews to a non-Jewish majority society, but the “assimilation” of a non-Jewish society to Jews, a non-Jewish society’s “production” of Jews, who are most “valuable” to their own needs: Jews, whose socio-political-religious values are wholly compatible with those of the majority. In contemporary Germany, it is not the Jew, who assimilates, but the non-Jew who becomes “Judaized.”

The new trend of philosemitic Germany is, accordingly, not the engagement with the Holocaust, aka, the moment when Jews and Germans were irreversibly divided. The new trend is the Haskala, when “good Jews” settled in Berlin, when Germans and Jews supposedly entered a symbiosis, or at least “could” have entered a symbiosis had not a Spaghetti monster called anti-Semitism landed in Germany’s backyards. Now, with the monster being gone (and the Jews, unfortunately, too), we just go on where we’ve stopped earlier: We “revive” that wonderful symbiosis, open a college named after Abraham Geiger, produce rabbis who are compatible with, and satisfy our sentiments, rabbis for not-yet existing Jewish communities, invest in “Jewish revival” wherever possible and do not ask – never ask – who the carriers of this revival actually are: Homemade productions wholly defined by philosemitic needs and fantasies, or people whose solidarities, lived experiences, memories and webs of knowledge were nourished by Jewish communities, families and institutions beyond these needs and fantasies?

How come – and this is a serious question – that a non-Jewish social-democratic member of the German Bundestag dares to tell me that he “misses Moses Mendelssohn” when talking to me? In a blink of an eye, self-confident, without even a little whiff of thought about the society, that made a figure like Mendelssohn, without a little tiny self-reflective thought about where all this ended.


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4 Responses to Why is Nobody Here Talking About Conversions?

  1. Hannah, a quick answer as someone who converted a very short time ago and has not even had many opportunities to testify to her conversion in Berlin: Many people do not know that one can convert to Judaism. A lot of explaining would be necessary… where do you say that you converted, in which places/ situations?

  2. Yes, this relates to my point: many Germans do not understand Judaism in ethnic-legal terms, but rather in historical-cultural terms: The Jew is, in German imaginations, always an Ashkenazi type with a European family history, meaning, someone connected to one’s own history – which is why many Germans are surprised when I tell them that “Tzuberi” is not a Polish name, but originates in Yemen…re:your question: On the very basic level, I do not hide it. And explicitly, I mention it when being asked questions about “Jewish life in Neukölln etc.” Something I did not write in this post: I also mention it simply as a matter of solidarity with other converts, but fully respect other converts’ decision not to do so…

  3. esther says:

    A small correction on the side. Berlins jewish community is an exception to other places in G in that it indeed counts a number of original berliners among its members. And there are polish jews, too, this being a common feature in other german communities. I am not going into the complexities.

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