Hello. It looks like you�re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

On conversion

On conversion

Friday marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year. Not long ago, for Xavier Greenwood, it would have been a day like any other. But things look a bit different now

Seamus Heaney’s kite flies all Sunday afternoon, a black lark whose string slumps and soars. Fearing that time will run out, he asks his sons to hold it.

Before the kite plunges down into the wood

and this line goes useless

take in your two hands, boys, and feel

the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.

You were born fit for it.

Stand here in front of me

and take the strain.

Heaney wrote “A Kite for Michael and Christopher” while remembering his own childhood, the afternoon when his father launched a kite behind their house. What Heaney saw that day, he hands to his children: a kite, a soul, full of life’s experiences. Feel the force of suffering, Heaney is saying. Learn to endure it. 

Seamus Heaney wrote in Ireland during the Troubles, using images from the past to make sense of the violence around him: spear shafts on the back of a Homeric woman, the mummified corpse of the Tollund Man. Even if he shrank from picking a side, born a Catholic in Protestant Ulster, and though he might have thought himself an “artful voyeur”, the Troubles were intensely personal. Out in the plains of the Tollund Man, seeing what he’d seen, Heaney was “lost, unhappy and at home”.

I turned to him in 2017, when my mum and sister narrowly escaped the Manchester terror attack. They were at the Ariana Grande concert where 22 people were killed. It was the closest I’ve come to intense violence irrupting my life, and Heaney’s poetry helped me process what happened. But this proximity was temporary. I’ve never felt that generational trauma, never truly related those spear shafts to an experience of mine – or my ancestors.

So what does it mean to go into a different weather system? When my kite has only ever tugged with everyday cares, what does it mean to enter a space where the winds pull harder? Where I’ll pass on not just the joys of life, but hard things too. What does that mean for me?

Every year, around a hundred people in Britain convert to Reform Judaism, enough to fill a small synagogue. A blade of grass in the field of god-fearers, apostates, apathetics and atheists who make up our country.

There are reasons why this number is modest. Jews don’t proselytise; religion isn’t trendy; converting needs time and dedication. The pool of male converts is even smaller. Most people consider Judaism to be matrilineal – passed through the mother.

I am, then, on a road less travelled. Not long after I met my partner, she said she wanted to bring up a Jewish family. A few months later, on a loud winter’s night in a London pub, this calcified into conversion. 

It’s an enriching journey. I’m entering a space where community and intention matter, where rituals bring reflection, where weddings are beautiful and raucous, where every Friday you can sit over candles with challah and wine.

But it’s also a lot to bear.

Last October, during Yom Kippur, I fasted for the first time. From sundown one day to nightfall the next, we attended services and thought about atonement. We also watched The U.S. and the Holocaust.

The Ken Burns documentary examines America’s response to the Shoah. A year before the outbreak of the Second World War, two-thirds of Americans thought Jews were at fault for what was happening to them in Germany. Not long after, a ship of Jewish refugees was refused landing in the US and returned to Europe. A quarter of the passengers were estimated to have been killed in death camps. Watching this film gave me pause. I began to understand that I would be taking on an unhappy history, and one which is closer to home than I would like to admit.

I’ve wondered if I have a right to be part of this story, to feel its strain. Conversion might make me Jewish, but it won’t conjure up a different past. My ancestors have suffered, for sure. But that’s my history. The destruction of the Second Temple is not.

I’ve pondered, too, the realities of modern-day antisemitism. Will I feel the same winds as my Jewish friends? Will I be spared the worst of it because, in the eyes of antisemites, I might not “look Jewish”? On debates around antisemitism, in the face of lived experience, will my convert’s voice be given equal weight to someone born Jewish? Should it?

Even if it doesn’t fully answer these questions, the Hebrew Bible and the story of Ruth reassures me. Ruth, a gentile, devotes herself to her mother-in-law, an Israelite. “Wherever you go I will go. Wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God.” Ruth marries an Israelite and gives birth to a line that leads to King David, ancestor of the promised Messiah. The Bible doesn’t explicitly say that Ruth converts, but here’s the point: Judaism is open to those who are committed.

Still I hope for a point of revelation. At what second, in what place, by what trigger, will I feel Jewish?

For much of my life I’ve been like an ancient Greek, walking backwards into the future. Faced with the uncertainty of what lies ahead, I fixate on what came before. Like many in my generation, I’m deeply nostalgic. I despair of all my disposable cameras, ticket stubs, Argos catalogues and Pokémon cards lost to time. I spend hours on Ancestry, painting the branches of my family tree. If I was a classical hero, I’d be Aeneas, fleeing the ruins of Troy only to try to rebuild it from sandcastles.

That’s what makes conversion monumental. It’s an act of reimagining my future, re-engineering my present, reckoning with my past. Maybe it would be easier to let go of my past, it being so different from the Jewish experience. To forget playing villager number two in the nativity, receiving my first computer as a confirmation present, crying when I hear the sax in “Parce mihi Domine”. But it does me no good to pretend I was never not Jewish, to imagine that I went to Friday services instead of watching South Park, to presume that the Anglicanism into which I was born – or at least the songs, the stillness, the beauty of its naves – will never move me again.

“That’s what makes conversion monumental. It’s an act of reimagining my future, re-engineering my present, reckoning with my past.”

I don’t think I met a Jewish person until I was a teenager. I always assumed I would drift alongside religion rather than feel any impulse towards it. But then I fell in love. And in service of that love, I’m learning to forgo Aeneas and be like the Roman god Janus, whose two faces see past and future. My job is to reconcile what came with what will come, and in time to make it whole.

Conversion to Judaism is a formal process. Adult education classes; attending synagogue; observing festivals. When you and your rabbi feel you are ready, you go to the Beit Din. A panel of rabbis talk to you about why you want to convert. Men have to grapple with the decision to be circumcised. The final stage is the mikveh, a ritual bath. It doesn’t wash away the past. It’s a new beginning.

There is, then, a roadmap towards faith, to a moment when I can legitimately say: “I am Jewish.” But, in reality, it’s a lifetime journey. And I know that there won’t be a single moment when I suddenly feel Jewish, not all at once. It forms, pixel by pixel, like a picture. Watching The Prince of Egypt in the middle of lockdown. Dancing the Hora at our friend’s wedding in Italy. Saying Kiddush by heart for the first time. Slowly but deliberately, I develop.

What does all this say about belief? I’ve always felt a bit of a coward in that regard. A self-declared agnostic so I don’t have to confront unhelpful possibilities: that there’s either a great emptiness or I’ve been ignoring the divine.

“Discussing conversion with my mum, she asks a lot of questions. First was the deepest: will you still come home for Christmas?”

This isn’t sardonic. I deeply admire those with faith. Judaism has taught me it takes courage to have it, to sing into the buffering winds. Because what is faith if not hope that things will get better? And what is life without that hope?

I’m not sure my God has to be a creator or a controller. I’d like to think of Hashem as a collective human spirit, mortar between the bricks, the glue that makes us indivisible.

Since I started discussing conversion with my mum, she’s asked a lot of questions. First was the deepest: will you still come home for Christmas? In our family, we don’t think that much about Jesus. But as we live our separate lives, scattered across the UK, Christmas has remained a constant warmth. That’s the import of my mum’s question: will we still be together? 

Even where it’s been taken from pagans, the imagery of the holiday – advent calendars, the Christmas tree – is undeniably Christian. Fundamentally, Christmas remembers Jesus as the messiah, something that Jewish people don’t believe. It makes it unlikely that my partner and I will celebrate Christmas in our future home.

But conversion isn’t a clean break. My partner and I have common ground: Baileys and mulled wine, A Charlie Brown Christmas on vinyl, It’s a Wonderful Life. Many of the best Christmas songs, my partner likes to remind me, are written by Jews. And I’m sure I’ll still celebrate Christmas with my family. Conversion is life changing, but I’m not planning to leave anyone behind. Older though I am now, I still remember the kite handed to me by my mother.

After years feeling suffocated by the Troubles, Seamus Heaney wrote “Station Island”. In the poem, Heaney goes on a pilgrimage through the Irish literary past, culminating in a meeting with the ghost of James Joyce. “Don’t be so earnest,” Joyce tells him, “so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes. Let go, let fly, forget.” With that, it’s as if Heaney “stepped free into space”.

In his later years, Heaney says, he walks on air against his better judgement. He imagines “for the marvellous as well as for the murderous”. His last poem, written two weeks before his death, is dedicated to his toddler granddaughter. Unburdened, he steps in her tread. “For now we foot it lightly in time, and silently.”

I first learned about Judaism solely through the lens of suffering. Like many British children I equated Jewishness with the Holocaust, the heaviest of winds. I’m so lucky to be discovering everything else, a world full of life, intelligence and energy. It’s more than I could have imagined to have found a community with so much beauty, hope and lightness of being. A plane where I too can walk on air against my better judgement.

So much is down to my partner, my perfect companion. I’ve talked lots about Heaney, but when I think of our journey, it’s Nick Cave who comes to mind. “I don’t believe in an interventionist god,” he sings. “But I believe in love and I know that you do too. And I believe in some kind of path that we can walk down, me and you.” We fly our kites together, spinning, turning and dancing in the breeze.

A small dictionary of Jewish terms

Beit Din rabbinical panel that authorises formal conversion to Judaism. It dates back to Biblical times when Moses appointed elders to help govern his people.

Challah delicious leavened bread eaten on the Sabbath. It is normally braided and can be topped with sesame and poppy seeds.

Hashem a common Hebrew term for God. It literally means “the name”. 

Hebrew Bible known in Hebrew as the Tanach, it includes the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophets) and the Ketuvim (Writings). The Torah is made up of the first five books of Moses, starting with Genesis and ending with Deuteronomy.

Hora a traditional Jewish dance done in a circle at celebratory events.

Kiddush a blessing sung or spoken over wine during the Sabbath and religious festivals.

Mikveh a bath used for ritual purification in Jewish life. You are immersed in it at the moment of conversion. 

Reform Judaism an egalitarian, progressive denomination of Judaism.

Second Temple the holy temple in Jerusalem until 70 CE. Its destruction by Romans changed the nature of Jewish practice, which became diasporic.

Shoah the Hebrew word for catastrophe, used to refer to the Holocaust.

Yom Kippur religious holiday of utmost importance in the Jewish calendar. Also known as the Day of Atonement, it takes place in autumn and involves fasting.

Xavier Greenwood is a producer and reporter at Tortoise.

This piece appeared in the latest edition of Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. You can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.