Project Conversion

Michael J. Solender, my Jewish Mentor, could see the confusion on my face as I tried to follow four simultaneous conversations going on…in the library, and not quietly.

This exchange included an older gentleman from South Africa, a young lady (probably late teens, early twenties), Michael, and another woman who works at the library. I’m not sure if they knew one another, but it didn’t matter. They were Jews, and they were in the same room, so they did know one another.

“It’s like a Jewish radar,” My Mentor went on to explain. “Most of the time we can just tell, or we’ll drop a word in Yiddish. If they react appropriately, then we’ve just found mishpocheh, family.

And the rapid-fire conversation with random strangers?

“I’m sure there’s a Yiddish word for it, but it’s like a Jewish stream of consciousness.”

Stream of consciousness. There’s was an instant connection–like long-lost friends–and I did all I could to keep up. In culture outside of this medium, the rapid pace of the conversation is disorienting, and I’ll bet each topic switched places within the context of the original at least a dozen times. In many cases one might consider the induction of new ideas or comments as an interruption. I certainly felt that way and I wasn’t even part of the chat! But that wasn’t the case at all. The whole experience was like watching multiple streams cutting through the stones of outside culture and norms and reconnecting to the larger Jewish river.

And then a few of them threw Yiddish and Hebrew into the mix. I politely stepped away to browse the Anne Frank exhibit.

“What’s that all about?” I asked the photograph.

She only smiled back.

My Mentor went on to explain a theory about how this phenomenon developed. Humans, like many creatures, are socially oriented. We also crave the structure and comfort that a community offers. These communities–for most of us–are in the form of neighborhoods, towns or even countries. People, therefore, connect this feeling of community with a geographic space.

For nearly 2,000 years, the Jews didn’t have this.

When the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., the Jews were scattered across the globe. Over the centuries these Jews went on to found local communities such as the Sephardic Jews of Spain and the Kaifeng Jews of China. This scattered community is known as the Diaspora. Cycles of persecution and assimilation led to the Jews becoming both fully integrated in their society, yet still ethnically, socially, religiously, and emotionally grafted to the people and land of Israel. Jewish theology (in general) awaits the Mashiach (“anointed one”, Greek-“Messiah”), the promised one who will bring the Jewish people together in Israel (among other things) and so this one hope sustained and nourished their souls for generations. The Jews then became a mobile community that transcended the brick, mortar and soil required by other cultures to maintain their identity and sense of place. This is why virtually any Jew–no matter their background–can connect with another Jew.

This concept blew me away. I’ve experienced similar phenomena while at pow wows for my tribe, the Lumbee, as they come together from many states across the United States, however the Jews take this to a larger and far deeper level. One interesting aspect of this Jewish “stream of consciousness” is that converts to the faith–while fully welcomed and grafted into the community–don’t seem to have this connection…at least not right away. Perhaps second generation Jews born into a convert household would have better luck, however this issue does raise interesting questions about the culture and genetics developed out of the Diaspora.

Every day the Jews, their culture, and their faith become a deeper and more alien place to me. It’s a culture and religion that is founded upon a community that (according to the Torah) collectively heard the voice of God and as one people, accepted a covenant with the divine. This integration, this identity between faith and community is rare and is what makes this month both a challenge and an absolute joy to be part of.

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