Swept Up

 

 

In my early twenties in London, I married a man who was not halakhically Jewish, though he had had a mostly secular-Jewish upbringing similar to my own. My parents refused to attend a civil wedding. I sulked in my callow, who-needs-this-bourgeois-rubbish way, then marveled at the zeal and genuine joy with which my beloved applied himself to the equivalent of an American Conservative conversion that would receive him into a tribe of which he was already an active member.

Given the more rigorous hurdles they must clear to achieve an Orthodox conversion, how much more amazing is the staying power of some of the gentile candidates whose rites of passage we follow in Leap of Faith, a sharply observed, yet admirably open-minded documentary produced and directed by Antony Benjamin and Stephen Friedman.

It is often said that Jews don’t proselytize—we do, but mostly to reel in lapsed members of the tribe. Gentile converts to Orthodox Judaism must go through an obstacle course—including adult circumcision and either remarriage to a spouse to whom one has been married for many years or abstention from dating during the conversion process—that must sometimes feel more like a series of invitations to fail. As one rabbi in the film explains with evident satisfaction, “Most people cannot withstand the test.”

Leap of Faith—which played at the New York Jewish Film Festival and will come out on DVD in July—is, with one exception, the story of several individuals and families who pass the test. And what they’re ready to sacrifice for the privilege of observing 613 mitzvot, day in and day out, is astonishing. Perhaps more remarkable still is the fact that none were atheists or even agnostics going in. Indeed, almost all come from strict Christian backgrounds and are trading one religious life for another. Leslie, a young beauty from Trinidad whose family are devout members of a charismatic sect, works as a nanny for an Orthodox Jewish family in Teaneck, New Jersey. Bob Shurtleff, an amiable Colorado Christian, uprooted his family from the fancy house they’d built for themselves and occupied for just over a year, to join an Orthodox community in Denver. Alana de Silva, a single mother and career army captain, strives to juggle her conversion with a job that’s frequently incompatible with her spiritual obligations, not to mention an ex-husband who’s so appalled at the idea that his son is being schooled as a Jew that he resumes his lapsed Christian observance and makes sure to serve his visiting child bacon for breakfast.

If the willingness of these converts to make huge sacrifices is clear, their reasons for doing so remain frustratingly opaque. Why we do what we do for any goal is a complex tangle for most of us, and spiritual longing in particular is difficult enough to articulate in private, let alone in front of a camera. As it turns out, some motives grow clearer than others as their stories unfold. Despite a rabbi’s request “to hold off dating for a while,” Leslie already has a Jewish boyfriend hovering in the wings. Bob Shurtleff admits that his horrible childhood made him yearn for a close-knit community, while Alana seeks shelter from “the madness of the world.”

These reasons are common and understandable enough, though one wonders whether converts who flee from their pasts rather than to their futures won’t find themselves disappointed when the euphoria of their new lives wears off and the terrors of living remain. But why would the Bowsers, a gentle, elderly couple who were already members of a church, leave their children and their community and exhaust themselves physically and financially to set up a new home in the vicinity of their synagogue in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Denver?

 

Of the doctrinal appeal of Judaism over Christianity they say next to nothing. Did they perhaps find themselves longing for the everyday warmth and inclusive jollity that is said to attract many converts to Jewish communal life? Certainly that’s part of it—they cite with gratitude the “kindness and helpfulness” of their adoptive community and seem bewildered by the “deafening silence” that greeted the letter they wrote to Christian family and friends, explaining what they were about to do.

For the most part, Benjamin and Friedman stay out of the speculation business, yet their occasional pertinent questions suggest that the warm welcome extended by Jewish leaders may not be universal. Asked how he would feel if one of his children wanted to marry a convert, a young rabbi who has hitherto been precise about what it takes to become a Jew if you’re not born one, is suddenly at a loss for words.

Less is more in this fascinating film, which is only a little weakened by the recurring shtick of stand-up comedian Yisrael (formerly Christopher) Campbell in yarmulke and payos, whose Broadway show, Circumcise Me, is apparently popular in some quarters but whose laborious one-liners add little to the conversation. In the end, it may be the process, rather than the goal, of spiritual struggle that builds character. For my money, the indisputable star of Leap of Faith is a sweet-faced little boy caught between two estranged parents, two incompatible lifestyles, and two religions—all of which, in combination perhaps with a generous endowment of the gene for resilience, have turned him into a precociously wise and wonderful little man, whether he ends up a Jew or not.

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