A story line throughout the third season of Orange is the New Black is the character Cindy’s conversion to Judaism.
The corporation that runs the prison is cutting costs by purchasing brown, lumpy slop in giant bags that they pass off as food. One prisoner figures out that the frozen kosher meals are pretty good, and soon a group of prisoners are claiming to be Jewesses in order to eat kosher.
When the prison notices the uptick in kosher requests, it sends in a rabbi to suss out who is a genuine Jew. Cindy, who is Black, begins to read up on Judaism. At first she just wants to pass so she can keep eating kosher. But then something grabs her, and as she studies she becomes serious about converting to Judaism, and well, this is one of the few happy endings in the series. It wouldn’t be a happy ending to born again Christians, and we Jews aren’t in to converting people, but I am moved when anyone finds meaning.
I heard in this scene many of the same things that led me to Judaism. Like Cindy, I was raised in a faith in which pretty much Everything was A Sin, and fear and guilt ruled the day. You didn’t ask questions, you did what you were told by the men who ran the show, some of whom were molesting your friends. If you sinned, you went to this same man to ask forgiveness and it was granted by him and after I mumbled three Hail Marys.
I think there’s a perception that Judasim is just like Christianity, except without Jesus. It’s not.
In liberal Judaism, which includes the vast majority of Jews in the world, there is no hell and little emphasis on sin. The idea is to do the right thing today, because it’s the right thing—not to avoid hell. If you screw up, it’s your responsibility to make amends to whoever you have hurt and to make your peace with God, if you even believe in god, because a lot of Jews are atheists. Confused? Well in Judaism it’s your responsibility to study, ask questions, and wrestle with all the big issues to figure out what makes sense for you. No one tells you what to think or do. Rabbis, who include women and gays and lesbians, are teachers and have no authority to forgive you.
Judaism doesn’t prosthelytize. We don’t care if you agree with us or not; we don’t care if you are a Christian or a Buddhist or a pagan. Just don’t try to convert us, thanks.
Instead of using the word charity, we talk about justice. It’s not an option, and it’s not about writing a check. It’s about doing, fighting, and pursuing justice. These principles are one reason why I’ve been able to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from all sides.
Of course there are plenty of Lutherans and Catholics and pagans and agnostics who are also motivated by social justice.
There’s more, but like Cindy, the main thing that attracted me to Judasim was an inexplicably strong feeling of recognition. Like Cindy said, “I feel like I found my people.”
After I had studied for several years with a Rabbi and a group of fellow seekers and yes, learned elemental Hebrew, I converted—which is a five-minute ceremony. My mother attended the Friday night service in which this took place. Just before we left for synagogue, she said, “I guess it makes sense, you converting to Judaism, since your father’s family was Jewish.”
What!? She had known I was studying all along. She didn’t have any details, and since my dad died 47 years ago and we’re not close to his family, and I have no time or patience for family tree research, it will just remain a question mark.
When I told a rabbi this story once, she said that she hears stories like this often, and that there is a theory that all the Jewish souls lost in the Holocaust have sought refuge in the people who are converting, whether they’re in prison (Cindy) or are unwed teenage moms living in subsidized housing (me, nearly 40 years ago).