On Being A Jew

Writing “Pavel’s Violin” was a conversion experience for me. Here is that story:

On Being a Jew
Walter William Melnyk
December 27, 2018

will torahWhen does a pilgrimage begin? When do the seeds first appear that will one day bring a harvest? I use the phrase “on being a Jew” because, even for the convert, there is no way to look back and say, “yes, here is the moment when I became Jewish, the moment before which I was not a Jew, and after which I was one.”For me the seeds had been well planted, the journey had been well underway, by the time I was actually aware of the Layreader’s voice, intoning the opening words of Morning Prayer in the stone cavern of Trinity Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon., New York. I was, perhaps, four years old:

“The LORD is in his holy temple: Let all the earth
keep silence before him. Hab. ii.20

“I was glad when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord. Psalm cxxii.1”

The organist began the opening notes of the invitatory, and the congregation began to sing:

O come let us sing unto the LORD; *
Let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; *
and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.
For the LORD is a great God; *
and a great king above all gods.
In his hand are all the corners of the earth; *
and the strength of the hills is his also.
The sea is his, and he made it; *
and his hands prepared the dry land.
O come, let us worship and fall down; *
and kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For he is the LORD our God; *
and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
O worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth stand in awe of him.
For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth; *
and with righteousness to judge the world,
and the peoples with his truth.” Psalm xcv; xcvi.13

It had been my fortune to be born, and brought up, in the Episcopal Church of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, where the celebration of the Christian Eucharist took a once-monthly back seat to the recitation of the office of Morning Prayer. Even today, so many decades later, I recall the disappointment of entering the church doors and seeing the two Eucharistic candles upon the altar. It meant the beautiful poetry of Morning Prayer would not be said; the haunting notes of “O come, let us sing,” would not be sung. (And of course that the service would be longer, with less audience participation.) In the many intervening years I would learn to cherish the sharing of the blessed bread and wine. Indeed, I would become a priest of that mystery, and consider the sacrament of the Eucharist to be of foremost importance. But the opening words of Morning Prayer, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the LORD,” would never leave my heart.
Growing up through early childhood in Mount Vernon, just north of New York City, I might well have known many Jews. But in truth I did not, and the parochialism of my family circle guaranteed I would learn nothing of Judaism. “Jewish” was never something one was, but always something one was not. There was in those days a large local trucking company, its name emblazoned in large letters on all its trucks: J.A. MELNICK. People who did not know my family, upon hearing my name, would always ask, “Oh, are you Jewish?” I would go home and ask my parents, and their answer was always a vehement, “NO! We are NOT!” And that would be the end of it. I never learned what Jewish was, or why it was important not so to be.

There was a Jewish delicatessen near our home, but we always patronized the Italian deli. Once, when I was 6 or 7, my mother sent me to Buccalotti’s for a can of pork and beans. They were out, so I took it upon myself to cross the big street, Third Street, to try Runnin’s Jewish Deli (with their big sign, “Run-In to Runnin’s”.) I asked for a can of pork and beans, and the guy behind the counter called out to his partner, “Hey, Marty, this kid wants pork and beans!” They roared with laughter, and I left, mortified. I told my mother, but I don’t remember her response.

In those days everyone I knew was either an ordinary Protestant, a mysterious Catholic, or a correct Episcopalian. My father’s parents were an even stranger brand of Catholics – Ukrainians. We used to go over to their house every January 6th to celebrate the eve of “Little Christmas.” But more about that later.
When I was in 5th grade we left the inner suburbs for the relative countryside of Yorktown, New York. As I entered Junior High and High School, my own social circle widened greatly, and I met actual Jews for the first time. Two of them, Pete and Steve, became my best friends in High School, and we were always in each other’s homes. Looking back, I don’t think either family was what is called religiously observant, (I don’t really know, and could be very wrong,) but there was no doubt they were culturally Jewish. Indeed, the strange sound of Yiddish phrases crept into my psyche the same way as had the words of Morning Prayer a decade earlier. Pete’s father always called me “Sam.” I have no idea why, but receiving a nickname from a Jewish family made me feel as if I somehow belonged. (It was not until many years later that I learned about the prophet Samuel. Pete’s dad might not have had that character in mind, but I like to pretend he did.) One New Year’s Eve, home from college on Christmas break, Steve arranged a date for me with a Jewish girl. “His name’s Melnyk,” Steve told her, “You know, like J.A. Melnick.” I sent her a note a few days later admitting that I was not Jewish, and do not blame her for never speaking to me again.
The whole Jewish thing faded into the background of life during my years in college, the military, and early adulthood. I married into a wealthy South Carolina family of Episcopalians, had two wonderful children who I continue to love with all my heart, and became very active in the local Episcopal Church. I had no idea during those quiet years that the seeds of conversion were slowly germinating. Nor did I have any idea of the heritage of Judaism that already existed in my family. But everything was about to change.
In 1976 I decided I would like to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. Two years later, finally approved by the Bishop, I entered seminary at The School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. On the first day of classes, I listened to our Old Testament professor utter these fateful words:

“My task, in this class, is to turn you all into convinced Jews.”

Over the course of that semester Professor William Augustus Griffin, a Qumran scholar, instilled in me an abiding love for the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, so profound was his teaching that the whole class volunteered to take a non-credit elective for the second semester, just to continue learning from him.

Bill Griffin was a powerful agent that year in my journey toward conversion. But my spiritual father was Abraham. His immediate encounter with the Holy in Torah was unlike anything I had ever experienced in church:

[God] said to [Abram], “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But [Abram] said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall Possess it?” [God] said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” {Abram] brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land. . .” (Genesis 15.7-18)

I cannot explain why, but on that day, in the deeply numinous Torah passage, I heard not the word them, but the word you.

But the other word I learned that semester was what truly won my heart to Torah:And

[Eliezer] said, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant be success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham . . .” (Genesis 24.12)

Steadfast love, sometimes translated lovingkindness, or grace, or even friendship: Chesed. Gracious favor. Inalienable love. More than anything else, it was this word Chesed that awakened the Jew within me. The love that God has for us is the love we must share with each other. I discovered the concept of Chesed permeates the entire body of Torah. Yet it was 1978, and there was still a forty year journey ahead of me.
After fifteen years my first marriage ended in a divorce. Sometime later I married Glyn Ruppe, and we shared a career together as Episcopal priests. In 1996 we helped to lead a pilgrimage to Israel for the Diocese of Southeast Florida. After the ten day tour we were to remain, with two friends, for a clergy preaching seminar at the Jerusalem Institute. We had two free days before the seminar, which we used to fulfill the dream of an improbable experience: a trip to Hebron in the West Bank, to visit the Tombs of the Ancestors and the Oak of Abraham. With the help of our Israeli tour guide, we hired a young Palestinian driver and set out on our adventure.

We arrived in Hebron without incident, but our young Palestinian driver had no desire to interact with the Israeli Defense Forces, so the four of us approached a lone guard at the checkpoint before the building which housed the Synagogue and Mosque, built over the traditional Cave of Macpelah. We hadn’t the slightest idea how foolhardy or dangerous this visit might be, almost exactly one year after the horrific massacre of Muslim worshippers by a rogue Israeli settler.

“We’re American Christians,” we told the Israeli soldier, who fortunately spoke English. “We’d like to see the Tombs of the ancestors.”

He stared at us for several moments, and we repeated our request. Finally he picked up his radio and spoke to someone in Hebrew. It was a request he had never received, and he needed advice from higher up. At last he told us we could proceed, and directed us to a long flight of stairs leading to the entrance of the Mosque of Abraham. Half way up the stairs we were stopped and thoroughly searched. Even our Bibles were searched for hidden weapons. Finally we reached the door of the mosque, and stepped into a small anteroom. A friendly man, wearing a kufiyah and speaking English, welcomed us warmly and showed us how to prepare to enter the mosque; shoes removed, veils for the women. And then he led us on a tour.

The cavernous interior of the mosque included several cenotaphs, tomblike structures that were the ceremonial tombs of Jacob and Leah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Abraham and Sarah. The traditional Cave of Macpelah, “actual” burial place of the Ancestors, runs deep under the building.

A few days earlier we had been kicked off the Mount of the Beatitudes in Galilee by a Roman Catholic nun when Glyn, a female Episcopal Priest, prepared to celebrate the Eucharist. Here we were welcomed, two men and two women, to say Christian Prayers together in the men’s side of the mosque.

We then left the mosque and walked around outside to the entrance to the synagogue, where we were searched again, then admitted to see the ceremonial tombs from the Jewish side. Finally, outside again, we stood in awe before the opening of the traditional Cave that Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite as a burial place for Sarah. There, according to tradition, lie Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekkah, Jacob and Leah. (Rachel’s traditional burial site is beside the road near Bethlehem.)

We rejoined our driver, who took us to the site of the Oak of Abraham, an ancient oak tree that in 1996 was still standing, but has since since died. The site covers several acres on the side of a high hill, surrounded by a stone wall. Half way up the hill we could see an old stone church from which flew a giant Palestinian flag. We drove up to a wooden entrance door with a sign that said, in several languages, “Honk Horn for Caretaker.”
After several minutes of anxious honking, with no sign of a caretaker, our driver said, “I know a way you can get in.” He drove us around to the side of the enclosure where the stone wall was tumbled down, the result of some military action. “You can get in here,” the driver said. “I can’t go with you, because I have to stay with the car.” Were we complete fools? Our wives told us later they were certain we were about to die. But we left the car, clambered over the fallen wall, and began climbing the hill. We had no idea where the “Oak of Abraham” might be, but assumed it would be in the holiest place, at the top of the hill. We found no ancient oak at the top of the hill, but many young oak trees. Thinking this was the best we could do, we collected some fallen acorns.

Suddenly a Palestinian man appeared from around a small building, accompanied by two of the meanest dogs we had ever seen, or ever hope to see. They barked, growled snarled, and bared their teeth, while the man shouted at us in Arabic. I will not say we feared for our lives, but we certainly despaired of any good solution to the problem. Suddenly our driver appeared out of nowhere, and began shouting. They stood nose to nose and shouted at each other. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the crisis ended. The caretaker (for so he was) smiled at us, and offered his hand in friendship. Through our driver we apologized and said we really hoped to see the Oak of Abraham. So the now friendly caretaker, and his even friendlier dogs, led us down the hill, arm in arm with our driver.

Half way down the hill we stopped at the Church of the Holy Forefathers while the caretaker found the resident monk, who arrived with a giant cast iron skeleton key to open the church, where we were treated to the many frescoes of the Ancestors.
Finally, we arrived down the hill at the ancient Oak of Abraham, a primeval oak, nearly dead, held up by a maze of I beams and corrugated iron, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. As if we were in Genesis 18, we were invited to sit beneath the ancient Oak and have lunch. The caretaker and our driver, obviously old acquaintances, could not join us because it was Ramadan. But they sat in the shade and spoke in laughter-filled tones while we ate. Before we left, we were given pieces of bark from the old Oak of Abraham, which I still cherish.

When we returned home to Hollywood, Florida, I went to see a local Reform Rabbi to talk about possible conversion. His eyes went wide, his jaw dropped, and he asked in an astonished tone, “You went to Hebron?” The conversion did not happen then, but we often attended Shabbat services and lit the candles at home.
Another nine years went by, and 2005 found me serving a congregation in the Diocese of Pennsylvania near Philadelphia. I found I could no longer believe in any of the core Christian dogmas, including the sacrosanct Nicene and Apostles Creeds. I was doing a lot of writing in various non-Christian areas of theology and spirituality, from Judaism to Celtic Druidism. During a long and terrible year I was roundly attacked in the fundamentalist press. Finally I received a phone call from my Bishop saying he planned to put me on trial for “holding personal beliefs inconsistent with the teachings of the Church.” Amazed, I asked him, “Do you mean heresy, Bishop?” (Heresy, in the 21st century?) He answered simply, “Yes.” I took an early retirement, for which I was eligible, and shortly thereafter renounced my orders in the Episcopal Church. The next ten years were spent in a personal wilderness.
In 2015 my wife retired, and we moved to Monteagle, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau, some six miles from The School of Theology, the very place where a Hebrew Scriptures Professor had announced his intention to turn me into a “convinced Jew.” That spring, at 68, I took up the violin, and the finale chapter in my conversion saga began, with a $68.00 violin purchased on EBay.

My first violin teacher was a Jew who had been born in Prague. She noticed I was wearing a small Star of David around my neck, and we began talking about Judaism. When it became evident that I needed a better violin than my EBay Special, she offered to sell me a violin that had long been in her family but was not being played– a Jakob Steiner model, made in Germany sometime in the mid-1800s. As I began playing the violin, she began telling me its story. It had belonged to her first cousin, two generations removed, Pavel Lustig, a Bohemian Jew. The short story is that he was a survivor of the Terezin and Auschwitz concentration camps. In January of 1945 he escaped from one of the Auschwitz death marches, and made his way to a Czech Army unit. There he was reunited with a brother he had last seen before the war. Pavel had been a violinist, and asked his brother if he could find a violin for him. A few days later the instrument arrived, and became “Pavel’s Violin.” No one living knows where it came from; its history is a mystery. So I decided I needed to write the story of “Pavel’s Violin.”

Researching and writing this story became for me the final impetus for conversion. As I wrote the story of the Jewish people in Europe, from the 17th century through the Holocaust, I realized it was not just a story about them. It was a story about me. I realized I could not finish writing, I could not tell the story, except as a Jew. I began, with the loving support of my wife, to keep a Jewish home, observing Shabbat and the other Holy Days. I began reading more Jewish history and tradition than I needed for my book. I found a group called the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and was adopted into their secular observance of Judaism.

And I began to remember. I began to remember things that did not seem to fit in with the story that my father’s parents were from Ukraine, and were Greek Catholics. I remembered that the Christmas Eve dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s included gefilte fish. I remembered Grandma’s frequent sighs of “Oy, oy, oy.” I discovered that they pronounced the name of their market town in Galicia, the city of Przemysl, by the Jewish pronunciation of “Shemesh.” After I had committed to throwing in my lot with the Jewish people, it became apparent that my Greek Catholic Ukrainian ancestors were in all likelihood Polish Galician Jews, perhaps forcibly converted three or four generations before my grandparents. I will never learn that story. But it doesn’t matter, because now I know I am a Jew.
A brief sojourn with Humanistic Judaism quickly convinced me that a secular expression was not enough. I was too much a son of Abraham. I was too much a son of the Torah. The ancient stories were too much a part of me, and I was too much a part of them. In May of 2018 I sent an email to Mizpah Congregation in Chattanooga. Within thirty minutes I received a phone call from Rabbi Craig Lewis, and I began studying with him for conversion in Reform Judaism. It was the beginning of the final stage in a journey that had begun at Morning Prayer in an Episcopal congregation that no longer exists, some 66 years ago.
By the autumn of 2018 things began to move quickly. I had been attending Shabbat services at Mizpah on a regular basis, including my first full synagogue experience of Yom Kippur. I had been meeting monthly with Rabbi Lewis, and we set a time for conversion at the end of Chanukkah. Because I wanted to have the full experience of entering the Jewish Community, we also began to plan for my Bar Mitzvah. I had received a medical circumcision as an infant, so it was arranged for a Jewish urologist to perform the Hatafat Dam Brit, the ritual taking of a drop of blood from the circumcision site. Conversion was set for December 7th, and the Bar Mitzvah for December 22nd. I would be taking Yosef Chaviv for my Hebrew name. Fortuitously, the Torah portion for my Bar Mitzvah would include the blessing of Joseph, and I began a crash course in Torah cantillation. The Hebrew from my seminary days was coming back to me. I feared I would not be ready in time. I sent an email to Rabbi Lewis saying, “Tell me again why I agreed to this Bar Mitzvah commitment.” He wrote back, “One word: chutzpah!”
It was the morning of December 7, 2018, the fifth day of Chanukkah. I sat in a conference room of the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Mikvah with the three Rabbis of my Beit Din. Their final question was,

“Knowing the difficult plight of the Jewish people throughout the ages, are you really sure you want to do this? Knowing the recent rise in antisemitism around the world and in the United States, are you certain? Knowing the events of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, are you sure you want to voluntarily become a Jew?”

I took a breath, but it was shallow, not deep.

“To begin with,” I began, “it’s not really all that voluntary. I have no choice about becoming a Jew, because I know I am one.” Then the second part of the answer:  “And if it is a choice, I make it not in spite of the plight of the Jewish people, but because of that plight.” Within myself I added the words, Because the call of Abraham is my call. Because the bond and blessing of Torah is my bond and blessing. Because of the famous poem quoted in the Mishkan T’Filah: “I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes. Because I am a Jew.

It was enough for the Beit Din. Minutes later I descended, naked, the seven steps into the warm, clear, sacred waters of the mikvah. With deliberate slowness I lowered my head beneath the water, and bent my knees, raising my feet off the floor of the pool. I would have hung there forever. But I rose, took a breath, and said the blessing,

“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid-shanu b’mitzvo-tav v’tzi-vanu al ha-tevilah.”

“Praised are you, Adonai Eloheinu, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with mitzvot and commanded us concerning immersion.”

Once again I immersed myself, rose above the waters, and said,

“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam she-heche-yanu, ve-ki-y’manu, ve-higi-yanu la-z’man ha-zeh.”

“Praised are You, Adonai Eloheinu, who has kept us alive and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day.”

I third time I sank below the waters, and floated for an eternity, and then I finally proclaimed,

“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”

“Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”

And silently I said to myself and to Adonai,

“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, she-asani Yisrael.”

“Praised are you, Adonai Eloheinu, who has made me a Jew.”

The challenge and joy of my Bar Mitzvah still lay ahead, but that is another story.

One Drop of Blood

cattle car

One Drop of Blood,
Hatafat Dam Bris

How do you tell the story of blood?
How do you sell the ruddy tale
to a deafly silent humanity,
bent upon the ageless insanity
of the spilling of blood?
How do you proclaim
that in the blood is life,
to those who kill and maim
in their wanton love of strife;
hearts mired in the blood-slick mud
of hate?
In a moment,
in one drop of blood
freely added to the seas of red,
in living solidarity with the dead.
In standing side by side
with those whose blood was shed.
In one drop of blood,
the blessed affirmation of
the love of life.

W.W. Melnyk
(C)16 November 2018