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From Mississippi to Mount Sinai

September 23, 2001 | by Ahuvah Gray

In "My Sister, the Jew," an African-American minister shares her astonishing spiritual journey to Judaism.

Lucky Delores Gray. The African-American descendant of sharecroppers, she'd achieved her piece of the American dream: a California condo, a terrific and lucrative career, and a life full of dear friends and devoted family. In matters of the spirit, too, Delores should have been content: as an ordained minister of the Strait Way Church in Watts, she was part of a loving and accepting religious community.

And yet... and yet... something in Delores's soul murmured within her. Some unaccountable yearning sent her on a spiritual search that took her to a new and far-off land – Israel – and to an ancient heritage, the Jewish heritage, that was at once incredibly strange and completely familiar.

In "My Sister, the Jew" Delores, now renamed Ahuvah, shares her astonishing spiritual adventure.

In the following excerpt, we meet Ahuvah on the holiest day of the Jewish year, standing on the verge of her decision to join the Jewish people.

"Yom Kippur was approaching; it was to be the first time I would fast on that holiest of days. While eating my last meal for the next twenty-five hours, I wondered what it would be like. The walk to the synagogue seemed so strange. The streets were absolutely silent, with an other-worldly serenity and calm.

Every Hebrew word seemed to penetrate my soul.

The synagogue was enveloped in the same remarkable peace and quiet I had felt walking through the streets. The cantor began to chant a soft melody called Kol Nidrei. Every Hebrew word seemed to penetrate my soul and cleanse it of all residue. I was completely divested of anything from my past. Spiritually, I knew what was going on, but to verbalize it would take much more spiritual fine-tuning.

I sobbed uncontrollably throughout the entire length of the singing. When I finally stopped, I looked around for Avigail. There wasn't a face that I recognized. A lovely lady standing next to me motioned wordlessly, as if to ask, "Is there anything I can do?"

"No, I can't explain this. There's nothing you can do," I answered aloud. I didn't know at that time that one shouldn't talk during Kol Nidrei.

To console me, my newfound friend put her arm around my shoulder and gave me a warm embrace. That was exactly what I needed. I looked at her, and we exchanged smiles. There was no need for words. I couldn't explain to her or anyone else what was happening inside of me. Although it was the first time in my life I had heard the melody, it was as though my neshamah, my soul, knew Kol Nidrei. I had no idea at the time that the prayer was a declaration of the nullification of past and future vows and oaths, but at that moment I felt my soul experiencing something that I had been awaiting my entire life. Much later, I figured out what was going on: by nullifying all my previous commitments, I was enabling my soul to return to its Jewish roots.

When I left the service that night, I wished the other congregants a "chatimah tovah," blessing them that they would be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for the next year. I felt I was saying it as a Jew. I walked down the street knowing that I would never forget that night as long as I lived. The peace that lingered in the air on my way back to the hotel surpassed all my understanding. I couldn't hear a bird; there were no planes, no cars. Even the leaves on the trees weren't moving. I said to myself very softly, "I know who my God is. This is what it will be like when Mashiach comes. The peace of the Almighty is in this place."

The essence of my new realization gripped me. I began reciting the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40, which I knew and loved: "Every valley will be raised, and every mountain and hill will be lowered; the crooked will become straight and heights will become valley. The glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh together will see that the mouth of God has spoken." I felt those holy words depicted what had happened in my life. Every valley — the doubts and worries — had been raised. The mountains — the haughtiness, the feeling of pride — had been lowered. Crooked places represented the places I had traversed where I hadn't belonged. The heights of conceit had been leveled to valleys. Only God's glory was imminent in my life.

It had taken me forty-eight years to search and seek out the truth.

As I continued to bask in the serenity and peace, it suddenly occurred to me that I had been headed down this path my entire life. It had taken me forty-eight years to search and seek out the truth. I thought of all the endless researching and running to find cross-references in order to understand Bible verses. The years of sleepless nights spent pondering the Bible and things that seemed unfathomable had culminated in a beautiful crescendo with the sound of Kol Nidrei, the haunting chant that struck the chords of my heart. I knew that my God was real! It all made sense — the little game I used to play when I first started studying the Bible. My childish game of Abraham being my great-grandfather, and my walking hand-in-hand with him the breadth and length of the Holy Land, had come true. The event I had hoped for my entire life had arrived.

The words of Ruth to Naomi which I had read so many times before in my Bible were now my words: "For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God." The Jewish people were my people.

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