Gifts of a Convert
The metamorphosis of Ahuvah Gray, a black American who was once a Christian minister and is now an Orthodox Jew.
The following is the introduction to Ahuvah Gray's new book, Gifts of a Stranger: A Convert's Round-the-World Travels and Spiritual Journeys.
As I follow Ahuvah Gray along the narrow stairway leading to her apartment, and step up into the little light-filled penthouse that is her home above the rooftops of Bayit Vegan, what comes to mind is the childhood classic, A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. In that famous tale, the heroine dwells cozily in an attic room above the rooftops of London, and looks out from her oasis upon the world below. Here, through windows on every side, it's the fast-moving clouds of a rainy winter morning in Israel that adorn the horizon, and the branches of a Jerusalem pine tree that brush up against the opaquely luminous rectangle of skylight.
Ahuvah Gray herself -- a black American who was once a Christian minister and is now an Orthodox Jew -- does look, in fact, like some exotic sort of princess, with her high-cheek-boned delicacy, and long hair, and regal bearing.
“Just look at this,” she exclaims, opening the door to her porch and gesturing me outside into the damp, brisk air. “Isn't this something?” Far off on the distant skyline to our right lie the walls of the Old City under the receding storm, and way over to the east, the dimly visible mountains of Jordan looming like gray mist over the Dead Sea. “This view from my porch always reminds me of sitting on my grandmother's lap when I was four years old, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi -- that's when she first started teaching us children the psalms of King David. She'd recite Psalm 24:1, 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein.' Here I am, and I still can't believe my eyes after all these years -- the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, and I always think, Thank you, grandmother, for such a beautiful gift.” Back inside, serving me tea, Ahuvah Gray speaks of that woman, the one who started her on the long journey that ultimately brought her to Israel, and to the Jewish people, and Judaism.
“My grandmother was my role model. All I remember of her was the chesed she did all day long. She was always cooking food for sick people and bringing it to them. And my mother, God bless her soul, she was my other role model. Throughout my childhood she would bring homeless people to our table. One time there was an old guy she brought in -- our table was hardly ever just us, it was always poor people sitting down with us -- and my sister Nellie made a face from the smell of that man. My mother gave her a look, and told her to never again do or say anything that could insult one of our guests. Today Nellie -- she lives in L.A. -- she's been doing the same thing now for the last twenty years, taking care of the poor and the homeless.
“I was born and raised in Chicago but when we were growing up, my parents would take us every summer to visit Grandmother in Mound Bayou, which was a small all-black town. Now, years later when I was working for Continental Airlines -- at first I was a stewardess, then a flight attendant supervisor, then I moved into sales and marketing, where I was able to make up my own work schedule -- every summer I'd make that trip to Mound Bayou to see Grandmother the way we always had when we were small. One summer morning when I arrived at her house and went looking for her, I saw that the door to her bedroom was standing open and that my grandmother, who was 78 at the time, was kneeling down by her bed praying fervently - she always turned up the volume, so to speak. I stood there by the door completely mesmerized for I don't know how long, and I finally said, 'Grandmother, at your age are you still getting down on your knees to pray?' She looked up and said, 'Dolores, this is the way I've prayed my whole life. It's the only way I know.'
“That was one of the most important moments in my life. It was a turning point. I was already a minister then, but that experience at the door to my grandmother's room gave me the stamina to commit my life to prayer.”
I ask her what that means in practical terms.
It takes me forever to go through the entire morning service in Hebrew and I love every minute of it.
“It means that I committed myself to have a designated time and place for prayer. The time was at five in the morning, and the place was under the blankets of my bed. That was the great thing about that job, I didn't have to be at any office at nine o'clock -- so I'd just pull the blanket up over my head and pray for hours; it was my favorite part of the day, every day. It still is. It takes me forever to go through the entire morning service in Hebrew and I love every minute of it. In any case, as I was saying, from that experience, seeing my elderly grandmother on her knees in prayer, from that moment on, I have had a life of prayer.”
“Under the blankets, you were in your own little synagogue?”
“Right. My own little synagogue. In those days, though, I didn't know anything about the Jewish way of davening Shacharis, Minchah, Maariv. But I had read in the Book of Psalms that King David prayed three times a day and I said to myself, if that's how King David prayed, then I'm going to pray three times a day, too.
“After my grandmother died a few years later, I started having a difficult time with Christian dogma. Now, when you're the minister of a Christian congregation, that's not the sort of thing you go around saying, so I kept it to myself as long as I could, until finally I had to publicly declare that I could no longer remain in the ministry. It simply did not seem like truth to me anymore.
“When I resigned from the ministry, I had no thought whatsoever of becoming a Jew. It wasn't on my mind at all. But ever since I was a teenager, I had felt an affinity for Jewish people. I had felt that affinity starting back when I was in seventh grade and had my first job working in the dress shop of a family named Greenberg. They used to invite me to their house for the Shabbat meals. I continued working for them until the Chicago riots, when their store was looted and trashed and they had to give up their business.
“I loved the Greenbergs and they loved me. We were like one family. I used to go there for Shabbat and then I'd go home and tell my mother all about it - what they were like, and that they had this funny looking bread. The only thing I didn't tell her was that they had wine. She would have plotzed, because my mother, may she rest in peace, she never had a drink in her life.
“That was my introduction to Jewish people, and from that time on, whenever Jewish holidays came around, I had this desire to be with Jewish people. And whenever I was in a bookstore, if there was a book in there about Jews or Judaism, it always caught my eye and I'd buy it.
“Long before the idea of conversion ever occurred to me, in my own prayers I'd stopped addressing God as three gods in one, the Trinity -- it made no sense to me. It didn't seem real. But I had found a church that believed in the oneness of God, and it was called the Straitway Church. One day this Jewish woman visited it and we started talking. That was Ruth Broyde Sharone, who wanted to find ways to bring about understanding between blacks and Jews. She and I visited a synagogue together once, and the Rabbi said he was going to have us imagine being at Mount Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments. He led us through this visualization.
“I can't convey what I experienced that day. I'll just tell you that when he was done, I opened my eyes and there was Ruth, looking at me. I said, 'Ruth, I was there,' and she said, 'I know, Dolores.'
“The two of us, Ruth and I, we ended up working together. We organized an annual Passover tour to Israel for Christians and Jews together.”
I tell Ahuvah that I remember reading about that in The Jerusalem Post years ago.
“Yes, they wrote about it. It was eye-catching, you know, that Christians and Jews were doing this together. But it was during those early years in Israel that I experienced another turning point. On one particular trip, I had taken a group up north to the ancient city of Tzefat, and we were touring the old synagogues when I saw a Jewish siddur, a prayer book. Now I didn't really know what a Jewish prayer book was but I had always wanted to see one, so I picked it up to take a look. I started reading. I read Shema Yisrael, God is One. And it struck me: These are powerful. These are powerful prayers.”
With hindsight, I see how everything in my childhood, everything I experienced in my adult life, it was all pointing toward this, every part of it.
“So was it while you were on those Passover tours that you decided to convert?”
“No, I can't say it started then. With hindsight, I see how everything in my childhood, everything I experienced in my adult life, it was all pointing toward this, every part of it. When Ruth and I first joined together for the tours, she said to me, 'Now, there's just one thing, Dolores, that I've got to tell you. You must never try to convert me,' and I said, 'Don't you worry about it!' She had no idea yet, that that was just about the farthest thing from my mind!”
I give a laugh. “Little did she know, she was going to convert you!”
“No, that didn't happen either. Nobody converted me. Truth just became obvious, that's all I can say. And once I realized in what direction I had to go, I could no longer conduct the tours as a Christian. I was sorry to leave Ruth -- she was happy for me but felt she had lost a good liaison between Christians and Jews, because as a Christian minister, I was able to say things other people weren't. Christians trusted me. They listened when I told them that it was not the Jews who killed their messiah, and some of the other things they believe that are in part responsible for anti-Semitism. But I found my way, with God's help.”
“What was your reaction upon learning, later on, that according to Jewish tradition, the gesture of bowing down is reserved only for the Yom Kippur service?”
“It was very humbling. When I learned how to daven according to Jewish tradition, what was amazing to me was that although we prostrate ourselves on Yom Kippur in order to get closer to God, because it's such a powerful gesture, other than that we do not. Other than that, a Jew does not have to place himself in that position.”
“It's common knowledge that ever since the sixties and early seventies, when so many Jews were involved with the Civil Rights Movement, there has been a strange love/hate relationship between the two groups. From your present standpoint, Ahuvah, so what do you think it is, between blacks and Jews?”
“Look, in my family, I was brought up to believe that no man is better or worse than another, that we are all, every single one of us, children of God. I love my skin. I love the color of my skin. But I was brought up to believe that I am neither inferior nor superior.”
“So it must be that that religious viewpoint is so deeply ingrained in you, Ahuvah, that you're not conflicted about inferiority/superiority. So you bring that out in others. 'As in water, face to face, so does one heart reflect another.'”
“Well, I don't know. A few times, people have said to me, 'Oh, it must be so hard for you in that charedi community, being a black convert. Don't you encounter a lot of racial prejudice?' I just have to tell them, 'My dears, I have never in my life been given as much love.'
“That love from the Orthodox community started right when I decided to convert. I had run into a catch-22. In order to convert, it was required that I study at an Orthodox institution. Yet in order to enter an Orthodox institution I had to be Jewish! Nonetheless, there was a women's seminary called Nishmat that accepted me as a student. That place is run by one of the most amazing women one could ever hope to meet, Rabbanit Henkin. She had the amazing ability to nurture and mother every girl in that seminary.
“After learning for a year in Nishmat, the momentous day of my conversion arrived. It was an important day, to say the least, and I decided that after going to the mikveh, I was going to celebrate by going downtown and treating myself to a nice meal. However, one of the rebbetzins was very emphatic that I should come back to the beis midrash of the seminary afterwards. So after the mikveh, I went back to the seminary's beis midrash and when I entered, there was a huge sign that said, 'Siman tov vemazal tov.'
“I'll remember that day as long as I live. The American girls and the Israeli girls were all singing 'Siman tov, mazel tov,' and their voices, mingled together, sounded like an opera, or a symphony. They asked me to make a speech and the only thing I could think to say was, 'I don't think I've ever experienced such love before in my life. I think I'm beginning to understand the love between God and the Jewish people.'
“I've met converts from all over the world, and our stories are all the same although our faces and backgrounds are different. My roommate from Neve Yerushalayim was from Singapore. I've met converts from Germany, and Africa, from the Philippines, but we all have one heartbeat. We couldn't rest until we found our way to Judaism and Jewish observance. When I lecture I tell my audience that you can take a Jewish neshamah and put it into any kli (vessel). But that neshamah will not rest until it finds its way to Yiddishkeit.”
The interview seems to have come to a close. As I'm getting ready to go, I tell Ahuvah Gray what her apartment reminded me of when I first walked in.
“Oh, this apartment. That's a story. For another time. All I can say is, God gave me exactly what I needed. He always has and always will.”
“How do you account for your emuna [faith]?” I ask her.
“You have emunah, too, you know. Sometimes we just don't realize what we have. As I told you, I witnessed my grandmother's faith throughout my life and it was passed on, definitely. And almost as far back as I can remember, I've always put things into what I think of as my God Box.” I asked what that is.
“Well, I'll give you an example. One night around five years ago, not long after I got this apartment, the telephone rang at 4 a.m. Now, anybody who lives far away from his family can tell you that anything like that's going to make you nervous. When I left America I left my entire family behind -- I haven't seen them for four years now -- and so as I reached for the phone I was already dreading whatever I was going to hear. It was my sister Nellie, and sure enough, she had bad news. Our beloved brother, Ezra -- a young man, he's my baby brother -- had had a massive heart attack.
“When I hung up that phone, I started davening. I davened, and davened, and kept davening, and crying. I was begging God till the sun came up. 'Please, God, save Ezra. Don't let Ezra die.'
“Then all of a sudden, it hit me. I thought to myself, 'Wait a minute,' and I said, 'For heaven's sake, what in the world am I doing? Who am I to tell God what to do?'
“So then, I prayed, 'God, You formed Ezra in our mother's womb. You created him, You formed him. It's You Who gave him his soul. It's You Who gave him life. So if it's time for You to take him back, I let go. I let go, God.' That's how I put Ezra in my God Box. And then I added, 'And let Nellie get it.'”
“Let Nellie get it?”
“Right, I said, 'God, let Nellie get it.'”
“Did she get it?”
“She got it.”
“Oh, he's fine. Nellie called me after three days to say he was sitting up in bed cracking jokes. Look, all of this is my way of expressing the concept of the Yitzchak principle, when Avraham was going to sacrifice his only son. Our Sages of blessed memory teach us that Avraham Aveinu was willing to go to any length to teach us to do a mitzvah.”
“So what does that have to do with the 'God Box'?”
“It's that when I love something very dearly, I'm willing to release it to God.”
I get my coat on, she calls a taxi, then I follow her back down the stairway.
My mind's on my mother, ill in Los Angeles.
God, please, I'm thinking. Let me get it, too. The cold air hits, I climb into the cab, then Ahuvah Gray calls, “L'hitraot!” and disappears upstairs.