Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

A Convert’s Bible Stories

A well-thumbed book from my Lutheran childhood is now the ideal text for my Shavuot study and reflection

Print Email
Ruth and Boaz in Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. (Tablet Magazine)

Before I began studying to convert to Judaism, Shavuot was totally unknown to me. But once I learned more about it, I saw a number of reasons to view it as the Jewish holiday that converts could celebrate most enthusiastically.

The Book of Ruth, one of the Bible’s best-known conversion stories, is read every Shavuot. As we commemorate the day when the Jews received the Torah, we are told that all Jews throughout history were present at Sinai, no matter what our background or place in history might be—a particularly comforting notion for people who are more recent members of the tribe. And observance of Shavuot includes intense study of Jewish texts, something we converts know a great deal about.

My bookshelves are filled with a range of Jewish books: two long, packed rows containing instructions on Jewish practice, memoirs, all kinds of historical nonfiction, Siddurim, haggadot, various commentaries, copies of the Tanakh and the Torah—all Jewish texts I studied during my conversion process. But there, tucked between my copy of Etz Hayim and my English/Hebrew JTS Tanakh, is a worn and faded volume that would seem to be in the wrong place—a 1955 edition of Egermeier’s Bible Story Book, a collection of narratives from the “Old” and New Testaments, rewritten for children and produced by the Gospel Trumpet Company, a Christian publisher. Despite its history, this non-Jewish text, which I first read decades before my conversion, carries special meaning for me as a convert on Shavuot.

The book is a memento of my childhood in Dayton, Ohio. Some pages include marginalia in youthful handwriting, mostly my younger brother’s. The title page is adorned with a tunic-attired stick figure, drawn by my little sister sometime before she entered kindergarten. The binding is completely broken—a couple of signatures will slide out of the book if it is not opened carefully. Tellingly, when it is closed, one can see that the edges of the pages of the first two-thirds of the book are darker and more worn than the rest. That is because, though the book belonged to my siblings as well as to me, I was the one who spent the most time with it. Throughout my childhood, I returned again and again and again to the stories contained in what I now know as the Tanakh.

From early childhood, I found the stories in the New Testament to be consistently odd and uninspiring. Raised in the Lutheran church, I was taken to Sunday school every week by my parents and sent to vacation Bible school in the summer. In that environment, the greatest praise was reserved for children who knew the New Testament front to back—all the books in order, action and actors, chapter and verse. The goal for all that learning was to make the case for the divinity of Jesus, to affirm the salvation story. I was an excellent student, and I loved to read, to answer teachers’ questions accurately, to show how well I understood a text. But when I read the New Testament, something inside only allowed me to learn it as literature. I repeated back what the teachers wanted to hear, which was easy enough. But I secretly recoiled from accepting the conclusions my instructors insisted on.

But the “Old Testament” plots and characters fascinated me. They filled me with wonder, entered my heart, and sharpened my mind. The structure of Egermeier’s Bible Story Book was an ideal way to encounter this material: narrative only, short sections, descriptive titles, enhanced by theatrical illustrations, and without the parts a child would find “boring.” In the quiet periods that I was able to claim as a child, I would disappear into my bedroom and read the stories obsessively, repeatedly, studying them like a yeshiva bokhur.

Later, when I had children of my own, my father asked me if I wanted the copy of Egermeier’s to pass on to them. But the book was far too fragile to survive another round with young kids, so with my siblings’ blessing, I kept it safely stored away. When I began to study for conversion a few years ago, however, I brought it out again. Though I occasionally winced at the stilted, old-fashioned writing style and melodramatic tone, it provided an opportunity to relive the way the book had formed the relationships I still have with the heroes of the Tanakh, relationships that continue to feel personal, even familial.

As can be true for families in real life, some relationships mean more to me than others. Those relationships include the one I had with Sarah, who, when told she would have the child she had always wanted, laughed, thinking she was too old to have a child. It was an example of not being able to “take yes for an answer”—a phrase I learned much later. But, even as a child I recognized it as a reaction I would probably have myself. I saw Rachel and Leah entwined in a drama that was painful to witness because it was so easy to identify with either woman. It made me uncomfortable in a way I knew was necessary, exposing me to essential truths about human emotion and human behavior. The story of Joseph, on the other hand, was thrilling and almost satisfying. I admired his resiliency, his cunning, and his ability to impose some sort of consequences on his brothers without giving in to a desire for full-blooded revenge. It seemed much more realistic than the Christian rhetoric about forgiveness I had been taught.

But two characters in particular stood out, even when I was a child—two stories that both relate to Shavuot, a holiday I’d never even heard about when I was a child.

I responded to the story of Ruth in a visceral and romantic way from the very first time I read it. Before I had any understanding of the concept of conversion, I felt my heart align with hers in her fierce desire to make her home with the Jewish people. I was astounded by the courage it must have taken to leave behind all she had known before, but her choice made sense in my soul.

And then there was David, my girlhood crush: David the shepherd boy, David the strong and savvy warrior, David the builder, David the flawed but righteous king. No teeny-bopper idol in Tiger Beat magazine could compete. Most of all, I loved David the poet. A weakness of Egermeier’s was that it did not contain my very favorite part of the Bible: the Psalms. So, I kept my RSV Bible at hand to consult after reading about David and gazing at the illustrations of him in Egermeier’s. Without always understanding the literal meaning, I absorbed the feeling of the words of the Psalms and let the pictures they painted surround me. I imagined I could hear his voice, delighting in the landscape, singing praises, seeking protection, or predicting the defeat of his enemies.

Tradition says that David was born and died on Shavuot, and the Bible says that David was a descendant of Ruth, a convert. These are additional reasons that, though Shavuot was completely unfamiliar to me not so long ago, it has now become a holiday I naturally and happily embrace. I belong to the People of the Book, and Shavuot is a holiday of books. So, this year I’m going to spend some time with the book that laid the groundwork for my Jewish life— my faded, tattered copy of Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. Although the publishers likely never intended it, the book has become my own profoundly Jewish text, perfect for Shavuot study and reflection. When I read it, I will relive my first experience of Jewish study. I will picture my small blonde head bent over the text, absorbing a lifetime’s worth of lessons from the stories of my people.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email
Marjorie Ingall says:

Lovely. (Not to go all Helpy Helperton but you could get the book rebound so it could survive the grubby fondling of kids and grandkids and great grand-kids, who I bet would love the fact that it meant so much to you in your childhood.)

Julia Becker says:

B’ruchah habaah… You bless us with your good company. As a “Jew by Choice” myself, the sweet telling of your journey really resonated with me. With every thought and act, in every moment, whether we’re born into the tribe or make the choice later in life,  aren’t we all really “Jews by Choice” ? Thanks for putting your beautiful story  out there! 

martyj says:

Your writing, relative to your appreciation of what your faith means to you was most inspiring! It takes a lot of courage for any person to convert to another religion. This is an action that must consume heart, mind, and soul!!

As a Jewish Male who came by his faith automatically, I must say, ” how proud to have a person, such as yourself, embracing our Judaism”!

gwhepner says:

NOT TAKING YES AS ANSWER

 

Not taking yes as
answer, Naomi

was teaching Ruth how
to be Jewish. Jews

with strangers feel
great solidarity,

but aren’t enthusiastic
when they choose

to join a people who
were so unwilling

to accept the Torah
that God had

to threaten that Mount Sinai would be killing

them all if they
refused.  They were not glad

when offered Ten
Commandments. “Far too many!”

they must have thought, but
didn’t have a choice.

Each one of them came with a catch, catchpenny,

but they were not
allowed by God to voice

dissent. Why then
should strangers want to join

the Jews, considering
that even those

genetically connected
to Abe’s groin

were threatened by the
mountain He’d bulldoze

on them unless they all
converted? He

would not take no as
answer. That’s why Na-

omi would not take yes
from Ruth till three

attempts were made, despite
Ruth’s DNA.

The rest of course is
history.

Ruth’s third unchallenged
yes has charms,

plus messianic mystery,

that generate beloved David’s
Psalms.

 

C. A. Blomquist writes about
her special relationship with Sarah, who was unable to “take yes for an answer.”
This phrase applies particularly well to Naomi, who did not accept Ruth’s
decision to join the Jewish people until her third yes. Significantly for Blomquist and for other converts, it is from this story
that the Rabbis claim to have learned the principle that a convert must be
rejected twice before being accepted.
gwhepner@yahoo.com

inabaron says:

As you have previously written, conversion brings its own kaleidoscopic difficulties to the question of Jewish identity.  You, however; bring only love, joy, and appreciation to this process of conversion and being Jewish. You write having had the soul of a Jew from an early age. But the fact you actually converted in your early 50′s gives me hope my adopted children will someday find their Jewish soul we tried so hard  to give them.  

There is no such thing as conversion to Judaism. The torah speaks of intermarraige, not conversion. In addition, Ruth was not a convert. Even after he declaration to Naomi the text continues to refer to her as a Moabite. She is called Naomi’s daughter in law, but never a Jew.
Finally, Abraham had 8 children, but only one was Jewish. If conversions were possible then why didn’t he convert them? Also we are told that Isaac preferred Esau over Jacob. So why didn’t he convert Esau to Judaism ???

The israelites are a nation of priests, not a nation of rabbinical scholars and not even the most liberal rabbi would “convert” someone and make him a Kohane….

Christopher Reiger says:

I add my kudos to those that came before; a lovely piece.

I, too, am a convert who finds special resonance in Shavuot.  Ger or not, though, all-night Torah study makes Shavuot a wonderful and unique opportunity to engage the heart and mind through a specifically Jewish lens.

Oh, and I totally second Marjorie Ingall’s suggestion to get the Egermeier collection rebound!  That’s a family treasure.

Chag Shavuot Sameach!

Naftoli B says:

Your view is patently false and thank Gd for that!   Some of the most dedicated and committed Jews are Jews by Choice who have worked long and hard to affirm their love of and dedication to Judaism.

In any case your comments are quite confusing – I really have no idea what your point is.

dennyboo says:

Subject Quotation:”The Christian rhetoric  about forgiveness that I had been taught.”
I can hardly take in that particular phrase . Never mind accept the notion  that  the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is mere “rhetoric.”History has revealed   many examples of  forgiving Christians  on the world’s stage.Nelson Mandella’s almost unbelievable call to fellow black Africans to forgive their brutal white oppressors.Certainly that was more than rhetoric.Christians motivated by the teachings  of both the Torah  and Jesus of Nazareth’s statement made  at the point of his  death: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” is decisive for their  faith and life.Christianity and Judaism are planted deeply in reality with all its  goodness and beauty,its banality of evil as  Hannah Arendt  described it and The terror  to come ,of   Divine retribution, merely delayed for the sake of the righteous.G-d’s elect. At the same time how many  and how often do even    committed  Christians  and  observant  Jews fall short of the Torah’s call to love, forgive, have mercy, seek justice  and  strive for righteousness?Yet Forgiveness  and  mercy withheld  from  repentant  sinners   is  G-d’s promise of salvation rejected by those “whose righteousness is as filthy rags,”"For there is no man righteous. No Not one ”  said the psalmist.How then can one not forgive others but yet expect the merciful forgiveness of G-d Who alone is good and righteousness itself?Are such questions  mere rhetoric?A “rhetorical  faith and life , love and forgiveness is sheer fantasy and actually a contradiction in terms. ” Forgive us our trespasses AS  we forgive those who trespass against us.”Is part of the Lord’s Prayer so called because it was taught word for word to  Jesus’ disciples  by  Jesus himself. To this day, The Lord’s Prayer  is   more  frequently prayed by Christians than any other.  Are we to believe that  authentic Christians are either hypocrites or irredeemably stupid?Nominal Christians or nominal Jews  on the other hand can hardly be the representative  measure that one employs to identify what is authentic Christianity ,or Judaism.So if one concludes that “forgiveness” is sheer rhetoric  among nominal  Jews or Christians , let’s not be surprised nor imagine for an instant that they represent authentic Christian or Judaic teaching or observance.The nominal Jew or the nominal Christian is really a living   caricature of Judaism or Christianity.Neither authentic  Christianity nor  authentic Judaism  is about rhetorical questions , but  about the demanding real  questions that  G-d  has been addressing  to Israel and to  all of mankind throughout all of  history . Denis  C.   GrayP.S.  The  most authoritative norm  for  Christian perception of Judaism ,as it pertains to Christian beliefs, is perhaps most clearly expressed  in the New Testament Epistle to the Romans  but especially Chapters  9, 10 and 11. Most readable New Testament   English translations:1)  The Message; Both testaments ( in every day English  but not gimmicky .But  rather translated by a linguistic scholar, Eugene Peterson . Highly regarded  by other scholars  Some Jewish2) The Revised Standard  Version Both testaments3) The New King James Version   ”              ”4)The King James Version                ”             “

jcarpenter says:

perhaps that “you’re not a Jew; you can’t ever become one” show-me-your-DNA-pedigree is what has turned any favorable inclination away for the last millenium or so . . . .

 So true!

 Huh!?

dennyboo says:

Thank you Stan. I appreciate your comment.I would be interested in reading about your reflections on those things which tug at your heart and tease your mind.

Denis

Danielle5 says:

I’m sorry, Mr. Blomquist that you weren’t blessed with grace but you only yourself to blame, not Christianity. If you had been so blessed, the truth of the New Testament would have been revealed to you and the love of Christ could not be denied.  To be a Christian you must be sincere in your belief in Christ and give your life wholly over to him. You obviously did not and therefore were never a Christian. Please don’t pretend to speak for us. 

“It seemed much more realistic than the Christian rhetoric about forgiveness I had been taught.” This statement tells me everything I need to know about you. I love Jews, respect Jews and honor them as God’s chosen people, but the fact that you, a new Jew, feel the need to tear down another faith to build yours up is a cause for self reflection.  If you don’t believe in forgiveness, what do you believe in?

Jews come to god with their works, and we know that god is light and in him is no darkness. and all our works are as filthy rags to god. No sin can come into the presece of god. The jews lost the only way to get to god when the sacraficial system was destroyed given to them by moses. ( 70 ad ) They looked forward to the fofillment of that system. that happened when the final sacrafice was given for them. At that time the heavy curtain that devided the holy of holys in the temple was torn, from the top to the bottom. Showing that the way to god has changed and the way was opened, a mediator between man and god has come and a fofillment of their religion has happened. The Devil loves religion and he was happy to step in for those unbelievers and lead them.

I think she meant that Joseph forgave his brothers that sold him into slavery without demanding any bloodshed but God in “Christian rhetoric” can’t forgive without a perfect bloody god-man sacrifice.

“and all our works are as filthy rags to god.”

Quit reading that in PAUL where its quoted out of its context.  Go read it in ISAIAH!!!!  First, you got the wrong word anyway, because both Paul and Isaiah say “All our RIGHTEOUSNESS is as filthy rags.”  But Isaiah 1, Isaiah says that his generation was seeking righteousness by purely CEREMONIAL means (sacrifices, sabbaths, etc.) and ignoring the MORAL law.  Well obviously that kind of righteousness IS nothing but filthy rags, which is exactly why he calls it that in the last chapter.  He doesn’t mean that ALL righteousness is just filthy rag but all OUR (as in that generation’s) was because they ignored the moral law only cared about ceremony.

“The jews lost the only way to get to god when the sacraficial system was destroyed given to them by moses.”
Go read Micah 6, genius.  Asked about what sacrifice God wants, 1000 rams, 10000 gallons of oil, shall I offer my firstborn? etc. Micah answers in Micah 6:8 “He has told you o man what is good, and all the Lord requires of you is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  Long before the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 AD, long before Jesus, the prophets had already said the sacrifices are not necessary to salvation, so in your face.

I am quite convinced that Nobody alive today is an ethnic Jew.  All Jews are descendants of converts.  So get off your high horse.  You have zero Jewish blood in you like everyone else.

dennyboo says:

The teachings re sacrifice both in the Judaic and Christian traditions make a clear distinction between the conditions of repentance and  forgiveness as between human human beings  and the  sacrificial demands  and specifics  re   sin offerings made to G-d.
The  repeated  bloody  sacrifices of unblemished  lambs  as an offering for sin  in the Judaic tradition, has its parallel in the Christian tradition.For Christians, Jesus is believed to be  THE  unique  perfect unblemished   lamb of G-d. Sacrificed  ONCE ONLY ; as the perfect at-one-ment  for all the sins of the world  for all time.Clearly, the crux of the issue, if you’ll pardon the pun , is whether or not  Jesus of Nazareth’s claims   to be the   messiah of G-d  prophesied by Torah is a fact.Christians believe that Jesus , subsequent to his death on the cross,  was raised from the dead by the power of G-d.The  act of “resurrection was therefore G-d’s   contrary  de facto   response to Israel ‘s leaders’ condemnation and  denial of  Jesus’  identity claims .What if Jesus was not raised from the dead by the power of  G-d? Surely that is the question. Certainly it is the question for Christians.If  Jesus  did not rise from the dead  as the Christian Church testified  , then, as Paul/Saul wrote in a  New Testament letter ;  Christians are to be the most pitied of all people and to be still in their sins with all the rest of mankind.In short  then it would all  all  be just  a delusion.End of story.Personally I believe that it  finally comes down to the question of whether or not Jesus was the messiah sent by G-d.Either way the implications and consequences are enormous.

dennyboo says:

Indeed! Well said.

dennyboo says:

Correct answer but  why “So in your face?” as the final word.
Shalom might be nice.Shalom.

Read Micah 6. Somebody is asking Micah what sacrifice God requires, and what is his answer? Hint, its in Micah 6:8. But if you don’t start reading in verse 1 you miss the question.

Bob Gabriel says:

I was baptized and educated as a Catholic, but don’t ever recall believing that the Jewish prophet Jesus (see Geza Vermes) was a God, whatever a God is supppose to be. Then in my adult years, I as a book collector, discovered Isaac Bashevis Singer..Sixty of his books later, I fell in love with Judaism and the “People of the Book.”

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

A Convert’s Bible Stories

A well-thumbed book from my Lutheran childhood is now the ideal text for my Shavuot study and reflection

More on Tablet:

The Best Passover Snack You’ve Never Heard Of

By Carol Ungar — Matzos Coffee, the sweet, sugary European treat that’s as simple as it sounds