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The Royal Jew From Swaziland

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The Royal Jew From Swaziland
by Yisrael Rutman

An accidental encounter with Hebrew alters the destiny of an African

The story of every convert to Judaism is a gripping tale of spiritual
discovery. In the case of Natan Gamedze, that journey began 40 years
ago in Swaziland, where he was born into a royal family.

Gamedze casts an imposing royal figure, but it is his intellectual
capacity that makes the biggest impression. Graduated with honors
from Oxford, he received a master's in translation from South Africa's
Wits University, and served as translator in the Supreme Court of
South Africa.

Gamedze's gift for language -- he is fluent in 13 languages -- played
a central role in his discovery of Judaism. After many years of
study, Gamedze is now a rabbi and teaches Jewish studies in the
northern Israeli city of Tzfat where he lives with his wife and son. Let's begin by verifying facts. Is it true about your being
an African prince?

Gamedze: I am indeed. I grew up in Swaziland until the age of 8.
It's a small, land-locked kingdom that borders on South Africa and
Mozambique -- about the size of Israel, with just over a million
people. Were you in line for the throne yourself?

Gamedze: My grandfather was king. But the British, who had colonized
southern Africa, created the states of Swaziland, Bosutoland and
Bechuanaland. They drew artificial borders, very often failing to
take into consideration the ethnic distribution. So in many places,
different ethnic groups were lumped together in the same state. That
is what happened to us. And the British chose to recognize a rival
royal family as the ruling group.

In order to win our cooperation, they made certain concessions to our
family -- such as granting ministerial posts -- and we have a
semi-autonomous region within Swaziland. My father served as minister
of education and ambassador to the EEC countries. Today, it's more
like a paramount chief than a king, but they do wield power. Which languages do you speak?

Gamedze: I speak 13 languages: French, German, Italian, English,
Hebrew, Afrikaans, Zulu, and other African languages. Everyone in my
family speaks at least two European languages; my mom speaks about 7
or 8. It is unusual, to say the least, for someone of your
background to find his way to Judaism.

Gamedze: I was never interested in religion, per se. I was interested
in what was going on in the world. What is our reason for being here?
Okay, so you get up in the morning, you eat, go to work, have a
shower, watch TV, go to bed, get up and start all over again... Hey,
I did that yesterday!

I felt that life was like being on a conveyer belt, and eventually you
get off. So what was the point? I couldn't accept that. An existential question.

Gamedze: Yes. In other words, I wasn't searching for a way to give my
life meaning. Rather, I was trying to find out what was going on,
like a detective. I felt there's something going on in this world,
something behind the scenes. And I wanted to know what it is. If you weren't looking for religion, how did you find it?

Gamedze: I was sitting in a boring Italian literature class one day.
I think we were studying D'Annuncio. And as people do when they are
bored, they look around, and I noticed some guy was writing backwards
in funny letters. So after class I asked him what he was doing. He
said he was doing his Hebrew homework. I thought: That's really
interesting. Imagine if I could write like that! And then I forgot
about it. But later on, I needed a credit to complete my degree. I
wanted to take Russian, but I had a scheduling conflict. Then I
remembered about Hebrew. It fit my schedule, and so I began studying
it. So what was the moment of awakening?

Gamedze: The first text we got was the biblical passage of the Binding
of Isaac. Coming as I did from a moderately Christian home, I was
familiar with the text, but I was surprised at how Hebrew appeared to
convey much more than could be conveyed in any other language. I
couldn't figure it out.

But what was so compelling was that I thought it was telling me
something about myself. It was like opening an inner dimension that
perhaps many people don't even know exists. It wasn't like an
archeologist trying to find out about, say, ancient Incans, an
interest which has really nothing to do with him. Here, I felt it was
telling me something about myself. I thought it had to do with the
language itself. I didn't know at the time it was the religious
dimension. And from there?

Gamedze: I began to discover the beauty of Judaism. I got interested
in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah. I would carry it around and read it and
tell my Jewish friends about it, who later became observant. It was a
bit strange that the very person who was bringing them closer to
Judaism wasn't Jewish.

But it was frustrating. I couldn't understand why I had such a thirst
and love for Judaism, and not be Jewish. And yet there were Jewish
people who couldn't care less, it appeared. Not only that, but when
they did decide to get interested, it was easy for them. The
opportunity was right there. I asked myself: Why am I out of the
picture? I couldn't understand why God would play such a trick on me.

At that point, I figured the best thing would be to get away from all
this Jewish business. So I went to Rome to study. I visited
St. Peter's and saw the artwork. I'm a great fan of Italian
literature and art. But while in Rome all I could think about was the
suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians. So it wasn't so
enjoyable... Sort of a ruined Roman vacation...

Gamedze: Yes. I had gone to Rome to get away from the whole thing --
Rome is probably the "least Jewish" place in the world. And there I
was in my hotel room, and thinking about -- what else? -- the Jews. I
particularly thought about how a Jew says "Shema Yisrael" before
giving up his life for the faith.

At this stage, I had not yet taken on any Jewish observance. But I
decided to say "Shema Yisrael" there in my hotel room by St. Peter's.
When I did so, I felt an enormous surge of energy. As I was saying
it, I felt that all those people who had given up their lives for
Judaism were saying it with me. I felt as if I were a channel through
which they were saying Shema. To this day, I can't explain what
happened there. It was a frightening and very powerful experience.

I remember once, I went down to have breakfast. I sat down to eat,
and I couldn't eat. And I was hungry, mind you. What's going on?
Now by that time I had attended some lectures on Judaism while I had
been I in Israel, and so I remembered that there was one day in the
year, Yom Kippur, when Jews don't eat. So I went to check the
calendar, and of course, that day was Yom Kippur! I was shocked.

I had told my Jewish friends that the only time I'd consider
converting to Judaism is if I couldn't sleep at night. Well, it had
come to that. I decided to convert. Was that decision the hard part or the easy part?

Gamedze: I knew the road was going to be extremely difficult.
Wherever I'd go in the Jewish community I'd stick out like a sore
thumb, the only black guy in the room. I'm not the kind of person who
likes to be in the limelight, and from now on every time I walk into a
synagogue it's going to be, "Is he really an African prince?" How
terrible. But I had a talk with God, and I said to Him, "Well, if
that's what You want -- that's it."

Sometimes a person has ups and downs in life, and he's not sure he's
doing the right thing. And he often doesn't do the right thing. So
at least this one thing, I was confident I'd got it right. It's a big
mainstay. Did you ever figure out why God played this "trick" on you
-- why your journey would have to be so difficult?

Gamedze: I only discovered the answer to that a few months ago. I was
teaching a class on the biblical Jethro, trying to convey what kind of
special person he was. And I remember what I had heard many years ago
from Rabbi Moshe Carlebach, who said that the first time the phrase
Baruch Hashem ("Blessed is God") appears in the Bible is when Jethro
-- a convert -- praises God for saving the Jews from the Egyptians.

The whole idea of a convert is that of Baruch Hashem, of bringing
additional glory to God. That's why Jethro's Hebrew name is derived
from the word yeter, which means "adding on." Because, as someone
coming from outside the Jewish people, who is Jewish by choice, he
gives additional glory to God. Not that God lacks anything, but in
our eyes, we see it more.

As I was saying this in class, I heard a voice in my head saying, Nu?
Now you know why you have to go through all this -- for the additional
glory. My story is not about how comfortable it is for me. It's
about glorifying God. That's why I have to be so different, because
only the outsider, whose Jewishness comes with great difficulty, can
make this unique contribution. The big question that had been
baffling and hurting me for so many years was answered. But it's still hard?

Gamedze: It is, but I don't view it the same way now. It's God's
world, after all, and we are His creatures. With all the fancy
scenery and background, it's almost like a movie. God says to
Himself: "How do you get people interested in Judaism?" So he
arranges for an African prince to come around, to make people take
notice and think about things. Yes, it's hard for me. But it's all
about what God wants, not what I want.

Author Biography:

Yisrael Rutman lives in Israel, where he teaches Jewish Studies, edits, and writes for various publications.

This article can also be read at:

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The Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2003

Hundreds of descendants of Moroccan Jews living along the Amazon are retaining to Judaism and making aliyah.
Michael Freund traveled to the tropical forests of Peru to find out why.

It is a sweltering summer day in the city of Iquitos, as the sun beats down mercilessly at the gateway to the
Amazon river in northeastern Peru.

Despite the heat, the town center bristles with life, as merchants and shopkeepers hawk their wares in the
marketplace overlooking the water, offering a variety of goods for sale, ranging from freshly laid turtle eggs to
colorful and exotic fruits.

Boat captains of dubious maritime proficiency accost a group of foreigners, promising them an afternoon of
adventure in the dense and forbidding Amazonian jungles, where bright toucans, 20-feet long Anaconda snakes
and energetic spider monkeys roam about at will.

But nature is not all that is vibrant in this remote corner of the country. Quietly, and without much fanfare, a
remarkable revival of Jewish life has taken place here too. Against all odds, hundreds of descendants of 19th-
century Moroccan Jewish settlers in the area are now seeking to reclaim their heritage and move to Israel.

"Every Jewish community is unique, but the history of Iquitos' Jewish descendants is so exceptional that it 
almost sounds fictional," says Dr. Ariel Segal, a Venezuelan-born Israeli scholar now teaching at a university in 
the Peruvian capital of Lima. "Theirs is a survival of the soul."

It was in the 1880s, notes Segal in his book. Jews of the Amazon, which is considered the definitive account of
the Iquitos community, that the local rubber boom triggered an economic and social transformation of the area.
Thousands of immigrants from across the Atlantic, including many young Moroccan Jews, made their way to
South America in search of fame and fortune, pulled by the prospect of dazzling financial rewards as well as the
opportunity to escape harsh conditions back home.

"They left Morocco because of economic reasons and anti-Semitism," Segal says, adding, "Initially they went to
Brazil, as they had heard of it, but many of the more adventurous among them, perhaps some 200, continued
down the Amazon to Iquitos."

Initially, the Moroccans had no intention of staying for long. Indeed, while they built a cemetery to 
accommodate the inevitable loss of life in a frontier area, they refrained from constructing a synagogue, as they 
saw no need for a permanent structure, sufficing to conduct regular services in people's homes.

With the passage of time, however, many ended up marrying local Indians. Others, following the custom then
prevalent in the area, fathered offspring with several women while trading along the Amazon, where they would
often spend weeks or months at a time winding their way through the jungle on commercial expeditions.

Though many of the Moroccans eventually pulled up stakes and left, a number of them stayed behind and
founded a Jewish community in Iquitos, which was formally registered with the government in 1909.

In recent years, their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, have begun to reclaim their Jewish
heritage. Many bear distinctly Jewish names such as Cohen, Ben-Zaken or Ben-Shimol, while their outward
appearance is often nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding population.

Though they intermingled and intermarried with the locals, the Moroccans instilled their progeny with a strong
sense of Jewishness, instructing them never to forget their origins.

The current president of the Communidad Judia de Iquitos, Ronald Levy, is a case in point. His grandfather 
was born in Tangiers, Morocco, and came at the height of the rubber boom, settling down in a small town along 
the nearby Ucayali river, where Levy's mother was born.

Speaking in near-fluent Hebrew, Levy, an inspector for Peru's national oil company, describes the reawakening 
of his community and the challenges they face with a mixture of both precision and care.

Services are held every Sabbath in town, where the entire community gathers to pray, he says. During the 
week, lessons in Hebrew are offered to better prepare people for life in Israel.

"About 200 members of the community have made aliyah in the past several years," Levy says, "and more will 
be going to Israel in September and October." There are an additional 100 descendants of Jews in Iquitos who 
have also begun the process of return, he notes.

All those leaving for Israel, he says, undergo a Conservative conversion by Rabbi Guillermo Bronshtein of 
Lima, and then make aliyah under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. Once in Israel, most of them go through 
an Orthodox conversion as well, an option unavailable to them in Peru.

"It is not easy to be a Jew here, because of the many difficulties," says Levy, explaining why so many members 
of the community are packing their bags. "People study and convert here, and then make aliyah. Once in Israel, 
they complete there what they have started here," he says, referring to their desire to rejoin the Jewish people.

For Calev Perez, conversion to Judaism and emigration to Israel represent the closing of a historical circle.

Perez' grandfather was a merchant who found his way to Iquitos via Spain and Portugal, but never left. "My
grandfather's death certificate says he was a Jew," the 28-year old Perez proudly notes.

Although his late father had "some Jewish leanings", he eventually became an evangelical Christian. But Perez,
his mother and two brothers were all drawn to Judaism, and they recently underwent conversion by Rabbi

"We do what we can to keep kosher. We do not eat pig or turtle," he said, referring to two of the more popular
local delicacies. "We study Torah and try to be good to other people, and we observe all the holidays."

After Perez and his family make aliyah this month, he plans to go through an Orthodox conversion, "so I can get
married and have children."

Although as early as the 1960s, several Iquitos Jews succeeded in making aliyah, the turning point for many of
the Jewish descendants came over two decades later, when several of them resolved to revitalize community life in the city.

"The amazing part of the story", says historian Segal, "came in 1991, when four descendants decided that it was
not enough to meet only on the High Holidays or when an 'important' Jew came to visit, but that they had to
organize a real Jewish community to take better care of the cemetery, conduct prayer services and mark the

"Imagine - after almost 100 years without a rabbi, a synagogue, a Sefer Torah or a Jewish school," Segal says
with a tone of admiration, "they succeeded in forging a community."

Subsequently, the leaders of the community sent lists of all their members to Rabbi Bronsntein in Lima and to
Avraham Shani, the Jewish Agency's regional coordinator, in the hopes of setting into motion a program for
aliyah, community president Ronald Levy recalls. "We were skeptical at first," he says, "but there was a 
precedent for it. In 1989. three rabbis flew in and converted several members of the community, who then made aliyah. 

So  we knew it was a real possibility."

That possibility quickly became a reality, and the Jews of Iquitos began heading for Israel.

Raquel Prutsky-Kilimajer, the Jewish Agency representative in Peru, has nothing but praise for the Iquitos

"They feel very strongly about Judaism, and they want to live in the land of their ancestors," she says. "They 
know that for them and for their children it will be a better future."

Since taking up her post in March, Prutsky-Kilimajer has maintained regular contact with the community, 
offering advice and assistance to those planning to move. According to her data, 22 Jews from Iquitos made 
aliya in July and August, 40 more are expected to do so by the end of September, and another 20 to 30 by the 
end of the year. This. in addition to nearly 100 others who have moved in recent years, she said.

Asked to explain the community's growing interest in aliyah over the past decade, Prutsky-Kilimajer says that it 
is largely a function of technology. "This is happening because of the availability of information, which is more 
easily obtainable than ever before." Located beyond the forbidding Andean mountains, Iquitos is accessible 
only by plane or boat, and still retains a certain sense of isolation from the rest of the outside world.

But beyond that, she says that as the community has grown in strength and commitment, they have come to
realize that their best bet for long-term survival as Jews lies elsewhere. "There is no Jewish future and no
economic future here".

Historian Segal agrees, saying, "most of those remaining will go to Israel, and I think that is the best type of
•assimilation' that can happen."

"In the end," Segal concludes, "at least they will vanish from Iquitos because they came to Israel, and not because
they surrendered to the fate of being in an isolated place,"

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'It was the authentic me'

Sicilian Jew talks about his journey from Catholicism
to the Jewish Theological Seminary


RINGWOOD - The Lakeland Hills Jewish Center proba-
bly is the only synagogue in North Jersey whose rabbi didn't
meet a Jew until he was in college.

That's because there aren't any Jews in the Sicilian vil-
lage where Antonio DiGesu was born 36 years ago.

"I was born Catholic and I was raised Catholic," said
DiGesu, now a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish
Theological Seminary in Manhattan; in fact, his mother, a re-
tired schoolteacher, was a lay minister, empowered to hand
out sacramental wafers once they had been preconsecrated
by a priest.

"This whole mess began 20 years ago, when I was 16, and
I woke up with this idea that I had to learn Hebrew," he toid
this newspaper in a telephone interview. "It was out of the
blue, although I already did have questions about the
Catholic Church, about Jesus and Mary and their role in my
faith and my life." Still, like just about everyone else in his
village, he dutifully went to Mass every week.

He knew nothing about Jews then, DiGesu said. "At this
point in my life, I thought that all the Jews were dead, that
they all died in the Holocaust. I learned about a girl named
Anne Frank in fifth grade, but no one ever told us that any
Jews were still alive. Nobody told us anything about Israel-
Back then, it wasn't anything a Catholic boy would learn
about; Israel was entirely unfashionable.

"That's changed now." he added. "If you want to be up-to-
date as an Italian intellectual you have to read Israeli fiction.
It's really in fashion. On the one hand there is a strong-anti-
Israeli feeling, but on the other it's being translated into
Italian and sells out immediately. I don't know what prompts
people to say that Israel should be condemned and then to
rush out to read David Grossmann and A.B. Yehoshua. I don't
know what's in their heads."

Returning to his own story, "I taught myself Hebrew dur-
ing the summer," he said. "I used a Hebrew grammar book."
He'd never heard Hebrew spoken, but the book had a chart
that showed relationships between the pronunciations of
Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic letters- "There are plenty of
Arabs in Sicily, and there were Arab peddlers in our village,"
he said. "I asked them if they could read the sounds in

By then, DiGesu was already multilingual. He had
learned ancient Greek and Latin in school; at home his fam-
ily spoke Italian but the language they used to talk to every-
one else was Sicilian. Agreeing that he was a "good student,"
he laughed and said, "Yes, if that's a politically correct term
for nerd." In Italian, he said, that's a "secchione," which he
immediately translated into the Hebrew "dli." He had to look
up its translation into English — it's "bucket" — and as he
quickly riffled through his dictionary the sounds of the pages
rushing by made clear that such word-hunts were by now en-
tirely natural to him.

It was around that time that DiGesu realized that Jews
still lived. "I had done an exercise with the grammar book,
and learned the word 'Israel,'" he said. "Then at lunchtime I
heard a news report, and there was news from Israel, That's
the first time that things began to click in my head. I just paid
attention for the first time to this news. And I saw on televi-
sion people who had weird things on their heads, and the
word 'Jews' came through. That day I started taking all the
encyclopedias we had at home and putting the pieces togeth-

"During this time I was reading the Bible, both old and
new testaments, in Italian translations.

"I had questions that I asked the priest — Once I asked
him why we don't keep kosher any more, although of course
I didn't use that word then. He just told me that we do what
we do because Jesus told us to. The priest had no answers.
But what struck me as I read was that there are people today
who keep these laws. That's the thing that really got me.

"So, putting pieces of information together, I learned
about Judaism. No pork, no shrimp, so whenever I could I
avoided these foods. I had so many quirks anyway, so many
weird things about food, that this just became more of them.
They'd say, 'He doesn't eat this, he doesn't eat that, and now
he doesn't eat pork.'

"I had also learned about Shabbat, although I didn't know
all the rules. I knew about Pesach, but not about the seder."
He had learned about biblical Judaism, but not much about
how it evolved,

"On Easter, I read the whole book of Shmot" — Exodus
— "in Italian. It would have take me forever in Hebrew
then," he said. "In the beginning of the fall, I chose a day
randomly and fasted, because I knew Yom Kippur was at the
beginning of the fall-

"It was all very heavy serious stuff, because I couldn't
share it with my parents, or with the priest," DiGesu said, I
had no idea where this would take me. I went to Mass every
Sunday, because it's a small village, and not to go would be
to put my parents on the spot, not just me.

"I didn't feel that bad about it," he continued, "because I
knew that most of my classmates were doing the same
thing." Not, of course, that they were turning Jewish, but that
they were going out of habit rather than conviction. 'The dif-
ference was that they would be doing it for the rest of their
lives. I didn't feel particularly bad, because I was being
forced to go. If they had listened to me, I would have told

When he turned 18, DiGesu left Sicily for the University
of Rome to study Hebrew. By then, his Hebrew was, he said,
"pretty good, because I would talk to myself in Hebrew," and
so he worked alone with his teacher. She was an Israeli —
the first Jew he met.

"She thought I was crazy," he said. "She was a typical
Israeli — she didn't believe in anything — but she was from
a traditional background, and she never denied me an an-
swer. If I asked what Judaism said about something, she'd
give me me answer, and then say it was all screwed up. She
was against religion, but she understood that she was my on-
ly connection to Judaism. So she brought me a Siddur and an
abridged version of the Shulchan Aruch, a Shulchan Aruch
for dummies.

"Then it happened that one day she got fed up with my
questions, because she really wanted to teach literature. So
she told me that she had spoken about me to the rabbi and
gave him my name. 'Here's his phone number,' she said.
'Call him.'" The number was that of the Orthodox chief Rab-
bi of Rome.

"It was so awkward," he continued. "It felt that even
though I was doing this, and even though I wanted to learn
more, I also had my own prejudices about Jews. I thought
that I'm going there, but they won't let me in. They won't
talk to me, Jews are a closed group. I needed her to push me
to going to services, which I'd never done. I was keeping
Shabbat, keeping the holidays, doing my own praying with
the Siddur, but I'd never gone to Daven with Jews. But she
pushed me and I went."

DiGesu found "the first time I went that nobody kicked
me out. People talked to me, and the rabbi was really nice,
and so I kept going." He started to think about a formal con-
version to Judaism.

He was 19 years old and living with his aunt. "She was up-
set because I wouldn't do things on Shabbat," he said. "She
didn't tell my parents about it at first, but then one day she got
furious and picked up the phone, called my mom, and told
her. She told them that your son is going to Jewish services,
he doesn't do this, he doesn't do that, and he doesn't go to
Mass." That's when the trouble began.

"My mom just begged me not to do it any more. Their
concern was that someone had brainwashed me. Our con-

versation was mostly screaming. I didn't want to hurt them.

She asked me to leave things the way they were until summer

break. So we did: I kept going to services, and then 

I went home for the summer.

"Both of them would scream at me, and my mom would
cry, and they'd take me to Mass almost daily," DiGesu said.
"I have never told her to this day what I thought about Jesus;
back then I had even less strength. By the end of that time I
promised them that I wouldn't go to services, and for a while
I didn't go. I would still do my thing, praying and trying to
keep Shabbat and the holidays, but I didn't do it publicly.

The big advantage was that they didn't know if I was using
Hebrew books for fun or for classes. They had no clue, and
that really helped me. I was studying Hebrew and Semitic lan-
guages, and I pretended that my interest was all academic."

Everything changed in 1989, when the Italian foreign
ministry awarded DiGesu a scholarship to go to Israel to im-
prove his Hebrew. "I was in Israel for two months," he said,
"and I could do what I wanted. It was clear to my parents.
When I called them after that it was on Sunday, and they
asked if I had gone to Mass. I said no, and that was the end
of the discussion. When I got home, they were ready to talk
about It without arguing or fighting,"

His parents' changed attitude, he said, was at least in part
attributable to a priest. "He was a friend of theirs, and they
talked about it," DiGesu said. "This guy told my parents that
what I want came to me from God, and that there is no way
to stop it.

"My mom had done some reading on her own," he con-
tinued. "She told me that she would even help me keep
kosher, although they would not have separate dishes. It was
a very big thing."

It was then that DiGesu applied to the bet din in Rome to
be considered for conversion.

'They kept telling me it would happen soon, but it lasted
for three years," he said. "I'd call the office of the bet din
every Friday around noon, and they'd give me something
else to study."

DiGesu suspects that one of the reasons it took so long for
the bet din to advance his conversion was his name, which
means "of Jesus." "My rabbi told me they expected me to
change my name," he said. "But I told him that I'd never do
that as long as my parents are alive, so I hope I'll keep this
name for another 200 years."

"Finally, in 1991, they called me in. It was totally fright-
ening to think about; I didn't sleep for days, but then when I
got there it was the easiest thing ever. I was expecting to
have hundreds of questions, but it went on for maybe half an
hour. Then they said yes, and asked me when I wanted to do
the Brit Milah; there were three weeks between that and the

It was an orthodox conversion. For me no other option 
was real Judaism at that point.

"I was so happy. Finally it was true. It was euphoria,
Finally, I could have an Aliyah. Finally I could wear my Tal-
lit, not just in my room where no one could see it. I could
wear my Tefillin,"

By the time he had converted, he said, "my parents were
ready for it. That was the point when my mother did get an-
other set of dishes. Now, they've been to services; when I
was in Naples they came every Pesach, and my father even
fasted one year for Yom Kippur."

"I knew I wanted to be a rabbi then," he said.

DiGesu worked for the Board of Jewish Communities in
Rome; through it he was offered a position as the congrega-
tional leader in Naples. There are about 200 Jews in that city,
and about 50 others in surrounding communities. "I liked
them and they liked me," he said, so after serving his oblig-
atory year in the Italian army he took up his new post, "It
was a bigger Job than I had thought, and I learned a lot," he
said, "I had to do everything — I led services, read Torah,
prepared bar mitzvah kids.

"During that time, I was still trying to do university work
in Rome," DiGesu continued. "That entailed Bible study
from a critical perspective, and this generated questions that
my rabbi really didn't like." As he had during his adolescence
in Sicily, he, was starting to question some of his beliefs, al-
though, he said, he never questioned his identity as a Jew. "I
felt really awkward; I was in a weird position," he said.
"When a congregant came to me with a question I had to give
the Orthodox perspective, and I felt like I was lying to them.
I needed to find the answers within Judaism, but I couldn't be
the one to give answers to people."

He realized that it was time to leave, "and my parents
gave me a perfect way out. My parents said, 'This is enough.
You've played with your life long enough, now you have to
go back and finish your dissertation. So I left Naples and fin-
ished my degree.

"During that time I practiced Orthodox Judaism but I was
still looking for answers. Roman Orthodox Jews said that
Reform Jews are Christians who say things in Hebrew and
Conservative Jews are Reform Jews with Orthodox Rabbis.
And they all drive to Shul."

- DiGesu planned to make Aliyah, but before he went to
Israel, fortified with enough graduation-present money to
keep him for a long time, he decided to come to the United 
States. He landed in this country in 1998, and within a few 
months learned English. 

"I got to New York, and it was all full of Jews, and they
were not all Orthodox. It was really mind-blowing," he said.
"It was like being a kid in a candy store. I couldn't figure out
where to go for services; I went everywhere."

He got a job in a teacher-training run by Drisha, the modern
Orthodox women's institute on me Upper West Side, and
mat allowed him to stay in New York. Next, he began to
teach in the Solomon Schechter high school in Manhattan.
"Schechter schools identify themselves as Conservative," he
said, "but there is, such a range. Some students were realty
from; they wear their Tzitzit hanging out. Others run off to
McDonald's to eat cheeseburgers. This was confusing; how
could they call themselves the same thing and be so differ-
ent? That's what pushed me to Conservative Judaism. So I
went and read more about it.

"The Conservative movement tries to put together schol-
arship and faith," he said. 'That's what I was trying to find".

He began to work at the library at JTS, the flagship of the
Conservative movement, and then applied and was accepted'
to rabbinical school. "What's next? Who knows? The
moon!" he said.

"My lazy part says that I should stay in this country, get a
congregation that already exists, and stay here," he said. "My
other part says that I should go back to Europe and start
something there."

For now, he's at Lakeland Hilts, and he's glad to be there.
'They needed someone to read the Megillah last Purim, and
I went," he said. "They liked me and I liked them; their Rab-
bi went to Israel, so I applied for the job and they chose me.
They're really great people. They're warm and welcoming."

He learned the Ashkenazi melodies for the High Holy
Days just before he had to use them; he had known the
Italian and the Sephardic before, but although there are
Ashkenazi Shuls in Italy he had not been affiliated with any-
He despairs over the quality of the Kot Nidrei he was able to
offer the congregation, but, he said, "I put all the Kavanah I
had into it. It was authentic me." .

"Journey to the center of the Faith"

Former pastor talks about why and how he became a Jew

Abigayil Klein Leichman

TEANACK - Few rabbis can rival
Southern preachers in their ability to keep
an audience spellbound for two hours. And
perhaps that's why Rabbi Dr. Asher Wade
- formerly the Rev. Wallace Wade - was
able to do just that last Saturday night at
Cong. Bnai Yeshurun here.

The 54-year-old Wade, a native
Virginian, looks every bit the Gerer chasid
he is today: gray beard and sidelocks, black
frock coat, and tallit katan over his white
shirt. Yet the cadences and now-softened re-
gional accent hint at the Methodist minister
he once was. His choice of words makes
clear his early background as a respected
academician and his later education in all
things Jewish.

In truth, the two hours of stories and in-
sights punctuated by humor barely touched
the surface of his topic, "A pastor's conver-
sion to Judaism." There was clearly so
much more to say.

"I never imagined that I'd be spending
the vast majority of my life, once I convert-
ed to Judaism, traveling literally around the
world telling over, year after year, a story
about what my wife and I consider a 'davar
pashut' - an obvious thing," said Wade.
"And that is, when you stumble across the
truth, you test it out and verify it, and when
it rings true you plug it into your life and live
it, right?"

Wade and his wife - the daughter and
granddaughter of pious German Lutheran
ministers ("a glatt Christian," he described
her with a laugh) - trace the start of their
side-by-side journey to Judaism to Nov. 5,
1978. Wade was in Hamburg studying for
his first doctorate (in metaphysics and rela-
tivity theory) while also ministering at a lo-
cal church. That morning, scanning the
hometown newspaper before heading to
services, the newlyweds were struck by
photographs of synagogues, shops, and
homes ablaze, of people running for their

The young couple read that these images
had been taken 40 years earlier, on
Kristallnacht, and they were horrified to re-
alize that they recognized the pictured lo-
cales. One was a parking lot used by Wade
and many other University of Hamburg stu-
dents, yet there was not even a plaque to
mark the spot where a majestic synagogue
had stood until the night of Nov. 9, 1938.

"For us, this was a shocking example of
revisionist history. Nobody had the pre-
science to ask, 'I wonder what had hap-
pened in this dirt parking lot in history?'
From that moment on, after we identified
where Hamburg's Jewish community once
lived, we designated that spot as sacred ter-
ritory," he said.

The newspaper retrospective prompted
Wade to start asking his older congregants
where they had been and how their families
had reacted to Kristallnacht. He got nothing
but evasive or defensive answers, and soon
parishioners were ignoring and shunning
the couple. Privately, they delved into
church history, attempting to learn it from a
different perspective from the one they'd
been raised with. He felt, "Where were the
186 million Catholic and Protestant laymen
that built churches and cathedrals and
learned the Gospel about 'going the second
mile' or the proverbial Good Samaritan?"

Many of the answers they found were
painful, whether in their church community
or in the academic community. "We found
out, much to our chagrin and embarrass-
ment, that the first public organization to
openly join the Nazi party in 1933 were my
university's teaching staff members."
(Much later. Wade would discover that his
doctoral mentor, an ordained minister, was a
former Nazi as well. Upon learning that
Wade was planning to become Jewish, this
professor refused to continue their academ-
ic relationship. Wade was forced to abandon
his almost-completed dissertation. Under a
new adviser, he earned his second doctorate
on Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch and the
Orthodox-Reform debate.)

"Our world seemed to be wobbling," he
recalled. "Those two pillars upon which
we'd built our lives - the church and
Christianity - seemed to be crumbling be-
neath our feet."

Yet although their revelations about the
Holocaust started their probe into Judaism,
it was a far more positive sense of curiosity
that propelled them to complete it.

"We had two questions: Who was this strange tribe of
people on the planet Earth - the Jews? ... They seemed to
me like the kids on Main Street watching the parade of his-
tory go by, as emperors and empires passed through one by
one. And what is this thing called Judaism? Here I was, a
theologian, a doctor of the church, and I didn't even know
the religion of my own lord and master. Now, all of a sud-
den, all the puzzle pieces started falling together."

The Wades had both brought to their marriage a secret
question, he said: What is the will of God for us human be-
ings on earth? After rejecting the answer of St. Augustine
("The will of your father in Heaven is love God and do as
you please," as Wade paraphrased it), they began delving in-
to the Bible's "front" part, the Hebrew Scriptures. "There it
was: my answer, staring me right in the face," he recalled.
"The will of your father in Heaven, it says there, is *Do this;
don't do that. Eat this; don't eat that. Behave like this; don't
behave like that. Don't sit at the feet of scoffers but sit at the
feet of sages.' I turned to my wife and said, "This is good'
This is real good! This is Judaism.'"

Increasingly, the couple felt unfulfilled by the teachings
of the Christian Scriptures, which seemed lofty and nebu-
lous by comparison. "Why hadn't we seen that stark contrast
before, between the nitty-gritty of daily life in the front of
the Bible and me ethical, philosophical principles floating
like clouds in the back of me Bible?"

Wade's colleagues reminded him that the "son of God"
had set them "free from these old, archaic rules and regula-
tions." But he didn't understand how the word of "the son of
God" could override that of God Himself. And he was chal-
lenged by a fellow minister to find out why, if the Jewish
Bible made sense, so many Jews don't follow its teachings.

"That question acted like a pebble in my shoe," Wade
said. "I'd always wanted to go to the local synagogue in
Hamburg and now my friend had given me fire in the fur-
nace." There, he met a religious Israeli who worked for El
Al and was frequently furioughed in Hamburg.

"We clicked like two lost orphan souls," he said-
Sometime later, while watching the other congregants bick-
ering on Simchat Torah, the Israeli said he couldn't believe
Wade and his wife were ready to convert to Judaism when
their only exposure to a Jewish community was this less-
than-perfect crowd. "I said that my wife and I had come up
with a formula to put this in its proper perspective: never,
ever, ever judge Judaism by the Jews. Judge Judaism by the

As a clinical psychologist. Wade said, he is well aware
mat most people don't like to be told what to do, whereas me
Torah dictates every detail. Yet he realized, in speaking with
an Ivy League student after delivering a guest lecture one
day, that this assumption about human nature may not be
true. The student complained about her bit role in a campus
production, and Wade asked her why she couldn't "pizzazz
it up" and ad lib some lines. Because, she replied, mat would
not be faithful to me script or the playwright's intentions.

This reminded him of a midrash (biblical legend) that one
day when God shines His supernal light of creation back on
the world. He will see "all His Yiddin [Jews] out there on the
stage of life winging it, doing their own thing. Not following
me script or doing what the 'playwright' wrote.-.. What have
we done to the script we were given on Mount Sinai? We turn
into the biggest mavens where script-rewriting is concerned.
By the time we're finished it looks like Swiss cheese." What
he and his wife were seeking, however, was "the whole bar
of cheese, without the holes. This is what we found and this
is what we implemented into our lives."

The Wades moved back to Richmond after their 1983
conversion and intended to be quiet members of the local
Orthodox synagogue. But they soon found that their story
was inspirational to other Jews. As one young father told
Wade, "All my wife and I ever wanted to do was many a
Jewish spouse and then after that, to float passively through
the revolving doors of assimilation, out into the materialistic
world. But just as we were on our way but, what do we see?
A pastor and his wife coming in through those revolving
doors - into Torah Judaism...- So what did you two see mat
we missed growing up? If you'll tell us, maybe we'll give it
another shot."

- And so Wade has been telling his story ever since, even
after moving to Jerusalem 15 years ago, raising a family of
six children, and teaching in institutions such as Ohr
Somayach, an Israeli outreach yeshiva that has a branches in
the United States.

He joked that his chosen Hebrew name. Asher, is pro-
nounced by his chasidic friends as "Oo-sher" or "Usher."
And pehaps "usher" describes him well. he went on: "the
guy in the long black coat standing outside the doors of the
theater of life with me script in his hand, telling all the late-
comers and stragglers, 'Come in, come in! The plot hasn't
thickened yet!' My job is to speak to Jews around the world
and wake them up, bring them back - primarily secular
Jewish university students who may not have had the op-
portunity to know anything about what it means to be a

Ordained in Israel in 1992, Wade also works as a tour
guide at Yad VaShem and has a private psychotherapy prac-
tice. Ten of his public lectures^ including one explaining his
road to conversion, are available on audiotape from Ohr
Somayach's Website,, or Wade's own Website, ash-