Ahuvah Gray

Jewish Tribune of Thursday, May 4th, 2000
Getting it: The Metamorphosis of Ahuvah Gray-- A black American, once a Christian minister, now an Orthodox Jew.

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 cosily 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 Jerusalem that adorn the horizon, and the branches of a Jerusalem pine tree that brush up against the opaquely luminous rectangle of a skylight.

As a matter of fact, Ahuvah Gray herself - a black American who was once a Christian minister and is now an Orthodox Jew - does look like some exotic sort of. princess, with her high-cheek-boned delicacy, 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 balcony 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 27:13 - 'I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the L-rd in the land of the living. Here I am and I still can't believe my eyes after all these years - the goodness of the L-rd in the land of the living, and I always think, Thank you, grandmother, for such a beautiful gift."

Back inside, serving hot tea, Ahuvah Gray speaks of that woman, the one who started her on the long journey that has brought her to Israel, the Jewish people and Judaism. "My grandmother was my role model. All I remember of her was the chesed, , the kindness, she did all day long. She was always cooking food for sick people and bringing it to them. And my mother, G-d bless her soul, throughout my childhood she would bring homeless people to our table.

One time there was this 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 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 20 years, taking care of the poor and the homeless.

I was 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. Years later, when I worked for Continental Airlines, every summer I'd make that trip to Mound Bayou the way we always had. One summer morning when I arrived at her house, the door to her bedroom was open and my grandmother, who was seventy-eight 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 kneeling 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 a turning point in my life. I was already a minister then, but that experience gave me the stamina to commit my life to prayer." I ask what that means in practical terms. "It means I committed myself -to having a designated time and place for prayer:-The time was five a.m. and the place was under the blankets of my bed. I'd just pull the blankets up over my head and pray for hours, it was my favourite 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." "Under the blankets, you were in your own little synagogue?" "Right. In those days, though I didn't know anything about the Jewish way of davening. But I'd read in the Psalms that King David prayed three times a day so I decided, if that's how he prayed, I'11 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, but I finally had to publicly declare that I could no longer remain in the ministry. It simply no longer seemed true. "At that point, I had no thought whatsoever of becoming a Jew.

But I had felt an affinity for Jewish people starrfng back when I was in 7th grade and had my first job working in the dress shop of a family named Greenberg. 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 family. After going there for Shabbat, I'd go home and tell my mother all about it - what they were like, everything they did, how they had this funny looking bread. The only thing I didn't tell her was about the wine. She would have platzed, because my mother, may she rest in peace, 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. "Before resigning the ministry, I'd started my own business as a licensed tour organizer to Israel. It was during those years that I experienced another turning point.

On one particular trip, I had taken a group up north to the ancient city of Safed. and we were touring the old synagogues when I saw a Jewish siddur. 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 and started reading. And it struck me: These are powerful prayers... "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 G-d, because it's such a powerful thing to do - other than that, a Jew does not have to place himself in that position."

"You mentioned the Chicago riots," I say to Ahuvah, "and the fact that the Greenbergs' store was trashed. Whether or not that particular incident had anything to do with their being Jews, 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 hate/love relationship between the two peoples. From your present standpoint, Ahuvah, what do you think it is, between blacks and Jews?" "Well, of course, the first thing is that here you have two peoples who have been enslaved, and whereas the Jews are separated from that experience by a few thousand years, for black people it was just a short time ago, historically speaking. So there's a lot of mutual identificaiton going on, and all kinds of complicated feelings. "In my family, I was brought up to believe that no man is better or worse than another, that every one of us is a child of G-d. I love the colour of my skin.

But I was brought up to believe that I am neither inferior nor superior. "My grandparents were sharecroppers. My grandmother did not like living on land that wasn't their own, and to convince my granddaddy to do whatever was necessary to move, one day she left him and said she wouldn't return until he bought their own land. It took one week. He left the life of a sharecropper and bought his own land:. I ask if it hasn't been difficult for her as a black convert in the orthodox community. "You're not the first to ask. 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?' And 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 just 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 an amazing woman, Rabbanit Henkin. She had the amazing ability to nurture and mother every girl in that seminary. "After learning a year, the momentous day arrived for my conversion. I decided that after I'd celebrate by treating myself to a nice meal in a restaurant downtown. However, one of the rebbetzens was emphatic that I should come back to the seminary afterwards, so I went back to the seminary.

When I entered the beis midrash, the study hall, there was a huge sign thal said, 'Siman tov u'mazeI tov .' "I'll remember that day as long as I live. The American girls and the Israeli girls were all singing 'Siman tov u'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 'You have shown me such love, I don't think I've ever experienced such love before in my life. I think I'm beginning to understand the love between G-d 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 heart beat. We couldn't rest until we found our way to Judaism. You can take a Jewish neshama, and put it into any kli - body. But that soul 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, Hashem gave me exactly what I needed. He always has and always will." "How do you account for your emuna, your trust in G-d?" I ask her. "You have emuna, too, you know. Sometimes we just don't realize what we have. I think I witnessed my grandmother's faith throughout my life and it was passed on.

And I've always put things into my G-d Box: "What's that?" "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, when I left America I left my entire family behind, I haven't seen them for four years now - so as I reached for the phone I was already dreading whatever I was going to hear. It was my sister Nellie, sure enough, with 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 G-d till the sun came up. 'Please, Hashem, don't let anything happen to him. Don't let Ezra die.'

"Then all of a sudden, it hit me. I thought to myself, now wait a minute. Who am I to tell G-d what to do?' "So then I prayed, 'Hashem, You formed Ezra. It's You Who gave him his soul. You gave him life. If it's time for You to take him back, I let go. I let go. Hashem' That's how I put Ezra in my G-d Box. And then I added, , And let Nellie get it:" "Let Nellie get it?" "Right, I said, 'Hashem, let Nellie get it:" "Did she get it?" "She got it." "And Ezra...?" "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 our forefather Avraham was willing to go to any length to teach us to do a mitzvah. "That when I love something very dearly, I'm willing to release it to G-d." I get my coat on, Ahuvah calls a taxi, then I follow her back down that stairway so I can reenter the busy morning. I tell her I'd like to hear more about her life. : "Well, the whole story - there's lots more of it - will be in my book. It'll be coming out sometime next year, with Hashem's : help." The cold air hits, I climb into the cab, (thinking, "Let me get it, too ) and Ahuvah Gray turns and disappears up the stairs.

AM ECHAD RESOURCES [Ahuvah Gray's forthcoming book, My Sister, The Jew, is due to be published next year by Targum Press. Sarah Shapiro is a writer living in Jerusalem. Her most recent book is Don't You Know It's a Perfect World?)


Ahuvah Gray