“Gifts Of A Stranger” recently published by Targum/Feldheim
Reviewed by Helen Zegerman Schwimmer (The Jewish Press).
While most us are content to live our lives with our two feet planted firmly on solid ground, terra firma isn’t for everyone. Take Ahuvah Gray, for example, one of those special souls who were always destined to soar.
African-American by birth “but Jewish by neshama,” Ahuvah reveals that “The first thing my father asked when I told him that I was moving to Israel was where will you live and how will you support yourself when you don’t even know the language?” But she was so motivated by her “spiritual yearnings to become a Jew” she just plunged right into her remarkable mission. “Now, as I look back at my decision eleven years later I realize was a tremendous undertaking it was at the time.”
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Lech Lecha, the biblical account of a man who voluntarily uproots himself leaving his family, his home and everything familiar to embark on a spiritual journey fraught with hardship and danger, is Ahuvah Gray’s favorite parsha. The story of her personal Lech Lecha is described in detail in her autobiography, “My Sister, The Jew.” Ahuvah’s extraordinary journey continues in her sequel, “Gifts of a Stranger,” recently published by Targum/Feldheim.
Born and raised in Chicago, Ahuvah began her travels at an early age when she and her siblings returned each summer to the rural south of Mound Bayou, Mississippi where she learned to love the Psalms in the nurturing home of her maternal grandparents. Influenced by her grandmother’s strong commitment to prayer, Ahuvah notes that “Tehillim have always been an inspiration in my life,” and she is convinced that “it is in the zechus, the merit of my grandmother that I have made this journey.”
But Ahuvah Gray’s journey. from an airline stewardess for Continental to a rising star in corporate America and then the owner of her own travel business which took her to Israel fourteen times, did not end with her Aliyah and conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Ahuvah is once again navigating the globe but this time her route is determined by Jewish geography. A skilled communicator, she’s already amassed an impressive itinerary touching down and touching audiences from Australia to Hong Kong as she shares the gifts of her spirituality.
But it was in her own backyard that a chance meeting with a troubled young woman who felt oppressed by the burden of her religion, was destined to change both of their lives. Shira Taylor of Johannesburg, South Africa, was sitting in the audience the day that Ahuvah Gray was invited to lecture at the Aish Hatorah Fellowships program in Jerusalem.
Overwhelmed with emotion by Ahuvah’s deeply moving personal story, Shira later wrote, “From about the age of eighteen I had unconcernedly watched as my Judaism gradually dwindled to a shadow of what it had once been. I stopped keeping kosher and learned absolutely no Torah…I, who had been handed the Torah on a silver platter with an excellent Jewish education, a family immersed in Torah life and parents who were so trusting, patient and giving. I wept for the lost years where I had been frozen and closed and ignorant. I wept because Ahuvah had fought so hard and with such love and joy for what I had always dismissed.”
Ahuvah attributes Shira’s miraculous change in attitude to Divine Providence. “Hashem made me the messenger that brought about Shira Taylor’s spiritual reawakening,” she writes in her new book, Gifts of a Stranger, “and in doing so we both created a fundamental shift in the world. Her world changed dramatically. My world expanded and was enriched, her story continues to inspire other people and the chain of responsibility goes on.”
It is this sincere sense of responsibility that compels Ahuvah to eagerly share her story. She feels humbled by her unique ability to provide fellow Jews with “chizuck” but at the same time she’s not bashful about it suggesting that converts have “the spiritual genes of Avraham Avinu, the first Ger.” Admitting that she used to say “I was always a woman of great emunah but when you become a Jew you have to become a person of great patience,” she marvels at the personal and professional choices she made throughout her life which ultimately led to her conversion. “Hashem does things in their time. There are no coincidences with Hashem…everything that happens comes from Hashem.”
A natural teacher, Ahuvah draws on both of her cultural heritages combining her lyrical African-American cadences with the richness of biblical imagery and the result is magical. When you look into the spellbound faces of seminary students you immediately sense that they find her story especially meaningful. During a recent lecture tour across America, Ahuvah found that her deep love for the power and meaning of prayer resonated very strongly with these young women who ultimately seek her out when they come to Israel. “Seminary girls from around the world have been to my home for Shabbos meals.”
Home is the loving community of Bayit Vegan. House and garden, even the name conjures up an idealized vision of white picket fences. But Ahuvah’s abode, not surprisingly, is perched high above the streets closer to the heavens. From an aerie with a commanding view of the adopted country she loves, Ahuvah Gray reaches out to the world and invites us to continue the journey with her as she ascends to new heights.
MY SISTER THE JEW
(Published in 2001 by Targum Press, distributed by Feldheim)
Reviewed by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
I have read a number of articles and books where converts or returnees to Judaism describe their spiritual journey. Some authors describe their journey as a journey from "darkness to light."
For example, the author was living a materialistic and hedonistic life, and he discovers the spiritual richness and idealism of the Torah path. For other authors, the journey was from light to an even brighter light. For example, someone living a life dedicated to altruistic values discovers that not only are these altruistic values rooted in the Torah, but that the Torah path actualizes these values in a practical and holistic way.
"The new book "My Sister the Jew" by Ahuvah Gray is in the second category. Ahuvah Gray, granddaughter of African-American sharecroppers, and a former Christian minister, is now a Torah-observant Jew living in Jerusalem. For Ahuvah, the journey to Torah and the Jewish people was a journey from light to an even brighter light. Her parents and grandparents raised her with ethical and spiritual values, and as an adult, she discovered that these values were rooted in Judaism. She also discovered that the Torah's path of mitzvos - ethical and sacred deeds - enabled her to further actualize these values in her daily living and in all aspects of her existence.
In this spirit she writes: "Spending much time in other people's houses leaves me in awe of religious Jewish women. Our homes are a daily sanctification of the Name of Hashem (God). I came from a fine family. I saw love and kindness and devotion to the poor, and I was raised with values of strict morality and refinement. Yet when I enter a Torah home, the daily, moment-to-moment sanctification of God's name that I experience far surpasses anything that I was raised with."
The book contains a number of moving stories about the spiritual faith and loving deeds of her parents and grandparents. These stories about her family challenge the negative stereotype that some Jews have about African-Americans. For example, Ahuvah lives in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem - a neighborhood where the majority of residents are Haredi - traditional Orthodox - Jews. Through knowing Ahuvah, and hearing the stories of her family, the residents of Bayit Vegan developed a deeper appreciation of her African-American roots.
In fact, on the night of the Festival of Shavuos when Jews commemorate the giving of the Torah, Rabbi Leib Heyman, the rabbi of the Gra synagogue that Ahuvah attends, shared with the congregation the following remarks regarding Ahuvah's family background: "In our own neighborhood we have a genuine giyores, a righteous convert. This remarkable woman was taught the twenty-third psalm by her grandmother at the age of four. Her grandmother would read psalms to the sick and elderly in her town in Mississippi. The giyores's mother used to feed and care for the sick and homeless in her own home. With such role models our friend grew to maturity, with her love and admiration of the Book of Psalms growing too. She recited Tehillim (Psalms) daily - until her love for the Almighty grew so strong that she felt compelled to convert to Judaism."
The stories in this book also challenge the negative stereotypes that some Jews and Gentiles have about Orthodox Jews, in general, and Haredi Jews, in particular. For example, Ahuvah tells story after story of how the residents of Bayit Vegan took her into their hearts and homes even before she completed her conversion. They also encouraged and supported Ahuvah when she experienced some unusual difficulties with her conversion process. Ahuvah points out that whenever she tried to express her appreciation and gratitude for their many acts of loving-kindness, they would reply: "Ein davar (it's nothing)." They would then add: "We learned how to treat our guests from Abraham, our Father."
As a child, Ahuvah dreamed of walking in the footsteps of Abraham. And it was God's call to Abraham to begin a new journey that inspired her own journey to Judaism. She writes: "When people ask me what made me want to undergo the difficult and radical transformation of becoming a Jew, I tell them, 'I was inspired by God's divine call to our father, Abraham.' That call represented an awesome spiritual summons to Abraham and to all those who followed in his footsteps. 'Lech Lecha,' the passage begins in Hebrew... 'Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.' Only God - the great artist of the universe - could bring about the first imaginary steps in the secret thought-life of a little Black child and lead her all the way along a path which grows clearer day by day. I really don't know where I would be if not for the awesome spiritual power contained in God's call to Abraham and to all those who follow in his footsteps...And so I left my native land, my family, my relatives, and my father's house to go up to the Land of Israel, the land of my ancestors, the land of my soul."
In this autobiographical work, Ahuvah Gray shares with us the story of her "homecoming." It is a story that can offer each of us renewed faith and courage, for we are all on a journey to the "land of our souls."
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen is the author of "The Universal Jew" - Letters to a Progressive Father from His Orthodox Son (Feldheim Publishers).
He also directs personally the on-line internet study-program "Hazon - Our Universal Vision": www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/
MY SISTER THE JEW
Targum/Feldheim ISBN 1-56871276-6 Hardcover
Reviewed by Yocheved Golani
Jews understand that Dovid haMelech's soul-searing appeals to HaShem speak to the ages and every possible circumstance. Tehillim also speak to hearts joyous and broken wherever they may be. One of those hearts belongs to the granddaughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, and the book, My Sister the Jew, is her story.
Southern inflections in the speech of Ahuvah Gray's speech endear her to audiences from Detroit to Jerusalem. Her unique road to Judaism is now in written form, and equally charming. The language she uses to explain her path from a Protestant minister to an outspoken lover of Torah is predicated on the words of the Psalmist: "The L-rd will guard your departure and your arrival, from this time and forever." Those words carried the former Minister Delores Gray of California's Strait-Way ministry to her heartfelt life as a Torah-observant Jew in Jerusalem.
Raised on the Psalms by a set of astonishingly decent and G-D-fearing parents, the author has been able to quote whole chapters and select specific verses in times of crisis and pleasure since childhood. An avid prayer, Ahuvah used a Hebrew siddur long before she realized her soul is Jewish. When a 1994 California earthquake flung Ahuvah from her bed and she became locked her out of her apartment in nightclothes, she prayed for G-D to spare her some shame and to let her back inside to put on street clothing. When she attended a sound and light show about the giving of the Torah, an earthquake of another kind clued her in to her prayerful nature. It would be a shame to spoil the scene by summarizing it here. Reading it in Ahuvah's own words, in the context of her autobiography, is a spiritual treat.
Readers will learn in the book just how hard working this woman is, in body and in spirit. Confronted by obstacles in the course of her conversion journey, Ms. Gray steeled her strength with verse 165 from Perek 119: "There is abundant peace to the lovers of Your Torah, and nothing shall offend them." Through earthquake and heartache, My Sister the Jew explains how King David's words soothe the soul of this former airline and travel agency executive who is now a confidante of such Jewish notables as Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller, Rav Bakshi-Doron (he advocated for her conversion), and Rabbi Arye and Rebbetzin Carmell.
Ahuvah came to my attention when I received an E-mail from the Bitachon mailing list, asking me to review her book. I lunged at the chance, and became blessed with a friendship. Ahuvah then asked me to contribute content to her then-developing website www.mysisterthejew.com, and the friendship blossomed. Our websites are linked and we make a cozy pair of conversationalists. Two emotionally strong women, who have weathered phenomenally interesting times of ruchniut and nisayon, we share an understanding that comes from hard-won experiences.
The strength of Ahuvah Gray's biography lies not only in her drive to become part of the Jewish People, but also in her personal history. It is full of heart-rending losses. In contrast to the sadness, wonderfully close-knit relatives, friends, and colleagues populate her life, and the relationships bespeak the nobility of her soul. As Ahuvah relates on page 204, "I was fifty-one years old when I stated studying at a chareidi institution. I was old enough to be the mother of most of the girls there, but instead we were like sisters. They gave me such chizuk." A full-fledged member of kshei oref, the stubborn Jewish people, the author's only sorrow is "…the warring factions within Judaism. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than seeing the Jewish People when they are united; it's a true Kiddush Hashem."
Ahuvah Gray's life is blessed with peace and acceptance. The very title of the autobiography is taken from her sister Nellie's congratulatory and affectionate greeting in a letter to "My Sister, the Jew." A lesson in abounding ahavat chinom, hers is a story of great spiritual wealth.
GOLANI Ms. Yocheved Golani, Columnist & Freelance Writer Author of LEGACY, available through BookLocker.com and in bookstores (via Ingram's) in late November www.ygolani.com (Winner of Apex Awards for Publication Excellence/Web Sites, 2001) Get my free, weekly E-newsletter for editors, publishers, and writers. Send a blank E-mail to GOGOLANIemail@example.com