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I Was Jewish and I Converted to Islam

Aron (name changed) is from New York City. He is from a Jewish family and converted to Islam after his student exchange year in Indonesia. This is his story.

I grew up in New York City. We are Jews. My forefathers came from the area of Eastern Europe, from what is today Poland. They left their home when the increasingly antisemitic Russian Empire controlled parts of Poland after 1795.

After a long journey, they arrived and settled in New York. My family were never orthodox Jews. Nevertheless, Judaism did play an important role in our life and was an important marker of our very identity. We followed the traditional rituals and celebrations while engaging with the society around us.

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Music Brought Me to Indonesia

From an early age, I developed a passion for music. By the time I was a teenager,  I was all into experimental music. And I was especially fascinated with traditional music and musical instruments from other parts of the world. I would use the different sounds and include them in my own compositions.

One day a friend told me about Indonesia and that I can study ethnomusicology there. I was determined to travel to Indonesia and enroll in the Art Institute that offered the degree in ethnomusicology.

I Concealed My Jewish Identity

When I arrived in Indonesia and enrolled in the Institute, I did not tell anybody that I was Jewish. In Indonesia, you usually have to state your religion. I just stated that I was Buddhist. That was the easiest choice at this time.

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I was worried that people will show hostility towards me because I was Jewish. And since I did not practice my former religion to a great extent, I did not mind to claim that I was Buddhist.

And honestly, during that time in the early 2000s, it was kind of hip to claim that one was Buddhist. Indonesians viewed us “ new Western Buddhist” as exotic and did not ask uncomfortable questions.

At First I was not Interested in Islam

I stayed for more than two years in Indonesia. During that time I joined many music projects. And I tried to stay out of religious discussions as best as possible. I concentrated on my music and even my own Jewish religious traditions became very distant. I was away from my family. Away from my Jewish community that usually endorsed joining our traditional celebrations.

Islam seemed like this local religion that was just not for me. And I thought that practicing Muslims just spend too much of their time praying than doing really important things.

Gamelan and Islam

Then, one day I joined a traditional Gamelan performance. Gamelan is a traditional percussion instrument in Java made from metal.

Next to me sat an old man who started talking to me. It was in the middle of my second year and my Indonesian had become quite good. He explained to me the connection between the Gamelan and Islam. He told me about an ancient royal Gamelan ensemble which has the only purpose of commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The Gamelan Sekaten is bigger than all the other gamelans and is only used once a year. The old man continued that the playing of this gamelan is supposed to represent continuous praises for the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

This story impressed me because I had never thought about the spiritual aspect of music. His explanations made a lasting impact on me.

Reading about Islam

I continued composing experimental music. And my gamelan recordings became an important part of it. I started reading more about the spiritual aspect of Islam and especially the so called Islamic mysticism in Indonesia.

And honestly, it touched me. It influenced me. I understood that Islam was a lived religion and that it was full with the spirituality I wanted in my life. I had seen Islam as a dry and strict religion that only focuses on the outer aspects and rules.

Reading about Islam in Indonesia, I learned that my perception was far from reality. And the more I read, the more interested I became. I also read about Islam in other places of the world. And I was fascinated about its richness.

Following My Heart

I was interested to embrace Islam and become Muslim. But I worried about my family. What would they say? A Jew becoming Muslim? I did not want to loose them.

Eventually I followed my heart. I spoke my shahadah in a small Muslim community center in New York City. I started praying. And I joined the regular dhikr circle. The rhythmic remembrance of Allah is wonderful. It is like spiritual music that soothes the heart and calms the mind.

Telling My Family

I did not tell my family that I converted to Islam for a long time. Since I did not live with them anymore, it was quite easy to keep it hidden. But eventually they were suspicious of me. I tried to get around the religious celebrations and our regular Jewish community gatherings.

When I told them, they were just quiet for what seemed like forever. Then my mother asked me if I was happy. And I said:

“Yes!”

But my father made a request: “Can you please wait to make it all public? I mean, nowadays people have bad opinions about Muslims. And I don’t want our friends to think negative about you or us.”

I complied with my father’s request. And I still do. We just don’t talk about religion. I only very occasionally join the Jewish community gathering. Otherwise I keep low profile. It has been working well for all of us. I can still see and visit my family. Alhamdulilah.

About Claudia Azizah
Claudia Azizah is originally from Germany and mother of two children and writer. She served as Assistant Professor at the International Islamic University in Malaysia until August 2019. She is co-founder of the Ulu-Ilir-Institute in Indonesia. She regularly writes for the German Islamic newspaper. She is interested in Islamic spirituality, art and Southeast Asia. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: #clazahsei