Every convert to Judaism has a story. Changing one’s religion is always a dramatic statement; stepping over the threshold of comfortable majority membership to embrace minority status in a peoplehood whose religion is rich in tradition and rife with oppression is sobering, to say the least. It is also exciting and incredibly rewarding. In Annette Gendler’s compelling memoir, Jumping Over Shadows, the author juxtaposes her journey to Judaism (primarily in Germany, though she converted in Switzerland) with the story of her Christian great-aunt, who married a Jew in a German community within Czechoslovakia before World War II and saw her family torn apart because of it.
Gendler skillfully integrates the history of her family, which she meticulously researched, with her own modern love story. Along the way, she recreates dialogue that places the reader in the middle of the unfolding events, whether in the 1930s or the 1980s. Telling her own love story is no mean feat, for it is tricky to describe a romance that ultimately prompts a Jewish conversion. A halachic conversion to Judaism is granted by an Orthodox bet din (court) whose rabbis, acting as judges, must turn away prospective converts several times before accepting them as devoted to Judaism for strictly religious reasons — not motivated by love of anything or anyone other than the religion itself. As a potential convert, Gendler must study, absorb, and accept the precepts of Judaism, and adopt religious observance. As she notes decades later, “In reality, becoming a Jew…was not accomplished by ducking in the mikvah and getting the bet din’s stamp of approval. It had to be lived many years and through the milestones of life.”
But that is getting ahead of the story. Some of the dramatic tension in Gendler’s memoir comes from initially hiding the youthful romance from her boyfriend’s parents. These Holocaust survivors living in a tightly knit Jewish community in Munich would, their son Harry knows, be deeply opposed to his “marrying out.” And so the tale unfolds, Gendler’s narrative flowing smoothly. In the few places throughout the book where a word or phrase hints that English is not Gendler’s native language, the effect is more charming that jarring. She opens a bag to search for “lip balm”; her eyes “cramp” when she cuts an onion. She deftly sets scenes, bringing them to life with details of the times.
The book’s title is enigmatic. “Jumping over shadows” conjures an image of something mysterious and dark, shape-shifting and vaguely threatening. A version of the phrase is uttered by Harry’s father and seems to allude to the dark history of the Holocaust. Gendler’s own relatives faced the fallout of the Shoah as families became linked through marriage, so the phrase thus interpreted would apply to them as well. And did Gendler and Harry not jump over the shadows of history as they sought clarity in their relationship? Ultimately, the author leaves the title’s interpretation up to the reader. It is a wise and provocative choice, as shadows gather over the United States and Europe today.
Amy Spungen, a freelance editor and writer, has a BS in journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MA in English from Northwestern University. She lives near Chicago in Highland Park, Illinois.