The Halacha (Jewish Law) decrees that someone is Jewish if their mother is Jewish or if they convert. People who convert to Judaism gain the title ‘ger tzedek’ (righteous stranger). Here are some of the most famous converts:
Jethro: Midianite priest, consul to Pharaoh and father-in-law to Moses via his daughter Tzipporah. He is credited with founding the Jewish judicial system.
Ruth: Moabite princess who married a Jew. After he died, Ruth told his mother Naomi, “Your people are my people”. She later married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. Her story is told in the biblical Book of Ruth.
Rabbi Meir, ‘the miracle worker’: reputedly a descendant of the Roman Emperor Nero, he lived in Asia Minor in the 2nd century, converted to Judaism and helped compile the Mishnah (Oral Law). Meir is credited with rebuilding Jewish life after the abortive Bar Kochba Rebellion. His wife, Beruriah, was a great sage in her own right.
Onkelos: another Roman aristocrat, he became a Jew and was said to have written the famous Babylonian Targum (translation of the Tanach into Aramaic) with glosses and commentaries.
Dhu Nawas: King of Himyar, which became a Jewish fiefdom in southern Arabia. In the 6th century the ruler of Najran in nearby Yemen converted to Judaism, and reputedly persecuted Christians until he was overthrown by invading Ethiopians.
King of the Khazars: Offered the choice of Judaism, Islam or Christianity, this pagan king of a Caucasian Turkish tribe chose Judaism. Arthur Koestler argued that Khazar blood flows in Ashkenazi veins. The king’s story is told in Yehuda Halevi’s famous (albeit probably fanciful) treatise, Sefer Kuzari.
Valentine Potocki: 18th century Polish count who converted in Holland. He was burnt at the stake for apostasy in Vilna and his grave became a Jewish shrine.
Warder Cresson: first American consul to Jerusalem. His Christian family tried him for insanity after he changed his faith. In 1851, he was declared sane, then divorced his wife, settled in Palestine and married a Sephardi woman.
Reuel Abraham: born as Karl Heinz Schneider, he served in the German Luftwaffe, but was horrified at Nazi mistreatment of Jews. He immigrated to Israel after the war, worked on a kibbutz, and was accepted as Jewish 20 years later.
The ‘New Jews’ of Hollywood: including Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis Junior. Taylor and Monroe converted when they married Jewish men. Davis, a black American singer and actor, startled and impressed the Hollywood Jewish mogul, Sam Goldwyn, when he refused to act on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
Conversion throws a spanner in the works for those who claim that being Jewish is essentially an ethnic badge. However, to sincere converts, Judaism is first and foremost a religion, a set of ethical precepts to which they wish to adhere.