CAPE TOWN (Nov. 24)
When a young black student of languages at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand found himself sitting next to someone who was “writing from right to left in a funny script,” he could not have imagined the impact this would have on his life. For Rabbi Natan Gamedze, that 1988 experience marked the beginning of an unlikely journey from his royal Swazi roots to the Orthodox rabbinate.
When the young man told him he was doing his Hebrew homework, Gamedze decided that he too wanted to learn the language. On approaching the university’s Hebrew department — as its only prospective non-Jewish student — “they accepted me with open arms, and that really touched me,” Gamedze told a gathering here earlier this month, held under the auspices of the Ohr Somayach yeshiva.
“The first warmth I felt from whites was from the Jewish community,” Gamedze said of the days when apartheid ruled in South Africa. “Friends started inviting me to their Shabbos tables. There would have been heavy penalties if they’d been discovered, but they refused to bow to the pressure.”
Gamedze said Hebrew conveyed an “inner dimension of truth” that he didn’t get from any other language — and the Oxford honors graduate in modern languages speaks 13 of them, according to his Web site.
His knowledge of languages isn’t the only thing interesting about him.
Born Nkosinathi Gamedze, he is a descendant of a royal clan, but his family lost their rights two generations ago when the British recognized a rival clan as Swazi leaders. As consolation, his family was granted roles like diplomatic posts: His father was Swaziland’s former education minister and its high commissioner to the United Kingdom.
While completing his master’s degree in translation at Wits, as the Johannesburg university is known, Gamedze was approached by Hebrew University professor Moshe Sharon, who invited him to study for a doctorate in Hebrew in Jerusalem. He agreed.
Eighteen months later, friends from Johannesburg arrived to study at Ohr Somayach. They told him that it was his excitement years before at the writings of Maimonides that had propelled them on the path to Yiddishkeit.
When they asked Gamedze if he ever would consider converting to Judaism, Gamedze dismissed the idea, saying that he was upset with God.
“Why did he make me a non-Jew and give me such an interest in and love for Judaism?” he had asked himself. “There are so many Jews who don’t identify with their Judaism — why me?”
But his attitude changed when he started attending lectures in Jewish philosophy and “suddenly realized that the agenda I was interested in was Judaism.”
Experiencing an identity crisis, he attempted to escape his “destiny” by traveling to Rome, where, he told the audience, he thought to himself, “Baruch Hashem, I’ve escaped Judaism.”
But it wasn’t that easy. While marveling at the beauty of St. Peter’s in Rome, thoughts of the Inquisition and “the terrible things people did to get Jews to convert to Christianity” came flooding in.
He went back to his hotel room, covered his eyes and said the Shema.
“I felt a rush of energy and I thought, ‘Judaism is so powerful.’ But then cynicism took over and I thought, ‘This is for the Jewish people to deal with, not you,’ ” Gamedze said.
He continued touring Rome, but one day at breakfast something strange happened.
“I lifted the fork to put food in my mouth, but couldn’t eat it. This happened three or four times,” he told the audience. “I thought to myself, ‘Don’t tell me it’s because it’s not kosher that you’re not eating it.’ “
He started thinking back to his Wits friends, who were prohibited from eating one day of the year. On investigating further, Gamedze discovered that it was Yom Kippur. After that, there was no turning back.
Returning to Israel, he went to Ohr Somayach and told them of his decision to convert. He began studying Rashi and Torah in a chevrutah, or learning partnership.
Gamedze went before a Beit Din in Jerusalem where he was asked by three rabbis why he wanted to be Jewish — after all, Jews suffered so much and were hated by all, they said.
“I answered them with a pasuk,” or passage “from Tehillim: ‘For me, the closeness to Hashem is good.’ “
“There was silence for what seemed like ages,” Gamedze recalled. But, unusually, he was accepted at his first attempt.
During all this time — a period of 16 years — Gamedze had distanced himself from his family.
“I didn’t want to have a ‘goyische kopf,’ ” he explains, referring to a non-Jewish brain. “I wanted to have a totally Jewish outlook on life without any outside influences.”
Today he lives in the northern Israeli city of Safed with his wife, Shayna Golda, and their two children, Menachem David, 4, and Shoshana, 4 months old. He teaches at the Sharei Bina Girls Seminary there and lectures around Israel on Jewish thought and his personal journey.
Explaining why he does this when some converts prefer not to talk about their path to Judaism, Gamedze says, “If it would open up the heart of just one Jew, it would be worth it.”