This Londoner Felt His Soul Was Jewish. So He Converted

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: Finding out that Jesus was a Jew was a life-changing revelation for this London artist ■ How an Israeli 'rugby missionary' fell in love with the game

Seth Elkan ben Abraham.
Tomer Appelbaum

Seth Elkan ben Abraham, 45, from London; flying to London

Hello there. I really like your shirt.

It’s vintage from London, from a Knicks game – .

Are you from London?

I was born in Ivory Coast and I live in London, south London. I’ve been there for 21 years. I’m married. Last month I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary with my wife, and our 18th year together. We have a daughter named Yerusha – short for Yerushalayim – and an 8-year-old son, Yohanan. And no, I wasn’t born a Jew.

Can you tell us how you came to Judaism?

I am an artist, and the journey I have taken has been a mysterious one. No one gets to the Torah without being a spiritual person from the beginning. I think there was a connection: My rabbi told me that there are non-Jewish people who feel an attraction like that. They don’t know where it comes from; their soul is simply Jewish. He was joking, but I told him that that’s how it was.

Can you tell us more about this journey?

It was a profound one. I remember being in London. I was about 28 years old, with my wife and living in a new country, and we had to think about how we would make do. As an artist, I worked in a studio and recorded music. The owner of the studio was a Jew. When he heard that I’d recorded a song that had something to do with Jesus, he told me that Jesus was a Jew. That was a revelation for me. I felt as though I were following someone I didn’t even know. The studio owner invited me to go to the synagogue with him. I went with my wife, who was pregnant at the time with our firstborn daughter.

So the door to Judaism was actually within your world as a musician.

Music was what I did in that period. I completed a course in sound at the university, and because of that I went around to a lot of studios. There’s a track I recorded, the last thing I did, a few years ago, called “The Liberator,” about a contemporary messiah. It is political to the point where Universal Music didn’t want to sign me, and I’m still political now. I was against the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, because I knew what it would lead to. Amalek and Edom are brothers, who never loved Jacob.

Where do you engage with this knowledge – do you study in a yeshiva?

I didn’t complete my yeshiva studies, because it’s expensive, but that’s what I learned there. My wife and I have a vision about Torah and penitence, and we have a Facebook page called Torah Call, and I am now taking a correspondence course.

What’s it like being a Jew in London?

There are all kinds of places for Jews in London. I have Jewish friends and we do things on Shabbat together. People like me, blacks – it can be confusing. People want to know how you can be a Jew and black, they want me to tell them how it happened. And I ask them: What’s so surprising about this? There are some who don’t wear a kippa and hide the tallit because it’s Europe and they’re afraid. One time a student talked about a Jewish woman in class, and was critical of her, and I put my kippa back on, and he immediately said, “Ah, excuse me, do you pray?” I said, what does this have to do with praying? I put the kippa on my head because I wanted that conversation to end. People think Jews are bad, so they don’t even try to get to know them.

Were you accepted by the community immediately?

The first time I was in the synagogue, they opened the door for me and asked, “What are you doing here?” I pointed to a sign saying that it was the house of everyone and I said I wanted to pray. What’s wrong, I asked, don’t you want me to be blessed? I was there with my pregnant wife and we went in to see the rabbi. He was happy to see me. I was accepted straight away. And also, I underwent circumcision.

Why was being circumcised important for you?

Well, because it is truly important. Abraham also did it at a late age. In Judaism you can’t separate the physical and the spiritual. For example, I bought baby clothes and then my wife became pregnant. Before that, I had been empty, but the Torah takes you to a situation in which you’re not empty. You don’t walk the street alone.

From left: Zoya Yefimovich, Hagit Salomon (Zoya’s mother) and Naama Badihi.
Tomer Appelbaum

Zoya Yefimovich, 7 months old; Hagit Salomon, from Kibbuz Yakum (Zoya’s mother) picking up her friend; Naama Badihi, from Kfar Vitkin, arriving from Budapest

Hello. Where are you coming from, and what happened to you there?

Naama: I’m coming from the second round of the European championships in women’s rugby. Hagit, my teammate, is picking me up. I was injured two weeks ago, in the first round of the tournament, in Ukraine. I twisted my knee. I’m the captain, so I go to the games anyway.

So the national team is made up of members of local teams? How many are there?

Naama: There are nine teams. When I started playing, there were three, but the sport has developed in the past six years.

Why is it more popular?

Naama: The reason is our advertising, PR. Many girls saw an ad and brought friends. When girls from abroad with a rugby background come to Israel, they look for us. Lots of girls like the sport. I feel like a rugby missionary.

Tell us about the game.

Hagit: It has important principles, such as respect for yourself, your teammates, rivals, referees, and there’s camaraderie. Most of the work is evading the defense – when the girls from the rival team try to tackle you when you have the ball.

So the defense is actually offense? What is a tackle?

Naama: There are many rules. You don’t smash into one another; we don’t wear protective gear. A tackle can only be at shoulder level and below. If I have tripped someone, I have to fall with her so she doesn’t crash into the ground. You only tackle someone who has the ball.

It sounds like there’s a powerful sisterhood on the team.

Naama: Right. For example, after a player is knocked down, there’s “ruck”: a contest over the ball between a defensive player and an offensive player. The feeling that an offensive player uses her body to protect someone who fell, to safeguard her – the physical closeness – creates a special feeling. Because passes are only made from behind, when I have the ball, the others are behind me, and so communication is one of our most important tools; you learn body language and other ways of communicating.

Will your injury affect your day job?

Naama: I work for a company that does environmental consulting and I won’t be able to work for a while. It’s something you take into account with rugby, but it’s worth it. I’ve been playing for six years and this is the first time I’ve been injured.

How did you feel when you got hurt?

Naama: I was disappointed. I worked hard the whole year for the European championships, and it was frustrating. My second thought was: “People make plans and God laughs.” I need an operation and that will sideline me.

Hagit: Injuries are part of the sport. There’s a third half to the game, when everyone sits together over beer. The outstanding player drinks beer out of a shoe. It’s part of the process – to forgive. We’ve broken each other’s limbs a lot; that’s the game.

How did you come to rugby, Na’ama?

Naama: I moved to Jerusalem and a woman rugby player who lived across from me invited me to a game. I went and fell in love with it. I realized that the aggressiveness was something I lacked: I grew up in a home with five brothers and we used to fight, but when we went to after-school groups, they would go to karate and I was sent to a dance group. I wanted to go to karate, too. I was missing a framework to vent my aggression.

How do you make people forget the difference between a “boys’ sport” and a “girls’ sport” and get girls to play rugby?

Naama: I worked in the rugby association and was responsible for introducing the game in schools from 1st to 12th grade. I explained rugby, made the girls eager to play, and that’s how you get them to sign up for clubs. This year a group of girls started playing in Rehovot, and we’ll have a team in Tel Aviv, too.

What will a girl who joins a rugby club get from the game?

Naama: She’ll learn to love her body, her femininity and her aggressiveness; she’ll also create a social circle. Rugby demands strength, but there’s a place there for a person of every kind of build. Big girls can be stars and so can quick girls. It gives everyone the possibility to contribute to the team. It’s a sport that embodies what it is to be a woman, whether tall and thin, or muscular with broad shoulders – rugby simply gives you a framework.