A Singer With a Blunt Message for Israel: Don’t Mess With Converts

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Singer-songwriter Avior Byron. Credit: Yuval Sacks

So frustrated was this religious musician with the way Jews by choice are treated in Israel that he decided to dedicate his upcoming show to them.

It’s a rather strange title for an album-launch event, but singer/songwriter Avior Byron is advertising his concert, scheduled to take place in Tel Aviv next Wednesday (July 29), as a “performance in solidarity with the victims of the nixed conversion reforms.” He is referring to the Israeli cabinet’s decision earlier this month, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, to roll back all efforts by the previous government to liberalize conversion procedures in the country.

A highlight of the new mini-album is the single “Ruth’s Been Waiting.” Inspired by that most famous of Jewish converts, Ruth the Moabite, it tells the story of an imaginary woman by the same name, living in modern Israel, who, despite her great desire to join the Jewish people, is given the cold shoulder by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment.

“The Ruth in this song is not a real person, but I’ve heard many, many real stories like hers,” says Byron. “For me she is representative of the tens of thousands who would like to become Jews and are confronted with the cold-heartedness of the religious establishment in this country.”

Hailed in the Hebrew press as Israel’s first religious protest singer, Byron’s repertoire includes many songs about the disenfranchised in Israeli society. But there’s a good reason this 43-year-old musician has a special soft spot for converts: He happens to be married to one.

Avior Byron. Credit: Yuval Zacks

His Czech-born wife, who now goes by the Hebrew name Yehudit, actually had a positive conversion experience, he reports, but that may very well have to do with the fact that she didn’t undergo the process in Israel. “When we contrast her experience with that of others we know who’ve gone through the process in Israel, the stories here are absolutely frightening,” he says.

Byron, who lives with his wife and three children in Mazkeret Batya, a small town in central Israel, was not always religious. “I was raised in one of those secular Israeli families that was light on tradition – meaning we did Kiddush on Friday evening and went to synagogue on Yom Kippur.”

He and his family belong to a progressive Orthodox synagogue, which allows women to read from the Torah, and his children study at a pluralistic school with students from religious and non-religious families.

Although he wears a kippa atop his head of curls, Byron prefers not to be classified “Orthodox.” “I don’t affiliate myself with any specific stream of Judaism,” he says. “There are some great things in Orthodoxy, but there are also great things in the other movements, and I don’t want to be bound by definitions.”

A classical pianist by training, he also plays electric and acoustic guitar. His “Jewish music,” as he describes it, draws on many influences, among them folk, rock classical and jazz.

When not performing around the country with his five-person band, Byron, who holds a doctorate in musicology from the University of London, teaches a special course in music aimed at pre-school teachers-in-training at the Achva Academic College. His main day job, though, is running his own document translation business. “From music, I mainly lose money,” he jokes.

His first public performance of “Ruth’s Been Waiting” was at the inaugural Limmud event held in Tel Aviv several months ago. It is the one single from his new album “Songs for Tsippora” – a project financed through a crowd-funding campaign – that has already earned play time on Israeli radio.

After he launches the new collection of songs in Tel Aviv, Byron plans to take the show on the road to the United States, where he believes the message of “Ruth” will resonate even stronger.

“The Orthodox-run rabbinate creates lots of antagonism not only among people in Israel who want to convert, but also among many people abroad who want to be Jewish,” he notes. “Lots of Israelis think that our biggest threat is Iran, but in fact, it’s the way we treat those who aren’t Orthodox. If one day, the millions of non-Orthodox Jews abroad decided to withdraw their support for Israel because of this, that would really be the end for us.”

As dire as it all sounds, “Ruth’s Been Waiting” has a happy end: After many years, she finally finds a rabbi who welcomes her into the fold.

“The real message in this song,” he says, “is that it’s not the converts who need to be proving their worthiness, but rather, the rabbis.”

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