When a Jewish Convert Finds Himself in a Hot Tub Full of Neo-Nazis

For many Jews by choice, there comes a moment of realization that antisemitism is now a personal problem. This was mine.

Sundhöllen, a public swimming pool in Reykjavik, Iceland, is located at Barónsstígur 45a, 101. The building’s simple, unadorned exterior appears to be that of a government building, or perhaps a prison, and it gives no indication of the deep clear pools and smoky hot tubs hiding on the other side of its high white walls.

Though Sundhöllen isn’t one of the more glamorous thermal baths for which Iceland has become famous, it is one of the oldest and it’s an actual meeting place in Reykjavik among the city’s locals. It’s also where I was soaking one gray-skied evening two years ago when I first realized the more negative implications of my impending conversion to Judaism.

I was traveling through Iceland with my brother, doing all of the typical Iceland tourist things: eating cod, hiking to craters, buying expensive sweaters, and swimming in every pool that I could find. I had swam at Sundhöllen multiple times while in Reykjavik, but in a hot tub on one particular evening, I kept hearing the terms “white supremacist” and “neo-Nazi” holding space in my fellow hot tub goers’ conversations. I don’t speak Icelandic, but through the way many Icelanders pepper their conversations with English vocabulary, I could sometimes assume the subjects about which they were speaking. After a few minutes, I saw three figures, two men and one woman, stepping into the water, and through the rising steam, it was clear to me that these three were the neo-Nazis that people were speaking of.

There’s a saying that when we’re stripped of our material adornment, we can more clearly see how similar we all are. I can tell you now that this is not always the case. While their clothes and other accessories, which could have provided clues to their ideological beliefs and social class, were left in the lockers, a more permanent version of who these people were came with them. Both the two men and the woman’s heads were shaved, all three were wearing black uniform bathing suits, and each was covered in tattoos, some symbols and images identical between them: the Nordic resistance movement insignia, the life rune, SS bolts, etc. All that was missing was the classic swastika.

I wondered what it would be like if I had seen one of them on the street that day while on a tour. Would they have been wearing black leather jackets covered in offensive patches, serving as a warning for the conscientious to stay away? Or would their true selves remain unseen, hidden beneath a homemade turtleneck sweater and chinos from Zara?

Similarly to the way the three neo-Nazis may have hidden racist and antisemitic symbols underneath misleading outfits, I was unintentionally hiding, beneath my own Aryan-like physique, an element of myself that many white supremacists would believe made me a threat: I was practicing Judaism.

I officially began my conversion process a few weeks prior to the trip but, at that point, already considered myself Jewish. Though I was slow to begin the official process, I had read the required reading, watched the films, attended Shabbat services at my local Reform synagogue regularly, and was an active member in the congregation’s Tikkun Olam society. I was invested in my local community and felt settled in to a Jewish identity, regardless of a conversion certificate.

What bothered me more than sharing a spa day with possible neo-Nazis was the realization, for the first time, that antisemitism was slowly becoming a personal problem. For many converts, there comes a time when they becomes we, theirs becomes ours.

Though my privilege as a white person is clear and will always play a huge role in the way society responds to me, my conversion to Judaism puts a new target on my back, something I had only briefly considered when working my way through the conversion checklist.

Unlike Orthodox Jews and other members of more visible marginalized groups, my Jewishness was not apparent on me, physically. I’ve sat around enough tables full of challah and matzah ball soup to know that most people think I don’t “look Jewish” — whatever that means. I have, however, been told I look a lot like my younger brother, a white, blue-eyed Christian man who was sitting beside me in the hot tub that day. I wondered how his experience and fear in that moment was different from my own. We are the same blood, but I represent a threat to neo-Nazis and he does not. When we talked about it over scoops of ice cream later that night, he told me it was surprising to have experienced neo-Nazis in Iceland, a country famous for its equality and peaceful society, but he didn’t reveal having felt anything beyond the surprise.

I took this experience home with me though, and it helped me understand the gravity of my conversion. It was the first time that fear made me reconsider my conversion and the choices I was making in my public Jewish life. It was the first time I truly looked inward and asked myself the hard question required of converts — was I ready to accept the realities of antisemitism?

I also asked myself the question so many of my friends had asked already — on top of being a gay man, why would I want to add an additional target on my back?

I used to find the imagery of a target on someone’s back too grotesque and melodramatic for the context of a religious conversion, but since my encounter with presumed neo-Nazis in the hot tub that day, the question has become even more reasonable. On top of all-too-common news of antisemitic threats and vandalism, there have been synagogue shootings and Jewish-oriented hate crimes around the world.

At the time of writing this, we are dealing with the aftermath of domestic terrorists storming and overtaking the United States’ Capitol building. Some of the rioters waved Confederate flags, others held signs referencing the antisemitic conspiracy theory QAnon, while others wore sweatshirts that read things like “Camp Auschwitz,” an obvious glorification of the Holocaust. During the pro-Trump “Save America” rally leading up to the storming of the Capitol building, Republican Congresswoman Mary Miller even quoted Hitler.

While I wait for my city’s mikveh to reopen after being closed due to COVID-19 in order to finalize my conversion, I find myself revisiting the same question I asked myself back in Reykjavik — is my conversion a smart choice?

In the two years that have passed since soaking in a hot tub with neo-Nazis, I have to admit that my certainty in my desire to convert has taken a few blows. But what keeps me pushing toward the mikveh, however, is that when I’m asked if I’m Jewish, I always say yes.

Editor’s note, June 2024: In the spirit of honesty and transparency, the author requested we update this essay with a note expressing that his journey turned out to be one of spiritual exploration, not one of conversion. While he didn’t ultimately convert to Judaism, he was incredibly inspired by the Jewish tradition and is grateful to all the people who shared their knowledge and experiences with him. 

Caleb A. Guedes-Reed

Caleb A. Guedes-Reed (he/his) is a journalist based in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. Influenced by his world travels, his work often focuses on LGBTQ issues, spirituality, religion and human rights.

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