A few weeks ago, I had an interesting experience. Interesting only as it relates to my very new and fresh perspective of being someone who is converting to Judaism.
I was at a restaurant with a group of moms, most of whom I didn’t know. We were basically all there because of a function our kids were involved in. In the very close-knit community in which I’ve lived for the past 20 years, even if you don’t “know” someone directly, you probably have less than 2 degrees of separation in your social circle. So, as many of the moms began to interact, one mom asked another “don’t I know you from church?” The conversation rapidly turned into a discussion of who went to what church in town. In the past, when my kids were younger, I would’ve piped right in and offered that I went to one of the well-known Methodist churches in town.
Instead, I immediately developed a feeling of dread. All I could think of was – what if someone asks me what church I go to??? My mind was racing … do I just say “I’m Jewish”? But I’m technically not yet. Do I say I go to Congregation Kol Ami? But technically I’m not a member yet. So do I just say I’m in the process of converting to Judaism? That could create an interesting opening for conversation at a table full of Christians, ha! All I could imagine was the long awkward pause that might follow or the uncomfortable attempts to either ask questions about it, or maybe an effort to just change the subject. My mind fast-forwarded to the fact that I also might be judged in some way – that my kid may be judged or ostracized in some way. I would become “the Jewish lady” in conversations that were discussed afterwards. I felt as if I had some sort of dark secret that I had to choose whether or not to divulge.
I was caught so off guard – not only by the situation, but my reaction to it. How could I have never thought of this and how I would react? Most of my closer friends know about my conversion and I have discussed it with many of them. My Facebook friends know I post and blog about it. But I had never thought about discussing it with people I didn’t know. In person. Without the safety of my carefully thought out words on a computer between us.
My husband (who is Jewish) and the very few Jewish friends I have here in the north Texas area (I can count them on one hand) had told me how they do not always like to “advertise” the fact that they are Jews because this is such a Christian-centric part of the country. I know some people here who’ve never even personally known someone who is Jewish. Their customs, not only as a religion but also, as a culture, are completely foreign to most people who have spent their entire lives living in Texas. So I get it. And there is still prejudice. Yes, there is. I have a Jewish friend whose son recently asked a girl to a dance. The girl was not permitted to go with him. Not because her parents thought she was too young. Not because they didn’t want her to go on a date yet. Her parents are apparently devout Christians and they would not allow it – because he’s Jewish. And they admitted it. Wow. Right here in suburban DFW. (Side note: Jews are not often thrilled when one of their own dates or marries outside the faith, so that can also be viewed as a “prejudice” of sorts – but this is usually more common with orthodox or conservative Jews. For them, and even sometimes reform Jews, it goes much deeper as Judaism is tied to a cultural heritage and lineage as well as a religion. And that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. Even so, it would be very rare that a reform Jew would prohibit a date to a dance outside of the faith.)
If you read my earlier blogs, you know that because of where I grew up (the northeast US and then Southeast FL, both of which have sizable Jewish populations) I was exposed to and familiar with the Jewish faith from a young age. I always had Jewish friends growing up. In fact several of my best friends in high school were Jewish. I dated Jewish boys. But I’ve lived here long enough to know that, if you are Jew, you truly are a very small minority of the populace.
So I sat there. I sipped my drink and avoided eye contact and hoped no one asked me anything directly about what church I belonged to. Now that I am one of “them” – a Jew and all the stereotypes that go with it – I did not necessarily want it to be known. And, after I left the restaurant and had time to think about it, I HATED myself for it.
When I told my husband and another close friend who is Jewish what happened they were like “uh huh.” That’s it? “Uh huh”? I was floored! I wanted them join me in my self-reproach and shame. I wanted them to tell me “well, this is how we deal with it” or “this is what you should do.” “Here’s how you can be a Loud and Proud Jew.” But they didn’t. Perhaps because they have dealt with this type of situation all their lives. Dealt with knowing they are a tiny minority. Dealt with knowing they are different. Dealt with the stereotypes. Dealt with insensitive comments from people who didn’t know they were Jewish. Dealt with anti-Semitism and knowing that societies have tried to ostracize them and even eliminate them from the face of the earth for centuries. Most Jews I know are exceptionally proud of their heritage and customs but, when you grow up knowing the timeless persecution endured by your ancestors (and even contemporaries), it’s got to have a profound effect on how you identify yourself with those who aren’t Jewish. And so many of them have grown accustomed to not necessarily “advertising” that they are Jewish in certain situations. Not a big deal to them. “So what?” they say. As my rabbi told me, the Jews have a saying “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
Maybe I’m making too big a deal of the whole thing. Perhaps I was being overly sensitive. I suppose it’s just part of my conversion journey. But it really had a profound effect on me after which some soul-searching ensued. It made it very apparent that I’ve never been considered to be part of a “minority” of people. By choosing Judaism, I’m now part of this tiny little sliver of a people/culture/religion who’ve struggled to exist for thousands of years. It was a little jarring to see a few of the anti-Semitic events that were reported in the news recently. To think that people could actually hate me, want me out of their city, want me out of their country or even want me DEAD simply because I’m choosing to be a Jew. Wow. That’s pretty heavy. Maybe why I felt that impulse to clam up.
It’s also given me some perspective on what it might be like to be in a minority of a category that you cannot “hide” as easily. If you are a person of color or if you are of a certain race, you cannot choose to hide your “different-ness” and you can be assessed on that alone before you even have a chance to say one word.
So now that I’ve had time to let the experience sink in, roll it around in my head and digest it (with some Manischewitz wine), I’ve decided I’m not going to react the same way the next time I’m in a similar situation. If I’m asked what church I go to, I will just be honest. I will say “I’m converting to Judaism! Can I enlighten you with some Torah knowledge? Offer you a piece of matzo?” Just teasing! I will proudly and simply say (without any reservation) that I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. Whatever follows – any awkward pauses or tentative questions, I will simply lighten the mood with good sense of humor and use my witty personality to navigate. And THAT can be my opportunity to break into some Yiddish and offer to let them see my horns. Wink-wink!