As a recent convert, I’ve blogged before about how I’ve been inappropriate countless times at the Shabbos table because of social norms and cultural codes that I couldn’t seem to wrap my pretty little head around. Homosexuality was too controversial for the table but discussion about the state of my ovaries was not. Talking about my fractured family was too intense but exchanging pleasantries about shopping sprees was not. I made myself a nice little chart of do’s and don’ts for the Shabbos table after one particularly memorable meal.
But even with my helpful chart, I realized long ago that, for me, the Shabbos table is never a peaceful place. It’s a rollercoaster ride. I never know when to expect the next twist or turn. I never know when I’m going to be expected to swallow the latest racist remark or terrifying Ashkenazi dish. I’m never sure if I’m using the right fork. After all, it was only yesterday that I mistakenly stole my friend’s soup spoon at a wedding and then had to fight the urge to turn all shades of purple when she pointed this out.
It seems the “conversion process” is never-ending. And the ensuing period of cultural integration has left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. In the pit of my stomach is always that feeling that I’m doing things wrong or saying the wrong thing. My friends watch from the sidelines and coo over my mistakes. Some think watching me stumble over the bumps is incredibly amusing in a voyeuristic way. I’m frequently dubbed “funny” even when I’m not trying to be. I’m told I’m brave for frequently saying what no one else says when really, I don’t realize WHY no one else was saying it.
I’ve been Jewish two and a half years and still, I find myself asking my friends for advice in navigating the rough waters of cultural faux pas. At a recent wedding, I probed my friends with questions like: Do you have to send a thank you card to everyone after a Shabbos meal? Do people do Chanukah cards? And if I make such and such statement, is it racist? I got straight answers for only the first questions. The latter just made people laugh. And I wondered later if they were laughing with me or at me.
There are memories that still make me cringe. There is the time, early in the conversion process, where I tried to shake a rabbi’s hand. He demurred kindly. There is the time that in a burst of exuberance after hearing a friend’s good news, I bought her a Target gift certificate for use on baby stuff. Another friend gently pointed out that the cultural norm is to wait until after the baby is born to buy gifts. There is even the time that I tried to get my husband to put on a big turkey dinner ala Thanksgiving for the first day of Chanukah like my family used to do for Christmas. He just stared at me blankly.
I told one guest at a wedding that I realized too late that I’m never going to look like any of the other guests no matter what I wear. I’ve been to more than one wedding where someone has commented on how “tan” I was in the middle of winter. I’ve worn a head scarf to weddings and gotten lost in the sea of sheitels and fancy hats. I’ve since learned that doing so was like announcing my status as a religious hippy, not the truth: that neither a sheitel nor a fancy hat would fit over my afro that day. And after receiving one wedding invitation, I remember crying at the bottom of my closet feeling intensely shallow for having nothing to wear, nothing in the right shade of appropriate black.
It took several trips to Macy’s later and several boring black dresses before I realized I was never going to blend in. The more I tried to fit in, the more I didn’t. It took several Hispanic waiters at different weddings approaching me curiously to ask if I was also Hispanic for me to realize that I was never going to be cast in the part of nice, Ashkenazi Jewish white girl. I was going to be different no matter what. Wearing sneakers to shul didn’t make me different; it just meant that my only other option was orthopedic shoes.
So now with many a faux pas under my belt where I felt like I fell splat on my face and unveiled my underwear to a vicious crowd, I am practicing just trying to be myself. But I still find myself frequently apologizing for things. I apologize for not knowing what to do and when. I apologize for not knowing what to say and how. I apologize for frequently “murdering” my husband, my friends and myself through an audacious level of embarrassing circumstance. After every excruciating social event, I go home and play them back in my head and try to make sense of it. But even with all that effort, I still feel like a wolf trying to pretend to be sheep.
This weekend I opened up my email to find that a friend was serving me an ultimatum. According to her, I had committed the ultimate crime in bad manners and no amount of apologizing was going to do the situation any amount of justice. I curled up into a little ball and cried for hours. My husband held me and tried to help me resolve how to fix the situation. But in the midst of all the pain, I realized it was futile. I realized that many friendships and “acquaintance-ships” can end over simple bad manners and mine just had. I came to terms with the fact that I might lose many friends this way and that being a convert will often be a path that I will travel quite alone.