The number one question you want to ask a convert is exactly the question you shouldn’t ask. Asking someone why they converted, just after meeting them, is a little like asking to see their underwear. Don’t you realize you’re asking us to get very naked about something deeply personal in a crowd full of strangers? It’s enough to make anyone blush!
If you want to know why someone converted, ask them privately for their story. But if they give it up that doesn’t mean it’s your story to tell. My friend Danielle says her former roommate told everyone Danielle was a convert. Danielle didn’t want people to know (and no not because she was embarrassed about it, we’ll get to that later). It just wasn’t her roommate’s story to tell. Danielle says, “No one should know who is a convert unless that person decides to share the information.” Darn tootin’.
“James William? That’s not a very Jewish name!” People of color and blonds with oh-so-blue eyes, the “exotic” faces in the Ashkenazi Jewish fold, frequently get questions like this that try to get around directly asking, “Are you a convert?” Just like we’re not all named Rosenberg, Vilma, a convert of color, says it’s helpful to note that “Judaism is not a ‘race’ of white people. One of the things people should be mindful of is not to assume all people of color in the synagogue are converts (or the help, for that matter).”
But I know, you’re still dying to know if that person is a convert, aren’t you? Didn’t you hear that famous ditty about curiosity killing the cat? If you want to know if someone is a convert, too bad. Jewish law is pretty strict about embarrassing converts by reminding them of their past. It’s pretty clear that Jewish law is trying to ensure converts are treated as full-fledged Jews, not a special category unto themselves.
Poor Vilma says she’s been double-teamed at shul, and made to feel exactly like she’s her own special category. “Two questions get smushed into one ‘So did you convert? Why did you convert?’” she says. There she was just trying to finish sipping her wine and going for her cookie and bam! Someone was asking her personal questions in the middle of a crowded room. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Vilma’s friend says, “I just want to pray. What’s with all these questions?”
I hear that nagging question when the curiosity really starts to get to you. “But don’t they want to tell their stories?” Just like converts come in all shapes and colors, there are a few who are open, like me, to telling their story, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s interested. One Japanese-American convert told my friend she is sick of being asked for hers. She won’t talk about her conversion anymore. No, it’s not that she’s embarrassed. It’s just that she’s sick of over-sharing about her deeply personal choice.
Again, always avoid stepping on social landmines by asking the person one-on-one if they want to broach the subject. Danielle says, “I think for me it all comes off as egregious unless I am in the mood to talk about it. Or if the person is a potential convert or a convert themselves.” So putting converts on the spot at the Shabbos table or at the Kiddush is a no-go.
The worst is when “Why did you convert?” turns into “Why would anyone convert to Judaism?” We’re converts, not therapists. We’re not here to help you figure out why you can’t imagine that people would find Judaism so amazing that they’d turn their lives upside down just to be a part of it. If you’re staring at us in disbelief, you may not be prepared to hear the answers.
And the answers are almost never what you think they are.
Chaviva says the first question people ask after they find out she’s a convert is “Did you convert for someone?”
Our poor rabbis are rolling in their graves. After I met my husband midway through the conversion process, I noticed that people stopped asking me why I had decided to convert. They just assumed I was doing it for him. Okay, but I’m off the hook, right? I wasn’t part of a couple when I first made my decision so obviously I did it for the right reasons? Wrong, wrong, wrong. Just because someone is or was in a relationship doesn’t mean that they’re converting for marriage. Things are always way more complicated than that and if you ever stopped to ask the convert in a relationship (privately) about the real story, you might get some interesting results.
People convert for many reasons. Vilma says, “Often people assume someone converted due to marriage. As if people couldn’t make up their independent minds to join a faith! There are people with whom Judaism resonates and [they] find their home in the religion. There are single people who convert. There are people who convert to reclaim their family heritage. There are so many reasons people convert.” And remember, not all of them are any of your business.
But one reason that frequently gets thrown around and isn’t very nice, and doesn’t work so well for someone from a non-Jewish family, is the idea that we converted to Judaism because Jews are just better than everyone else. One fellow told me that all that inbreeding has led to all those Nobel prize winners. So, what I’m polluting the sacred bloodlines? He’s lucky I think it’s impolite to hit people at the Shabbos table. (Kudos for Bar Rafaeli landing the Sports Illustrated cover, by the way.) Still, people don’t think twice about whether a convert is sitting in their midst when they tell the latest “How many goyim does it take to put in a light bulb?” joke.
If you’re pretty good about not telling goyim jokes around the table, then you probably don’t have to be told that words like shiksa and shaygetz, both derivations of abomination in Yiddish, don’t make converts feel welcome either. Blonds with blue eyes, converts or not, tend to hear these words more often than converts like me with olive skin and big brown eyes. Still, my first Pesach went south after someone repeatedly threw the word shiksa around along with some other ugly words about non-Jews. My first bar mitzvah was a goyim jokes free-for-all. Yes, ouch, indeed.
There are things I still can’t believe people have said to me. Fresh out of the mikvah, I heard, “But you’re not really Jewish. I mean I’m still more Jewish than you, right?” Oy vey. In the end, all converts want is to be accepted as good Jews. We want to fit in. Possibly the reason the Torah goes out of its way to tell you to be kind to us is that there are so many ways you can make us feel left out. It only takes one insensitive word. Sometimes, the most innocuous words can be utterly cruel. So, be careful with us. Turning our lives upside down to join your ranks should at the very least earn us a little respect. And maybe even a “Welcome home.”