Pretty Woman moment. My akwardness is not just about being a convert, it’s about growing up on welfare and now being surrounded by “rich” Jews.
I am in a Julia Roberts movie! Remember when she can’t figure out how to eat lobster and mistakenly launches it across the room and yells, “Slippery little suckers.” Yeah, that’s me, only I’ve done projectile salad. Specifically, tomatoes.
I remember when the high school students at the inner-city public school where I taught asked me if all Jews were rich. I said that indeed they were not. Certainly, there would be no trust fund awarded to me at the end of the conversion process so that I could join the Jews that were rich.
Sadly, there was also no Miss Manners school to prepare me to make the leap from growing up on welfare to hobnobbing with middle and upper class Jews. They had day school educations; I went to a public school without enough books or chairs. They had mutual funds; I had $25 in my savings. I had barely survived a haredi conversion school in Israel and I knew how I would have fared at finishing school. Badly. You see, I have no manners.
I tend to blurt things out. I tell people they’re racist at the Shabbos table after they make jokes about Mexican housekeepers. I’m not actually Mexican but being Dominican is close enough for discomfort.
I don’t know how to eat at a table. It doesn’t help that growing up I ate dinner in my bed in front of the TV with my three siblings who spilled so much rice, beans and chicken on my pillowcases and sheets that I had to beat the cockroaches away at night.
I call the Republican next to me classist after he asks, “Do you really want your tax dollars going to poor people?” I explain that if it hadn’t been for the welfare checks my mentally ill mother collected throughout my childhood, I wouldn’t be alive today.
I have been told that I am frequently “inappropriate for the Shabbos table.” I make people laugh. I make people cry. Sometimes, I make everyone at the table stop talking altogether. Social norms and cultural codes go over my pretty little head. Why is homosexuality too controversial when the state of my ovaries is not? Talk of my fractured family too intense but pleasantries about manic shopping sprees okay? It’s never a secret that I am a convert, a stranger, in the Orthodox Jewish world.
I made myself a chart of do’s and don’ts after one particularly memorable meal. It didn’t help. When I finally lost a friend over my manners (or lack thereof), I proclaimed myself “The Worst Guest in the World.” Of course, our friendship ended over email. I was indicted on two counts of putting my feet up on the furniture, three counts of serving myself before others and one count of not excusing myself before leaving the table.
But weddings are by far the worst. I have only a fuzzy recollection of the one wedding I attended as a child. I remember pulling the door open for the limo and then all the rest of the memories are gone. I attended one Jewish wedding before I had my own. And the first year I was married, I was invited to back-to-back weddings where I cried at the bottom of my closet before each one, feeling intensely shallow for having nothing to wear, nothing in the right shade of appropriate black. Where was Richard Gere with his unlimited Amex to save me? One time I bought a new dress the same day and changed in the backseat on the way to a wedding. I thought if I looked right, it wouldn’t matter that I had no idea what was going on or how to act.
I walked into the latest wedding in my too red lipstick, my too red shirt and my mismatched headscarf instantly felt like a blazing, scarlet letter. I was swallowed by the sea of expensive sheitels and fancy hats everyone else was wearing. I bit my lip as my self-esteem plummeted several notches. I tried to remind myself this was the bride’s day, not mine. I mean, no one was going to notice me.
As my husband headed for coat check, I piled food onto my plate from the buffet stand at the bedeken. I hadn’t eaten before arriving or maybe it went deeper and overeating stemmed from a childhood worry about not knowing when to expect your next meal. I worried little about looking like a pig when I sat at a nearby bistro table. I was eating some juicy appetizer when a friend, a dentist, approached me and asked me to translate some words her patients had tried to teach her the day before. She related the words in slow Spanish. I laughed.
“Those are dirty words!” I said.
“But what do they mean?” she asked.
I told her. Too loudly. The couple sitting across from us got up, gave me a long, disgusted look and stalked off.
“Oops,” I said as I watched them walk away.
“What happened?” my husband asked popping up from behind me.
“You know, someday you’re going to be a Rebbetzin (a rabbi’s wife),” he said shaking his head.
“I know,” I answered glumly. That meant there would be plenty more non-wedding opportunities to lodge my size 7 foot into my big, big mouth.
Later, on the dance floor, an old friend whispered in my ear. “Is that how you’re covering your hair? Is that considered covering?” If I actually drank alcohol, I would have headed for the bar. Instead, I headed for our table. What had happened to going unnoticed?
At the table, the fear of making a future faux pas overtook me. It was all I could think about and so 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?
When dinner was served, I decided the table was out to get me. There were too many glasses in front of me and more silverware spread across the tablecloth than I knew what to do with. I looked around wildly for my husband but I couldn’t find him. With a sigh, I picked up the nearest fork and started chomping away at my salad. That’s when my friend returned from the bathroom and said, “Has anyone seen my fork?”
She looked in my direction.
“Oops,” I said smiling sheepishly though I could feel the lettuce stuck between my teeth. I handed her another fork which I wasn’t sure actually belonged to me. Then I made a quick grab for one of the random, empty wine glasses in front of me.
“That’s my glass,” another voice said when I had my hands around a stem.
“Sorry!” I apologized. My hot face surely now matched my too red lipstick.
I saw my husband walking over and I gestured to the glasses in front of me and mouthed, “Is this one mine?”
No one told me that the conversion process was not over when I stepped out of the mikvah. That it would be never-ending. The ensuing period of cultural and class integration has left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. In the pit of my stomach, I always worry I’m doing things wrong or saying the wrong thing. I am a mere pauper trying to pretend I grew up as a princess. I’m frequently told I’m funny when I’m not trying to be. I’m told I’m brave for frequently saying what no one else will say when really, I don’t realize why no one else was saying it.
Some memories still make me cringe. Early in the conversion process, I tried to shake a rabbi’s hand. He demurred kindly. After hearing a friend’s good news, I bought her a $25 gift certificate for baby goodies. Another friend gently pointed out that the cultural norm is to wait until after the baby is born to buy gifts. I even lost one friend because she labeled my table manners uncouth. Didn’t I know I was supposed to help serve everyone else before myself? I even managed to break her fancy dining chair.
And it took several trips to Macy’s and several boring black dresses before I realized I was never going to blend in at any fancy affair. 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.
But I still found myself apologizing for things frequently. I apologized for not knowing what to do and when. I apologized for not knowing what to say and how. I apologized for frequently “murdering” my husband, my friends and myself through embarrassing circumstances. Still, miscommunication abounded. Cultural cues confused. Social norms seemed to change at whim. After every excruciating social event, I went home and played them back and tried to make sense. But I still felt like a wolf trying to pretend to be sheep.
My super appropriate friend said the first time she met me she thought I was a little crazy. In my defense, she caught me in the midst of wedding planning.
“Gee thanks,” I said with an eye roll. “And now?”
“You’re just you,” she said. “I don’t know anyone else quite like you.”
I furrowed my eyebrows in the way that creases my forehead and begs for Botox. (Just kidding.)
“That’s a compliment,” she said.
I realized that it was.
I wasn’t supposed to be trying to be like sheep or penguins if I was really a wolf. It about time I stopped apologizing for being me.
On Shabbos, when a woman at synagogue stared at the hiking boots underneath my skirt and made a face, I smiled at her.
“They’re really comfortable,” I said eyeing her heels. They were probably worth three times as much as my boots and they didn’t have had any space for my orthotics.
She smirked. I smiled. No apologies ensued.
Someday I’ll be able to tell the difference between a desert spoon and a soup soon. Someday I’ll even learn how to set a table properly. And maybe part of my conversion process is a crash course in a finishing school run by my peers. But somehow along the way, I forgot that there were plenty of people who accepted me just for being me. Because I didn’t.
I was too busy worrying about fitting in. Too busy forgetting how far I’d come. The first college graduate in my family was me. The first to obtain a Master’s was me. Despite being a first-generation American, a child of poor native Spanish speakers, I became an English teacher who inspired students from similar backgrounds. Plenty of people were proud of me, except me.
Maintaining my membership in the Jewish club was never going to hinge on table manners as faux pas after faux pas had convinced me. No one was going to revoke it if I never learned which fork was mine. I was a lifetime member. But perhaps, the greatest lesson Judaism has taught me is that G-d wants me to be the best me I can be. And I can’t do that unless I learn to accept myself. So I’ve got some work to do.