jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · rabbi

The Invisible Woman

Yesterday, I was at a meal, a buffet, with a bunch of rabbinical students and rabbis. I was happy to see so many faces I knew. One of the rabbis was talking to me about the possibility of telling the stories of all the converts who are experiencing difficulties as a result of the new RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) GPS (Geirus/Conversion Policies and Standards) system.

I half-joked to this rabbi in response that as a convert, I didn’t want to piss off the RCA and get my conversion revoked. A number of the rabbinical students at the table laughed along with me and eventually the rabbi who was speaking to me left to get some food from the buffet. There was an empty seat next to me between me and another rabbi I’ve never met before.

This other rabbi who I didn’t know but who may or may not have heard bits and pieces of the conversation from sitting on the other side of the rabbi I had been speaking started glancing at me and then looking away when I made eye contact.

Earlier, we had been introduced he had stared at me for one minute too long while I pretended to ignore it. And I knew he wasn’t staring because I was one of only two women in the room. He was staring at me like I was a curiosity. An oddity. A square peg in a room full of donut holes… I am quite familiar with this stare, the stare given to the person with the most melanin in the room.

But now with the other rabbi gone, this rabbi leaned over the empty seat vacated by the last rabbi and he asked, not me who was sitting directly next to him, but my husband, “So, what’s your wife’s background?” As if I wasn’t right there sitting right next to him. Suddenly, in one fell swoop, I was a super hero: the great Invisible Woman. My stomach felt like it had dropped out of my body.

Was he ignoring me because I was a woman? I sincerely doubt this, especially in a crowd of left-wing Modern Orthodox rabbis. In fact, he had not only been introduced to me once (by the rabbi who had just left the table as “Aliza Hausman” wife of X) but again when he asked me directly to repeat my name (Aliza, Aliza Hausman). There was no recognition in his face when he heard my name. In fact, it didn’t seem like he heard it, he just used it as an excuse to stare at me further.

There was a pause before my husband responded coyly, looking from me warily to the rabbi and back: “Background? What do you mean my wife’s background? What background?” The rabbi refused to make eye contact with me at this point.

In my head, I imagined my husband adding, “Well, she has a background in teaching and a Master’s in Education to boot.” But he didn’t say that. He just stared at the rabbi until the rabbi returned to his meal with his questions unanswered. And I still felt like I had been rendered invisible.

18 thoughts on “The Invisible Woman

  1. See, after something like that I always think of the most wonderful comments; about ten minutes too late.

    You know,something snarky and slightly vicious.

    But probably the best thing is to call attention to their lack of sense and decency with a straight forward comment “Ask me, I'm sitting right here!”

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  2. People in wheelchairs get similar treatment: wait staff asking other people at the table for their order instead of asking them directly as if they are deaf as well as unable to walk!

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  3. Not to play the dumb white girl, but maybe he stared at you after you gave your name because he recognized it from your writings? It seems strange that the staring would happen only AFTER an introduction – I mean, your skin tone is obvious whether he's heard your name or not.

    As to asking your husband, and not you directly, umm, yeah. If you go along with my first theory, though, maybe he HAD heard of you and just wanted to piss you off to get into your blog!! ;p

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  4. Tzipporah, don't make excuses for him. The minute he entered the room, he couldn't stop staring at me. There was no sign of recognition when he heard my name, not once but twice. He started at me at one point and asked me again what my name was. Aliza, I said.

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  5. That reminds me of when I was growing up in smaller California cities, made up of mostly WASPs. People — read adults — would ask when I was from. (I am Ashkenazi and had dark hair and eyes.) I'd answer, “America.” They'd continue, “Where are your parents from?” I'd say, “Germany.” They'd say, “No, that can't be right,you don't look German. You look Italian or Greek or something.” I'd eventually answer, “Well, I am Jewish.” Their final response, “THAT EXPLAINS IT!”

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  6. You have every right to be upset, and it is shocking to be disrespected and marginalized.

    Not that is compares, but both my husband and I happened to have Drs appointments yesterday, and as I was finishing up, I introduced the Dr and her assistant to my baby, who my husband had been watching until his appt. The assistant looked at my baby and said “she has blue eyes. Are one of you Ashkenazi?” My brown eyed (from a blue eyed mother)Ashkenazi husband and I, a blue eyed (from a brown eyed father) Asheknazi didn't know what to say.
    Umm…huh?

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  7. I know…. I also always can't think of the right things I SHOULD HAVE said until it's way too late. Hence, my sense of need for advocacy work.

    Sorry to hear about it and glad to hear how supportive and smart your husband was.

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  8. Tzipporah, sorry if I sounded very offended. It was a quick reply that wasn't very nuanced. I added to the post to clear up some of the details.

    Usually when people read my blog and recognize me, they're like, “OMG! YOU'RE ALIZA HAUSMAN!” And then we sit and they tell me their entire life story. 🙂

    I think very much that this man's reaction had to do with an overwhelming curiosity about my racial and ethnic background. I come across this so often, it's easy to pick out the face they make. His curiosity even superseded his ability to act like a normal, decent human being. At talks on racism, I hear people whine, “But I really, really want to know their racial and ethnic background! What's wrong with asking?!!!” I tell them that most of this information can and should develop naturally over the course of a conversation or relationship. It shouldn't be the first and only question you ask a person of color. Literally, I've had white Jews walk over and say, “Are you a convert?” or “Are you this and that?” and once I've answered, they've walked away.

    At one synagogue, I brought a Mexican-American Jewish friend and one lady would not stop staring. Could not stop staring with this mixture of shock/fear/horror on her face. I even saw her pull her child away from us. I was so grateful my friend didn't notice.

    There are even special faces some people make when they find out I'm Hispanic or a convert or grew up on welfare or (the horror!) don't have two parents or especially nice ones. I don't think they're always aware of their facial expressions and how much they betray but they are indeed nonetheless, very hurtful.

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  9. Tzipporah, sorry if I sounded very offended. It was a quick reply that wasn't very nuanced. I added to the post to clear up some of the details.

    Usually when people read my blog and recognize me, they're like, “OMG! YOU'RE ALIZA HAUSMAN!” And then we sit and they tell me their entire life story. 🙂

    I think very much that this man's reaction had to do with an overwhelming curiosity about my racial and ethnic background. I come across this so often, it's easy to pick out the face they make. His curiosity even superseded his ability to act like a normal, decent human being. At talks on racism, I hear people whine, “But I really, really want to know their racial and ethnic background! What's wrong with asking?!!!” I tell them that most of this information can and should develop naturally over the course of a conversation or relationship. It shouldn't be the first and only question you ask a person of color. Literally, I've had white Jews walk over and say, “Are you a convert?” or “Are you this and that?” and once I've answered, they've walked away.

    At one synagogue, I brought a Mexican-American Jewish friend and one lady would not stop staring. Could not stop staring with this mixture of shock/fear/horror on her face. I even saw her pull her child away from us. I was so grateful my friend didn't notice.

    There are even special faces some people make when they find out I'm Hispanic or a convert or grew up on welfare or (the horror!) don't have two parents or especially nice ones. I don't think they're always aware of their facial expressions and how much they betray but they are indeed nonetheless, very hurtful.

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  10. I don't think they're always aware of their facial expressions and how much they betray but they are indeed nonetheless, very hurtful.
    That's why I communicate best by blog. 😉

    The look I usually get when people learn I'm a convert is “I'm-going-to-look-interested-and-try-not-to-let-you-see-that-you've-practically-admitted-your-aunt-is-Lizzie-Borden.” And that's in a LIBERAL Jewish community! I can't imagine what it's like for a Jew of color. But yes, I'm sure you do recognize The Look.

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