I was minding my own business at the synagogue meal introducing myself to a new friendly face I had never seen before when a lady who has seen me at shul quite often before came over and interrupted our conversation to ask…if I’d been born Jewish.
I was seething. I spat back, “I don’t answer questions like that.” She nodded, satisfied, as if she already knew the answer.
I wanted to say was GET THE F$%* out of my face. Instead, she stood there for 15 minutes and went on and on asking me questions about whether there were Jews in the Dominican Republic and rambling and rambling. With total condescension she explained about how the Spanish Inquisition had sent Jews running towards Latin America and she supposed there were many Jews there.
The same lady had earlier commented that she had seen me walking around the neighborhood right before Shabbos. I said I was probably on my way from the library which I always go to before Shabbos. So my husband and I have something to read.
She made a face and said, “It must be nice not having kids.”
Earlier in the week, I was thinking of developing a three strikes and you’re out rule for, people. Sometimes people who have hurt me with unbelievably careless comments have turned into friends. So maybe three strikes? But I decided this Shabbat it’s two. My limit is two. It’s two and during the third stupid comment or question a white Jew makes, I will not be responsible for my actions.
At the shul dinner, everyone went around introducing themselves and the question of the night was, “What’s a fear you’ve overcome?” The close friend sitting next to me, who is white and Jewish, said, “You should say white Jews!” We started giggle and shared this with our other white Jewish friends nearby. Eventually I whispered back, “But I haven’t overcome that fear.”
Because lately, I’ve realized that I don’t even want to go to places where there will be other white Jews because of the constant interrogations, the questions, the comments. I have learned that this is what is called “racial fatigue.”
Another friend invited us back to her place after dinner and we showed up to find she was hosting a singles event. Lots of singles from the Upper West Side. I sat down and struck up a conversation trying to be friendly but the whole time they stared at me like I was an alien from outer space. I ignored it. But in the midst of asking them what they do for a living and where they live, it happened. I knew it was coming. I could smell it in the air.
“I’m sorry, where are you from?”
“Oh, wait you said Washington Heights earlier? Didn’t you? Washington Heights, right?”
But I could tell from their faces they didn’t really believe I was FROM there.
“But you were born in Washington Heights?”
“What’s your name again?”
“No, your last name?”
“Oh but that’s your married name? What’s your maiden name?”
The whole time they are staring at me like I could sprout three heads at any moment. The tension was palatable. I wanted to scream. I wanted to smack them. I want to leave the table. I felt violated and instantly UNSAFE in my best friend’s apartment no less, in my neighborhood, in my synagogue, in my terrority.
I should have said: “What’s your maiden name? Is that a Jewish name? Are you Jewish? Were you born Jewish?” Sarcasm, sarcasm, sarcasm.
But I decided to toy with them. You see, I changed my name after I converted. I changed it legally, including my last name. So I tell them that name I chose.
As soon as they heard it, all the tension left the room, like air from a deflating balloon. They nodded and suddenly, they gave me big smiles. They are satisfied with my response. I had passed the test. Because of the Israeli last name I chose when I wanted to cement my connection to the Jewish people after converting, I had passed the test.
And once they were satifised with my answer, they turned away, they were done with me but every other time I looked up, I could see them staring at me with their heads cocked to the side.
Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe I’m just being “too sensitive.” Maybe it’s just me. Later, I would go home and cry in my sister’s arms and wish that all of these things had been true.
But the friend who had made the joke earlier about my fear of white Jews had been watching all along. And when I finally came to take a seat next to her and away from the others, she said, “My G-d! What was that? The freakin’ Spanish Inquisition?”
Yeah, it could be worse. I could be my black Jewish friend who went to West Side Judaica to pick out a menorah and was asked if she was the maid picking up something for her employers. I could be my Japanese Jewish friend being mistaken for her white-looking son’s nanny. But I know if I wait long enough, these things could indeed happen to me. And I don’t know if I can deal with that.
I don’t know if I can do this for the rest of my life. If I can be treated like this over and over and over again in the Jewish community without saying, “Here, take my Jewish card and rip it up.” Because every time you ask me a stupid question, every time you make a stupid comment, every time you stare at me like I’m a leper, it’s as if you already have.