friends · jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · Shabbos/Shabbat

Defensive Maneuver: Conversion Judo

Annoying question at the Shabbos table from someone I barely knew: “Did you convert before or after you met him?” which, of course, really means…”did you convert for him or for yourself?” Usually, people just go with the latter and not the former. They’re more upfront.

The whole table went preternaturally quiet when I said it was a “dumb question” and added that I “did not want to answer that.” Temper. Temper. I felt and sounded defensive.

And I felt really bad because the table got so…unbelievably, painfully quiet. Usually that stuff just happens when I mention a gay ex-boyfriend or that I grew up on welfare or that I kidnapped my sister…or, well, you get the point. So, I was hoping someone would jump in and say something, anything, but they never did which made it worse.

When someone did say something, he said, “Wow, the conversation really died after that one, huh?” I finally added (or growled?), because I felt so guilty, that “I was converting BEFORE I met him” and even then it was so quiet. So very quiet.
I apologized afterwards on my way out to the hostess because I felt so terrible about “ruining lunch.” Certainly mine had been ruined. But I could tell that I would not be forgiven so easily. If ever.
The person who had asked the question apologized profusely but the damage had been done. I was reminded that to this day, it is a rare Shabbat meal outside my home where I don’t feel accosted by someone asking about my conversion/race/ethnicity, whatever their intentions (good or bad). Because even when intentions are made very plain, as they rarely are, the impact can still be the same. Pain, embarrassment, shock and horror.
This is why I continue to believe that conversion is a very private matter (like talking about your underwear with strangers) that shouldn’t be discussed between people who barely know each other and I express this at every single speaking engagement I give on my life/conversion story, lest people assume that because “Aliza Hausman does it” that every convert wants to do Q&A at the Shabbos table, at Kiddush, during davening (prayer), standing outside of shul…. I know people, and I’ve heard it myself, who have said that when they didn’t want to disclose information, they were called “touchy” because another convert was fine sharing that same information.
I know many converts, usually women and men of color, who have said that they feel that they “simply cannot deal with it anymore” and so they avoid Jewish events altogether when they’ve reached their breaking point. I think I am there already. Past it even. And I have been for quite a while. I just want to blend into the background, which I know is a luxury I sometimes have because of lighter skin, a rabbinical student husband (handy!) and a circle of Jewish friends about me.
Even I’ve caught myself putting people in uncomfortable positions, asking another Jew of color, “Where are you from?” and seeing that look in their eyes (“Oh, I hate f#%#ing that question!”) when what I really meant was, “I’m from New York, are you from New York? I NEVER meet any Jews who are actually FROM New York. Though all of them seem surprised when I tell them I was born (didn’t just grow up) in New York, do you ever get that?” Chances are, the answer, if I ask politely, is “Oh G-d, yes! Can we become Facebook friends so we can discuss this the next time it happens?”
People will tell you that if you just give them the information, they’ll back off. But I find that once you open up the can of worms, people’s curiosity is endless, exhausting, violating. The more information you give, the more they want. And “the can of worms” can be opened whether or not you mention conversion or being a convert.
People assume your skin color or hair texture is a dead giveaway for your “conversion” so sometimes, I can say absolutely nothing without having someone at the table turn to me and ask “my maiden name” or more plainly, “Are you a convert?” with an added “Well, sorry, you just don’t look Jewish!” I call those my “I guess I didn’t pass for Israeli” days when I stop to thank G-d for not ever having been called a shiksa, at least, because I’m not blond or blue-eyed.
At a big shul dinner when someone asks an awkward question and the spotlight is not on you, it’s really easy to walk away. And I’ve done it quite well a couple of times. Even then, people rarely respond well when I’ve said, in the nicest way possible, “I don’t feel comfortable discussing that with you.” One convert of color said “It’s, like, you can’t win no matter what you do or say!”
So, we all sat there for what seemed like an endless eternity in the silence until the conversation restarted (barely) and even then, I had wanted to leave as soon as possible. But my husband kept missing every cue I tried to give him from across the table. All this after the host carefully positioned us in such a way that we could kick each other in case we made a faux pas. Usually, it’s the husband kicking me! Usually, he’s aching for his Shabbos nap or time alone with his seforim (books) but he was totally, purposefully oblivious this time because he thought I’d “handled things well.”
Later, my husband added, “Hopefully, she’ll think twice before asking that question of another convert!” But by that point, I was home, crawling into bed and crying and feeling too raw for the world outside home. Again.

Related: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking to Converts”

15 thoughts on “Defensive Maneuver: Conversion Judo

  1. She might not invite you ever again even though you apologized to her. I think you should not have apologized since she it was not her place to ask such a personal question. Personally, I think you made a mistake by apologizing to that lady because she will do the same thing to other converts she invites over or sees in Shul. Just because you said it was a dumb question, the odds are that she may not invite you ever again. But so what? You survived without your mother who's a blood relative and you can certainly survive without these unbelievable people. They behave as though they were from a cave. Some times I wonder whether some Jews are descendants of monkeys. Before I left Judaism, I was constantly asked if Puerto Rico was a poor country, and if people there spoke English well like I do. I am telling you some Jews have no social skills and think they can ask whatever they want. You are an amazing human being and you need to know that. Just be around people who like you. That's the only way we can survive in this rather decadent and crazy society. All the best. Robert.

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  2. How ironic…me trying to support you, you turning around and supporting me. 🙂

    The communication breakdowns because of cultural, class and all kinds of stuff…it's just continually disheartening.

    I don't want to have to keep “apologizing” in situations when I feel I was wronged and I don't want to keep walking away from these situations losing people who might have…I don't know. I don't know.

    I just don't remember having to work this hard to make or keep friends or having this many communication problems before I entered this whole different class, different religion, different world.

    I can't live as an alien who feels constantly alienated. And it's sad that even when my husband, who was there, says “You were right, they were wrong,” I still worry about all the ways I could have been, said, things differently. I don't think anyone else is worrying it or stressing it but me. I think that's part of the problem.

    I hope that whatever I'm supposed to learn/teach is getting through all the pain. But as you've pointed out, I've survived worse pain, much worse pain.

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  3. About PR references: Having found out that I have Puerto Rican ancestry, I feel it much more when I hear comments about PR. But I always did because I feel more connected culturally and linguistically to Cubans and Puerto Ricans, as a Dominican, than other Hispanics.

    It troubles me that I have heard Jews mock Dominican (and Hispanic culture in general) almost as many times as I have heard Dominicans (and other Hispanics) do it about their own culture. Many have opened up the conversation assuming that because I converted, I think like them that Hispanic culture is a “backward culture.” So sad. So troubling.

    I was asked recently by an Orthodox Jew why I didn't just assimilate and I think I could have turned it back on the person asking. Why didn't Jews just assimilate? Give up Judaism. Many did and aren't part of the conversation anymore. Perhaps, I suggested that it helps that I look different, talk differently, think differently even when I'm not trying even to be different. I just am.

    No matter what I'm wearing, a little old Dominican woman can still spot that we are of the same people (even if younger Dominicans who think you have to talk a certain way or look a certain way–ghetto-to be Dominican can't see it) and be grateful that I am happy to speak to her in her native tongue.

    Maybe I didn't make my grandmother proud but I made someone's grandmother proud and I have to hope that as an article recently suggested, Latinos, like Jews, can stay tied to their cultures and still be fully American. A Latina article notes that according to the last Census, more Puerto Ricans live on the mainland than in Puerto Rico…what a whole new spin on “So, where you from?”

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  4. You were probably at lunch in NYC at the very same time that I was at kiddush at shul in Chicago. How interesting that while you were dealing with the deathly silence from questions about your conversion, I was talking and talking and wondering how I could back out of having obviously chosen the wrong person to offer too much information to about my conversion.

    I was kicking myself because I should have noticed that the man seemed “developmentally delayed” and might therefore not understand well the concept of discretion. His questions were innocent and he was amazed and full of admiration for my Jewish journey. But as I talked, I had to suppress the desire to look around to see if anyone else was noticing. (Probably not: the fact that he had been somewhat ignored was what caused me to go up to him and introduce myself.) This is despite that fact that having been a part of that small lay-led minyan for 14 years, many of the members are close friends, and I know a majority of them pretty well. I'm not embarrassed by my story—it's who and what I am, and things work out in the way that most people would approve of. But some things are private enough that they do not seem appropriate to share with strangers. Like “underwear” as Aliza so aptly puts it in her “Dos and Don'ts”.

    I think some people do not understand just how very deep and all-consuming the feelings were to cause some of us to convert to Judaism. We love Judaism so that something stirs inside us every time we recite that line of the 'V'ahavta'. But this means that certain questions and the implied assumptions behind those questions feel like the questioner is demanding that we pull out that part that is so deep and hold it out for other people to gawk at.

    For many years, I was a “stealth non-Jew” and I dreaded any stranger asking questions such as “Are you a convert?” that would expose that I was “intermarried”. The problem was that both “yes” and “no” answers to questions concerning my relationship with Judaism were misleading because the situation was complicated. I thought it might be easier after I converted. But alas, it's not.

    When someone asks married women who are converts whether we converted before or after we met our husbands, there is really no one who can give a “correct” answer. Aliza, you can answer “before”; I tend to answer “many years after we were married”; and I wonder if anyone ever says bluntly, “Well right before we got married, I just signed some papers and took a dunk in a mikveh so we could have a rabbi at our wedding, but I didn't mean any of it.” Do you notice that all the answers don't seem to be the “right” one? Because it's a no-win situation which is why the question should never be asked.

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  5. Hiya Aliza: I was born and raised in New York; I lived there until the age of 34, when I transplanted myself to the Southern Bible Belt. We haven't met, so you're safe – you still haven't met a Jew who really is a native New Yorker. I have a cousin who is a 'Jew of color', and a childhood friend who is likewise – neither seems to have any use for Judaism or Jewish identity. I read a good deal about the angst and anger of converts to Judaism; I also read a good bit about Jews who have left. I think that part of the problem is that bright people spend too much time thinking. I'm not very bright, and I don't spend any time ruminating about why I am Jewish. I just take the fact for granted. I have encountered many (and I do mean many) people who are genuinely antagonized by the mere presence of a Jew, or what some of them have referred to, in my presence and to my face, as 'a real Jew'. The Beatles used to sing 'Oh blah di oh blah da life goes on', and so I don't worry about the matter, despite all our problems, despite my parents' and grandparents' Holocaust experiences. The jerks will never give up. I love to read the self-disclosure accounts provided by some converts to Judaism – there's no substitute for sincerity. That goes for you, and for Debbie B., and for all the others who bring their personal stories about their conversions to Judaism into the public domain.

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  6. “I stop to thank G-d for not ever having been called a shiksa, at least, because I'm not blond or blue-eyed.”

    Yep, that would be me. The one-hundred percent Ashkenazi, born and bred Jewish shiksa.
    Story of my life -____-

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  7. Hallie, I keep telling my Jew of color pals that we need to honorarily induct blonds into our exclusive club. My first Passover was almost ruined by a guest who said the word shiksa over and over and over and over and worse and worse again and again in my presence. Assuming that I was born Jewish. And everyone else was as horrified as I was…horrified into silence giving him the license to use that word again and again.

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  8. Cool: I got mentioned in the same breadth with praise for Aliza! Thanks, Schvach.

    Unlike you, I could not be Jewish without quite a bit of thought and effort. By nature, I think a lot. I found that prior to conversion, I had suppressed my thoughts and feelings, so that post-conversion when I lifted the emotional barriers it felt like it all wanted to burst out. So I share my story to let it out. And also because sometimes I want to shout to Jews by Birth who seem to be trying to cast their Judaism aside: Don't you understand what a precious birthright you have?!

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  9. If you bring up the issue of your conversion, it's only reasonable to expect that people will ask you questions about it. If you're not comfortable discussing the circumstances of your conversion, don't bring it up, especially around “people you barely know.”

    If I start talking about my deafness or my mom being gay, I'm prepared to field a lot of not-so-tactful questions, because quite frankly, people are idiots and I've come to expect that. If I don't feel like discussing either issue, I don't open that door.

    You were right to apologize. The inquisitive guest wasn't intentionally rude but you were.

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  10. On my first few visits to a particular congregation I had several people point out converts to me. I thought it was incredibly rude but I had no idea what to say. I will admit that though the people are friendly I was a bit put off by that sort of behavior. It's completely inappropriate but seems to be considered acceptable within their small community.

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  11. NCavillones:

    Aliza's story does not indicate that she brought it up first. Or perhaps you were there and she did. But that's not the point. Just because a topic is mentioned does not mean that ANY related question is reasonable or *polite*.

    And it happens even when converts (especially those of us who don't “look Jewish”) DON'T bring it up themselves. I have had people come up to me in a shul and the FIRST WORDS out of their mouths are: “Are you a convert?” (So much for niceties like “Hi, I'm Howard. Are you a visitor to this shul?” or some other more neutral and friendly greeting.

    And in the case of my own situation this weekend, I was NOT the one to bring it up first. I started by introducing myself and asking if he was visiting. The man I was talking to asked me in an awkward way something like “Were you always Jewish?” And he was the one who kept asking more and more invasive questions. In retrospect, I should have closed the conversation sooner, but it's hard to do that and not have it seem rude. So as I say: it's a no-win situation.

    So to use your analogy: if the other person is the one to “open the door”, how do you close it (in their face?) without seeming to be rude? People who ask that kind of question are typically not the type to take subtle hints. If they were that sensitive, they would not have asked the question(s) in the first place.

    I do think that it was good that Aliza apologized. Aliza was apologizing for the result of her response, not saying that she didn't have some reason to take offense (which she did).

    I just came back tonight from an interesting meeting of Jews by Choice. We all had stories of having had our Jewishness challenged. And that unfortunately is exactly what the question about converting before or after meeting her husband most likely really was.

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  12. Today I went to my first class at the Conservative Synagogue where I've been meeting with the Rabbi. The moment Rabbi walked out of the room one of the guys in the class looked over to a woman of color (I don't know her ethnicity) and asked “Did you convert”? and then mentioned something about Alysa Stanton. I couldn't believe it! I've read your posts over and over again but right there in front of my face I saw it first hand (and does he think all African American people know each other? I didn't quite get that one but we do live in Cincinnati so I suppose a lot of people here have heard of Rabbi Stanton). Turns out she is not a convert, she's a Christian who likes to study Judaism and she didn't seem at all bothered by the question. I felt like if it were me I would have been embarrassed but she handled it well.

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