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.
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”