Monday, March 19, 2012

Wait, which religion did I convert to, again?

To continue rambling on and on with my seemingly all-consuming thoughts regarding conversion and the "who is a Jew?" debate, I suppose it would be useful for me to reflect a bit on how I feel about my own conversion, aside from standing up on my soap box and yelling about how authentically Jewish I am. I guess you could assume that, well, it's rather clear how I feel about my conversion; authentic is authentic. While that is certainly true, I realize that there are grey areas as well. How the convert is treated or perceived can rub off on the convert, which can lead to a bout of self-consciousness about conversion, and what they mean for Jews and Judaism today. It's not that I doubt that my conversion was legitimate. The issue is that I have to ask myself what my conversion means outside of the context of myself, and within the context of the Jewish people as a whole.

Ideally, once one converts, that person should be recognized and treated as a member of the Jewish community and Am Israel. Regardless of the debate regarding what makes a conversion legitimate, this doesn't always work out the way it's supposed to. In smaller communities, everyone knows that you are a convert, and when you are introduced to someone new, especially other converts or potential ones, inevitably, the person introducing you wants you to tell your story. This happens elsewhere well, such as in Israel, where you encounter every type of Jew imaginable, and during the get-to-know-you stage of the conversation, your background tends to comes up. I just so happen to have the most non-Jewish background imaginable, so there's really no getting around talking about how I came to be Jewish, unless I want to lie about it.

If this is the only Jew you knew growing up, then you might be a convert.
And I constantly get the, "but you don't look Jewish" comment, which I find puzzling and, bizarrely, mildly offensive. On some level I want to look Jewish, even though I don't know what that means outside of stereotypes and generalizations. Once, someone told me that I do look Jewish, and my automatic response was, "thank you." This might be some sort of neurotic, leftover self-consciousness about blending in with my Jewish surroundings, because in Israel, Jews come in all different kinds of packages. How I so consistently get outed by appearance alone is baffling to me. Plus, everyone thinks that I'm Russian. Apparently, only Russians are blond.

And obviously, I out myself all of the time. Isn't that what this blog is all about? Me talking about my Jewishness?  I don't mind people knowing that I'm a convert, and I know that when people find out they are naturally going to want to know my story. That's normal. But I have moments where I feel like my conversion is showing, so to speak, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. There are those moments where I'm not specifically talking about it or referencing it, and yet, it becomes obvious through my actions.

For instance, I am just now learning how to really daven. I mean, I've prayed in shul before. I haven't really ever gotten the choreography of the praying down, nor am I terribly well oriented in the siddur. I spend a good portion of my davening time flipping through the pages, trying desperately to find where we are. It's not exactly the most inspiring spiritual experience, though I am thankful for the step-by-step instructions through most of the Art Scroll siddur.

This guy should pop up whenever you need him.
Still, it's normal even for Jews to not know how to properly daven, because plenty of Jews have never done it before, have only done it a few times, or haven't done it since Hebrew school. I'm not the only one who is learning.

But there is still some sort of self-criticism that pops into my head when other people notice that I don't know what I'm doing in a Jewish space. At lunch the other day, as I was davening Mincha, I stood in the back of the room specifically to be able to feel comfortable with stumbling through the siddur, inconspiciously. Sure enough though, someone came and stood next to me, someone with an orthodox upbringing and who is well versed in all things Jewish. I moved away from her to the next table where I had sat my bag, and in order to not make it look like I was purposely moving away from her as though she had just farted in my general vicinity, I took my water bottle from my bag and took a sip. A few minutes passed, and she came up to me with her siddur open and said, "Would you like me to show you where we are?"

It sounds ridiculous, but I felt my face heat up with embarrassment, and as I reluctantly handed her my siddur, I told her, somewhat defensively, that I was still though she had walked up to me and said, "What the hell are you doing? It's not Yom Kippur, stupid. So why are you on that page?" Instead, she gave me a friendly smile, pointed out where we were, and said, "If you have any questions, just let me know."

It incredibly silly, and even snotty of me to admit this, but I found myself feeling a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment at that moment. Why?! She simply noticed that I needed help, she offered it, and then offered more help if I wanted it. And this is how I respond to it? What the hell is my problem? That's like getting mad at someone for putting money into your bank account just because they felt like it.

Someone deposited an extra hundred into my bank account? What an asshole!
Honestly, it's a sense of self consciousness that I think is typical of a lot of converts. We want to be accepted, and we get it in our heads that in order to get accepted, we need to be super-Jews. But this doesn't just come from of insecurities of our own; sometimes, we really do get treated like idiots if we don't know something in the vast realm of Judaism: "Didn't they teach this to you during conversion? Well then what did they teach you?"

And then there's my own criticism of other converts, which I potentially have no right to voice. But let me give you an example of the times when I've raised my eyebrows at the validity of a convert's status.

Last Succot, I had a dinner with a group of friends and new acquaintances, one of whom was also an American convert. Her conversion however, was Reform. Personally, I am ambivalent when it comes to Reform Judaism. On the one hand, since we're still asking ourselves what Jewish identity means in this day and age, it's difficult for me to argue that I have the right answer, or for me to fairly claim that Reform has no merit. I have met a number of Reform converts however, who do make me question if Reform Judaism shouldn't be a little more selective or strict with how they conduct their conversions. They have a reputation according the stricter, more traditional strands of Judaism, as being the "anything goes!" form of Judaism. Reconstruction and Renewal rarely get much attention in this regard, because truthfully, I think that Conservative and Orthodox Jews see Reform as an umbrella for every other liberal movement that calls itself Jewish.

So what problem did I have with this Reform convert? Well, she seemed rather ignorant of the basics of Succot, and because there was a light breeze and she didn't dress appropriately for the weather, she was cold. She tried several times to coax us into agreeing to eat inside, and the host of the dinner almost acquiesced until the rest of us insisted that she get a blanket from inside and suck it up. It's Succot. Why have a sukkah, if you're not going to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in it as much as possible, especially for meals with your fellow Jews?

She proceeded to say HaMotzi for us, but attempted to get the rest of us to do the "challah chain," which is basically when the person reciting the blessing lays a hand on the challah, and everyone around the table links together by holding hands. This is the weirdest, perhaps most halackhically incorrect way to say HaMotzi, and as far as where it came from, the only thing that I can imagine inspired it, was to be a big "fuck you" to the Jews who think that it's important to preserve at least some halakhic practices. The Israelis at the table were baffled, and after someone nudged her to pick the challah up, she did so, and held it awkwardly before reciting the blessing. Afterwards, she fumbled around before someone told her (breaking the silence after the hand washing) to cut the bread into enough pieces for everyone, salt it, take a bite of a piece, and pass the rest around the table. That's not such a big deal, since people have different traditions, and we often learn these things by observing others. The first time I said HaMotzi, I mimicked the three year old that I learned it from, after living with a Jewish family for more than a year. Needless to say, I did it incorrectly, and it was a relief that the only people who witnessed my toddler version of reciting brachot were two understanding, non-judgmental friends (one of whom was a member of my beit din). The issue I have with it (besides feeling that it's a weird hippy moment where we're all supposed to link hands and be spiritual together...or something), is that it was the first of many indications that she was not very oriented in the Jewish world at all.

She explained the challah chain to the confused dinner table attendees, and someone asked what they do if there is a disproportionate number of males and females at the table. What are the people who are shomer negiah supposed to do? Needless to say, she had no idea what this concept was, and laughed hysterically when we told her that the Orthodox, and some Modern Orthodox, don't touch the opposite sex--only after marriage do a man and woman touch each other. When we assured her that we were quite serious, she responded with, "So they're virgins when they get married? They've never even kissed?!"

Now, personally I find the concept of shomer negiah ridiculously extreme, and borderline offensive. While it's true that the idea is to discourage sexual temptation before marriage, there's more to it than that. There's also the "family purity" laws, where a woman who is on her period is in niddah, and nobody, husband included, is supposed to touch her at that time. Again, extreme and quite archaic--I think it comes from a time when people were baffled as to why women would inexplicably bleed from, you know, there, and felt that it warranted some sort of behavioral response and conduct. These days, we know what menstruating is, and since only us ladies get the pleasure of this messy, annoying and often painful business, we get treated, well, differently from men. When a man had an inexplicable seminal emission, he too was supposed to go to the mikvah and "purify" himself, just like menstruating women were expected to visit the mikvah after their period had ended (plus seven days). Again, these days, we understand the body and its functions, and why such things happen (don't even get me started on how much I roll my eyes at the "destruction of seed" issue). But I'm sure that also these days, men aren't running to the mikvah every time they have a hot dream about touching the women that they are forbidden to touch. And in any case, being shomer negiah even extends to refraining from intentionally touching an elderly member of the opposite sex, even though she's clearly past menopause, and not exactly sexually enticing (you know...unless you're into that kind of thing). I know a Haredi rabbi who became uncomfortable when the grandma of a baby boy at a Brit Millah hugged him after he performed the circumcision. Really? Even happy grandmas, and their totally innocent hugs at their grandson's Brit Millah are off limits?

I know I sound cynical and like I'm ragging on the Orthodox (I kind of am), but I think that these are real issues that are worthwhile for us, as Jews, to discuss. I also think that, while I certainly don't know everything that I should, we all should try to educate ourselves about our Judaism before, during, and after conversion. For a convert to not know even some of the most basic things about what they converted to, is concerning, especially since the common response I hear from Reform converts when asked why they decided to convert, is that they find Judaism beautiful and that it really speaks to them on a spiritual level. That's great and all, and I'm being sincere when I say that, but there is a lot to Judaism. There's a lot of stuff to it that I find not so beautiful (nidah and shomer negiah being just two examples), but I knew about these things before I signed on, and I'm aware that, despite my distaste for some of these practices, they are still important for many Jews to observe, and are a part of this extremely complicated thing called Judaism. I think it's problematic to declare yourself Jewish when there are some basic, overview things that you don't know about. This particular lady also didn't understand why we were singing after the meal...did she really not know about the after meal blessings?

Another Reform convert who I know never went into the mikvah when she converted, and her female rabbi assured her that she didn't need to do so in order to convert. That just screams, "Yeah Judaism is just like, whatever you want it to be, and stuff," if you ask me. Are there no standards? No parameters at all? That is what freaks the Orthodox out the most, I think; Jews and Judaism by definition will lose so much of its character and distinctiveness if these types of conversions are consistently accepted, that it will, at some point cease to be Judaism altogether. I can't say I don't blame them for their concerns, or that I totally disagree with them, either.

I really don't mean disrespect towards Reform Judaism. I am just puzzled by and worried about a movement that seems to consistently convert people without giving them the education that they should have about what it is that they are choosing, and the lack of importance and significance they can place on Jewish traditions. One of the things I find so appealing about Judaism, is its long history of study, knowledge, and truth seeking. When Judaism stops doing that, or simply says, "Yeah, I suppose that's good enough," it really does become something else. I don't have a Unitarian perspective when it comes to religion. I don't think that everything in the world is subjective and can be completely redefined so as to become something else. One shouldn't look at a Rothko and say, "Oh, anybody could do that! It doesn't mean anything." Instead, go and check out a book about Rothko and find out why he paints the way that he does. Don't read a challenging piece of poetry and say, "It means whatever I want it to mean." No. It really doesn't. You just have to work to find the deeper meaning in it, even if you don't get a concrete, factual answer. It certainly does take some work, but the top layer of something is usually the least interesting, and least meaningful. Sometimes your interpretations are shallow and require some rethinking.

For instance, you should be able to recognize what is wrong with this picture.
So, perhaps being a bit hypercritical of the holes in my Jewish knowledge is not such a bad thing; it fits my already neurotic personality, a Jewish stereotype if there ever was one. But I also think it's unhealthy to compare yourself to people who were born as Jews and have more knowledge than you do, as though no matter what you do, you'll never be as Jewish as them. It's not a competition, and at some point you have to ask yourself the more personal question of "how do I view my Judaism?" not, "is my Judaism authentic?" That too requires some education, mostly about yourself and your relationship to God, because ultimately, those of us who converted or choose to be observant Jews do it for a reason. The tough questions apply to us on a personal level, too. It's a good thing to re-evalutate yourself once in a while.

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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.