a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Ask Erika: How Do You Deal With the Guilt?

Posted on: October 29, 2013

A few weeks ago I got the following questions from a reader I’ll call C. C and I have emailed a few times back and forth about conversion to Judaism and coming out and the guilt we feel by hurting our loved ones.

Perhaps two, maybe three years ago I was home for a visit with my family. My mother and father took us to a popular seafood restaurant in downtown Toledo. Since it was a nice day, we sat outside and ate our meal. I don’t remember if I’d formally converted yet, but my father looked at me and said, “I don’t believe that you’re gay and I don’t believe that you’re Jewish. You’re not those things to me.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I said it in a tone that caused my mother to get up from the table and several patrons to look at us. I didn’t raise my voice, I stood up to my father, something I’d only done one other time in my life. Standing up to him had the same result this time as it had the first time I spoke to him adult-to-adult rather than father-to-daughter, a look I still can’t put my finger on. A combination of hurt, shock, anger and satisfaction. He’d raised me and I’m my father’s daughter. And no one, not even my father, will talk shit about who and what I am without getting an verbally articulate slap in the face.

As I stood up to leave him to think about what I said, I pulled $20s from my wallet and dropped them on the table. I got in the car I rented and headed to the metro park that I found solace in as a teenager. I stayed late into the evening and when I got home he said nothing to me but my mother gave me a sly grin.

He hasn’t mentioned it again and instead asks how Miriam is doing when we talk on the phone.

I’m not saying that every coming out story has a happy ending. Just as not every mother whose child “abandons” the religion of their birth eventually understands the choice. What I am saying is that you can never be truly happy in your own skin if you’re not true to who you are, no matter how badly it hurts the people around us when we live our truth.

Hello! I have a question for you. But first let me weave you a tale. 

Our stories aren’t that different except that 1. I’m an adopted Caucasian child to a family who prides itself pretty thoroughly on its Irish heritage. 2. I was raised absolutely Catholic. Oh, and 3. I haven’t converted to Judaism. 
 
But! I am gay. My partner and I have been together for 8 years (just got married this June!) I commented on your blog forever ago saying that we’d never swing one way religiously or another, she has since adopted a Jewish identity (though neither of us have formerly converted.) We keep kosher in regards to type of food we eat (though finding kosher-slaughtered animals is difficult) and through complete and uncanny coincidence, the spiritual views we’ve been building between ourselves have aligned themselves almost parallel to Jewish thought. It has been weird, as we discussed and built without exposure to any ideology or (set of) theories that it’s just swung so… Jewish. 
 

But anyway, the point of that up there is that we’re moving to Judaism without actually converting. There are some factors that keep us from studying Torah right now, so absolute conversion isn’t on the list. In fact, I don’t think we will until we’ve learned most of it on our own and at our own pace without pressure to change. Either way, I feel its pending. We’re collecting mezuzahs for when we buy a house. I just can’t help but think its going to happen. 
 
That was a lot longer than I thought. Anyway, the question I wanted to ask had to do with your family: how have they/you/all of you dealt with the issue? If I may ask. I’m sorry if I’m asking too much personal information. The fact is that my mother still lives in absolute fear that I’m not going to heaven for being gay. It stresses her, it depresses her… 8 years later she still cries on the phone to me about it. I can’t imagine hurting her with telling her about our future conversion (once/if my wife and I actually agree that we will) just to have her barely handling that I’m ‘abandoning’ Jesus and everything he’s done for me. I can’t imagine that by that point, she’ll want to kill herself… as she already said she wanted to do when I came out. Was your experience this bad? Have things improved if they were? I mean, my mother’s gotten much better, but it’s still horrible to think that I am going to keep hacking at her emotionally over and over again. 
 
Bleh. It makes me upset just thinking about it. I’m sorry if this is too personal. I  appreciate your reading anyway!
C

Hi C-

Guilt, it’s not just for Catholics.

As much as it hurts us to hurt our parents, I can honestly say that you have to do what makes you happy. This is something I struggled with for a long time. I suppose, like many people, if I looked hard enough into my childhood/adolescents I could find clues to my gayness-I loved my girl friends more than I liked kissing boys, I was hyper-sexual, I went looking for the so-called lesbians that were on the Junior floor of my high school (all girls I might add). I remember the first time I accidentally saw the breast of my manager at the ice cream shop I worked at when she bent over and I remember the way that it made me feel.

Still, I found myself in my parent’s house at 21 years old before a crying man who wanted me to marry him and I said yes. Even after we broke up I had boyfriends and more boyfriends and then moved to NYC where I realized that I didn’t want a boyfriend that I was miserable and almost suicidal because I was spending my time and my life making everyone else in my life happy except me.

My mother cried. She told me that she couldn’t speak to me if I spoke about it. She told me that it was a phase. She told me that she had a friend who had a son who was a doctor in NYC and did I want his number.

Then she got over it and then I became a Jew.

That also took time and honestly it took her coming to service with me and my bringing Shabbat into her house.

It wasn’t easy and I felt terrible making her upset, but ultimately I have to live my life and she is welcome to be in it or not-which is what I told my family. They made the decision to be in it and I think we’re all better for it. It helped my mom, I think, to actually come to Shabbat evening service with me-which she protested. She was visiting from Ohio and I told her that I was going to service and invited her to come. She declined and I pushed until we made it there. After service she said, “It’s just like church” and, really it is.

It’s hard for staunchly religious people to see or freely think beyond the doctrines of their faiths, to ask my mother to believe something that she cannot is unthinkable. I’ve just asked her to think of things in a different way. Do we have religious discussions/arguments -no, but she knows that I’m happy and it makes her happy.

It’s a process and it will take some time and the truth is that your mother may never come around to the fact that you’re gay or to the fact that you’re considering becoming Jewish. Anita Diamant’s book Choosing a Jewish Life is a good one to suggest that she read-there are a few chapters directed at family members that my mother found helpful. If you can keep the lines of communication open without affecting your sanity or well being then do so. If talking to her makes you upset then it may be okay to give each other some space.

Ultimately, you’ll know what’s best for you. It’ll be hard, but it’s totally worth it to follow your heart and intentions.

Parents come around.

It’s good that you two are taking it one step at a time-it’s the only thing you can do. I’m sure, too, that you’ll find a rabbi who is understanding and patient. The journey to Judaism is a life-long marathon, not a sprint.

Sending you lots of love and blessings of healing, strength and resolve.

Erika

Do you have any helpful words for C? Did your family have a hard time with your conversion? How did you handle it? Help a sister out! You can always send me an email and I will do my best to answer it. Blackgayandjewish@gmail.com
Emails that are hateful, homophobic or anti Semitic will be deleted and reported.

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