a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

New Jews; Blessing or Annoyance?

Posted on: December 7, 2010

I’m one of those people who believe that when you say something, “joking” it’s your way of saying the thing that you truly wish to say but do not for fear of hurting someone, upsetting someone, or disagreeing with someone.  You don’t feel comfortable, for whatever reason, saying what you mean to say outright so you say it and follow it up with, “I’m only joking” or “you know I’m kidding, right?”  I make this assertion because it’s something I do.  I’m a normally out-spoken person but when I see that what I’ve said has come out wrong, I’ll follow it up with “I’m joking!”  and laugh a little too hard and too long to be believable.

The other day I got a Facebook IM from a Jewish acquaintance who said, “You’re making us born Jews look bad!”  I got the same face-to-face message from a self-described “bad” Jew at work yesterday evening.  He said, “I bet you go to shul every Friday and Saturday, don’t you.”  I told him I hadn’t been in a few weeks but I was planning on attending this Friday.  His response was that he hasn’t gone since Yom Kippur, in ’99”  I shrugged my shoulders not quite sure how to respond.

My closest Jewish friends are wonderful, intrigued, and always asking questions that I’m proud to be able to answer.  It’s not that I’m a “better” Jew, I’m a newer Jew.  The great and interesting thing about being a Christian is that it’s not a part of your identity.  Sure, you could argue that the Christian community is tight-knit, and that there’s unity, blah, blah blah.  But if you’re a Jew you’re a part of history; Biblical History, Religious History, Personal History, Political History.  You can decide at any time that being a Christian doesn’t work for you any longer and chose to be a Muslim, an Atheist, a Jew.  You can never decide to not be a Jew.  When you’re a born Jew it’s all the more relevant.

Through this journey, Mirs has started doing decidedly Jewish things.  She’s interested in meeting with Rabbi L and randomly last week told me between talking about Law and Order and our Hanukkah party that she wanted to get a mezuzah for her door.  I tried to hide my delight but I’m sure that a giant smile spread across my face.  I do not, however, expect her to go to shul with me just because I do.  I do not expect her to learn things with me because I am, I don’t expect her to change or alter her Jewish identity because of my recently acquired one.  Because her mother is a convert and her father is a born Jew.  Because she attended Hebrew school as a child and studied Torah she’s a Jew and will always be one, though she identifies as an atheist who’s Jewish.  When I emerge from the mikvah I will forever be a Jew.  There’s no way to undo the Jew.  Which is why it is arguably the most important decision that I will make in my entire life.

When I become a Jew I will be taking on a new religion that excites me.  I find Shabbat to be a beautiful and moving experience.  When I light candles sometimes we rush through and when they’re lit I’ll sometimes say them again silently to myself with meaning.  I’m immersed in books of knowledge about Jewish history and theology.  The religious aspect of it is incredibly inspiring.  The fact that this learning is happening at 31 and because of my choosing as opposed to age 11 and on a perfectly good Sunday probably has a lot to do with it.

I try, outside of this safe cyber space, not to talk about my journey to Judaism unless someone has questions about it.  Inevitably once a day some one asks at work because I wear hamsas around my neck.  They ask if I’m a Jew and I tell them that I will be one soon.  Yesterday I got 4 mazel tovs from 4 separate born Jews all excited and interested in why a black woman would choose to be a Jew.  When the older woman I’d never met hugged me tightly and whispered Mazel Tov! into my ear I shuddered with a feeling of awe.  Still, walking through Union Square last night past the giant menorah and the huge Mitzvah Tank I approached some Hasidic Jews and wished them a happy Hanukkah.  They looked perplexed when I wished them well in Hebrew, and I explained that I was converting.  Like the Hasids that showed up at Mirs’ door on the first night, these two men were not impressed, not convinced, not quite sure how to respond.  It could be my insecurity or my need for them to accept me when I know that I will not be accepted as a Jew to so many Jews out there.

If I cared about acceptance I wouldn’t have decided to make this life-changing step towards Judaism.  If I cared about what others thought, I wouldn’t have ever came out as a lesbian and got married to the second schmuck that asked.  My lesbian identity and my Jewish identity have nothing to do with the outside world or the opinions of others and everything to do with me.  It’s my discovery, my journey, my Judaism and it thrills me every day, every day I learn something new or remember something learned, or get frustrated when I forget something simple like a barachot.  I’m not a better Jew and I don’t care how you Jew.  I’m a new Jew who’s learning what it’s like to have an appreciation, awe, and reverence for God and religion for the first since I was very young.

My mother likes to sometimes remind me of how much I loved Jesus as a child.  I wasn’t one of those Jesus Camp children but apparently I really loved Jesus.  I don’t remember it and often take her word but I would talk to Jesus like he was a friend I actively interact with.  I lost that as a teenager and it was gone as an adult.  The connection to the idea of Jesus was lost on me and I started to think of him not as the son of God, but as a man with a powerful message that many listened to and learned from and many disagreed with.  I read books not in the Christian Bible and found them to be interesting but not faith-altering.  Learning about Judaism makes me feel something I have no memory of feeling before.  I’m excited about it and approach it with enthusiasm.

3 Responses to "New Jews; Blessing or Annoyance?"

I don’t think I would ever have the nerve to tell a Chassid that I was converting. You are much more brave!

There is this rabbi that comes to my partnerf’s apartment on Holidays. He came for Sukkot and I was expecting him on Hanukkah. I opened the door and instead of the older rabbi there were two Hasidic men about my age (30s). They said where’s the Jewish girl who lives here? I told them she was out but that I was converting. They looked perplexed, confused, and then-get this-asked me to wish her a Happy Hanukkah!! I was so annoyed and hurt, really. There’s a huge part of me that wants to scream and another part that understands. After my conversion is complete I want to visit both an Orthodox shul and a Hasidic shul just for the experience.

I want to visit Orthdox shuls but the thought makes me nervous (there is no way I would go on my own and I don’t know who would be willing to take me). I’ve always been concerned over how they feel about what I am doing. I was nicely told to get over it by a local Conservative Rabbi. I am over it in many ways but on the other hand I’m still carrying around some sort of guilt over not converting Orthodox. I have no idea where it comes from. It’s not as if I have people in my life telling me I won’t be a real Jew.

What irritates me about the situation you describe is that they assumed you weren’t Jewish. I don’t have to deal with that but it bugs me that others do. I have a question, did your girlfriend’s mother convert Orthodox? Did she get questioned on the validity of her mother’s conversion? Or do the guys who showed up at her door know her mother?

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