a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Orthodox: To be or not to be…that is the question

Posted on: January 13, 2013

While enjoying my first glass of wine at a bar in La Guardia Airport before my flight to New Orleans last week I got a Facebook message that I both expected and was surprised by. A friend who’d gone through the conversion process with me, currently living in one of the most Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, was seriously considering an Orthodox conversion.

We’d been talking for a few months about the things we felt we lacked in our conversion; a more thorough understanding of Jewish prayer (benching and brachot were both initially foreign to us), better grasp of Hebrew, better understanding of Torah and Talmud, a better understanding of kashrut.

While I’ve tried to work on these things individually-I’m months behind in Daf Yomi, but trying, I’m learning Hebrew, I work within prayer that fits into my life (Modah Ani and Sh’ma), I continually re-define an idea of “kosher” – I know that full understanding only happens with full immersion. While I live in a Jewish home with mezzuzot in every doorway and stacks of Jewish books, she’s living a fully integrated life in Jewish Brooklyn.

I sipped on my (non-kosher) wine and messaged her back the name of a popular Orthodox blogger and some other people she should reach out to, wished her luck and felt a bit of…envy.

These fleeting moments of  Orthodox conversion usually come to mind for reasons of “legitimacy”, as a safety net, and for my kids. I make a list of pros and cons and the cons always stack up higher than the pros. I struggle with the idea of what Gd wants, the audacity to presume to know what Gd wants, and being honest with the realities of the life I share with my partner and what I am capable of doing.

Sure, if I really committed, I could observe a full Shabbat-but that would mean scolding my partner for turning on a light and/or putting her in a position that she is unfamiliar with, not comfortable with and frankly doesn’t (and shouldn’t)concern her. It would be adopting a cooking style and kitchen that only works for me and not for us. Can two people really live in a home together with varying levels of Jewish observance?  And to that end my Jewish journey is, and never has been, about her and I never want it to to conflict with how she identifies as a Jewish woman. Furthermore, an Orthodox conversion could mean either lying about my sexual identity, or hiding it, therefore hiding an important part of who I am. It would mean committing to all 613 mitzvot, when I’m not sure I can make that commitment.

Despite all of this, it’s no secret that I’ve often considered doing an Orthodox conversion and I’m envious of those who have the chutzpah to do so. It takes a lot to commit to a practice, a lifestyle, a community that varies so differently than the practice, lifestyle and community that you’ve come from. The idea of changing the way you eat, dress, pray, live is a commitment that should never be taken lightly. And for those who not only make that commitment, but stick to it, I tip my hat.

The fact remains that I can daven in any synagogue I choose. The fact remains that I am a Jew. And the fact remains that my Jewish journey is always evolving.

I’m happy for my friend and wish her all the best. I’m curious about her process and I’m curious to see what her life will be like in a few years. I’m excited to learn from her and I’m excited that she’s another black Jewish woman committed to Ahavat Yisrael.


20 Responses to "Orthodox: To be or not to be…that is the question"

I love this post so much. My roommate and I are one two different Jewish observance levels, although both orthodox. I fully believe it can work. I do some things on Shabbat that she does not hold by, and vice versa with other things.

I was thrown into it. Though sometimes I mess up I feel like it was easier for to to just completely change the way I eat, dress, and pray (everything else is still a work in progress) without “easing” into it.

Who knows…right now I have marked cutlery, cutting boards, fridge. It’s also possible to just do it and then live my life, but that also feels like living a lie.

I also can’t fully believe in Torah as the end all be all, as the word of Gd, without interpretation.

Never say never, right?

Never say never is correct. My ex and I discussed how would have lived together being two completely different Jews. From Shabbat to kashrut and even raising the hypothetical kids. It ended up with a LOT of compromising that left both of satisfied, so I understand about you and M.

I definitely couldn’t do it to M, it’s not fair and it’s not who she is. I wouldn’t want to make a divided house 🙂 Right now the fridge has a dairy draw and a meat draw, cutting boards and mixing spoons are labeled and she let’s me know ahead of time when she’s got a hankering for sausage (yum, sausage).

Is it kashrut-kosher? no, but it works for us.

As long as your friend is ready to live in a community that may treat her like dirt even post-mikvah… I’m not saying ALL Orthodox gerim are treated like that, but the number of stories popping up left and right from people who have been treated in unbelievably un-Jewish ways after an Orthodox conversion are frightening. But then again, maybe it depends on who she converts with. I wish your friend nothing but the absolute best and pray that she doesn’t go through the hell that a lot of us who even so much as attempted an Orthodox conversion way too frequently experience.

As far as learning about things like kashrut and tzniut and so much else are concerned, yes, I did learn a TON by studying for an Orthodox conversion. But I found I had a head start on a lot of it by just doing things like spending time around Chabad and other observant friends who were more than willing to teach me. Actually, the two people I learned the most from are Reconstructionist converts (one of whom writes incredible divrei torah and other educational posts on a blog called “Hardcore Mesorah” — give it a Google, I think you especially would love it).

I’m already living in an Orthodox community and I can assure you I do not get treated like dirt. Even if I am more modern than the rest of the community. The people I’ve met are extremely warm. That’s not to say everyone is going to be like that; I was questioned more so in the liberal circles. We all have our different experiences.

Thank you for your well wishes.

Perhaps Batsheva. But I’ve seen and heard (from close friends) terrible behavior towards gerim in the frum community. I myself have been on the receiving end of it too many times. It’s different for everyone. But the most common sentiment seems to be that there are problems.

That’s unfortunate for your friends. However I cannot say the same thing goes for me. Jews frum or not, do not generally treat gerim and BTs in a kind manner. There will always be expections to that rule. Baruch HaShem I am one. That’s not to say that it’ll all be sunshine and rainbows; There is a possibility that I will be treated not so nicely by *select* people. But I do not dwell on that and focus on the positive experiences thus far. Not sure why people are bent on telling me that I’m going to be treated horrendously. If it happens, it happens but going into it with a Negative Nancy attitude won’t make things better nor easier.

The worst I’ve gotten in my new community were curious stares whilst in liberal communities and elsewhere I’ve been questioned constantly about my Jewishness. Again, different experiences for different people.

On the contrary, I’ve heard great stories of Orthodox Conversion. I mean, truth is that when your a black person you’ve been trained to deal with sh*t and your BS meter is on point. You can smell a mofo a mile away and steer clear.

I’ve honestly never seen you so happy, it suits you. I can’t wait to keep asking you questions and maybe you’ll let me do an interview 🙂

Thanks for all of the comments, everyone! Definitely keep the conversation going.

To be fair, though, it’s been my experience that the Jewish community as a whole can be pretty crappy to anyone who doesn’t pass the “you look Jewish” test. I’ve been at the wrong end of the stick on many occasions whether it be the assumption that I’m the help or automatically assuming I’m a convert simply because of the color of my skin. And this from some of the most “diverse” and “progressive” synagogue communities in the NYC/Brooklyn area.

I will say that when in Orthodox spaces I’ve been welcomed pretty openly and know many black Orthodox folks who are…I also know that many people find it hard. I find this especially so for JOCs.

A brown-haired JBC can easily pass in the community, a Black person will not. The Jewish community isn’t there yet.

Yeah… I think it depends in good part on the enclave/neighborhood/shul (among other factors). I’ve been treated like a cherished family member by the Conservative and Chabad shuls where I am — though at the latter, the constant comments about my secular first name not being Jewish are annoying. And I think some of the more recent, elderly post-Soviet world immigrants are completely not sure what to make of the idea of someone being a convert. Not exactly something one could do in the USSR that they grew up under. Hence their constant confusion when I say I’m a convert — “Oh, so you’re a goy?” “No, I’m a convert. Geiress. Giyoret.” *blank stare* Can’t possibly be mad at them for that. I feel sad, but in a strange way I cherish that it’s such a huge learning experience for both me and them. There’s a sense of “otherness” and “newness” that we share, being Jews for so short of a time in a country with religious freedom.

The Persian synagogue’s initial reaction to me was an annoyed, “who is this blonde chick and why is she here, is she trying to snag one of our sons??” I think, though, that they just assume I’m Ashkenazi. After they saw me walk in the second time with a siddur I could follow (I don’t know Farsi and am still working on my Hebrew), they realized I was there to daven. Now I’m treated in a very welcoming way. If only language weren’t a barrier with most folks there! All in good time, though. It’s the synagogue closest to me and the best place to go for the High Holy Days. I’m an “other” there, but nobody knows I converted and nobody cares.

The other shuls, though… I either get indifference, or I get a lot of questions about why I don’t “look Jewish.” (I’ve been told it’s because I have blonde hair, really fair skin and blue eyes — never mind that most of the Russian Jews I know do, too…??) Or… “What’s your name?” “J______”. “Oh, what’s your last name?” I say it… “Oh…” I’ve noticed I’ve gotten a very “pre-emptive strike” mentality regarding those shuls now, just expecting trouble. There nearly always is, and it’s why I refuse to ever go to said shuls again.

But that’s all *my* experience as an Italian-Irish ex-Catholic Jew. And I don’t think even Yisrael Campbell’s experiences would be completely similar, even though we both also happen to be from Philadelphia originally! Difference? He lives in Israel, I live stateside, everyone knows him as Yisrael and has for years… not enough people know me yet as Gavriela. Oh, and there’s the gender difference. Obviously, I’ve never gotten a bris/hatafot dam — let alone three times, like he did! OUCH…

I find it refreshing, if a bit unnerving, that blonde folks get the same “you don’t look Jewish” comments 😉 Is that wrong?

Wonderful post and it hits home. I would love to have an Orthodox conversion, but for two reasons I cannot, one being gay, married and open about it and two the Orthodox belief system.
I think to closest I can be is Ortho-prax and only to a level to which my beautiful (Catholic) spouse is comfortable with. There is a lot of beautiful in Judaism, through the whole spectrum of observance, I personally am evolving and observance change over time, specially if there will be kiddies in the picture, please G_d soon!

Being out and proud is one of the top reasons I couldn’t do an Orthodox Conversion. On my FB page we’ve also discussed the need for an egalitarian community. I don’t mind an occasional mehitzah, but all of the time? I like touching the Torah, I’d like to read from the Torah and be called up for an aliyah. Not to mention that I keep weird regional kosher…which, let’s be real, it’s just my way of eating trief when I travel 🙂

All that said, I’m happy that Batsheva is doing an Orthodox conversion, I enjoy praying in Orthodox communities (dependent on the community), I think there’s something to restrictions and limitations…Does that make my Jewish experience any less valid? No.

Ditto, ditto, ditto-esp. on the kiddos. Inshallah/Be’ezrat HaShem it will happen soon for us both! I may send you an offline message to talk about that since it’s high on the priority list 🙂

I’d also love to interview you abt. Your Catholic/Jewish home 🙂

It would be a pleasure to answer any offline questions you may have.
I’d love to do an interview too. 🙂

You can explore and adopt whatever level of observance you desire, with need for the inspiration to do so coming from outside the community in which you currently daven. There is no added “legitimacy” from joining an Orthodox community, and there is no such thing, no matter what one individual denomination says, as “converting” a second time once you are already Jewish. In addition, the intense level of ethical religious practice you exhibited after Sandy is so impressive and, frankly, beyond most other Jews’ ability to actually love in real life suggests to me you’re a little too close to the issue to really see the amazing Jewish role model you already are. Build on that already firm foundation by exploring more deeply into our tradition. Just know you’re way deep and influentially so already. See: tzedek.

Michael-I always love you and appreciate your insight! Thank you!

I’m impressed by you! You daven beautifully, you’ve integrated prayer into your life in a meaningful and consistent way. I can barely get a Modah Ani out of my mouth on the train!

It’s definitely not a test, and like many have said an evolving journey.

That should have read, “without need”. Damned autocorrect.

So glad I’m not the only one who thinks about this!
Legitimacy, safety net, community…I feel you on that. Sometimes I long to feel the deep sense of community that the Orthodox seem to have, and which I sadly find lacking in the local Reform establishment. :/

I always enjoy reading your blog, Erika!

The community aspect is a huge pro for me. It seems, when I’m in Orthodox spaces, that the people are there to pray, but also for community.

On the Saturday morning services I’ve attended, I’m invited to lunch and to say no would be a huge faux pas. It’s like, why won’t you come eat? What else do you have to do? It’s Shabbos!

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