It’s not easy to be a convert to Judaism. If the slow, existential transformation one undergoes isn’t enough pain and drama, then the Beit Din is. Or if the Beit Din is a pleasant bunch (I hear some are, actually), then the Jews themselves make up for it.
I haven’t had as rough a time as some. My father is Jewish, though my mother tells me I look like her own sister. (A blond New England Protestant.) But in the American Jewish world, where European Ashkenazim reign supreme, pale skin and light brown hair fit right in. On the other hand, if I were Persian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Bnei Menashe, or Cochini, no doubt I’d be told, “Gee, you don’t look Jewish.” Seriously! An Ethiopian Israeli woman who lived in Crown Heights reports having been rejected by the Jewish community, but embraced by the goyish Black community. How do you like them apples? (Hey wait, King David was a redhead. Was he Jewish enough?)
No one can deny that converts are an undisputed boon to the gene pool. And Jewish law commands Jews to love the convert (which some Jews do particularly well by marrying some of us). But no matter how accepted we may be in our new community, there are certain reminders converts get during the course of our existence that we haven’t grown up with this stuff.
One is to do with food. For many Jews I know, it’s a mitzvah d’oraita to consume meat on Shabbat. I don’t understand this. I know meat was special, especially during the Middle Ages, but dairy can be special too. Do you know what a potchkee making a classy Indian meal can be? All that peeling, chopping, dicing, and measuring out spices—slapping a chicken on a pan and putting it in the oven is the work of a few minutes. (Gee, I should remember that when I’m pressed for time.) I came of age religiously in beautiful Newton, Massachusetts, where it was a little out of the ordinary to serve a dairy Mexican, Indian, or Italian meal on Shabbat. But Newton is pretty cosmopolitan, with plenty of culinary adventurers in the community. I pushed the envelope a little too far, though, when I made a gorgeous Indian spread for a friend and her frum, rabbinical New Jersey relatives on a Friday night. I checked with my friend to make sure everyone could eat Indian and she assured me they would eat whatever was put in front of them. Well, the wife was a little surprised, but ate the food politely. The husband, on the other hand, didn’t venture past the challah. I have never attempted anything that ambitious again for an all-Jewish guest list.
I also cook with sage. I understand some Jews in England grow up on sage ’n’ onion stuffing, but in America, Jews cook with dill, not sage. My mother-in-law, when she came for Thanksgiving one year, said, “You cook with sage? But that’s such a goyish herb.” Perhaps in some people’s minds, but I don’t think herbs affiliate officially with any religion. I would never presume to pick up a jar of nigella in the grocery store, peer through the glass, and ask, “Pardon me for asking, but are you Jewish?”
Aside from culinary Judaism, converts may have a fresh take on attire. I grew up wearing pants and shirts to school. (In fact, in 9th grade, I wore denim jeans every single day.) It’s a little odd to me, helping my daughters put together outfits that involve shirts, leggings or pants, and skirts or dresses over them. I think I owned five skirts my entire childhood, and maybe four dresses. Where there was no Shabbat, there were no Shabbat clothes. The dress my mother bought me (which matched my sister’s) to wear for my brother’s bar mitzvah (don’t ask) was the first dress I’d owned in years, and the last for many more. Now I find myself having to be cognizant all the time of making sure my girls look sufficiently feminine to get past the tzniut police at school, but still able to run or climb a jungle gym without their skivvies showing. It’s all too weird to me.
Kol isha is another one. In secular American culture, what Disney princess doesn’t sing? Or female lead in a show? Or kid with a solo in the Christmas concert? Davka, it’s the women who sing more than the men in secular American society. (Boys would redden and mouth the words rather than be caught doing something as girly as singing.) Even someone who spends time in a non-Orthodox shul has to be confused by this, since a good number of their cantors nowadays are women. The more liberal frummies pair up women singers or combine them with men. I still can’t stop asking, “Who cares?”
In my experience, married converts are expected to cover their hair. I’ve written plenty on this subject already (here and here). In short, in my former community, the only women who covered their hair during the week were a handful of women from out of town, and converts. As I have written, I gave it the old college try, but in the end that particular madrega was not a comfortable perch for me.
The dunk in the mikvah (“Today I am a doughnut” was the subject line on my announcement to friends) was not the end of the process of becoming Jewish. Just as I find myself clinging to much of the Weltanschauung I was raised with, I also find the absorption of my yiddishe neshama (Jewish soul) to be a gradual one. Where frum-from-births ingest the Jewish holidays with their mothers’ milk, I find myself slowly, year by year, working out my thoughts about each one. Pesach has always had a strong hold on me. Shavuot appeals to me as a convert, and Chanukah as a Zionist. But Purim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the rest are still works in progress. Year after year, I read about them, ask friends about how they relate to them, and slowly find a way to fit them into my spiritual cosmos. And I’m not the only convert I know to shake my head during the lulav parade at Sukkot and say, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
I’m sure it was a relief to my parents when I remained someone they could recognize after all this “Orthodox mishegosn” (as my father called it). Contrary to their fears, I did not drift away, cease contact with them, or stop eating in their house. I think I’m very much what I once was, with some major and some minor changes. Judaism has added the richness of community, wisdom, life cycle events, and important character development to my life. And it has taken away some of the loneliness and isolation I have felt in the past, and directed my search for meaning in a way that has borne unexpected fruit. As difficult as it is sometimes (and sometimes I imagine what it would be like to live in a seaside Tel Aviv apartment and eat cobb salad and pepperoni pizza), I wouldn’t really want to go back. And slow as it is to settle in, I have my whole life.