Today, I take a short break from dissertating and finishing the road trip blog (yes, I know I’m three weeks late and 2 days of trip behind… I’m having problems with the GoPro footage) to bring you some thoughts I’ve been having about race, identity, and Judaism in light of the Rachel Dolezal coverage.
I can’t speak the motivations, thoughts, and aspirations that led Dolezal down the path she has taken the last several years. And frankly, plenty of other people are weighing in on those sorts of issues. What I can speak to is the kind of personal questions her story is making me ask about my own identity.
I’ve spoken before about converting to Judaism on this blog, so I won’t rehash those details. What I instead want to focus on is one’s identity once one converts to Judaism.
Part of our religious lives as human beings is the history we inherit from our family members. And I can give you dozens of such stories about my family: from stories my dad has told me about getting Easter suits to the history behind each of the Christmas ornaments my mom’s parents bought for myself and all of my cousins each year to the hour upon hours of my own childhood spent rolling and mixing cookies with my Baltimore cousins in December. And I will gladly tell any children I may have these same stories.
However, these are the stories connected with my formerly Christian identity and my family history. The stories of my Jewish identity, while plentiful and fun in their own right, do not stretch past my own lifetime. In a religious tradition where history is so linked with identity, being a convert to Judaism leaves me at least feeling somewhat bereft of history and traditions.
I’ve talked to many of my convert friends about this feeling–like something is missing or, even worse, like we’re “faking it” on some level. We don’t have years of camp memories or a menorah we inherited from a family member. On some holidays, even years after our conversion, we still struggle to sing songs that, if we were raised Jewish, would be second-nature to us. Our hearts are Jewish, but our cultural memory is sorely lacking.
For me, my first Passover as a convert was a pivotal moment in this search for a Jewish identity. Would my fiancé and I be serving rice and beans as part of our seder? Were we instituting Ashkenazi or Sephardi rules in our house? And for what reason? I brain-agonized over this for a while. My family history is that of Western Europe, so… Ashkenazi? I’ve actually traveled and studied in the Middle East and have (barely) learned some conversational Arabic, so… Sephardi? And those of us who convert often joke about which identity we get to “claim” (most of us go Sephardi because, let’s face it, a Passover without rice, corn, or beans sounds like hell), but the jokes really cover up a feeling of emptiness.
The beauty of conversion is that one chooses their religious identity–that one becomes Jewish because it the religion that speaks most to them. But there is a comfort that comes from inheriting tradition that we did not realize we took for granted prior to conversion, from the little things we did in our pre-Jewish lives that we did not realize were so much a part of our identity.
For instance, I had a Christmas tree in my California apartment this year–the first Christmas tree in my home since my conversion. Hanukkah bushes as a general rule annoy me–Hanukkah has plenty of its own beautiful traditions without having to co-opt the Christmas tree, too. And yeah, I do get it. Christmas trees have absolutely nothing to do with the baby Jesus and any sort of truly Christian symbolism. But in my brain, you can’t separate the two. But my partner (also non-Christian, I might add) grew up with a Christmas tree and decorations and mentioned missing having them in our apartment, so I picked up a small rosemary plant and some lights and baubles and set it up as a surprise.
I didn’t realize how much it would hurt, not because I felt like I was betraying my Jewish identity in any real way (Again, I totally get that a Christmas tree is a pagan symbol brought into Christianity. It’s not like I set up a manger scene in my living room.), but because I didn’t realize how much I missed the ritual of decorating a tree. And yeah, I do get that warm, fuzzy religious feeling from lighting my menorah and setting up my seder plate, but I don’t have the memories of a childhood of doing that to meditate upon as I do it.
What I’m trying to say, incredibly longwindedly, is this: for the last week or so since the Dolezal story broke, the story of a woman who went great lengths to take on an African-American identity, both internally and externally, I’ve been asking myself if I am any different as a convert to Judaism? I say prayers I believe in with all my heart, attend services with other Jews, and identify with Jewish culture and literature, but I was not born/raised Jewish. If (and I say a huge if here because, again, I really don’t know enough about the situation to pass any judgements) Dolezal has anything to feel/be guilty for, am I guilty of the same things?
So I’ve reached out in various ways to other converts I know. And we’ve all kind of come up with the same answer: the difference is in transparency. When you wish to convert, you make your intentions known to the community. The entire conversion process is very public. First, the rabbi introduces you to members of the community as one seeking conversion. Then, you go through classes, some of which include members of the temple/synagogue who are there to instruct you on ritual, practice, Hebrew, or any other number of things. You publicly attend services and eventually, you stand before that congregation stating your intentions plainly. And once you have converted, it is considered a sin for anyone “born Jewish” to remind you that your ancestors were not Jewish (basically, you are to be treated as if you have always been Jewish). You are not barred from any part of Jewish life after your conversion; you are as Jewish as anyone else. This sort of transparency seems to be lacking from Dolezal’s story.
Judaism is a religion. There are cultural elements, there are ethnic elements. There are last names inherited in some traditions, and there are dietary traditions. Judaism is far more than the books of the Tanakh and the Talmud. And conversion to Judaism is accepted by the community (though I can tell you that more than once, the other Jews in my life seem baffled that I would convert).
As a convert, I have had to learn to navigate these elements, and sometimes, in incredibly weird ways, I’ve had those moments of “passing” as a lifelong Jew. I remember inviting people to my conversion, and having one of my Israeli friends be shocked to find out that 1) I wasn’t Jewish already because 2) I “looked” more Jewish than her (I still can’t even tell you what the second half of that means). And with the last name of Jordan, I’ve had Jews go 50/50 on whether or not they consider Jordan to be a “Jewish last name.”
But I’ve never lied about my convert status, even if it supposedly is a sin to remind me of it. I have never and would never enter a new Jewish community and lie about having a grandparent who survived the Holocaust or claim an Israeli family members that did not exist. I don’t create a narrative of participating in childhood Purim spiels or fake knowing prayers I don’t actually know. This would be an insult both to my tradition and to my loving family who raised me with their own traditions, holidays, and prayers–family members who have been beyond supportive of me on this journey. My cousins, aunt, and father, for instance, held a Hanukkah meal for my ex-husband and I years ago, asking us to bring a menorah and say the prayers so they could learn about who we were. And if my mom or dad ask me to help put up Christmas lights, you better believe I will.
I guess what I’m saying is this: identity is fluid. I don’t feel comfortable making decisions on where to draw the line on that (in Dolezal’s case, the conversation has gone from can one be transracial to whether or not she has been performing the equivalent of blackface to whether or not she should lose her professorship–and I feel in no way equipped to answer any of this), but in any case of identity, and maybe this is my background in religious and ethnographic studies talking, I do believe that transparency is key.
I’ll admit it: I do sometimes feel that I’m not as Jewish as someone who grew up in the tradition (and I wonder if others see me that way). It’s a pretty shitty feeling, and one I know I shouldn’t have. I worry about what being a stand-alone convert (one without any sort of Jewish heritage and without a Jewish partner) will mean for raising children to feel any sort of connection with a Jewish identity. And then I remember all of the Jews in my life who have welcomed me into their homes and lives and realize that any kids I may have are going to have plenty of adopted aunties and uncles that will spoil them rotten (Singer, I’m looking at you) and give them the kinds of Jewish role models that helped shape my own religious life.
I’ve gotten really far away from Dolezal, I know. Like I said, this post was going to be about the things her story has made me consider. Frankly, this TL;DR post is going to end in aporia, mostly because I still don’t really have any answers. If nothing else, talking about her story with other Jews-by-choice has helped me remember both that I’m not the only one who has these doubts and that I’m incredibly grateful for a religious community that is supportive of my entrance into their tradition.