Tag Archives: Jewishness

Judaism, the Convert, and Identity

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.

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Accidental Chametz

Well, it’s the first morning of Pesach and we’ve already had a chametz fail in the House of Jordan.  R. came over to sign tax forms (blech, April 15), and I offered him breakfast.  Eggs or cereal.  A perfectly fine offer if it weren’t the first morning of Passover.  He poured out cereal.  I then freaked out and realized what I’d done.

Oops.

This year's seder.  Photo credit C. Matheis.  http://oughtornot.net

This year’s seder. Photo credit Christian Matheis. http://oughtornot.net

I’m starting to think that the annual Passoverification of one’s home isn’t as much about the ritual cleaning of the home, which strips it of any leavened product, as much as a way to force yourself from doing exactly what I just did:  forgetting it was a special week of our year and offering chametz to the first unsuspecting victim.  It forces you to start the week acknowledging it’s different and special.

In case you missed it in Sunday School or didn’t learn about this in high school or college, the story of the Exodus hits its climax when the Egyptian Pharaoh allows the Israelites to leave Egypt and head home.  Of course, this happens with little warning and everyone must flee immediately.  The story goes that they left so quickly that they did not even have time to let their bread rise before baking it.  As such, Jews now eat matzah (unleavened bread) during Passover and strip their homes of chametz, or leavening.

By strip, I mean a top-to-bottom cleaning of the home to remove even a crumb of chametz.  It’s kind of like spring cleaning and sets you up for the rest of the holiday cycle.  In recent years, I’ve gotten kind of lazy about it.  Passover hits right during crunch time during the school year, and frankly, I can’t often afford to give away (or G-d forbid throw out) all of the chametz in my home (This is a cool tradition btw.  You’re supposed to get all the bread, flour, etc. out of the house and either burn it or donate it to a needy family.  Nice!).  Sometimes, I’m responsible enough to put it all in a bin and hide it for the week.  But no, not now.

I found this awesome resource about the history of the cleaning out of the chametz that says even better what I’m feeling this rainy morning:

In cleaning for Passover, we are first and foremost fulfilling the mitzvah of biur chametz — getting rid of chametz. Biur chametz is actually quite an easy mitzvah in terms of physical exertion. The Torah says: “tashbisu se’or mibateichem” — make all your sour dough rest. The Torah commandment is that you can possess all the chametz you want, but in your mind it must be dust — ownerless and valueless.

Now obviously we are dealing with something subtle and vague. What goes on in your mind, no one knows except you and God. It’s quite easy to think you have considered everything “null and void,” when in truth you can’t wait for Passover to be over so you can partake of all those goodies!

So the Sages instituted a requirement to physically destroy chametz. This mitzvah is known as bedikat chametz. The Sages say it is not enough to emotionally write the chametz off as “dust”; you must actually search out any chametz you can find — and physically destroy it.

(from http://www.aish.com/h/pes/l/48970611.html.  Ironically, aish means “bread” in Arabic…)

So I learned the hard way why the bedikat chametz is so important.  I fully plan to get my tuchas in gear next year and start doing this correctly again. Lesson learned.

In close, may you have a blessed Passover.  Chag samach, y’all.

“Are you still going to be Jewish?” – Or, “This isn’t ‘Nam! There are Rules!”

I should start by saying that if anyone needs to freak out on this blog post, please do it here on WordPress and not on my syndicated statuses (I really don’t want a Facebook avalanche).  I’m sure there will be some Big. Shock. on some of your parts by the contents herein.

I visited my grandmother in Baltimore yesterday.  I was in town in preparation for a trip out to the Left Coast today (I’m typing this on the plane next to two lovely new people I’ve just met.  Tyler Durden would be so proud).  It was the first I had seen Gramma since announcing my divorce to my family and close friends (if you’re just now learning this, sorry.  You may be my close friend and I just forgot…  Yes, I’m fine.  No, I don’t want to publicly talk about it), and to say I was apprehensive to see her would be an understatement.

I’ll admit it; I’d chickened out and hadn’t told her myself (I made my father do it…).  My grandparents were married 49 years before my grandfather died, and having only been married 2.5 years, I’ll admit I was a bit embarrassed to admit to her that I had failed.  Of course, being the good grandmother she is, she hollered at me for thinking she wouldn’t understand and told me I had her full support.

But one of her questions did blindside me:  Are you still going to be Jewish?

Too much Passover for one hand.

Too much Passover for one hand.  2009.

I suppose it’s a reasonable question on the surface.  My partner and I converted together (along with my wonderful friend E.) about four months after we got engaged, so I could see how it would seem that I had converted because of him.  But her question got me thinking: how many people in my life 1) think I’m Jewish because of my partner (and if this is a lot, how bad am I at communicating?) and 2) do not understand how conversion to Judaism works?

These questions kept me up last night.  Seriously.  I’m an instructor of religion, after all, so what do I do with all this nervous mental energy?  Start composing a blog post in my head at 3:30 in the morning (on my cousin’s couch, between superhero sheets, like a BOSS).

Some things people should know about converting to Judaism (NOTE:  this is from a Reform/Liberal POV, so it is, of course, liberally biased):

  1. The rabbi will not let you convert if they think you have been coerced in any way.  Meaning, you cannot convert for someone.  It must be your choice, and the choice must be made freely.
  2. Many people do convert when their intended spouse is Jewish, but in many Reform (and some Conservative) marriages, conversion isn’t necessary.  For Orthodox couples, both partners must be Jewish.  In any case, it still must be the choice of the convertee and not the partner.
  3. There is an education process associated with conversion, which gives you time to change your mind if necessary and to make sure you fully understand the new life you are choosing.  This can vary in length depending on the denomination and the impetus behind conversion (I’ve heard it as few as six weeks in the event of an upcoming wedding and as long as 18 months).
  4. Part of your vows when you convert (in front of a beyt din) are to live a Jewish life and to raise any children you have as Jewish and to forsake all other previous religious vows.
  5. When you convert, it is not an individual experience.  Three other Jews have to stand for you (the aforementioned beyt din).  The ceremony is public.  Your community becomes your family.  You take on the entire history of the Jewish people as your history.  The Holocaust, the pogroms, the Inquisition – all of these historical events happened to your people.  Your rabbi makes absolutely sure you understand this.

And what about my conversion?  I will not go into the details of why I chose to convert, but I came to the decision separate from my partner.  I had been contemplating this decision since high school but did not convert until October 2007, due to moving around and trying to find the right temple to take classes.  Classes were monthly, taking place over the course of one year.  In addition, I had to attend services weekly to make it through one entire festival cycle.

Torahs are really heavy.  I don't recommend strapless dresses.

Torahs are really heavy. I don’t recommend strapless dresses.  2007.

When someone converts to Judaism, they take on a Hebrew name.  This is the name one is called to the bema, or altar, with, to say prayers and to read from the Torah and other books.  If born Jewish, your parents choose your Hebrew name, and you are “that name the son/daughter of their names” (so if I were to use my English names, I would be Holly the daughter of Michael and Cynthia.  As a convert, I was given the parents Abraham and Sarah, the de facto parents of all converts.  I chose the name Devorah after my Aunt Debbie, who has always been incredibly supportive of all of my school, religious, and life goals.  Now that I am changing my name back to my maiden name, I had considered taking Devorah as my middle name, or second middle name, but it doesn’t quite work with Holly Jordan.  And Dr. Holly A. Jordan just looks smashing on a door.

Being Jewish with my partner, who converted in the same class with me (again, because he was already on that path and not because of me), was a blessing.  Knowing that I would raise Jewish children in a Jewish home was an important part of my relationship.  I will not say that relationships cannot work out with different religious traditions (all my Cashews prove otherwise, and I’ve got some Jain-Hindu and Muslim-Jewish friends, too), but having that support, and having a Jewish wedding and life, was always important to me.

But no, my new life doesn’t mean an end to my Jewish identity.  My Jewishness is my self, not my relationship self.  I think I’ve been Jewish since my father brought me home my first menorah from a yard sale (or since I realized that Old Testament/Hebrew Bible stories are WAY more fun [and less redundant] than New Testament stories).

If nothing else, the tumultuous events of the last several weeks have led to a rededication to my Jewish life.  My first Friday alone in my apartment, I took down my candlesticks and kiddush cup for the first time since I moved to Blacksburg and welcomed in Shabbat (with my sad little Stouffers veggie lasagna and bottle glass of wine) with my dog.  I felt more in touch with my Judaism than I had since my wedding.

So will I still be Jewish?  Yes.  Could I convert back or to something else?  Absolutely.  I have that ability as a human being.  But the process of conversion ensures that it is a decision that you do in fact want.  I am Jewish.  Nothing will change that.