Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Answering "So When Did You Convert?"

Kindly curious person or a nosy yenta: "So when did you convert?"
Me: "Uhhh...that's complicated."

I have the feeling I'm not alone here. Do you get confused or defensive or tongue-tied when someone asks when you converted?

It sounds like such a simple question, but it's not. I feel like the date I converted ignores the years I spent in the community (and learning) before the actual dunk in the mikvah. Which conversion should I measure from? What about the fact that my conversion was delayed for a long time because of school, and I would have converted earlier if the circumstances had been different? I worked with two orthodox beit dins, so I could measure from starting with either of them. I'm sure each of you could ask similar questions about your situation.

It was really hard to give a simple answer in the first two years. I felt like saying I had converted 6 months or a year or 2 years ago would give someone the impression that I'm a Jewish n00b. Since most people have more experience with baalei teshuva, who measure their time by when they started the orthodox journey, I worry that others will subconsciously understand my "timeline" in that way. If I measured that way, I'd have 11 Jewish years under my belt! Baalei teshuva have similar measurement problems and can face the same underestimation of their Jewish knowledge. Unfortunately, when I was honest with the short time answer, people did sometimes assume I wasn't as knowledgeable, which just reinforced my defensiveness at the question. Isn't it disappointing when people do just what you were afraid they'd do? I wish I could be comfortable enough in my orthodoxy to not feel defensive sometimes, but I don't know that that'll ever be in the case in America. And it is noticeably worse when other stressors are present, such as health challenges, a death in the family, depression, and other times of anxiety and stress. At those times, I know to be more careful with how I answer these questions. Know thyself to avoid getting in more trouble than you can handle, as they say.

This conversation continues to be a work-in-progress for me, despite the opportunity to try out new answers at least once a week for several years. (I'm very open about being a convert and talking about conversion things, if you didn't know that already!)

I'm at the third anniversary of my conversion, so I'm beginning to feel less defensive about the "short" amount of time since my conversion, but it's still there a little. (But again: how to measure the anniversary? I got the good news in December 2011, but it was January 2012 before the rabbis came back from Israel and we could do the mikvah! Yet most applications ask for just a year, and I feel like I lose a whole year of "my Jewish experience" if I write 2012.)

So what's my best practice so far? I usually say how long I've been in the orthodox community or when I started being interested in Judaism. Or I make the complications of the question clear. Here are some sample answers I've given, based on the situation and the people involved:

  • "Well, I've been in the orthodox community for a total of 9 non-consecutive years, but I finished my orthodox conversion 3 years ago."
  • "Which conversion? I've got two." (Be ready for an hour conversation if you say that.)
  • "I became interested in Judaism and got involved in the orthodox community when I was 19, and I'm 30 now."
  • "That's complicated. I started getting involved at 19, and I'm 30 now, but I have two conversions. I don't think the date of my orthodox conversion is an accurate way to measure my time in the community."
  • "That's complicated. I finished my orthodox conversion 3 years ago, but I've been Jewishly involved for 11 years." (I really like the phrase "Jewishly involved.")
  • "That's complicated. You could measure it in many ways: when I entered the community, when I decided to convert, when I officially started the process for conversion, or when I completed the conversion. And that's even more complicated because I also have a conservative conversion!"
These conversations have always gone well, but I still feel tongue-tied and caught off guard. I always hope that the next time will be easier, but it inevitably isn't.

Unfortunately, these answers aren't the best for someone who, for whatever reason, wants to minimize his or her conversion and/or not open the door to more personal questions. Or if you simply don't have time right now. So what might you say in those situations? Remember that your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice conveys a lot more than these words ever could. Try not to make the person feel like a jerk, even if you think the person is a jerk.
  • "I'm sorry, but I'm running out the door. [Optionally: Maybe we can talk about this another time.]"
  • Along those lines, you could invent a reason to leave: "I'm sorry, I just remembered that I left the oven on/have a meeting. I'll see you later!"
  • "Oh, look at the time! ..."
  • "That's complicated. Could you hand me the potatoes/book/child?" or otherwise change the subject.
  • "I'd rather not talk about that right now, sorry."
  • "I'm sorry, I don't like to talk about this publicly. [Optional: I'm happy to discuss privately some other time.]"
  • "That was a pretty emotional part of my life, do you mind if we don't discuss it here/now/ever?"
  • "I'm sorry, that's not something I'm comfortable discussing right now." (Be prepared for potential pushback because a date is just a fact, right?)
  • With a smile: "Let's talk about something else!"
  • "I don't want to monopolize the conversation..." / "I don't want to keep you from your work."
  • Likewise, if this is a side question, steer the speaker back to the main conversation.
  • Introduce the speaker to someone else nearby.
  • Just say the date of a conversion and move on.
  • Ignore the question altogether and start a new topic: "That reminds me! ..." Insert funny story or interesting fact.
The key: if you said you need to do something else, remember to actually do that something else. If you end the conversation by saying you need to take a phone call, don't stop 10 feet away to chat with someone else.

Often, you'll feel "trapped" in a situation, whether it's the Shabbos table or a guest at your friend's house. Changing the topic of conversation is your friend. Become a Judo Master of conversation manipulation. It's truly an art form. Watch how others do it and learn from both the good and bad examples. I found some more good advice in a very short YouTube video from Howcast [1:06 minutes]. 

These skills will serve you well because they're the same skills we should use to avoid conversations that involve lashon hara. Maybe practicing these conversation-steering tactics in such a personal area will improve your ability to successfully apply them to potential lashon hara without embarrassing the person speaking. If doing this in a conversation about your conversion is an art, then doing it with potential lashon hara is a masterpiece.


  1. Conversation steering is useful on so many levels! I love that you included those tips.

    I also usually include the amount of time I spent in the community essentially "living the life" when I calculate how long I've been frum. Maybe with time it will be a less contentious (though not necessarily less invasive) question for you. I'm at the nine year mark, and while that still only makes me, what, a third grader? It's a long enough period of time where I feel comfortable with my place in the frum community.

  2. Another simple answer: "I became frum in college" -- or whenever else it was that you became Orthodox interested/affiliated.

    Asking when a conversion was done is like asking someone when the last time they visited the mikvah was. Actually, that is what they're asking...

  3. https://conversiongirlblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/some-things-to-think-about-before-committing-to-an-orthodox-conversion/

    Conversion is tough! Some things to consider. It's scary to think the questions still come after you have converted. Are the questions any deeper than this? Does anyone ever question your Jewish validity?

    Peace Out