Friday, November 12, 2010

Rule #1 of Conversions: You Can't Hide that You're a Convert

You cannot hide that you are a convert. Whatever their reasons may be, I've known many converts/conversion candidates who adamantly felt that it was no one's business if they are converts and that no one has the right to ask them if they are a convert.

That's all well and good, but they're still going to find out, so every convert needs to get used to admitting to being a convert and create some canned responses to common questions. Almost no one will ever ask, "Are you a convert?" It's much sneakier than that, not to mention almost always completely innocent conversation.

We've discussed Jewish Geography before, and those conversations will be your downfall if you don't want to talk about your conversion. They always start innocently enough, trying to locate people you know in common. But then it gets more personal:

"Where'd you grow up?" ...  "Oh, there aren't many Jews there! What's the community like?"

Umm...I wasn't involved in the community.

"So you weren't religious growing up?"

Nope, sure wasn't. I started going to synagogue in college.

"Well, what were your parents raised?"

This is the question that'll get you every. single. time. I'm luckier than most. My parents were atheists and I had no religious upbringing, so I sound like any other Jewish kid raised by secular parents. Most converts aren't this lucky. After all, the last answer you want to give is "Southern Baptist." Once you do, the gig is up and you are exposed as the convert you are.

Every once in a while, when I say my parents are atheist, the determined person will ask "Well then, what were your grandparents?" This is relatively unusual, but sure to expose just about every convert in America.

Other questions that lead towards self-exposure include:
Where is your family from? Translation: "Which little shtetle in Europe does your family come from? Maybe we're related!" Yay for Ashkenazi assumptions!
Where was your family during the war? Translation: "How much of your family died in the Holocaust? Let's share war stories!" More Ashkenazi assumptions.
Why did you start going to synagogue/getting Jewishly involved? This one is a toss-up. It could go nowhere or expose you for what you really are. Dun dun DUN!

In summary, Jews like to talk about being Jewish. And that means they're going to ask you questions about your Judaism, and there's an approximately 75% chance that they're going to back you against a wall and make you admit that you're a convert. Get used to it and start coming up with canned responses that you feel comfortable giving to a complete stranger.

Once the cat is out of the bag, 95% of those conversations will then turn to how awesome you are for converting and detailed stories of every single person they know who has converted. Approximately 3% will result in a confused face and the question, "Why would you do this when you could remain a gentile and not be bound to all these laws?" And the other 2% will be rude, condescending, or abruptly end the conversation. Your mileage may vary.


  1. Great post! I have had the parents question asked more than once.

  2. Mazel tov on your conversion - welcome to the tribe! And you are correct - we Jews (you too, and me) just love to talk and write about being Jewish.

  3. It's different if you've converted young, and grown up Jewish. It also helps to have some ancestors who were Jewish, as well as grandparents from Europe.

    I never thought about it before, but being able to play Jewish geography makes things much easier. Almost no one knows my story, and it hasn't been too difficult.

  4. Good post.Thank you for sharing it. It is hard to turn the tables because FFBs, unlike American Christians aren't used to themselves having to answer the question, "when were you born (again)?"

    From the way you think I would say, we are lucky to have you join us and at times enlighten us.

    Mazal Tov.

  5. Fascinating post. I've found that the further to the right of the Jewish spectrum, the easier it's been to dodge. I say my parents are unaffiliated. I smile when my maiden names elicits confused looks (it's a nothingish last name, not jewish, but not overtly not-jewish, either). I offer very little info, and I'm generally assumed to be a BT. It helps that I "look" very "Jewish" (whatever that means), and have thankfully assimilated very well into frum society.

    However, I've found that I've been "outed" much more frequently when I've interacted with Jews who are much more culturally Jewish than religiously observant, and even more of the MO crowd. I can't explain it, but for some reason, the frummies leave me alone more, don't ask as prying of questions, or take my subtle hints to lay off.

    I've lived in this community for three years and have only been outed twice, and neither of those times were with an FFB. And my closest friends don't even know.

    Lately, though, I've wondered why I should go to all this trouble to remain vague about my past. It's frustrating to not be able to connect with other converts since I'm so busy "keeping my secret." I guess I'll go ask my Rav....

  6. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    Yet another advantage of living in Israel is that, among Israelis, anyway, the population is so diverse most people will never pick up that you are anything other than American, an will inevitably guess that you're Ashkenazi. "Cultural" American Jews assume you're another long-time expatriot, especially because I can whip them at the cultural Judaism game anytime.

    Unless you want to tell, and then people thnk it's cool. I mean, we've accepted everyone ELSE into the melting pot...Religious Zionists are especially accepting. Secular Jews, once they figure I'm not a "crazed fanatic", whatever that means, have been accepting.

    Personally, it's become a point of pride that people who meet my kids rarely guess that their parents are American. They are blonde, and a lot of their friends happen to be from religious Russian families, so they are often assumed to be Russian.

    My son went to a summer camp in Chicago, and conned people into thinking he was Latvian for a good while.

    Eldest daughter attended a religious Zionist boarding school, where friends said she looked Russian, but cleaned like a Moroccan, and had a Moroccan temper. Parents of Sefardic friends often askd if she was Tripolitan, because the Jews from Tripoli tend to be blonde, and she just "seemed" Sefardic.

  7. When those sort of questions start coming at me, I usually blurt it right out. Which tends to throw most people for a loop, and out of that line of questioning.

    And if I feel the reason for those questions aren't necessarily for the right reasons, I tend to follow that up with, "I opted in. So, why are YOU Jewish?"

  8. Thank you, good advice but depends on your community!
    Personally, I have stopped saying "I'm converting" unless I absolutely have to tell people because about 50-60% of the time the response is negative. I mostly get strange stares and the person will never talk to me again except condescendingly, such as pointing out obvious things, like that Jewish boys have brit mila, even though they can see that I know how to pray, dress, eat kosher etc. This is pretty humiliating to me when done in front of other people and makes me stand out in a bad way. Not a good idea when you are very hard trying to become part of a community and attract those friends your Beth Din wants you to have, as evidence of integration. In addition, it has provoked people to assume that I'm doing it for a man and talk openly about my supposed boyfriend (who doesn't exist), which again is not the kind of gossip you want your rabbis to come across (not that I assume that they listen to gossip but hiding a boyfriend would be a pretty bad thing to do).
    Only on about 2% someone actually seems impressed. The rest are ok with it which is fine.
    On the positive side, I will now not have to be close friends with people who think it's ok to treat converts differently/worse because I will know this about them before we become close friends (since they will stop talking to me). In the future I won't have to marry a man who's superficial enough to not want to marry a convert, regardless of her qualities as a person. If I was born Jewish I would want to screen out people with such attitudes and now I don't have to.
    But I would say, in any case, that one should be careful with the information one reveals. It's ok to be selective with close friends but you don't want to live a life where people look down on you and unfortunately in my community (which I have to live in now for the conversion but hopefully not later) you will be looked down on for being a convert. Therefore here it seems to be a common rule not to disclose that information and in fact a rabbi has adviced me to not be so open about it for that reason as well. So in conclusion I would be careful in some communities!
    Thank you for the great blog, by the way.

  9. Sarah,

    "On the positive side, I will now not have to be close friends with people who think it's ok to treat converts differently/worse because I will know this about them before we become close friends (since they will stop talking to me)."

    I was born Jewish but for reasons that are none of anyone's business, my Hebrew name is the same as my father's a'h (and no, he did not die before I was born, and yes, we are Ashkenaz). I know I have just met a jerk when someone I meet starts telling me how unusual my name is or asks the reason why my name and my father's are the same. I know I have met an incredible jerk if he persists after seeing that I do not feel obligated to discuss it with him.

    I used to resent it but now I that realize what an early warning system it can be, I view it as an opportunity.

    As an aside, if someone wants to set a woman up with a Kohen, knowing whether you are a convert becomes very relevant. But there are ways to ask and ways not to ask.

  10. So I've figured that instead of letting people make me uncomfortable when they ask me, I just end up beating them to it with a blatant "Yeah, I started going to this synagogue because I'm converting..."

    but it's really weird to go through the whole story of "Yeah, so my dad's maternal grandparents were Jewish and then they converted to Catholicism and so my dad's mom was Jewish but raised Catholic, but then she became Protestant when she married my dad's dad; I went to the JCC for daycare, but I went to a Presbyterian church, but then my mom sent me to Catholic school for 8 years, and then after being agnostic for a while, I wanted to become Jewish"

  11. Remember your kabbalat mitzvot, including the mitzvah to not remind a convert of their past. Doesn't this preclude you from casually engaging in such conversations even about yourself?

    1. No, it doesn't. To my knowledge, everyone agrees that a convert may discuss his or her past however and whenever s/he wishes without violating this mitzvah. After all, that's OUR LIVES. It's a major part of my history and the events that have happened to me. I should edit my history and hide it? Would you be able to edit a past marriage out of your life? Or a parent or a bout with cancer? My story will always include non-Jewish holidays, treif foods, and other misadventures that were perfectly permitted to me at the time. I do not and will not amputate my history, nor does halacha ask me to (probably because the rabbaim knew it was impossible!).

      Also, the mitzvah is not clear cut (surprising, huh?). There are several major interpretations of it, and probably an infinite number of individual interpretations.

  12. Sorry. My use of proverbial 'you' and 'doesn't this' conveyed an incorrect context. I am not making a statement. I am asking a question because I do not know. I did not mean one hiding their past as a deception. One of the motivations behind the mitzvah is not shaming a convert. Let me ask in a different way. If a convert feels persecuted, should they conceal their conversion?

  13. I have no problem admitting I'm a convert. I've only gotten positive reactions.

  14. Whenever faced with the question signaling the next round of "Jewish Geography" with me as the next contestant, I just look out of the corner of my eye, smile a slow, sly smile, and articulate: "The details of my life are quite inconsequential...."