Thursday, November 3, 2011

How Jewish Geography Will Trap You

Many converts want to live in peace with their Jewish history unquestioned. For converts able to physically "pass" (aka, those who are white or Middle Eastern or otherwise of "vague" ethnicity), it's easier to blend into the born-Jewish community. However, even the most "Jewy-looking" convert can be "outed" by Jewish geography. Even if you are very open about your history, there is always a day when you will not want to discuss it, or you will encounter a person you don't want to discuss it with. 

If you want to avoid being trapped by Jewish geography, you have to know your enemy and consider your answers in advance. When caught by surprise or without a prepared answer, you will say precisely what you will regret later. One such conversation is profiled here

So what topics are most common?
Did you grow up religious?
Were your parents religious?
How and where you became religious.
Where your family is from. (before America, England, wherever)
The Jewish community (or lack thereof) in the place where you grew up.
The Jewish history of the places where you've lived. (You should learn about this.)
Jews who live in or near the places you have lived.
A sneaky tactic: your family members' names, either first or last. (Example: I had a Shabbat dinner ice-breaker "What were your grandparents' names?" meaning first names and how "funny" and old lady-ish/man-ish they are.)
Questions about survivors in your family or what your family did during "the war."
Where some physical trait comes from. (Example: "Where does your red hair come from?" or "Green eyes are so rare in Jews!" If you learn about Jewish communities worldwide, you will inevitably find a culture that has the trait. For instance, my red hair comes from German heritage, which can certainly be Jewish.)
If you are an ethnic minority, they'll could come straight out and ask if you converted or if your mother is Jewish.

How do you get out of these conversation traps? If you have baal teshuva-like answers (as I do to many questions), you can be honest if you want to and the person may believe you were born Jewish. Maybe you choose to give short, non-committal answers...or maybe even to flat-out lie. Personally, I wouldn't consider it a "bad" lie to give the "correct" answer to someone who is being pushy and isn't taking the polite answers. Halachic opinions may vary. Another technique: throw out the "really interesting" facts in your story as early as possible to sidetrack the conversation. For example, I can usually derail any conversation by stating that the "Jewish boyfriend" who started me down this path is Scottish. That leads into shock that there are Jews in Scotland and a discussion about the Scottish community. This is why you should learn a lot of Jewish history and the status of any current community that has even the vaguest connection to you. It allows you to deflect the conversation away from you without looking like that's what you're doing.

What are some polite ways to decline these kinds of questions? Feel free to add your suggestions to the comments!
"I'd rather not discuss that right now." Then change the topic.
"That's kind of private." (This one can come off snooty or rude, so be careful. However, it can be a "gentle" warning to back off when someone is actually being rude or inappropriate)
"That's not something I like to discuss [in public]." (Optional: "Maybe we can discuss it in private later?" Or "maybe we can step over here and talk about it in private?")
"I don't like to dwell on the past." Then change the topic.
"I don't think this is the place to discuss that." (Again, use sparingly and only when really deserved.)
Turn the question around on the person or ask them a different question. (Example: Take a bite of food, make a surprised smile, and say "I'm sorry, but wow, this egg salad is amazing, what's in it??")
Turn the question around to ask a third person something. Preferably, don't deflect the question to an unsuspecting stranger who might be in the same boat! Alternatively, you could open a question/topic to the group as a whole. (Example: "That's a great question! What do you guys think?")
Excuse yourself to the bathroom, to refill your drink, or to get more food.
If you're feeling fiesty, you can give a TMI answer that scares the person away from any other personal questions. Beware of this backfiring, especially later gossip.

My personal favorite if someone is giving "advice" or chastising you for something dumb: "Thank you for your input." You can choose to add things like "I'll keep it in mind" or "I'll take it into consideration" as the situation warrants. Smile, and then walk away. This takes a lot of self-control, but it rarely burns bridges you may want later. That is particularly important when it is a stranger...who may turn out to be your rabbi's mother or your boss' husband.

However, this whole post, and the assumptions behind it, beg the question why converts feel the need to hide their religious history. That is a post for another day soon. 


  1. Comments on physical appearance seem like thinly veiled fishing to me. I know plenty of blond, blue-eyed, green-eyed, red-haired Jews. This whole "what Jews look like" thing is ridiculous. And potentially offensive to boot.

    I like your "really interesting facts" strategy. Nice one.

  2. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    I used to be pretty dodgy about my roots; as you said, it can be pretty easy to give baal teshuvish answers. Nowadays though, a) I have accumulated my own Jewish geography and b) I finally feel secure enough to drop the bomb more often than not. Also, conversion is a lot more commonplace and accepted among Israelis than it used to be.

  3. I'm upfront about it. I'm converting and if you ask about a history I don't have I don't mind telling you about the one I *do* have. Most people are curious about why, especially when they find out there's no significant other in the picture. I haven't had anyone be rude, but they can be a bit thoughtless ('Oh, I didn't think you looked Jewish') and have a habit of outing other converts ('David over there is a convert!'- because we all belong to a secret club or something and want to be able to know each other? I dunno). It can be trying at times, but it's harmless and I take it as such. But I'm also not converting into a community where my status can have a huge impact on my life. If it made the difference between fitting in and not, I might feel differently. I'm getting to the point where I'm able to play Jewish Geography at a first-grade level; I figure the longer I'm around the more people I'll meet and the better I'll get at it.

  4. Blue Star: I disagree a little bit with the point you are making in this post as well as the previous ones because you are seeing things a bit in black and white. Jewish geography is not mandatory to trap you and you are not obligated to disclose anything about your background. There are more meaningful ways to answer without having to tell anyone you are a convert. You made it seem like you would end up telling people you are a convert but I think that if you don't want to tell anyone about it, you don't have to and this can work too. You don't have to sit and answer to anyone and explain yourself. A person can say I'm a Jew and that's it. Jews come from many places, and in many shapes, forms, and colors. So there is no feature or detail about your life that is a mandatory requirement to lead the other person to question you. if they question you, you can question them for questioning you on your Jewishness when you have not questioned their own Jewishness. And you can tell that to people: If I didn't start to question your Jewishness, why are you questioning my own? I am a Jew, regadless of the details, and end of story. That's what I would say. Yes you have to have the chutzpah to tell people this out right. but if you don't know Judaism enough and you make an argument that's going to sound really really goyishe, then don't wonder people will question you. On the other hand, if you have not converted yet, there are also ways not to tell people about it. No one can force you to tell them what exactly you are doing. You can say there are some things that I talk about only with my Rabbi or certain people. Or you can say I don't like to judge people in terms of where they are coming from, so I have a principle that I don't give my biography just like that either because I feel people should treat me based on my middos and my choices rather than for other things we cannot chose. And you can also say you know people like to make judgments based on where others are coming from and put people into categories, and I don't agree with such things

    1. Originally posted: November 4, 2011 at 12:12 AM

      Who is blue star? Being Kochava, I'm guessing you mean me?

      There's a key distinction you're missing and that could make you more enemies than friends: I said Jewish geography will trap you, not the people. Most questions are totally harmless and meant to be small talk, not "out" someone. They're just trying to get to know you, and in the Jewish community, that means knowing something about where you come from (in the broadest sense of the phrase). 9 times out of 10 (especially with people who "pass"), the questions are just polite conversation and they're expecting boring answers. Then they're surprised when you actually give interesting answers, so they want to continue the conversation just like any person would do when they're enjoying a conversation. But every person has a different tolerance for what crosses the line of politeness (and halacha), so inevitably, someone will misjudge. That doesn't mean they have bad motivations by asking the question. (And everyone has moments when they stick their foot in their mouth by asking a good question in a stupid way!)

      Of course you don't have to "disclose" things about your background, but refusing to discuss yourself makes for a pretty boring conversationalist. I don't think that's a fine line 90% of the time.

      In my opinion, the suggestions you give are assuming bad (or at minimum, prohibited) motivations. I think that will be judging most people unfavorably (and without grounds for it). In short, why go for the jugular when no harm is usually meant and there are less drastic (and more polite) methods available? Also, even people who are nosy or rude by nature will often back off with a subtle rebuff/reminder of how polite society functions. There is no need to violate the halacha yourself, which I think your suggestions could do in many situations.

  5. I usually get around Jewish geography once I tell people I am initially from Buffalo, since almost no one knows anyone in Buffalo. The community there is teeny. I'm not sure I have had anyone ask for my mother's/father's name. I usually can get through a whole meal without the convert thing coming up if I don't want it to. :)

  6. The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

    "This whole "what Jews look like" thing is ridiculous. And potentially offensive to boot."

    Indeed. I look around and I see lots of blondes, redheads, people with green eyes...

    Really. As if our criterion for "looking Jewish" were "Der Sturmer".

  7. I have no real issues disclosing I'm a convert if need be, but being Belgian in America TOTALLY saves me from a lot of this. People ask where I'm from, I say Belgium, they ask where, I say 'about an hour from Antwerp' and they usually leave it at that, considering Antwerp is the number one Jewish hub in Belgium. It's funny because in American terms, an hour is totally not far (and an entirely plausible distance to grow up at as the child of presumably secular Jewish parents) but in Belgian terms it's the other side of the world. It just amuses me. I like your suggestion to find out about the Jewish history of places where you've lived - it certainly helps!

    That said, eh, I don't care a great deal if people know I'm a convert or not. But I do think Jewish geography is fascinating.

    This is Lies, by the way. Just explaining the mysterious 'L' :D.

  8. Blue star: I was not referencing you in particular, but you can reference yourself with it too. I only started with that word so I differentiate myself from the other anonymous people.

    What makes you think halacha would be breached? it says in the halacha that if one is doing a certain mitzvah one can be exempt from doing another mitzvah. so that's how it goes with introductions too. my philosophy is not to give information about me and that's my way in which i do a mitzvah. if others are curious whether in a casual or more nosy conversation, and they ask their questions, i don't think a convert or wanna-be Jew is obligated to answer every single question out there. people tend to ask you things in a casual way because they want you to answer them. they want the information when they suspect that you may not be a born Jew and such and so obviously they'll be really sweet about it to get you to tell them. and i personally am not going to tell them whether they like it or not, and if i were to do an aveira doing this, then i can live with that. i have other mitzvot to compensate.

  9. "...beg the question why converts feel the need to hide their religious history."

    Well the answers can be quite simple. In some of the frummer communities "yichus" is everything. People don't want their in-laws to be goyim. They don't want the "problem" of keeping the grandkids away from the grandparents treif-eating-X-mas-tree-having homes where yichud and negia problems abound.

    In many other communities, it is often about color/race/ethnicity/whatever. People zoom in on (swoop down upon) converts "of color" and I can tell you this from much personal experience. They automatically suspect you're a convert and set out on a mission of confirm as much. It's interesting to see the dichotomy of super awesome people who are so sweet and welcoming, and the often far too many others who just stare at you and or ignore you altogether. Jewish Geography becomes the Game From Hell. When you don't know what people's attitudes are towards converts, and you've been burnt umpteen times, you get cautious. I think this all settles down if you can manage to get married.

    Lastly, you may not want to open the floodgates that come when people play Jewish Geography with converts. Once people find out your background, ie: once you let on that you are a convert, you get peppered with more questions, and people, often knowingly, even admittedly queue up to ask you to tell "your story" OKA "What mad you decide to convert?" or "Why Judaism? Are you crazy?!! I wouldn't do it!" etc, etc, etc. People will tell you, "I know you must get this all the time..." It gets old fast as you spend half your life explaining "your journey" to perfect strangers. No fun.

  10. You guys should watch this video on this topic. Pretty funny. Indian Jewish comedian talking about this exact phenomenon.....

  11. Converts, don't worry. The whole shul interrogates you too if you are a Baal Tshuvah (A Jew who was raised non-religious and is now becoming observant). We used to kid that every time you went to a new frummies house for a Shabbos meal that you should just bring a print out of your curriculum vitae and a detailed timeline of you and your families movements since 1800. Just walk in the door and hand it over because I promise you they are going to interrogate you to no end.
    But I really like the suggestions from this blog. I think the best way to avoid the Jewish water torture treatment is to just switch the conversation to that week's Torah portion. At least that way, you have learned something.

  12. Ha, no problem for me. I came to the USA from Mexico over 20 years ago, but have a rather non-Mexican last name, so whenever those questions arise, I give them the "I came from Mexico a long time ago, and yes, there are quite a lot of Jews, especially in Mexico City, which is where I am from." They stop asking in less than a heartbeat and smile nervously. Touché!

  13. Jews are the most judgy people EVER. The life of a convert is SO difficult.