Big Tent Judaism

Gershom Gorenberg

Thank you, Aliza!

Because Aliza commented recently on my latest post on conversion, I discovered her blog, Memoir of a Jewminicana. As she tells, she’s a first generation of Dominican descent, and an Orthodox convert to Judaism. She writes softly and powerfully about that experience, and I wish a lot of people born as Jews were reading her.

Much of what she blogs is about the dissonance of converting: She loves the faith. The Jews, however, can be terribly unwelcoming. She’s not talking about the kind of Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbinic court judge who’s already ready to reverse your conversion. She’s talking about everyday Jews who can’t get straight that not everyone who’s Jewish grew up in their neighborhood, with their grandmothers’ accents, with their mothers’ advice (what a polite understated word) on what can be talked about at the dinner table, and with their skin color.

Here’s a piece from one recent post, called The Worst Guest in the World:

…I told one guest at a wedding that I realized too late that I’m never going to look like any of the other guests no matter what I wear. I’ve been to more than one wedding where someone has commented on how “tan” I was in the middle of winter. I’ve worn a head scarf to weddings and gotten lost in the sea of sheitels and fancy hats. I’ve since learned that doing so was like announcing my status as a religious hippy, not the truth: that neither a sheitel nor a fancy hat would fit over my afro that day. And after receiving one wedding invitation, I remember crying at the bottom of my closet feeling intensely shallow for having nothing to wear, nothing in the right shade of appropriate black.

It took several trips to Macy’s later and several boring black dresses before I realized I was never going to blend in. The more I tried to fit in, the more I didn’t. It took several Hispanic waiters at different weddings approaching me curiously to ask if I was also Hispanic for me to realize that I was never going to be cast in the part of nice, Ashkenazi Jewish white girl. I was going to be different no matter what…

Now nearly my first response to this is: Aliza, they’re not making you feel bad because you don’t know the rules of Jewish social culture. They’re making you feel bad because they are extremely provincial, and they think that their  precise patterns of what to cook and what to wear to a wedding and when to hug and what to say at the dinner table are “Jewish,” given at Sinai, when in fact, those are the customs of third-generation New York Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazi descent.  Lady, as an ex-Los Angeles hippy who never learned how to tie a tie, and who still combs my hair with the ‘fro comb that Alice, the secretary at Legal Aid, gave me when I was 15, I’d be as out of place as you are in that circle.

On the other hand, I live in a place where Jews come in all colors, where most of them cook better than the Ashkenazim (not that that it takes much; hell is a place where the cooks are Ashkenazi) and where everyone has their own custom about when to kiss on both cheeks and when to hug. Maybe you should be in Jerusalem.

Because actually, my very first response was to your comment here at SoJo about “converts who want to be Jewish but it seems will never be accepted as Jewish.” To which I say: Lady, you are one of us. Family. Anyone who says differently, just got disinvited to our party. You are welcome at Kehillat Yedidya. (Within 10 minutes, everyone will want to know where you stand in the political debate raging in our congregational email forum. But that’s another story.)

Actually, reading Aliza I realized that in the arguments about how much potential converts need to learn about Judaism, the elephant in the shul, the blinking brontosaurus in the shul, is standing with her eyes down shyly getting ignored. What we need a lot more of – are my old rabbinic friends listening? – what we need is education of the other Jews about accepting converts. About how Abraham stood at the door of his tent with his eye out for guests, and about Boaz so blown away by Ruth’s lovingkindness that he can hardly get out the words, “May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge,” without choking up.

Rabbinic friends, you should be teaching classes to the people who grew Jewish, and using Aliza’s blog as a textbook (Remember textbooks? They came before pdf files on the teacher’s blog, and they were printed on paper.) You should be teaching Daddy Avraham’s Big Tent Judaism.

Just one thing, Aliza, before I go: That post about nappy hair. Do you get hassled by other Jews about your hair? I mean, did everything positive about the 60s get repealed since I escaped America? Have Jewish boys gone back to trying to flatten their nappy Jewish hair down, even though it always ends up looking like a corrugated roof slapped slantwise across a shanty? Have parvenu Jewish mothers gone back to taking their daughters to Harlem to get their hair straightened, as my friend Anne Roiphe describes stunningly in 1185 Park Avenue? (The hair fell out afterward. Really.) Who do these folks thing they’re kidding?

Thank God for Alice. I was a 15-year-old kid from the ‘burbs volunteering for the summer at Legal Aid. The first morning she looked at my hair, asked me only thrice if I was sure I knew my ancestry, and then went out and got me that long comb, and showed me how to use it, and how to never say “frizzy.” So the next fall, in the high school locker room, while Joel next to me tried to bear-grease his hair as if he were ever going to pass, I just whipped mine outward. Thank you, Alice!

More on conversion and Jewish identity:

Rabbis v. Jewish Tradition: More on the Conversion Crisis

Who Am I to Say? (Occasional Advice)

American Prospect: Burden of Proof

New York Times Magazine: How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?

5 thoughts on “Big Tent Judaism”

  1. I am actually a little surprised by this idea that Aliza is unwelcome by Jews (generally) because she doesn’t fit the mold. I can see how in a particular community, that is, orthodox Ashkenazim in New York she may be atypical, but this is by no means the case by and large.

    I come from a large Hispanic-Jewish (Ashkenazi) community in South Florida. Down here, my background is pretty typical, and growing up going to an Orthodox Jewish day school, I felt alienation, but not for my dark complexion or slanted eyes. I am from conservative-Jewish parents, one an American convert and the other a first-generation immigrant from South America. In this community, it was never my hair, skin or bilingualism that made me different. It was my American father’s status as an outsider, and my own attendant questioning nature when it came to matters of religious conviction. I was never convinced so whole-heatedly of the rightness of Israeli foreign policy or the specific ritual practice acceptable in this particular group. This made me more of an outsider among friends than anything else, because there are too many others like me in background and appearance to make that the crux of my alienation.

    An irony to this whole discussion is this: my sister took after my convert father in being tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. She had a more difficult time fitting in as a typical Jewish girl than I ever did on account of her appearance.

    In every community, Jewish or not, there is some typical look. But even within the American Jewish community, there is a wide variety of different groups with very different backgrounds. What looks typical in one city might not be in another. I agree with your (an Aliza’s) point about Jewish acceptance of converts, Gershom. It is something that reflects poorly on our community and our values, and it bears significant re-evaluation.

  2. Very good post. Hola Aliza!

    And I have won some measure of Latino status since I live in Israel. (That was unknown to me before, everybody knows that Argentina is a country in Europe).


  3. An important post. Spread the word(s).

    The subtext of the statement I often hear among my orthodox friends — “s/he is a convert” is all these and worse: Horrible. Cruel. Ignorant. Wagon-circling. Other-izing.

    And, the answer is a resounding NO to your question, “did everything positive about the 60s get repealed since I escaped America?”

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