Conversion is Private

I was taught that you never ever out a convert. Even if everyone knows that so-and-so converted, it is a sin to point it out to anyone.

I just received an invitation to a Tea (read: fundraising event for an educational establishment that already gets most of my money and then some) that is being held locally. Of course there is a guest speaker as there usually is.

The minute I saw GIYORES (translation: female convert) I saw red. That’s how you introduce someone? I did google the speaker and her bio is very open about her spiritual journey but yet I find it distasteful that it’s printed on this very pretty invitation.

So, heinous or harmless, folks?


51 responses to “Conversion is Private

  1. How do you know that the speaker herself did not come up with that wording?

  2. If she approved it, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s part of her selling point I’d bet, that she is proud of the fact that she converted. Many are not and want to keep that private. If she’s not one of those people, I guess that’s per prerogative.

  3. Sarah Klinkowitz

    I sincerely doubt that. As a convert myself, I would never ever primarily, or firstly, introduce myself in that fashion. I am always Sarah Klinkowitz, wife of DH, mother of 3 DCs…and maybe after like 100 other things, MAYBE mention that I am a giyores and yesoma. MAYBE.

    Hadassah, I would seriously consider contacting the organization that is hosting the tea and telling them they are being incredibly rude. Even (by some reason) the speaker doesn’t care..its is still awful.

  4. In general I HATE it when anyone is referred to as a convert–or BT for that matter. But in the case of people who speak about their lives and geirut, I can understand how they might want to be introduced that way to emphasize that they’re speaking from experience. So I would say “not heinous” if the speaker wanted that description, although I still don’t really like it.

  5. I hear where you’re coming from, and probably would have bristled at the invite as well. However, since she is a public figure, and is open about her background, it may even be a possibility that she would bill herself this way. Being in the public eye has a way of bringing otherwise private information, such as one’s spiritual journey, to the forefront. It may even just be business, as it could be an influential factor in people coming to hear her speak, etc. There are many well-known converts who have spoken about their stories, and thus it comes to be an identifying factor for them.

    My inclination is that it’s more harmless, but it’s hard to say without asking the speaker first, I guess.

  6. I agree with those who say it’s harmless because it’s probably part of her selling point & what makes people interested in hearing her story. It also helps her make a parnassah by lecturing & sharing her story. I think one is not supposed to point out that another person is a convert if it is meant to hurt them but in this case it is to publicize the speaker’s event & most likely has been done with permission, I would assume!

  7. Harmless. I hope to someday work the circuit discussing issues Of conversion. He undoubtedly uses this as her marketing point.

  8. It must be her spiel, all based on her story. Many of my convert friends go through phases when they like telling their story and then just want to be ordinary Jews. What’s the topic of the talk?

    • I’m going to guess from the bio that her talk is on conversion, otherwise there really is no reason to mention it. When I give talks on other issues, I really don’t necessarily mention that I’m a convert. But no, it’s not harmless unless the person states that this is something she does for a living and that all converts don’t have to feel they HAVE to tell their stories or WANT to tell their stories and the halakha forbids you from asking anyway.

      • Converts and/or Jews-by-birth like me, who are not white, are rarely treated like “ordinary Jews.” When we are, it’s spectacular and we are grateful.

        Converts in general, if their conversion is public knowledge OR especially if it has been made public knowledge by someone else (I know many converts who have been attacked as liars because they didn’t tell anyone that they were converts after years of being friends), are also often always treated differently. I’ve had converts come up to me and tell me I am very, very brave for telling me story, referring to myself as a convert and speaking about the topic. As many who have sent me hate mail about not really being Jewish, being a dumb Dominican or Hispanic fake and slandering my husband and his family.

        Hence, many converts are rarely treated like ordinary Jews unless they are surrounded by true stellar, wonderful Jews like the people responding to this blog. In fact, I plan to send this to other converts who are going through challenging times so that they can see that very every schmuck that .mistreats them, there are many more Jews who are awesome!

        People hear the word convert and they assume the person converted yesterday and knows nothing. I know converts who were converted just after birth, who are rabbis, rabbi’s wives (check!:). I always tell people that they know more converts than they are aware of and they would be surprised if every convert in the world “came out.”

        I am proud of being a Jew AND a convert. I will always be both. (Unless, I can every fit a sheitel over my head daily, which my friends think is eerie because when I put one one they think I stop “looking Dominican” and just look like any Ashkenazi Jew with light tan! Ha! Kidding, but that’s what they said!)

        I am proud of the road it took me to get here and how different it was from that of many but also how similar it was to others. I love being reminded that I am special and not to special at all. When I told my cousin I had discovered other Dominican Jews all over the world, he said, “Oh, my G-d. I thought you were like the rare white panda!” Well, I’m not.

        I am also proud that being a convert connects me to a tradition that goes all the way back to Ruth and connects with not just converts and also BTs, who sacrificed so much, including family and friends and jobs and things they never imagined they could, just because they wanted Judaism more than anything else in their lives.

        So, Jewish & proud. Convert & Proud. But mind your own business. 🙂

        • I’d like to note that Aliza’s comments about converts and/or born Jews of color almost never being treated like other born Jews is a problem in the Orthodox Jewish world, but in my experience, it is not an issue in the Reform Jewish world. In my experience in a number of different Reform communities, it hardly ever comes up. Everyone is treated the same, including, in our synagogue, families of mixed color.

          • I’ve experienced racism and poor treatment as a convert from all denominations.

            • RubyV –
              I’m sure it happens everywhere. My point was that it sounds like it’s systemic and common in the Orthodox world, at least in Aliza’s experience, but in my experience it is neither systemic nor common in the Reform world.

          • Unfortunately, as a Black woman I was asked by security in the shul I converted at if I was a nanny. This is the lace I went every week for class and sometimes twice a week to meet with rabbis. At another shul It was assumed that I worked at a shul-during oneg (someone asked where to put their dirty plates). These are two prominent reform synagogues in Manhattan.

            I think you’re lucky Susan. I know a lot of Jews who are racially and ethnically diverse who literally have to psych themselves up before going into a new shul.

    • What convert wants to be normal? 🙂

  9. Heinous! Even if she is comfortable identifying that way, it is inappropriate to identify her that way on an invitation.

    I feel the same way when I see someone identified as adopted or adoptive parents. It doesn’t define who someone is and shouldn’t be used as if it does or could.

    If she wants to open that door as the speaker because it’s germane then fine, but not on the invitation.

  10. If she is speaking specifically about conversion at this event, then I can see it as being appropriate – part of what makes her an expert on the subject is her own experience. Otherwise, I’d say it’s in bad taste, and may make it harder on converts who just want to be treated the same as anyone else (as they should be).

    • Susan, most likely the lecture will be about her journey to Judaism & many converts do like to share their story with others. I’ve heard an amazing speaker speak about his journey from being a Pastor to becoming an Orthodox rabbi among converts who have told their stories to inspire others.

  11. She probably had a hand in the wording herself. When I’m speaking about my conversion and/or my life story, the materials always say that I’m an Orthodox convert.

    Even when I’m speaking about other topics, I make a point to write it down on the list of “things about me” since it will usually come up. (People, honestly, feel betrayed if you don’t tell them outright, they feel they have a right to know. More on that below.) People find converts inspiring. That’s why convert/speakers put it in the front lines. But usually, my name goes first and a whole bunch of other things about me, convert is only listed as part of my bio. But that’s because I make a LIVING talking about conversion and my own story and other related and overlapping issues.

    However, this is completely different than when I am at the Shabbos (day of rest, not working!) table and someone thinks I don’t “look Jewish” (Eastern European) though I certainly am dressed modestly, acting Jewishly and sitting next to my husband, The Rabbi and then this person or people start interrogating me, asking my maiden name, asking WHERE I AM REALLY FROM and everything possible to get me to say I’m a convert until they can no longer take it and DIRECTLY ask me (IN FRONT OF THE WHOLE TABLE) if I converted or if someone in my family converted or if one of my parents isn’t Jewish. Then G-d forbid, I appease them and ask them to move on, and they decide to further interrogate me making me and everyone at the table uncomfortable.

    This is no longer talking about my conversion as an educational or inspirational tool or even to help other converts. Like when Latinos identify each other, “Hey, I’m Mexican, are you…?” Converts kinda do the same with each other or, having been interrogated before, similarly wait until they can talk to the person one-on-one. This is very different because it’s a sharing of similar information as opposed to an interview/interrogation/spotlight situation all thrown into one.

    These aren’t people who recognize me from my blog or writing. These are just nosy-bodies who feel “one of these things is not like the other” and it’s there job to OUT THE CONVERT and then INTERROGATE the convert further to make sure they are fit to be at the table…even when the table isn’t theirs. I’ve been interrogated in my own home, at my best friend’s home, at my in-law’s home. And I’m pretty open. If you actually WAITED, it would probably come up!!!! But yes, you are not only outing me, you are embarrassing me, you are ruining my Shabbos, you are INTERROGATING me in what should be a SAFE SPACE about something really personal that I only discuss when I’m speaking or when I want to help or explain (educational tool) and going as far as asking who my rabbi is (the newest question!) so you can decide whether or not I’m JEWISH ENOUGH to talk to. You’re breaking a lot of laws all at once.

    For a lot of converts, especially of color, this is how people play “Jewish geography” with them. I’ve literally had people ask me everything I learned after I mistakenly mentioned who converted me to quiz me and make sure that I properly learned what I learned and AGAIN, am FIT to be a Jew at the table. And it never stops until I decide to leave the table. And no, it’s rarely done in a nice or curious way. It’s done in an outright cruel, hurtful, “you don’t belong here” way. My friend, a white convert surmising the situation once as it happened to me, said “It’s like the SPANISH INQUISITION all over again!”

    I had one incident where it was done in a curious, not meaning to be hurtful way, trying to get information for a different issue by a guest but because it was done again PUBLICLY in front of a table full of people I didn’t know, I responded gruffly that that was personal information I didn’t feel like answering. The hostess later refused to ever talk to me again and told me I had embarrassed her guest.. She, as a born-Jew, refused to see my side and told me I had issues dealing with this issue.

    She wasn’t a convert and her husband had converted as a child (different thing altogether). I had walked in for a Shabbos meal and had no idea that before I arrived for the meal everyone had talked about how one of their spouse was a convert and suddenly, after “Hi, hello,” I was being asked a super personal and what I feel is a particularly heinous question because so many people believe people convert only for marriage. And I refuse to answer questions asked from this stereotype because it has been used to shame so many of the people I work with and so many of my friends.

    She asked me “Did you convert for your husband or did you convert for yourself?” before asking my name, where I was from, what I did for a living. Everyone knows I converted by myself as a single person but I know many married women or women in couples who definitely converted for themselves as they had to drag their Jewish spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends kicking and screaming with them to shul throughout the whole process!

    Later, I explained this to the husband of the hostess who refused to speak to me EVER AGAIN that if the woman had pulled me aside and told me that she had a boyfriend who was considering converting, I would have offered her guidance but I refused to answer a question, in a room of more than one stranger that is often USED AGAINST converts. I also would have explained this to guest as an aside if either of the hosts had stepped in on my behalf and said “Why don’t you girls go talk about this elsewhere?” or “I don’t think that’s how you mean to phrase it. Why don’t you ask her about your situation?”

    My husband who has done many talks about conversion ALSO felt that it was very badly played. I was attacked for embarrassing someone when I felt that I was the one who was embarrassed, outted, and EXPECTED by everyone in the room to answer their question because as a convert I had no right to privacy on the issue.

    We want to be treated like any other Jew/Shabbos guest. Even if you know us from our blog about conversion, we don’t necessarily want to talk about “work” or our conversions at the Shabbos table. We don’t want to constantly have to educate people on our right to privacy even if we do frequently talk about our conversions. There are red lines and we are allowed to have boundaries. More so, unless, WE announce that we are a convert and EVEN IF we do, nobody has any business making us “the Shabbos entertainment” as so many times I have been made to feel as have so many people i know after which they were never invited again for a meal and didn’t want to feel because they felt DIRTY and on the spot about sharing PERSONAL information about themselves with people who didn’t really know them.

    Are we ashamed of being converts? No. But we know that we live in a community where people don’t want their children marrying us or our children (converted also or born Jewish), where people will always doubt us or question us or wonder whether we did it for the right reasons. We know that in many circles, we are outright freaks because as people tell us, “If we’d had a choice to be Jewish, we NEVER would have converted!” so you wonder what is wrong with us! When we wonder the same about you! Despite the fact that we are supposed to be treated as full-fledged Jews, we rarely ever experience this unless we hide our background. Again, not because we are ashamed, but because we don’t want to know how our dear friends would react. Because we know deep down inside that they would treat us differently. No, just because you met one convert who wanted to answer your question doesn’t mean that we ALL want to answer them. It’s PRIVATE. It’s PERSONAL. It’s our right to share or not share the information since after all, we have to share it all the time on documents if we want to make aliyah, if we want to send our kids to school, if we want to do X, Y and Z in the Jewish community and we have learned quickly that many of you view us as second-class citizens and we we explain our suffering, you think we are whiny though you haven’t walked a day in our shoes. You weren’t told that you’d be 100% Jewish but that you’d be “tested” or asked everyday by your fellow Jews about whether or not you’re REALLY JEWISH.

    Do’s & Don’ts of Talking to Converts:

    • I feel the exact same way, thanks for writing this.

    • This is very well put and sums up my feelings exactly. I get these questions a lot. “Did you convert for your husband?” No, we’re converting together, with the children. “Why would you do this? Did he bully you into it? Did you bully him?” and on and on and ON.

      I always end up telling the questioners “It’s not my job to be your After-School-Special-Teachable-Moment.”

    • One very helpful phrase, “Thank you for your interest, but I prefer not to talk about this right now.” Then change the subject.

    • Aliza, since you write and talk about your conversion, it may be harder for people to understand that when you’re with your family at a Shabbat meal, you don’t want to talk about it. Sort of like the lawyer out of the office?

      Many of my Shiloh neighbors have converted. Generally, they tell their stories a lot in the beginning and after that, no need, no curiosity. After years, decades of being Jewish, it’s old news, no matter what their racial features.

  12. Jeffrey Sultanof

    I am repeatedly ashamed of my fellow Jews who continue to harass those who truly want to be Jewish, no matter what color they are or what their background is. Even when I was going to Hebrew School, conversion came up in class and the Rabbi said that he didn’t do them, because the only people who wanted to convert were doing it for marriage. I was appalled. Why would you deny someone who wanted to embrace and practice the Jewish faith and make a Jewish home? And yet this happens to people all over the world, particularly to people of color. I would think that we as a community would welcome anyone who showed even the slightest interest. One year, I went to a Seder where there were people of all races and many religions, and the host calmly explained the rituals. Everyone there was quite moved; those that were not Jewish came away feeling that they were being welcomed. I just don’t get it when people are just plain rude.

  13. Living in the Montreal orthodox community one is surrounded by converts, BT’s and FFB’s. All seem to get along. I found the community to be very open and loving towards all of these different individuals because what we share is our attitude and way of life.
    In Brooklyn, the experience has been very different. Here, due to the sheer size of the population and differings of opinions something or someone different can be seen as a threat, or more commonly just as an oddity and therefore makes people uncomfortable. Thankfully, we go to Rabbi Twerski’s Shul, from Denver and he is a warm, accepting and open Rav who has been involved with conversion for many many years. Seeing black, spanish or white converts is no biggie and the shul is generally excited and welcoming to these individuals or couples.
    Converts are people with a usually fascinating story of how they came to the realization that the Jewish idea of G-d is the ONLY G-d. This is an incredible transformation for a person who could 1) practice any other religion freely 2) ignore all religion freely 3) they go through an incredibly stringent process to convert. (if they made it through that, they are TRULY more Jewish than a ‘born to the faith Jew’.
    I applaud and respect practicing converts greatly.

    • Z! I couldn’t have said it better myself. I feel exactly the way you do! I think it’s amazing when someone CHOOSES to become an observant Jew. I grew up that way so for me it’s just the way of life that I was accustomed to but for people to choose it on their own, even though it is a religion with so many commandments, stringencies & obligations is ALWAYS impressive to me. I also want to mention to Aliza Hausman that when people doubt whether or not they would also choose to be Jewish if they weren’t born that way, it doesn’t mean that they think you are a freak for doing so, but rather they are most likely amazed & impressed by your decision & they doubt that they would have the GUTS to do what you did. At least that’s the way I feel!!

  14. Okay, the spelling “giyores”
    instead of “giyoret” just screams “yeshivahish” to me. Having taught in both modern schools and Beis Yaakovs I can tell you that yeshivaish schools come down more openly on ANYTHING they percieve as a “difference” and so must QUALIFY it if they “allow it”. This does not mean that this sort of behavior does not go on in other Jewish venues because it definitely does, but perhaps more subltly, and it would be unlikely to headline an event unless explicitly requested. While I do not officially know the speaker involved, I would also assume that the title was done with their blessing. As to offense at it, if someone here knows the speaker perhaps they can get them to personally weigh in on their feelings on open-ness, public speaking etc, but I definitely agree with what Jeffrey posted above. There is no excuse for rudeness. There seems to be a screaming lack of manners or perhaps halachic education out there.

  15. I am an out and proud convert, I always tell people that I’m a convert because I’m proud of the choice that I got to make to become Jewish. I don’t expect that all converst feel this way and I respect everyone’s opinion about if they do or do not disclose.
    I’m comfortable answering questions about my process (clearly, I write a blog about it) when the questions are coming from a place of sincerity, rather than a place of ignorance or trying to figure out why I don’t “look” Jewish.

  16. I was very impressed when I read in a bencher that it was printed by soandso ben Avraham Avinu.

    It impressed me, because soandso obviously was proud of being a Ger. Perhaps this is also the case for this lecturer…

    PS: this is the first time I hear that one should never “out” a ger. What I hear around me is that everybody is “outing” gerim, preferably behind the person’s back…

  17. While I’m not so sure I would go so far as to say this is ‘heinous’, I would say that it sends a bad message. Perhaps this speaker had a hand in designing the advertisement, perhaps she did not. But even if she did it still sends a message that it’s okay to be public about somebody being a Jew by choice when it is not. A Jew by choice has a right to his/her privacy. As Aliza pointed out, when she is speaking to an audience about her story, she is careful to tell them that just because she is openly sharing her story for educational and inspirational purposes, its not okay for people to get the impression that they can then go and ask any convert they might know or meet all about their personal stories. A Jew by choice might keep their personal story very private, others might wear it on their sleeves, but it is their choice to divulge personal information if and when they are ready to do so. And, lets face it, there are a lot of negative attitudes and politics surrounding conversion right now that is unfortunate and unprecedented in Jewish history. Because of this, we need to be all the more sensitive to the Jew by choice and his/her right to privacy.

    • “it still sends a message that it’s okay to be public about somebody being a Jew by choice when it is not.”

      The problem with this public/private question is that it amounts to “to the face vs behind the back” i.e. even people who think that one does not speak “publicly” over the Gerut status of others will say so privately without a problem, and in Shidduchim it will come up anyway.

      This form of being discrete is very hard to live for many Gerim, since things are being said behind their backs, and they have no control over it, they are not even informed.

      So if the real alternative was “not to out, no matter what” vs “outing”, I would opt for “not outing”. However, in reality the alternative is “outing privately vs outing publicly”, and in this case, I prefer public over private, because I hate those “behing the back” things.

  18. It all depends on whether that’s how the speaker herself identifies. If she does identify proudly as a convert, it’s not up to you or anyone else to tell her she shouldn’t. While I absolutely agree that no one should ever out a convert against their will or without their permission, I think in some ways hewing so closely to this standard means that being a convert has become something to be ashamed of, which really shouldn’t be the case.

    • Just to clarify because I don’t think I worded the first part of my statement very well. When I said, “it still sends a message that it’s okay to be public about somebody being a Jew by choice when it is not,” I didn’t mean to sound like I was saying it’s not okay for someone who is a Jew by choice to be open or public about themselves. It certainly is. I only fear that when people see something like this invitation so publicly announcing this person as a convert, they will not understand that perhaps it was the intention of this particular person to be very open, but not every Jew by choice will want to be. If, because of this misunderstanding, they ask a convert about his or her motives for conversion etc.., thinking that its perfectly okay to do this, then they run the risk of possibly embarrassing or even offending such a person without really meaning to. I know many Jews by choice who are not at all ashamed of the fact that they converted but don’t want to always be berated with questions about very personal matters.

  19. Many people have stated that it is okay for the invitation to include this information as long as she provided or approved it. But it’s not okay, because the reader does not have any way to really know if she did or didn’t. That’s why it’s fine for her to share the information in a speech, or over coffee, or at the Shabbos table, but it’s not okay for others to do it – not one on one, not when arranging Shidduchim, and not in the invitation to an event.

    • Kathy, it’s OK b/c it’s her parnassah/livelihood & if they wouldn’t advertise that, she may not have a large turn up at her speaking engagement which probably would not be in her best interest.

  20. Aliza is correct. Not harmless and until you walk as a convert who feels their soul was @ Sinai although they were raised another religion, it can be infuriating to be questioned especially by someone you do not know or in a public setting. It is this speaker’s responsibility to speak for her own experience and advise that her audience of halacha. For anyone who asks me I always add the side note about not embarrassing someone even if they don’t show it :-).

  21. What bothers me about the poster is that it has the same ring as “See the three-legged lady” billings for freak shows. Those freak show people also made a living by displaying themselves, but there is still something indecent about the way people paid to gawk at them. The poster for the convert could have given the same information in a way that would have shown more respect and treated the speaker less like someone who is seen primarily as being different.

    I’m a convert, but I prefer to be thought of as primarily a Jew. And I do have a conversion story that I have shared with a number of people, but there are some Jews with whom I wish I hadn’t share my story because although they do not react negatively, it is clear that they see me as fundamentally different from them, not sharing the commonality of Jewish identity. “But do you *feel* Jewish?” they ask me in disbelief. I think that the poster introduces the speaker in such as way as to promote that kind of attitude.

    As an analogy, wouldn’t you think it rude to go around introducing someone as having been adopted even before you knew anything else about them? It’s a similar situation: there is nothing wrong with being adopted, and some adoptees feel special because of the lengths their adoptive parents went to in becoming parents, and some have inspiring stories about their adoption, but most adoptees don’t think it is the most important thing about them or that it is information that needs to be shared with anyone they meet.

    To the Jews who tell me “If we’d had a choice to be Jewish, we NEVER would have converted!” sometimes I feel like telling them that because of attitudes of people like them, I wish I had been a Jew by Birth and it’s too bad that we can’t trade backgrounds.

    I want to mention that I agree with Aliza that a convert’s own story and is not something for someone else to share. Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that just because they think it is really special that someone is a convert so they see it as a good thing, that it is therefore OK to tell other people about it. I remember wanting to crawl under the table when I was at a (MO Jewish) wedding not long after I had converted and my friend, the groom’s mother, came over and announced to her good friend whom I had been talking to that I had converted. She did it in a way that was full of admiration, but it made me feel embarrassed. And it was absolutely not relevant to the two of us—the friend was telling me that her 20-something son and the daughter of my friend had been friends for many years and the mothers hoped that they might realize that they would be well-suited as spouses. Her son was not interested in marrying *my* daughter—then my Jewish status would indeed be relevant. I was very relieved when the friend didn’t bat an eye and when the groom’s mother moved on, she continued our conversation as if she hadn’t heard, never asking me about or referring to my conversion.

  22. I also grew up being told that you never ever ask a convert about their past or ‘out’ them. I still try to follow those rules, even when it’s hard because i’m really curious about someone’s story. So it’s always shocking to me when someone describes a person as “so-and-so the convert”.

  23. I’m out as a convert and since I converted later in life, my spiritual journey bears directly on who I am. Conversion was the culmination of a deeper path. I have been in the community for over 20 years and either people knew me from before or they want to know why it took me 20 years to cross the street (literally!) So I may be less sensitive than someone converting in their 20s or 30s. It also reduces the Jewish Geography questions. Generally I find positive responses.

    In my synagogue converts, if they grant their permission, are introduced publicly to the congregation, the meaning of their Jewish name is discussed and the rabbi states that they are fully Jewish tracing their spiritual heritage back to the beginning and then are congratulated. I’m not as subject to scrutiny as a rebbetzin and I’m not in the marriage market, so the repercussions are less. I liked that it got it out of the way and will be old news. But my community is fairly accepting and not all are.

    But I would have no trouble saying, “I’d rather just enjoy Shabbos. Maybe we could talk at another time.” If I made my living at it I might invite them to attend my next (paid!) lecture where they could hear about it. I must say that I like Aliza’s placing of the information down on the list better than the invitation you cited. And I also like that she is upfront about it not being appropriate to out other gerim unless they volunteer the information. I hope the speaker addressed that in her talk.

    • Since I am ethnically Chinese, in a Jewish venue most people automatically assume I’m a convert (or non-Jew, which I feel is not giving a person the benefit of the doubt). However, years ago when I was scouting out grad schools, I visited the Hillel at the University of Texas at Austin, where one young man assumed that I was a Jew from Kaifeng, China (although due to intermarriage and loss of religious knowledge the current members of the community are only descendants of Jews and need to convert to become Jewish). At that same Hillel event, the students started singing Jewish children’s songs with hand motions and a young woman was puzzled when I said that I wasn’t familiar with the songs because I did not grow up Jewish (and I had not yet learned the songs from raising Jewish kids). I guess she had not met a convert before and it had not occurred to her that there could be Jews who had non-Jewish childhoods.

      Nearly everyone (except for the newer members) in my small lay-led minyan knows something about my conversion story because they knew me as an involved participant for many years before I converted. At the first Shabbat service at my minyan after my conversion, some people asked me some questions, and one member who is the wife of a rabbi member told me that after that day she would never speak about my conversion unless I brought up the subject and that I should know that it was forbidden for Jews to remind a convert of his/her non-Jewish origins, so it was my right not to be bothered by people asking me about it. This woman has a tendency to be intrusive in her dealings with others, so I know that it is probably hard for her to follow through on that, but true to her word, she has never brought it up again. And neither has any other minyan member after that one day, except in one special case: That was when our minyan was visited several times by a young Jewish man and his non-Jewish girlfriend who was thinking about converting. When the Chair found out about their situation, she introduced me and mentioned that I had been a non-Jewish participant in the minyan for years before I converted, in part so that they would not feel that we weren’t welcoming even if the minyan policy is that non-Jews cannot be official members. And then later she me asked if it was alright that she did so, and I assured her that I was glad that she did introduce me to them. Since the first Shabbat after conversion, in my minyan, the fact that I converted is only seen as one of many aspects of my background, with about as much importance as the fact that I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

      Last Shavuot, I presented a session about the story of Ruth and conversion in Talmud at my minyan’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot. In general, I don’t mind if people sometimes ask me about my conversion as long as their questions do not imply that they are questioning the validity of the conversion. “Was it Orthodox?” or “Who was on the Beit Din?” are two questions that I have been unhappy about being asked. And I have been annoyed on a few occasions when visitors to my minyan or people I’ve met at other Jewish events have peppered me with too many questions, many of them somewhat personal, about my conversion. I’m not very good at giving people the brush off. I think I need to have some prepared responses for those situations.

  24. Rachel @ Eggs In A Row

    To me, this is similar to referring to someone aa the adopted child/mom of…At one point, that was relevant, but now they are just their child/mom, just like a convert is a Jew. Right?

  25. It bothers me as well. The problem is even if this woman self-identifies as a convert and generates parnassah from the marketing aspect of this….that still doesn’t make it right. It is like how almost all African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century truly believed that they were inferior to White Americans (because of the overpowering and pervasive message perpetuated in American society at that time that Black people were inferior human beings, just a step up from monkeys). I am very close to my Grandparents…born in 1927 and 1932 respectively. I’m just amazed about how they tell me that they never saw or heard of African-American professionals, teachers, or anyone in power. They just accepted it. But it was still very, very wrong. It wrong to limit someones potential and sense of worth….simply because they had dark skin.

    The way that Jewish converts are treated is very similar. You constantly have to prove yourself…your motives…your desire to be a Jew. You are pushed to the bottom of the pile in regards to shidduchim. You have to have a list of references in your Rolodex ready to vouch for you whenever you move, change your child’s school, or try to enroll in a Jewish learning program.

    But the absolute worse (IMHO) is the free license that many Jews feel that they have when they find out that you are a convert, to question and embarrass you freely. Why do I have to recount my life story everywhere I go? Talk about my family and my background to see if they are satisfactory. My life and my choice to become a Jewess are not entertainment for born Jews! The excuse that I hear over and over is that it is not done out of malice. But I would never, ever just “assume” the comfort level of a stranger in regards to their willingness to talk about their personal life. Time and time again I’ve said things that get disdainful remarks from others (i.e. – oh you still shake men’s hands for professional reasons? That’s not really acceptable…you know that, don’t you?).

  26. I completely enjoyed this thread. A lot of wonderful thoughts on the subject but i think most everyone agrees–it is a lot like adoption. A person may or may not want to share that she is adopted, but NOBODY wanted to be known as “so-and-so the adopted girl” for the duration of their life.

    There is a grand difference in sharing information publicly in a speech or even with personal friends, and wanting to have it added to the end of your name like some sort of label.

    To be honest I think the only reason most people “embrace” publicly sharing this with the world at large is because of the “beat them to it” factor. Sometimes when there is gossip about you going around, it’s just easier to have it come from your own mouth instead of going on around your back where the story can twist and change until before you know it people had added a long line of their own assumptions to the story. It can get pretty ugly.

    This is why when I am in a situation where people can tell I was not raised in a religious Jewish home, I just say “oh I did not grow up religious, so I missed out on a lot of the childhood stories.” and then I change the subject quickly. This of course would be an issue to a person who also has a problem with BTs… but with that kinda person I don’t really care about their approval anyhow. I refuse to dignify rude and assumptive behaviour with further explanation.

    The biggest issue about outing a convert isn’t their feelings–it is what it can do to their parnassah and shuddichum. It’s bad for their children too. Lots of people love KNOWING a convert–but most don’t want one marrying their son or daughter. Kinda like how middle class white people like to often say, “Oh I have lots of black friends!” I mean, perhaps they do. But really, why would you even need to mention it? A friend is a friend and it’s pretty irrelevant what color they are if their a true friend.

  27. I think our depends how the speaker wants to be identified. There are some converts who have written books or shows about why and how they became Jewish. Many times later they are asked to speak about what they have written and it makes perfect sense.
    Should the first word be “giyores” as if that’s why people should hear her speak, or is she coming to speak about her book or some other topic?
    Above all, what does this woman want? How does she want to be “marketed” for her lectures?

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