A memory came back to me today.
I was still a brand new Jew, practically wet behind the ears from the mikveh, and I was at my first Big Jewish Event (the sort that had hundreds of Jews who weren’t from my congregation – wow!) I was big-eyed and surfing the learning curve, drinking up the fact that it is a Big Jewish World and I was now a part of it. I was deliriously happy to be a part of the Jewish world I saw around me.
I was walking along a hallway at the convention center with a senior member of my congregation when it happened. The guy (I’ll call him Dave, not his real name) was a macher, someone who knew lots of people at the convention, and who had been on many committees. I was proud to be walking along learning from him. Then he said to me, out of the blue, “See that rabbi over there? You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger.”
My euphoria crashed in a ball of flame. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t respond, couldn’t move the muscles in my face. I could hear my heart beating. Shame rose in me, and I wanted to disappear through the floor.
I continued walking along beside this man, but I couldn’t look at him. And I never told my rabbi about it.
I have no idea what was going on with Dave, who before and after that awful statement was very nice to me. Today, more secure in my Jewish identity, I might ask him what the heck he was thinking. I would challenge him, because certainly the tradition says that a person who chooses Judaism and goes through the long process of conversion is every bit a Jew. But because I was new, and shy, and intimidated, I said nothing.
When I tell this story to others who became Jewish as adults years ago, they answer with their own stories. It seems to be a rather common experience, so much so that when I work with adults in the process of conversion, I feel it necessary to prepare them for the ambivalence in the community about adopted members of the tribe. It’s not a constant thing, but every now and then an otherwise perfectly nice person burps up a statement that says, “Nope, not one of us. Never will be.” There are ways to handle it, both conversationally and internally, but it isn’t pleasant.
Now, I have been around the Jewish block long enough to know that this is an extension of that popular pastime “More Jewish than You” – that for whatever reason, we Jews seem to have a need to reassure ourselves that someone out there is less Jewish than we are. But when I hear the wailing over the recent Pew study and the angsting over the declining membership in congregations, I want to say, “Well, what do you expect? If we hit people with sticks, they will run away. Duh.”
And I know that isn’t the whole answer, but when I meet people who have left congregations because someone was nasty to them, I just have to wonder: how would the Jewish world be different, if we all acted as if each Jew were precious and non-replaceable?
How would the world be different if we treated every human being that way?
6 thoughts on “A Bad Memory, and a Question”
Usually I hear this from people who haven’t set foot in a synagogue for years, who defined Judaism as a culture or even a race, and who have no idea that halachically I’m 100 per cent Jewish. It exasperates me more than stings. But recently someone who knows better asked me if someone I’m dating was “a real Jew,” i.e. someone born of a Jewish mother. I was completely gobsmacked and like you had no idea what to say.
Yes, it’s a lot easier to shake off when I know that it’s basically ignorance talking.
I’m so sorry that person said that. I used the word “burp” deliberately in the post. I think they know better, but “knowing” and really internalizing better behavior and speech are two different things. When I try to put myself in their shoes, I know that as a person who grew up in the 60’s south, raised by conservatives, there remain in the bowels of my psyche some racist attitudes that I have to monitor and squash as necessary. I suspect that the “burps” from otherwise well-spoken Jews are something similar, only they forgot to squash. I call folks on it when I can, and forgive myself for the times when shock prevented me from saying something.
Oddly, the person the burper was asking about is a cantor, with an identifiably Jewish surname. The ONLY reason the cantor’s Jewish bonafides were under scrutiny was because apparently we faux-Jews clannishly must date only each other. (Although I guess I would not have been offended if I had been asked out of of nowhere if the cantor was a Jew by choice. It was the “real” Jew thing that threw me.)
Ah, sorry — that was LVG posting above, not Anonymous.