Talking About Converts

Image: Several people gossip about distressed woman. (Andrey Popov/shutterstock)

I am open about the fact that I was not born Jewish. That is a deliberate choice on my part. I have made the decision to be open about my background because I find it helpful to my work.

I worry that my openness may mislead readers into thinking that it’s OK to talk about converts. You can talk about conversion all you want. You can talk about yourself all you want. But if you talk about someone else’s conversion, you are violating an important tradition.

Jewish tradition is very clear that we are NOT to talk about other people in general. We are especially not supposed to mention the fact that a person is a convert to them or to anyone else. They can talk about their history, if they choose, but we must not mention it without their permission. We should get their permission each time we talk about them to someone else.

We are also commanded not to listen to anyone else who breaks this rule: no listening to gossip about who’s a convert. No speculating, either.

We can’t ask about how a person became Jewish, no matter how curious we are, or how friendly we feel. Our intention doesn’t matter – our behavior does.

Why this tradition? As with many commandments, it’s there because our inclination as human beings is to be curious and gossipy. It is human to notice differences and exclude people on account of them. Torah calls us to do better, and it gives us rules (commandments, mitzvot) that help us be better people that we’d otherwise be.

Beside the obvious, walking up to someone and asking, “Are you a convert?” there are subtler things we should avoid.

  • Don’t assume that a person with browner skin than yours is a convert to Judaism. They might be a descendant of Maimonides or Solomon.
  • Don’t assume that the person walking down the hall at synagogue with Asian features is a convert.
  • Don’t assume that someone with ben Avraham v’Sarah after his Hebrew name is a convert. Guys named Abraham have been known to marry a Sarah and have kids.
  • Don’t assume that Jim O’Malley is a convert to Judaism. His Hebrew name might be Nachum ben Moshe v’Shirah.
  • Don’t assume that if someone has a funny accent, they must be a convert.
  • Don’t assume that if someone is a convert, they did it to “marry in.” Some of us become Jewish because it is our heart’s desire.
  • Don’t assume that if someone converted in connection with a marriage, that it was insincere. Falling in love with a Jew might have been the first step towards falling in love with Judaism.
  • Don’t assume that if a woman is a convert, she did it to find a Jewish husband.
  • Don’t assume that a convert is any more or less observant than you are.
  • Don’t assume that a convert likes telling their story again and again.

Whether you became Jewish in the waters of your mother’s womb or in the waters of the mikveh it is painful to be separated from the Jewish People, especially if a fellow Jew is doing the separating.

Don’t gossip about someone’s Jewish history; it is hurtful.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn. – Hillel the Elder, Shabbat 31a

 

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Synagogue Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests

English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, you’ve been invited to a bar mitzvah. You’ve answered the invitation promptly, you know to dress modestly, and you’ve decided what you are going to do about a gift. All those things were covered in an earlier post, Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.  One kind reader pointed out to me that I hadn’t given enough detail about how to behave during the service, and I’ve decided to add more information. After all, if you are bothering to read this before you attend the service, you care! Thank you for caring about behaving well at a service that is, for a Jewish family, a major life event.

1. YOU ARE A GUEST. One important principle to keep in mind: you are not just a guest of the family at this event. You are the guest of the synagogue at which it occurs. A bar or bat mitzvah at a synagogue at a regular service  will include not only people who attend because it is Suzie Cohen’s bat mitzvah, but regular congregants who attend because it is Shabbat and they want to pray. The party that comes afterwards will be a private affair, but the service itself is for the congregation as well as for the family and their guests.

2. NO ELECTRONICS. It’s rude to play with your cell phone, or to allow it to make any noise at all. Turn it off, or make sure it is absolutely silent. Keep it out of sight. This is particularly important in a synagogue on the Sabbath, a day when Jews refrain from a number of activities in order to experience the holiness of the day. A “ding” (much less a ringtone made from your favorite pop song) will mar the day, no matter how quickly you squelch it.  So turn it off, and put it away. If you are a physician on call, set the thing to the least annoying possible setting and sit on an aisle near a door, so that you can easily move outside to deal with it.

3. NO PHOTOS. For the same reason as the electronics, photography during a Shabbat service is disrespectful. Depending on the family’s observance and the synagogue rules, there may be a videographer or a professional photographer present, but they have been given very strict boundaries for their work; you do not have that information. Don’t assume that because the videographer is there, it’s OK to whip out your iPhone and take a few shots. Do not take photos during the service, and ask before you take any photos before or after the service.

4. NO APPLAUSE. This is a religious service, not a performance. Applause is inappropriate and unwelcome. You can best express your appreciation for Bobby’s Torah chanting skills by sitting quietly and attentively and not dozing off.  The best appreciation you can give: remember some aspect of his drash (speech) to comment on it to him or his parents later.

5. YOUNG CHILDREN & INFANTS. If you have a very young child, it is fine to bring something to keep them quietly occupied. “Quietly” is the operative word: books are fine, but toys that inspire or require noise are not. Electronics are absolutely out (again, see #2 above.) If your child is going to be miserable in the service, you may want to consider getting a sitter for the occasion (if you let the family know ahead of time that you are considering getting a sitter, you may be able to share a sitter with another family in your situation.)  If you bring an infant, everyone understands that babies sometimes fuss. Everyone also expects that in that circumstance, a parent will immediately scoop up the baby and head for the nearest exit. Many synagogues have “crying rooms” that allow parents to see the service while dealing with a fussy infant – if you think you may need such a place, ask one of the ushers where it is when you enter.

For a Jewish family, a bar or bat mitzvah can be as significant a lifecycle event as a wedding. At such a time, we invite the people who are important to us to be with us. By inviting you to join them in their synagogue on their important day, your friends have told you that you are important to them. Thank you for honoring them by taking the trouble to educate yourself about how to behave in the service!