Creating a Jewish Identity and Living a Jewish Life

Creating a Jewish Identity and Living a Jewish Life

Fake jewish

Born jews rarely understand the fragility and loneliness of the newly converted Jew with the new jewish identity. Even with all the support in the world—from a loving partner, a helpful rabbi, a warm congregation—it will take years before you feel Jewish, heart and soul.

Typically, Jews-by-choice are hyperaware of everything they don’t yet know about Judaism. Some facetiously describe the sense of having a neon sign over their heads, flashing the word “Fake.”

Jewish tradition compares converts to newborns.The metaphor is not meant to repudiate proselytes’ families of origin or their past in any way, yet there is something about the image of the newborn that speaks to the experience and vulnerability of a new Jew-by-choice.

conversion rituals reenact a physical birth

Even if you’ve been living a Jewish life for years, conversion rituals reenact a physical birth: floating in a mikvah has an undeniably amniotic quality about it; ritual circumcision recalls an event that is usually performed on an eight-day-old baby, and like infants, newcomers to Judaism acquire a name.

With a new jewish name, a new status, and an exquisite understanding of how little you know about Judaism and Jewishness, you

are in a tender state. Yet, you are also expected to act as guide, teacher, and exemplar to everyone around you, including your family of origin, your new Jewish family, members of your congregation, and even co-workers who suddenly turn to you to settle questions about the Jewish calendar and what Jews believe.

Joining a synagogue

This is a time of transition, but unlike other life-cycle events, conversion is relatively invisible. Religion is not a subject many people are comfortable discussing, and Judaism’s traditional circumspection toward converts works against you. Few people have any idea of what you’re going through. Finding support is crucial, which is why joining a synagogue is so important.

First-generation Jew

But first let go of impossible expectations of yourself. Try thinking of yourself as a newly naturalized citizen in a foreign land. If you had just moved to India—even if you had prepared for the move for a long time and studied the language and culture—you probably wouldn’t berate yourself for getting lost on the streets of New Delhi or for misunderstanding the niceties of the local etiquette.

You certainly wouldn’t be mortified because you mispronounced a word now and then. After all, it takes time to absorb a whole new culture.

In a way, you are like a new immigrant in a foreign land. You are a first-generation Jew, staking your claim to a future in new territory. As many first-generation immigrants to the United States can tell you, your appreciation of the benefits and responsibilities of “citizenship” will likely be keener than that of born-Jews. And that may even include your own children, who will take their Judaism for granted in ways you never can.

However, the image of nationality doesn’t convey the magnitude of this change. Converts are also like transplanted flowers, setting down roots in new soil.

It may be years before you are acclimated to the elements, before you take hold, thrive, and blossom. Some converts blend right in, indistinguishable from the natives even before their roots are established. Others add colors and textures that enrich the Jewish garden in unexpected ways.

Whatever metaphor suits you best—neonate, newcomer, green sprout— remember that beginnings are rarely easy. Eventually, you will feel at home. Time is your ally.

Create an authentic Jewish identity

Time alone, however, cannot resolve all issues of ethnicity. American Jews still tend to behave as though there were only one authentic cultural expression of Judaism, which tastes, smells, and sounds like the Judaism of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.

But if your name is O’Hara, or if you are of Asian or African ancestry, there is no way to “pass” as an Eastern European–type Jew. And why would you want to? The unique combination of your birthright and your Judaism is a point of pride to be handed down to your children. And like others before you, you can create an authentic Jewish identity while affirming your ethnic heritage.

Converts knit their dual identities together in all sorts of ways. Studying the history and traditions of the Jewish community in the land of your national origin is one way to connect the two.

Another is to weave the crafts, colors, and flavors of your native traditions into the unfolding tapestry of Jewish life in your holiday and life-cycle observances. For example:

On the occasion of her conversion, a young woman from India made a wall hanging that included both Jewish symbols and shisha mirrors, a traditional element in Indian embroidery.

An African-American Jewish family always seeks out fruits imported from Africa for their Tu B’shvat seder.

A Danish Jewish father decorates his family’s sukkah with the Scandinavian straw figures he inherited from his grandmothers.

Ethnic chauvinism in the Jewish community

Ethnic chauvinism is declining in the Jewish community, partly due to the presence of so many Jews-by-choice and partly because of a growing

appreciation of the long history of Jewish pluralism. While the Broadway and Hollywood Yiddishkeit of novelist Sholem Aleichem’s Fiddler on the

Roof  continues to be a sentimental touchstone, there is wide spread curiosity about the varieties of Jewish experience. The Ladino music of Spain, for instance, has joined Eastern European klezmer as part of regular Jewish concert fare. Menus from Persia, Italy, and Egypt—redolent of lemon and garlic—are featured in newspaper articles about how to cook a Passover seder.

Mediterranean sepharadic Jews and the Jewish communities of northern Africa are the subject of new books every year, and visitors to Israel are always struck by the diversity of Jewish culture in a nation where Yemenite and Ethiopian communities cherish cuisines, musical traditions, and religious customs that bear no resemblance to the world of the shtetl.

The hardest thing about becoming a Jew is the Jews.

Being a hyphenated Jew in America is not always easy. A born-Jew who hangs up lights in the shapes of dreidels and six-pointed stars during Hanukkah may do so with impunity. But a Jew-by-choice who does the same thing may worry about seeming to create a Jewish version of Christmas. It’s not easy to gain enough Jewish self-confidence to overcome a need to justify your Jewish choices. And sadly, it’s not just a matter of paranoia. In the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “The hardest thing about becoming a Jew is the Jews.”

Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew by Choice

At the beginning of her book, Your People, My People: Finding Acceptance and Fulfillment as a Jew by Choice, Lena Romanoff tells astory about buying food for a homebound non-Jewish neighbor. When a Jewish acquaintance saw the neighbor’s pork roast in Romanoff ’s shopping cart, she berated her—and all converts—as “false” Jews. Romanoff had been Jewish long enough to shrug off the insult, but for someone just establishing a Jewish identity, that kind of encounter can be devastating, even if you know that Jewish law expressly forbids Jews from saying such horrible things. If such a thing happens to you, don’t let it fester; talk to your rabbi, your Jewish friends, and members of your temple. Injustice and prejudice thrive on silence.

Jewish ethnic style

Closer to home, getting used to Jews’ ethnic style can present a challenge, too. Although there are plenty of cool, distant Jewish families, Jewish households tend to be demonstrative, overinvolved, and “hot.” One woman, reared in a Protestant home with roots dating back to the Mayflower, recalls being stunned at the difference between the etiquette ofher parents’ home and the manners displayed at her in-laws’ table: the getting up and sitting down during meals, the volume and passion of the conversation, the painstaking discussion about every dish served, the freedom to comment upon other people’s appearance and demeanor. “I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore,” she says.

The woman who was so discomfited by her in-laws’ table is now able to enjoy and participate in that hurly-burly. Nevertheless, she doubts that she will overcome the upbringing that taught her to maintain a stiff upper lip during illness. “My husband has no trouble complaining and asking for anything when he’s got the flu. I can’t imagine doing that.”

While many issues raised by ethnic differences are minor, some mutually instructive, and some just plain funny, they occasionally do lead to real marital problems—especially if your communication styles are out of sync. In such cases, you might seek out a spiritually sensitive therapist or a counselor who is familiar with the field of ethnotherapy, which takes into account the importance of cultural differences.