It’s been 11 years since I climbed out of the mikveh, dripping wet and breathless from my Jewish birth. The two other rabbis stood behind a screen while my rabbi reminded me not to reflexively push back my hair as I came out of the water. It had been a long road and it felt incredibly good to have it end. Let me tell you something: You haven’t lived until someone has wished you “mazel tov” when you’re completely naked.
We went straight out to eat, not having had any breakfast that morning—I’m pretty sure it was bagels and lox, the quintessentially Jewish meal. I remember being ecstatic, over the moon that the process was finally over, that I could finally claim a label that I’d been living in practice for years. In those early years, I was all about publicly shouting out this new identity every chance I got. I told my story over and over. I enjoyed it. People, especially Jews, were fascinated. “Why?” they would ask, with an inflection of bewilderment. “Why would you do that?”
So I told and I told and I told. But after a while it stopped being fun. After a while, somewhere in between our son’s bris and the daily grind of keeping a small synagogue afloat, I stopped wanting to be a hyphenated Jew, a Jew-by-choice. I started to cringe a little when people would start playing Jewish geography with me. Yes, I grew up here… wait a few beats… no, I didn’t come to this synagogue as a child… wait a few more beats… um, because I wasn’t Jewish as a child. Yes, conversion is fascinating, isn’t it? Insert polite smile.
“Is your husband Jewish?”—that’s another loaded question. If I say yes, which is true, people assume that I converted in order to facilitate marriage to a Jewish husband, but if I tell the truth, that we both converted, then I really have no choice but to tell the entire story and, frankly, it’s not something I want to share with everyone I meet.
All of this is complicated by the fact that, I’m told, I “look Jewish.” What that means, I’m never sure, but it can be easy sometimes to pass for born-Jewish. I’ve picked up a fair amount of Yiddish and people tell me that I have a Jewish sense of humor. Here, however, the angst continues, as I’m equally uncomfortable not telling the story as I am tired of telling it. I was talking to a non-Jewish colleague about Jewish summer camp the other day, and she asked if I had gone to the same camp that our son attends. “No,” I equivocated, “I went to another camp. “ Do I really want to get into my spiritual journey with an acquaintance? No, I don’t, but when I allow myself to “pass” for Jewish by birth, I feel like a fraud.
So I am bathed in angst, perhaps the most Jewish of emotions, on a pretty regular basis. Does it get better? Maybe. Maybe our kids won’t have to contend with any of this, or maybe they’ll be getting questions about their last names and their blond hair for the foreseeable future. I hope not. I really hope that, as a community, it starts to matter a lot less to us why a person is Jewish or how they became Jewish.
I loved my conversion but it doesn’t, 11 years later, define my Jewishness. If we want to have converts (and we should—we need more, not less) we need to stop treating them like an attraction at the fair and start realizing that we are all Jews-by-choice, converts or not.