While my daughter was threatening to burst the seams of my burgeoning belly, about four months before she made her illustrious debut (weighing a mighty 10 lbs), I was busy looking for childcare. As a full time employee at a start up agency in social media, I knew I would need to find some place to house, love, and feed her, in addition to the ability to provide me with a sense of community and family. I didn’t want to feel like I was dropping my infant off with strangers.
That’s why, when my then-husband Joel and I wandered into the local Jewish Community Center and inquired about their infants program, I was overjoyed to add another type of family to my support network. The fact that this was the only care option open as early as I needed it (7:30 a.m.!) and as late as I needed (6 p.m.!) was just as paramount as the instant “family” sense I got. I felt like I was surrounded by loving mothers and grandmothers—and I welcomed the feeling.
I was also excited about the multiculturalism—by far, the best part of the human experience. The discovery, the languages, new foods, artistry—as a former history major, I subsist on the constant absorption of other cultures. I have always been fascinated by the sheer durability of Judaism, historically, and have found myself on more than one occasion turning to discover and absorb more of the Jewish culture.
My mother is 100% Salvadoran, born and raised in a village at the base of a (very active) volcano in San Miguel, El Salvador, an hour or two from the beach. My father is 50% Russian and 50% French, having been raised in French Morocco following World War II. Neither of them are Jewish. I get my curly (and frizzy) dark hair from my mom and my Durante-style schnoz from the Russian side of my dad. I’m a very ethnically ambiguous sort.
I had never thought about not being Jewish at the JCC until it was pointed out to me—repeatedly, by other Jewish parents (namely, Jewish and “more Jewish” mothers). “Oh, you’re not Jewish?” they would ask, in wonderment, immediately beginning a Terminator-like scan of my person. After a couple years, I started laughing at the mental checklist I could see them going through: But the hair? But your skin? But your height? But Kauffman (my then-husband’s last name)? Joel, by the way, isn’t Jewish, either! So, we were quite the tricky couple.
Very quickly, conversations about the subjects and topics our kids were learning (in the same enrichment program at the J) would hit a Jewish threshold that I would be (in some cases verbally) dismissed from as a result of my shiksaism. “Ah, well you’re not Jewish,” I remember one mother telling me. “And that means I can’t participate in this conversation about the song our kids are learning?” I’d responded. I felt oddly “outed,” like it’d been discovered in a place I wasn’t allowed to be.
I realized that I’d been fielding the “but you look so Jewish!” topic with humor and not actually listening to what I (ultimately) discovered I was being told: I was different! I was being excluded. I was being disregarded. I was being measured, labeled, and boxed up—to be placed in a pile of other non-Jewish parents, prohibited from intermingling or opining on topics that I didn’t “understand.”
This was especially hurtful as somebody who genuinely enjoys cultures, history, and language. This was especially hurtful as somebody whose kid is so entrenched in Jewish culture (she’s been at the JCC for five years now!) that she cried at IKEA when I wouldn’t buy her a hanukkiyah for Hanukkah.
So, what to do? I started asking more questions. I started approaching the “but you look Jewish” topic by diving into the aspects they were calling me out on—tell me about Jewish hair! Tell me about Jewish skin. Tell me about Jewish eyes, ears, mouths, noses, etc. The more questions I asked, the more answers I got, and the more fueled I became to study and continue to explore a hidden Jewish identity within.
While I haven’t fully decided to convert, my heart is certainly leading me down that path. And, like any solid relationship, I’m taking my time. I’m asking questions and communicating. One of my favorite things about Judaism is the permission to question, to seek, to explore. The sheer thought of questioning is a luxury that was never encouraged in my own religious upbringing, as a Russian Orthodox.
As a natural historian, the preservation of Judaism and its rich traditions, culture, and language are a rare beauty to behold. It’s like time travel.
As I move closer toward conversion, I’m highly aware that my looks will speak for me upon first impression, but they won’t define me. My conversation, passion, and thirst for knowledge will help the curious see beyond the dark curls, and maybe then I’ll start laughing again when somebody says incredulously, “Wait, you’re not Jewish?”