By Aliza Hausman
Why does everyone stare at me in shul? My hair is furrier, fuzzier and a foot taller than everyone else’s. Among “my people” in the Dominican Republic, I am considered rather pale. But in a crowd of Ashkenazi Jews, people tend to see my measly tan as exotic. My skin color, my hair texture and my facial features all betray my desire to blend in. I only wish I could tell all the gawkers outright that, just two years ago, I was a non-practicing Catholic running around in cleavage-enhancing tank tops and short shorts.
Why do people decide to convert to Judaism? It’s a question that converts—especially those of us who don’t aesthetically blend in—are asked incessantly over the course of our journey into Judaism. Many people make assumptions: “Oh, she’s just doing it to marry a Jew.” And for the non-Caucasian convert, the journey is complicated by race and ethnicity. I am Hispanic, a first-generation Dominican-American. I am black, white and Other. But being Jewish is what I identify with most of all, even though people can’t see it.
At twelve years old, when I told my Catholic mother that I wanted to be Jewish, she slapped me silly. That was when I found out my family was staunchly antisemitic, despite the Star of David I stole from my mother’s nightstand. (She also wore a cross, and I’m still not totally sure what it was doing there.)
As the daughter of immigrants, I had only just realized that there were other options outside the mix of Catholicism and Santeria—Spanish voodoo—practiced in my home. Even living in Washington Heights, around the corner from Yeshiva University, I assumed everyone was also Catholic and had little altars at home where their mothers made offerings to saints.
It took a visit from a Holocaust survivor, a trip to Yeshiva University’s museum, and one excursion to the local library’s religion section, and I was sold. After all, as a child in Sunday school, everyone had drawn Jesus when we were told to draw G‑d, and I had only squiggled my yellow crayon around and said “G‑d is light.” The nun was perturbed. But I cringed whenever I heard “in his name we pray,” or when I saw all the idols in church.
It wasn’t until after college, many non-observant Jewish boyfriends later, that I rediscovered Judaism. My best friend, a sworn atheist, had met a rabbi and gone Orthodox. Instead of freaking out, as many of his friends did, I asked him for books and websites, and when I told my family about it, my sisters said, “Well, great… didn’t you always want to be Jewish?”
At the beginning of a religious conversion process, there can be a startling and unexpected chain reaction—a change or loss of friends, a new vocabulary, a new wardrobe and a less than supportive family reaction.
“So, who are you converting for?”
“No, really? Don’t you believe in Jesus?”
“You’re going to hell.”
“I’m sure someone will marry you even though your hair is… nappy.”
And then there are those crowds of Jews, who—like some friends and family—simply don’t understand who they’ve encountered in meeting me.
The encounters of converts testify to their tenacity and dedication. Although the American mainstream has largely accepted Jews as white, an increasing population of non-Caucasian converts is adding brown, black and yellow to the American Jewish milieu. My Muslim, African-American student, Reggie, break-danced with rabbis at my wedding and discusses Talmud with my husband, a rabbinical student. My aunt, always full of questions about Judaism, loves to tell those around her about her Orthodox Jewish niece. She wonders after speaking with a non-observant Jew, “Why call yourself Jewish if you’re not doing anything Jewish?”
Do Jews who negatively react to my skin color forget that they were once slaves in Egypt and strangers in another land?
Sticking out like a sore thumb in your own community — the only dark or different face in the crowd — is the struggling convert’s reality. These new Jews are causing ripple effects, perhaps raising the bar as they change how non-Jews look at Judaism and Jewry. The encounters of converts testify to their tenacity and dedication to staying the course, despite absurd and frustrating obstacles.
As more converts from dissimilar backgrounds join the fold, perhaps people will stop gawking at us in shul. If nothing else, it isn’t very polite to stare.