Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Ah, satire when done right can be utterly unpleasant and terribly funny. At least, that's how it seems the site Black People Love Us, the tales of "a fictional white couple and their failed attempts to relate to black people," have been taken by viewers. People can't decide whether to laugh or cry when reading the testimonials from the white couple's black friends.
Sadly, I could relate to many of the testimonials.
Exhibit A: People really have asked to touch my hair. In fact, sometimes they haven't asked at all, they've just reached out and touched it. They've also asked me how I get my hair to do what it does. But sadly, it didn't make me feel special or like I had magical powers.
Exhibit B: I urge people before my speech on racism not to come up to me afterwards and tell me that they are not racist, that they have black friends and please, I beg them not to apologize for the entire Jewish community. Why? Because it's happened before.
Exhibit C: I have had people tell me that I'm not like other Hispanic people. The racism in this statement was lost on them.
Exhibit D: I have been complimented frequently on how articulate I am and how good my English is, despite clarifying that English is my first language.
Exhibit E: People have tried to talk ghetto with me and been met with blank stares. Except when my professor told me that it sounds like I spent my childhood "on lockdown." That was actually funny and true.
Oh well, do you think that perhaps Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was trying to be satirical when he blamed the global economic collapse on Western bankers with this quip: "This was a crisis that was fostered and boosted by irrational behavior of people that are white [and] blue-eyed." Okay, probably not.
Monday, March 30, 2009
In the meantime, I am still going around talking about myself and letting people pay me for it. I just got back from a quick Shabbat jaunt up to Brandeis University where I spoke thanks to the university Hillel and the Mixed Heritage club. In fact, only the members of the Mixed Heritage club got my chancleta joke: “Children should fear G-d, their parents and the chancleta, the Latino disciplining tool shaped like a slipper.” A white student later explained she could see how corporal punishment might seem funny to different cultures but I think she was just trying to make me feel better.
I don’t usually get scared before speaking gigs but when I entered the Friday night dinner, my knees were shaking a little. I had never seen so many Jews in one place. I thought the hundred students the dinner at Brooklyn College was a big crowd but at Brandeis there were hundreds of Jews gathering for a Shabbat meal. And my husband explained that this kind of thing happens at Brandeis EVERY week.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t supposed to speak at the dinner. I think I could have projected my voice to the entire crowd. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. During dinner, there was an abrupt, awkward announcement that my talk would be scheduled in a nearby room. But only thirty or forty of the students who attended the dinner made an appearance for my speech, which was billed as “Jewminicana: The Intersection between Religious and Racial Identity.” So I was a little disappointed.
My speech on becoming and being a Jewminicana is really more of “a performance,” according to my husband. And I did get a lot of laughs but it was nowhere near the thunderous laughter I received at Brooklyn College. A Brandeis student later explained that Brandeis students are awkward. So maybe people didn’t feel comfortable laughing at loud or maybe they just didn’t get my jokes? It is possible I stopped being funny over the course of a month? Is it possible I’m less funny in Boston? Or actually in Waltham, because I also learned over the course of Shabbos that Brandeis is not in Boston.
My favorite part of the Jewminicana performance was the Q&A afterwards where I promised to answer intimate questions. I ended up telling the story of how my husband and I met. My husband was in the room to corroborate but I told the crowd that he is a desperately private person (so how did he end up with me?). I also gave away the recipe to our “Carribbean cholent” when someone asked what other innovative ways we had mixed cultures at the dining room table. Otherwise, people asked pretty staid questions and I told them about the crazy ones I’d been asked in Brooklyn College. My husband says I can be a little intimidating. (What? How? I’m barely 5’3”!)
My husband spoke during services the following morning. I attended in spirit. From my bed where I was snoring away after popping muscle relaxers and pain killers, an unfortunate side effect of giving my speech the night before. We joined forces to give our “Racism in the Jewish Community” speech.
As usual, my husband played it cool while I skated on thin ice, showing some anger when students questioned whether or not some of what we were proposing was really racist. My husband noted that some students felt like we were attacking Jewish texts when we were trying to illuminate the racial undertones of specific pieces we used in our class.
We spent a rather lengthy time debating whether the prayer for nappy hair, albinos and hunchbacks is racist and insensitive. I didn’t think the audience was ready to hear me call this type of prayer a symptom of “white guilt” or an example of “fetishizing” people who are different so I left both terms off the table. (By the way, I apologize to the world right now for my insensitive joke on Hunchbacks and I feel very much like President Obama did after his recent Special Olympics joke.) We plan on being better prepared next time so the students don’t feel they have to personally defend the Jewish texts we’re examining in our class.
I was surprised that when we used the “Ashkenazi Privilege List” we had to explain how Ashkenazim are privileged, like whites, in the Jewish community. How could we begin to make a dent on some of the racist assumptions students had when they couldn’t even consider how they benefited from the racism around them? But everyone jumped in with the correct answer when I mentioned a stereotype, while positive, is an example of racism: Asians are ____.
And as usual, most students didn’t understand why “Where are you from?” is racist though several students chimed in to say that to a person of color this question often turns into “What are you?” (On a side note, my husband tried to explain the difficulties of teaching the “Where are you from?” question to a white Jewish friend today. The white Jewish friend said the question wasn’t racist and merely friendly until a Jew of color walked into the conversation and said, “OH MY G-D! Are you talking about the ‘Where are you from?’ question? I am so sick of being asked that question. It just never ends.”)
After the speech, I came across a helpful handout I may use for my next class “So You Think You’re an Anti-Racist? 6 Critical Paradigm Shifts for Well-Intentioned White Folks” because it clarified that the major problem is that our students focus on the intent of their actions (usually well-intentioned) instead of their impact (making people of color feel uncomfortable and excluded). I think that one of the reasons I hate giving this speech is because I cannot relate to how “uncomfortable, difficult, emotional and painful” it is for some of the white students to come to terms with talking about racism.
I am not uncomfortable with the subject of racism. I am uncomfortable with people who try to deny that it exists in the simplest daily interactions between different races. I mean, isn't that just sad but given. I think that’s why it’s so handy to have my husband there saying things like, “Look, people of color can be boring too. White people can be interesting. It’s racist to assume people of color are always more interesting and white people are always boring” and “the problem with asking someone ‘What are you?’ is that it’s none of your business what their race is and it makes a person of color uncomfortable.” When I make comments like these, they just come off as angry.
So, things got intense at Brandeis University during our final class but I think we learned a lot about how to give our next speech. I'm not sure what kind of impact we made but I do know we left people feeling more awkward than they had before and asking themselves a lot of questions. Afterwards, my friend Drew pointed out that the students were probably questioning things we claimed were racist because for better or worse, racism is not a topic they usually think about. One interesting soundbite came from a student who said that people assume “white people don’t know where their grandparents are from” and that’s perhaps another reason only people of color get asked. But I’m sure there are a thousand different ways to rationalize the racism people of color suffer on a daily basis.
Well, I’m hoping that on my next speaking engagement I will get to do some press for the plight of converts in the Jewish community. It’s a safer subject. And you know how I like to play it safe.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Fast forward to the middle of this segment from the Jewish Channel and you'll hear about the recent ordination of female Orthodox congregational leader, Maharat Sara Hurwitz.
The Mixed Multitudes blog at MyJewishLearning.com commented on the ordination in a piece called "Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz, a “Unique” Woman Rabbi" and the Jewschool blog also offered congratulations in a piece called "This is one of those moments".
And frequent poster to this blog, Elana, discussed the ordination on her blog in the most stirring post called "More on Orthodox Women Rabbis".
But I'm surprised that papers like Jewish Week haven't carried a bigger article on this news and that we have had to settle for this piece that came before the ordination, "Orthodox Women’s Ordination? Even Rabbis Are Split".
Why aren't more people talking about this?
Watch Sara Hurwitz at the ceremony:
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Someone called me semi-famous the other day. And well, it made me really uncomfortable. Sure, when I was busy being an ugly ducking in Washington Heights with my big pink plastic frame glasses and my gawky thirteen-year-old-ness, I read my Entertainment Weekly and dreamed of being a star. But that was before I saw those ugly magazines that you read at the checkout aisle on your way out of the supermarket. Being famous doesn't look so fun the way that those magazines spin it.
So I confess being called semi-famous made me crawl in a hole. In fact, lately, I've been feeling like too much of an outie and not enough of an innie. And you know, we are not talking about belly buttons.
It's, like, finally that thing about over-sharing my very private aunt was always trying to explain to me FINALLY hit me. Sometimes, I don't feel like sharing. Sometimes, I will even pretend to be excruciatingly boring when people ask me about myself and "what I do." I realized I don't want EVERYONE to "know" me. Because it doesn't matter how many people know you, only a few of them are ever going to GET you.
Okay, obviously, this conversation is moot unless I curl up and close up my blog or stop writing my book or stop letting people pay me to talk about myself in public. Still, I think every once in a while, like right now for instance, I'm going to play things close to my chest. Maybe I'll blog about things that have nothing to do with me, I'll interrogate people on their lives and I'll turn down offers to talk about myself in public. No, I'm kidding about the last one. Tell people to pay me to come talk about myself in public at your local whatever.
Okay, maybe I'm a little ambivalent. Is that the right word? Maybe this is a moody moment?
Friday, March 27, 2009
But I have finally followed my aunt’s advice. I am even reading Oprah magazine. Can one turn into an Oprah disciple without actually watching Oprah? This is a question I contemplate now, my friends, as I put the finishing touches on today’s gratitude journal entry.
My gratitude journal has two parts. I draw a line down the middle and on one side I write down the things I am grateful for and on the other I write the things I am proud of. I am committed to doing it three times a day. I will even do it when I am pissed off and having a bad day. This has led to entries like:
Blu-ray DVD player
Not killing anyone today
Being able to afford Blu-ray DVD player
Doing the dishes
But somehow, even after sad little entries like that, I feel, well, BETTER. Something stirs in my cold, cold little heart and the weight on my shoulders (and the pain between my shoulder blades) feels different. Good different.
Now, I’m not trying to CONVERT anybody but if you feel like throwing a little gratitude here and there, remember I set you straight about it first. You hear that, Oprah?
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Living into my 90s will give me plenty of time to play catch up. Plenty of time to learn Hebrew (especially considering I keep dropping out of all my Hebrew classes). And even more time to prepare for my bat mitzvah ceremony (espcially since I'm only in my Jewish toddler years right now).
Because if these ladies can do it, so can I: "Having a Bat Mitzvwh in Their 90s Because It's a Hoot"
Ten women close to or in their 90s have been preparing for a bat mitzvah in their suburb of Cleveland.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Is this a symptom of a larger rift between the Latino and Jewish communities? As a former Catholic (and Latina for life), I'm worried that it is.
The anti-Semitism I grew up hearing in the neighborhood was startling: Jews killed Jesus, Jews were cheap, Jews think they're better than everyone else, Jews are trying to control everything. And all this from people who'd had either no interactions with Jews or very positive ones. I just hope people listening to this radio show can distinguish between hate and reality.
Reality: If this guy was perpetrating his hate crimes against any other group, he would be off the air. When did this country decide that likening Jews to Nazis was kosher?
"Even if it's out to do the right thing, positive discrimination remains discrimination, and classifying people by race and ethnicity is in a manner itself racism," argues Malek Boutih, former head of France's seminal civil rights group S.O.S. Racism, and now a member of the Socialist Party's national bureau.
But people ARE already classified by race and ethnicity, either by themselves or others. Is this inherently racist? Despite the fact that each person is a unique entity unto themselves, people have always managed to group together as a collective. But I am more than the collective, I prefer to identify as much more than American. I am a self-described Jewminicana: a Dominican American Jewish hybrid. Many interviewed for the article below article would argue that I am a victim of American multiculturalism. Perhaps, the problem is not the labels we use but how we use the labels against each other.
Is France colorblind or just blind? You be the judge. Read “Should France Count Its Minority Population?”
Monday, March 23, 2009
Today even the Rastafarian beret failed me. I threw it on over my head to join my husband for his birthday dinner and well, it hurt. A lot. I figured, I hoped, it would get better but by the end of the meal, I was cowering in my corner with pain.
That was when I decided to stop covering my hair.
Just kidding! Calm down.
Tomorrow I am biting the bullet. I am getting a fancy haircut at Ouidad, a hair salon for the curly-haired. I am getting a drastic downgrade from my "shoulder length," two feet tall hair. This will make my head proportional to most head coverings but I don’t know what it will mean for my fibromyalgia flare-ups.
Here’s what I have uncovered about the most convential hair coverings after some sleuthing:
I think that tichels (head scarves) are a big no-no for me. Tying them, no matter how loosely, across the nape of my neck leads to pain. And the way they pull my hair back in the front leads to pain. I went into a rage at the supermarket the other day when I wrapped a tichel around my head (“You look like a nun,” my husband said.) and it led to a major flare-up in aisle 3. My husband told me to take it off but I didn’t because my hair looked like wild animals had attacked my head and I would have felt naked without something, anything, on my head. Instead, I made him distract me by taking me to Best Buy to get Twilight on DVD. It didn’t help the pain but it helped my soul.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am Hispanic and wearing the wrong colored bandana might get me shot in the wrong neighborhood. This is a constant worry.
No, I don’t think I will ever wear a sheitel. I think it’s wrong to do so after taking a militant stance against my family and all those curly-hair haters out there. I will not break my vow to keep my hair curly and that includes wearing straight-haired sheitels. Don’t even get me started on curly-haired sheitels. UGLY. Plus I don't think I'm ready to cut off enough hair to actually stick a sheitel on my head. My sister notes, "Ew, I don't think I could wear someone else's hair on my head."
Turbans. Heehee. Sorry. Teehee. If you can rock a turban, then you are obviously much cooler than me.
I once tried on a snood. Keep in mind that my head is vertical. I looked like Marge Simpson.
See Marge Simpson.
Berets are not created equal. The Rastafarian beret is infinitely more comfortable than any other berets I’ve bought from Jewish websites. Keep in mind though that I’m more sensitive than most. I have never been able to wear hats because of my hair so I don’t know why I thought these would be different.
The headband is going to make a comeback. These are usually the least bothersome head coverings if I get them the right size for my big melon head and they’re not too tight. Perhaps now that my hair will be shorter people will actually be able to SEE them on my head and I won’t get called a hypocrite. Check out the fabulous new additions to Coveryourhair.com.
Notice that all the women in the pictures have straight hair or straight-hair wigs? Ahem. That's because these head coverings are not made or modeled in mind for women with afros or kinky hair. Maybe head coverings are just racist? (Or at least that's what I'll tell people if I ever stop covering my hair. Telling them about my fibromyalgia will only confuse them and the racism bit will just floor them since they'd probably be expecting a rant about feminism.)
Meanwhile, my sister is an angel. After watching me flail about for a head covering before the wedding, she organized all my head coverings by size, shape, type so it will be easier for me to troll my closet for the right one.
Please keep me in your positive thoughts. This seems like a post about hair and head coverings but when it comes down to it, the bigger problem seems to be my chronic fibromyalgia flare ups.
What I hate about being an Orthodox Jew OR How My Rastafarian Beret Came to Represent Rabbi Avi Weiss, HIR and YCT
Going to a wedding today. Separate seating for men and women. Sheitels and fancy hats will abound. Will try not to wear a sack. 9:40 AM Mar 22nd from web
My father-and sister-in-law are in town for the wedding and passed out on our couches. Because I am not social being, I am on Twitter. 12:50 PM Mar 22nd from web
Covering my hair for the wedding in Monsey with Rastafarian beret. Only thing that will fit on head without pain. about 24 hours ago from mobile web
At wedding, my hat got one long suffering look. Otherwise, doing fine. about 21 hours ago from mobile web
Of course, schmoozed with the help in Spanish at the wedding. about 19 hours ago from web
Got asked if I was making a statement with Rastafarian hat. They think it has something to do with the left-wing school my husband attends. about 19 hours ago from web
Why must the first five minutes of every Orthodox Jewish encounter be Jewish geography? Do u know this person who went 2 that school who....about 19 hours ago from web
In the Orthodox Jewish world, weddings are a big deal. They are a great cause for celebration. Relatives from all over the world, no matter how they’re related, will fly in just to get a taste of the celebration.
In Aliza’s world, weddings are just damn stressful. Weddings are full of awkward encounters with strangers and stranger family members whose names I can’t or don’t want to remember. Weddings mean driving too long to strange locales, which leads to pain. Weddings mean noise and too much sitting and waiting, which in the end also lead to pain (both physical and mental).
Part of my husband’s extended family has been blessed with two weddings in the same month! And if it were up to me, I would attend one wedding, if even that much, a year. For example, attending a friend’s wedding is very different from attending a wedding for extended family. At the friend’s wedding, you will be seated with people you normally choose to hang out with. At the relative’s wedding, you will be seated with people G-d in his infinite wisdom and awkward sense of humor has bound you to via marriage and blood. I prefer attending a friend’s wedding. Usually, the seating arrangements are safer and lead to no family bloodshed.
And by now, you’ve probably read my previous rants on weddings and how awkward they are for a convert, for a kid who grew up on welfare, etc. Honestly, it feels like every wedding serves as a reminder of how much of an outsider I still am and always will be.
The first 5-10 minutes of every conversation are a game of Jewish geography where everyone tries to figure out how they are connected to each other visa vie the Orthodox Jewish world. But a convert is not connected. I didn’t go to any fancy day schools. I didn’t grow up in Jewish neighborhood. I don’t have any kids, shoes or sheitels (wigs) to talk about. I don’t want to talk about my outfit. I don’t want to talk about my job because my primary job is as a self-employed sick person and I don’t want to talk about my disability either.
The thing is that, in the past, I have had awkward conversations about all these things at weddings. I learned the hard way to never talk about them again. So last night, the lady next to me had to suffer from how I’ve learned to talk. She probably went home thinking she was sitting next to the most mysterious or shyest person in the world. Um, can you imagine me as mysterious or shy? But then, I responded to every question with a question or no response at all.
The lady next to me started the conversation with Jewish geography, of course, but that failed miserably. I didn’t know how I was related to the wedding party and so the conversation fell flat right away. She, of course, tried again because Jewish geography is supposed to a foolproof! She asked me where I lived and I said “Riverdale” and then I let my eyes glaze over as she named everyone she knew there. I assured her I didn’t know anyone. And then I played mute.
The conversation should have turned to work as it had with all the relatives who ran into me that evening. I had practiced deflecting their questions artfully because in my experience, the less family knows about your life, the better. But I noticed that people were much more interested in asking me about my job (blogging, freelancing, writing) than talking about theirs because many were unemployed or underemployed thanks to the economic downturn.
But the woman sitting next to me didn’t talk about work for different reasons. She explained she hadn’t worked full-time in ages because of her kids. I have found that at separate seating weddings (there’s a men’s side and a women’s side), women of a certain age are not talking about what they do for a living because their primary job in recent years has been taking care of kids.
I perked up, though, when the woman next to her mentioned Washington Heights. I said I missed the Heights terribly. Finally, I let a little information out. I said I was born and raised in the Heights. The woman next to me jumped on this information. Again, though it had failed before, she tried Jewish geography. “Did you grow up on the YU (Yeshiva University) side or the Breuer’s side?” she asked. I knew the next question if I answered correctly would be whether or not I knew Rabbi X or Rabbi Y? But instead, I said “I grew up in the middle.”
If my head hadn’t totally been covered, she might have guessed I was Dominican or a convert. But I was rocking a Rastafarian hat (at a wedding in Monsey no less) because it was the only thing that fit on my head without pain that day. I looked the part of Sephardic, very alternative, Jew. So the woman next to me made a wild leap at Jewish geography. She connected the information she had: “lives in Riverdale” and “husband is a rabbinical student” and “wearing a Rastafarian beret” to Rabbi Avi Weiss because signs, according to her, pointed to the fact that I attended his synagogue in Riverdale.
No one had mentioned my hat all evening. I had coached myself on the way to the wedding. If anyone said anything, I was going to let loose on the troubles of covering my hair. I was going to give them a piece of my mind. I was going to rip off my hat and smack them. I wasn’t prepared for what the woman said next. She connected all those dots and decided, “Well, I could tell with your hat, you were obviously trying to make a statement. And so you’re probably connected to Avi Weiss’s shul and his school.”
I did the only thing I could do: I laughed. I even tried to explain that this was the only hat that fit over my afro at the moment. I tried to explain I normally wore head scarves. I even thought to point out that plenty of the women connected to Avi Weiss’s shul, HIR (Hebrew Institute of Riverdale), and his rabbinical school, YCT (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah), own sheitels and probably only one would be crazy enough to wear a Rastafarian hat to a Monsey wedding: me. She wasn’t hearing any of it. She said obviously, I could have straightened my hair or cut it short to wear sheitels but I didn’t because I wanted to make a statement about a certain kind of Orthodoxy.
It never fails. My head, whether totally covered or slightly uncovered, always makes a statement. And rarely, the right one. And I realized afterwards that this is I really hate about weddings. It’s that people sit around and judge each other based on their head coverings, their shoes, their children and they decide that these things represent a certain movement within the Jewish world.
And I wasn’t any better. I had been sucked into it. I had already decided that Orthodox Jews, white people with money, were just damn rude and I didn’t want to be associated with them. This idea was only compounded by my husband’s story about one Orthodox man in his Yiddish accent who yelled “Bandman! Are you the bandman!” at one unsuspecting member of the staff instead of politely asking if he could help him make the announcement for mincha services. It was hard for me to remember hearing this that I have plenty of nice Orthodox Jewish friends who aren’t rude to non-Jews, who don’t base their judgments of people on their clothes but on what comes out of their mouths.
The only time I felt like I belonged all night was when I fell into easy Spanish with the woman serving me the most delicious ribs and rice at the buffet. My husband noted that the other woman’s face had lit up, too. Probably because I was not only one of the few people saying “Please” and “Thank you,” I was also speaking to her in her native tongue like we were on common ground, not like she was “the help.”
I don’t want to go to these weddings anymore. I don’t want to come home afterwards and rip off my clothes and find that I feel dirty because I feel like I’ve been slimed by all the things I hate about being an Orthodox Jew. I hate the materialism. I hate the insularity. And I REALLY hate the way we use each other’s clothes and bank accounts to put each other into tight suffocating little boxes that divide us.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
So Jennifer Lopez as Rita? Camilla Belle as Maria? Sexy Rodrigo Santoro as Bernardo and hotties Robert Pattinson, Chris Evans and Jay Hernandez round out the mix.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Meanwhile, I'm getting ready to pack for my Pesach (Passover) in Los Angeles. In case, I need to unwind, I know I’ll be packing my Aqua Modesta swimsuit.
Laugh if you must but at least, people are laughing at me when I’ll fully dressed, not in a bikini, you know?
And the innovative designer has come up with a skirt you can bike and use the treadmill in: the SKANT. It took me a second to figure out that this was a skirt/spant. Is it just me that special like that?
2. Can I see your horns?
3. Have you considered Jesus as your personal savior?
4. Why do you hate Palestinians?
5. How come you only eat food blessed by a rabbi? Can't you just bless the food to make it kosher? (Kosher food is NOT blessed by a rabbi.)
6. Do you have sex through a hole in a sheet? (See tzizit.)
7. Why do your women shave their heads and wear wigs? (Married women cover their hair. Most of them don't shave their heads. There's hair under those wigs.)
8. You killed Jesus!
9. Why do you think eating pork is evil? (Pigs aren't kosher. They're not evil.)
10. Orthodox Jewish specific: Are you hot under all those clothes?
Do you have any ideas for additions to the list? Can you think of other "what not to say" lists?
Here is a funny and unsettling little video on what not to say (and what to say) to Arabs.
The depression’s been hitting me kind of hard. Sure, it was incredible to speak at Brooklyn College last week and connect with so many cool people but at the same time, it was a reminder of the costs. Fibromyalgia cost me my full-time job as a teacher and possibly as a financially self-sufficient human being. Fibromyalgia means that after every speech, I feel like a truck hit me. But then again, how quickly I forget when I am down in the dumps that it was fibromyalgia that got me writing again.
But writing is a funny thing. Who would imagine that someone hyper sensitive to criticism would put themselves in a position to be constantly rejected? So much of freelance writing is about putting myself out there with the great likelihood that I’ll get burned in return. I’ve got many an essay collecting dust because editor after editor has said “lovely but it doesn’t work for our publication.” Ouch.
I’ve also been really stressed out about my book. I don’t know what I’m doing. Sure, I’m getting tons of positive feedback, but I know that when and if this book is published, there will also be negative feedback. Yikes, who wants to read a newspaper and find their name is up in lights for having written the worst book ever? Who wants to have their life attacked, picked apart and consumed like a feast of game hen? For someone who has never been very shy, has always been open (too open according to family members), I have suddenly developed what other people call “BOUNDARIES.”
And yet, it is often other people crossing those boundaries who remind me why this life is worth living. It is other people reaching across that invisible divide who remind me that the world is not such a terrible place, that for all its tragedies, there are constant ongoing miracles that touch us all every day. Today’s miracles included:
1. reading Tova Mirvis’s amazing book about the powerful effect a convert can have on the Jewish community, “The Ladies Auxiliary.” A year ago, I was utterly incapable of cracking a book open without experiencing excruciating pain. I discovered the joys of audio books but I always missed holding a book, the exquisite smell of the paper and curling back every sumptuous page.
2. spending Shabbos lunch with a friend, a fellow chronic pain suffer, who melted the icy layer around my heart this week with her angelic hands (ah, the joys of acupressure) and her incredible energy in the face of such adversity.
3. opening up fan letters from two perspective converts who said my story had resonated them and given them clarity. No, I don’t think this lifestyle is for everyone but I am grateful that my life for all its unmentionable horrors and as inexplicable beauty has been a comfort to others.
And with that, it’s time for some sweet dreams.
Here's my response to the writer:
I like to think that I am finally becoming comfortable with the feeling of being an outsider and an insider at the same time. And I didn't reach that point until, on top of my Dominican identity and my American identity, I had added on my Jewish identity. Most of the writing I do is about negotiating these three different cultures that often have conflicting messages. Perhaps, I am not supposed to find a home in Israel, America or even the Dominican Republic. Perhaps, the home I have to find is within myself and that's the home I have to embrace.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Next year, I will be following my husband to wherever he is appointed as a rabbi. But when a friend in Israel suggested we look for jobs there, I recoiled. Israel, with all the current bureaucracy surrounding conversion, doesn’t look particularly inviting. But even living outside of Israel, I can’t escape the Israeli rabbinate who has managed to stretch its long arm around the world to ensure conversions are more difficult in the diaspora for Orthodox Jews.
Only a handful of Orthodox rabbis can now perform conversions in America through a handful of batei din approved by the Israeli Rabbinate. A convert can’t even begin to study towards their conversion without being approved by one of these courts. And all those who converted before the new, stricter guidelines still aren’t sure if they are really “kosher” according to Israel.
And now, the Interior Ministry seeks to impose new, stricter guidelines on all diaspora converts, even the Orthodox, wishing to immigrate to Israel. The guidelines are simple enough: (a) a minimum of 350 hours study in a Jewish community, (b) 18 months must be spent in the community that does the conversion and (c) of those 18 months, 9 months must be spent in the community to prove a true commitment to Judaism. But each guideline has a deeper, more insidious meaning.
Where the Israeli rabbinate has gotten the Orthodox rabbinate in America to submit to its will, the Interior Ministry has gone one better. The new guidelines will be imposed not just on all diaspora converts but on all diaspora rabbis. Whereas the Israeli rabbinate will continue to watchdog over all Orthodox conversions and the rabbis who perform them, the Interior Ministry will bend diaspora rabbis from all streams to their will. The real message: rabbis cannot be trusted. So even for converts who only nominally flirt with the idea of ever wanting to immigrate to Israel, conversion standards will have to change.
I picture converts from all streams walking around with timesheets taped to their chests. How else will we track those minimum 350 hours of study? How else will we prove that every hour has been counted properly? Perhaps, there will be machines in synagogues where every convert can punch in. And how long before, the Israeli rabbinate or the Interior Ministry decides what is considered acceptable “study.” They will already be deciding which communities are recognized and which aren’t.
I spent only 6 months in the community that performed my conversion. It was too expensive to live there so after those 6 months, I loved to a more affordable one. And once those six months were over, I moved yet again to live in a community that was still more affordable. I don’t have timesheets to prove my 350 hours. I’m not sure if any of these communities were “recognized.” It doesn’t matter. I haven’t clocked in 18 months in any community and I didn’t put in 9 months after my conversion. Does this mean that while the Israeli rabbinate approves of my conversion the Interior Ministry will not allow me to immigrate? Good question. It is just one of many questions converts will be asking themselves soon.
I have a friend works for an organization doing Passover outreach to needy Jewish families. When she was going through applications, she discovered that piles of applications marked “Convert=Not Jewish” had been thrown into the trash. Her superiors assured her this was proper protocol because converts are not really Jewish. “They’re only pretending to be Jewish. “ While perhaps, the Interior Ministry and the Israeli Rabbinate do not hold so harsh a view, they are making one thing clear to converts. Converts will not be afforded the same respect as real Jews. Their status will always be in question. They will always be under suspicion. And though Jewish law demands we never oppress the convert, the Israeli rabbinate and the Interior Ministry will continue to do just that.
Closer to home, by the way, the RCA has invalidated conversion performed by Rabbi Avi Weiss with a beis din that included a rabbi who was himself a convert. For more on that, read "RCA Backtracks On Conversion Policy".
Someone asked me to define "sheitel" today. And as usual, I was only too happy to explain. I always find it incredible when I get to explain the Orthodox Jewish world to other people. It makes me feel smart.
And the person I was talking to was also under the misconception that women are supposed to cover their hair to look unattractive to other men. (No, sometimes that's just the byproduct of the situation.) It is interesting to note that this person I was talking to believes that it doesn't seem right that women can just cover their hair with hair that looks even better than theirs. But doesn't everyone secretly want to have a good hair day every day?
I do think we need to do better PR for the Orthodox community with intermarried couples. Intermarried couples who have good experiences in the community tend to become good frum couples where the non-Jewish couple converts because of a real love of Judaism. This does not mean that I am pro-intermarriage.
As for gays, I have whole books on the subject. It is a subject very close to my heart for reasons I have previously mentioned on this blog. I have seen so many good friends suffer. I believe that homosexuality is something that you are born with which means that G-d put homosexuals on Earth with us for a reason. And while I do believe in halakha (always and forever), I will not stop speaking to or isolate myself from gay friends anymore than I will stop speaking to my witch sister or my Christian friends. (Incidentally, my grandmother still talks to me even though she obviously disagrees with some of my lifestyle choices. She would be much happier if I accepted Jesus.)
This blog is not about rabbinics. There are plenty of nice friends of mine who are rabbis and are blogging about things from a rabbinic point of view. This blog is about my feelings and my most random thoughts, how I see and struggle with the world.
P.S. Like I said in another comment, don't make the mistake of thinking a public figure is a role model. This is why our kids in America look up to basketball players and Paris Hilton. I am no more a role model than Lindsay Lohan is.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
“You’re a hypocrite,” he said but he didn’t use those words exactly. He tried to be polite about it even though it was obvious from his tone that every single hair on my head had offended his sensibilities. How could I trumpet my love for Orthodox Judaism with every breath, he wanted to know, but then walk around the world with my head uncovered?
(I like these except for the fact that if you're Hispanic and wearing the wrong color, you could get shot at in the ghetto.)
I just stood there stunned, mouth half opened, defenses down. I had just finished what I thought was a good speech on the story of my conversion and I hadn’t expected to be attacked, not in this way. And I wondered: Didn’t he see the brown and white poka dot headband/bandana I had carefully picked out this morning or had my head covering totally been swallowed up by my curly afro? It wouldn’t have been the first time this had happened.
(Exhibit A: Bulbous head.)
Before I converted, I practiced covering my hair. I was studying at a school in Israel and I battled the Jerusalem heat by whisking my afro away into a head scarf. It didn’t even matter too much that because my hair was so big (never long) I looked like a cross between Marge Simpson or the alien from the Sigourney Weaver movies with its equally bulbous head.
(Yea, that's pretty much what I look like, eh?)
And when I finally got married, I went into frenzied shopping for head coverings. I noticed the ones I liked on my married friends and other congregants at shul and I bought them by the dozen. But when the head coverings arrived, they didn’t fit. In a beret, it looked like a mushroom was growing out of my head. The head scarves wouldn’t cover my mass of curly locks. And worst, no matter what I used to cover my head, my hair became brittle, broken and misshapen. I was embarrassed to uncover my hair in front of my husband.
So I shaved it.
I made a joke about it to my husband beforehand and then I went and actually did it. I went to a Dominican hair salon much like the ones my mother had taken me to every week to straighten every curl on my head ever since the moment around my third birthday when she noticed aghast that I had “bad hair.” I’ll never forget those hair stylists from my childhood who protested that my hair was too wild to tame and overcharged my mother every visit. They made cutting comments about my “bad hair” as they blew it straight with hair dryers that burned my ears.
So after about a month of being married, I got a buzz cut. The woman at the hair salon protested. She said my hair was too gorgeous to cut off. I didn’t even pause to let it sink in. This was the first and only Dominican woman who had every complimented my hair. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother had all nearly died of heart attacks when I rebelled against their racist regime by refusing to straighten my hair at age 16. I spent the years after fighting off their disgusted glares and comments that whittled away at my self-esteem.
(Oh, the sadness when I realized I couldn't contort my hair into this hair scarf pretzel.)
My husband nearly passed out when he saw my nearly bald head. He didn’t think it was attractive. He missed every blessed curly lock. His friends tried to console him while my hair grew back. And when it finally did, he made me promise never to shave it again.
A year passed by, a year of bad hair days and ill-fitting hair coverings, before I finally returned to a hair stylist, a curly hair specialist who cooed over my natural, never been dyed, never been straightened, mane. But in the midst of cutting it, she noticed that the hair on the top of my head was thinning. She said she’d seen it before in other Sephardic clients who covered their hair. She explained my hair was too thin, too fine, and too fragile to be covered constantly. I was dazed. Now, my hair wasn’t just ugly from covering it, I was losing it too?
But I wouldn’t stop covering my hair. No, never that. So I took to wearing headbands and bandanas that let my hair breathe.
I tried to ignore the comments my friends murmured from under their sheitels at weddings where they wondered aloud if “that was how I was covering my hair now” and “why don’t you just straighten it or cut it?”
Incidentally, I had worn a sheitel once and discovered that much like many hats even the roomiest sheitels could not fit over my massive hair. Incidentally, I had discovered that when I covered my whole head people assumed I was born Jewish, Sephardic even, and they were more likely to make racist comments in front of me because they were sure there was no one in the room (surely not an undercover Hispanic girl) to offend. And when I showed just a little bit of hair, I watched as people stared pointedly at my hair before they asked me if I had converted to Judaism.
So, yes, in case you missed it, I am miserable.
How have I managed to go from family members putting me down for what naturally grows on my head to being put down by Jewish women (and men) who think my head coverings are insufficient? Why was I explaining that my head coverings often cause fibromyalgia flare-ups that lead to mind-blowing pain across the nerves on my scalp? Why was I even bothering to explain myself to anyone? Why did I need their acceptance?
There don’t seem to be any easy options. I can cover my hair and keep losing it. I can cover my hair and keep suffering. I can cover my hair any which way and there will always be someone to judge me for my decisions, someone to decide that my choice that day (scarf? Rasta beret? headband? bandana?) is either too religious or not religious enough.
But I don’t want to be miserable so I think it’s about time I got some cojones and spoke up.
How I cover my hair is between me and G-d! How I cover my hair is my business, not yours! And just in case you missed that last memo, butt the hell out of my business. Oh, and just so you know, I will not be responsible for my actions if you ignore this warning. If you really need someone to judge, start by looking in the mirror.
Though I've since given up the need for caffeine, I thought that as part of my husband's acculturation process I would introduce him to Cafe Bustelo. He was high for days. He, apparently, had never had the hard stuff before. But now, like a good husband, he swears by Dominican coffee.
Recently, we've taken it up to the next level. We're getting our coffee straight from Dominicanos, and organic no less, thanks to Liga Masiva. Our first package just arrived. We ripped open the package and our nostrils were met with the most delicious smelling coffee we had ever sniffed. We're hooked and I know you want to be.
“You spend the morning and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They’ve got that twist, a little trip that delights you. And you hope they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row. They often come when you’re fiddling around with something that’s already there. You see it by revising a word order or taking something out, suddenly it tightens into what it was always meant to be.”
Yea, that's about right.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I felt like I had only just left Brooklyn since I had just recently spoken at the Hillel. But this was quite a different crowd. Easily the crowd was just as diverse, if not more, with plenty of non-Jews in the mix as it would seem my identity issues didn’t just speak to Jews but also to a wider audience. While many of my jokes fell flat (or splat as the case maybe), some ran across cultures. I think what was great about giving these speeches was that some people really seemed to take to my out of the box thinking, my idea that people don’t fix into the tiny boxes we try to force them in, that people are more than boxes. It's not an innovative thought but it's a thought I'm chewing over aloud.
And as usual, there were some killer questions that made me fantasize about returning to teaching just so I could answer them from that little throne I called a classroom. Among the questions asked:
“Will you support your children if they decided to go a different way? Perhaps, if they decide to become Christian?”
I think I surprised the student when I said, “Well, no. I think that most parents like to think they’re creating children in their own image, imbuing them with their own cultural values. We want to hope that they pick what we have chosen because we believe it's the best way but that is not always the case.” Later on, I clarified that while my grandmother, for instance, is not SUPPORTIVE of the fact that I’m Jewish, because she would much rather that I be "a baby Jesus lover," she does still accept me, that I’m still the same me that I have always been and that I will always be her grandchild despite issues that would threaten to divide us.
Another fun question because I had been pondering it myself was:
"Where would I choose to live if for some reason, in some alternative universe, the Dominican Republic, Israel and America all went to war?"
The guy asking the question was pretty adamant that he felt the most spiritual in Israel and I think many Jews, including myself, would agree. But would I leave my blu-ray DVD player behind for the possibility of losing electricity constantly in DR or for roughing it in those sparse apartments in Jerusalem? I told them that I think as Jews we always have to be wary, history has seen fit to document that almost every country in the world has screwed us at some place in time but there will always be Jews who feel more comfortable in the diaspora as well as Jews who feel more comfortable in our homeland, Israel.
And the last question that sticks out was about the way I cover my hair!!! I thought this kind of question was reserved for weddings or for when my husband becomes rabbi of some congregation that wants to mold me in their image. The black-kippah-wearing professor who posed the question said that I presented a dichotomy by saying that I loved and followed Orthodoxy but then did not cover my hair. My latest fashionable poka dot headband was not cutting it for him. And was it my imagination or did I hear him telling some student that it didn’t matter what I called myself, if I wasn't following things to the letter of the law I wasn’t Orthodox? The fact that fibromyalgia and head coverings often do not mix and that I strive to always have a little something in my hair (despite the fact hats and sheitels do not often fit on my head) was an excuse according to him.
Heavy, right? It’s an interesting position I put myself in. I let it all hang out (or so it seems) and that leaves room for people to judge, question and remark on the way I love with my life. I’m still not sure if I’m following G-d’s plan, if living my life in this kind of spotlight is what’s in the cards for me. But for now, I am happy sharing parts of my life with all these different people, even the ones who would rather I wasn’t sharing at all.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Read this: "Rape Trees" Found Along Southern US Border" and you might throw up but learn why Phoenix has apparently become the kidnapping capital of the US.
Latina magazine further explored this atrocity in an article, "The Steep Price of Immigration" that discussed how common rapes are for women who are coming over the border? Is this how far we will go to protect America?
(Okay, confession: I'm at least 1/16 Puerto Rican.)
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Saturday, March 14, 2009
All of my sisters are a different color and the color of our skin changes in the sun, with the seasons and darkens as with age.
I started out a milky white with Asiatic eyes so it wasn't just for my brains that I was called "white girl." But the joke as a baby was that I was Chinese. But I grew up into a trigueñita, a wheat-colored girl, even turning a glorious brown one summer in the Dominican sun.
My younger sister was a darker white and eventually, she looked like an Indian Princess. She was the darkest of all of us. She looked like Disney's Pocahontas and I was jealous because I wanted to be look just as beautiful and exotic.
My other sister was also born pale but by the time she was an adult, her skin was a rich, luminescent golden color.
(But my youngest sister, my half-sister from a different father, was born green. Really. We were horrified. Our mother had baby photos taken of her despite her green skin. Eventually, it turned a nice normal color, an olive tone with some yellow-brown mixed in for good measure.)
This swath of colors was the product of my pale-skinned father whose father's nickname was Blanco (white) and my dark-skinned mother that he playfully called Morena because of her brown skin. It had never occured to me to think of myself as biracial though throughout my childhood into adulthood people often assumed I was half-white, half-black.
Decades of intermixing between Spaniards, Africans and Taíno natives on the island have dictated the pigmentation of all Dominican families: a swirl of white, yellow and brown.
When my green little sister stopped being green, she decided she wanted to be chocolate. She gawked at the yummy color of the African-American girl my aunt fostered and she wanted to be chocolate just like her. We assured her that she was a nice color herself, cafe con leche, and because we loved our expresso with milk, we told her it was a delicious color to be.
In Selina Alko's new picture book, "I'm Your Peanut Butter Big Brother," her biracial son imagines what his new sibling will look like. What will the baby's skin color be? Will it be like his? What will her hair texture be? Will it be like his? And most importantly, what flavor will the baby be? Will she be a semisweet dark chocolate bar like her father? Or strawberry cream milk like her mother? Or more like her brother with his cotton candy hair and peanut butter skin?
You can check out more pages from the book on Alko's website.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Yes, I'm a hybrid and I'm proud of it!
But do you agree with Andre Cordescu's point that "setting apart one's tribe or nation ends inevitably in war." Obviously, Jews set themselves apart. We're the "chosen" people and by that we mean that G-d gave us a whole bunch of rules we werent meant to follow and that by our actions, show the world that G-d is where it's at.
Someone asked me if by hyphenating my identity, I am setting myself apart and keep the status quo of identifying by meaningless markers like race and culture. But I never said that race and culture were meaningless, they are very much a part of who I am. They are only rendered less meaningful when they are used to oppress people (as with racism and anti-Semitism). Where I once wanted to just say "I'm American" and blend in, I demand to hyphenate. Jewish Dominican America, Dominican American Jew and still call myself as American as anyone else.
"Ideas of race purity lead to genocide." And they did during the Holocaust. But Jews, despite being commanded to marry within the tribe, have never claimed to be a racially pure people. We can incorporate anyone who chooses to ride the G-d lovin' wagon with us. More over, interrmarriage, conversion and adoption have ensured that we are as hybrid as it gets.
I want to crawl in a hole and lie there for days. I am in so much pain. On the bright side, my blog was talked up in the Manhattan Times, Manhattan's bilingual paper for Northern Manhattan. In a word (or two): muy cool.
Check it out.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
It sickens me when I hear jokes about gays in the Orthodox community. (On Shabbos, it was jokes about same sex marriages). It also sickens me when I hear stereotypes being trumpeted like facts. (On Purim, it was a joke about how gays men are all about being part-Martha Stewart, part-man. I've also had someone tell me they were glad their friend went through "brainwashing" workshops to make him straight. (Right, so he could then marry some poor woman and make her life miserable like my ex-boyfriend had made mine?)
No one ever thinks there might be someone gay in the room, just like they don't worry someone might be offended by their racist joke. To me, they all fall under the same disgusting hate crime category. Perhaps this is why Heshy Fried is worried about his gay friend coming out in the Orthodox community.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
She lives in a Jewish neighborhood and she caught a parade of Jewish people wandering around the 'hood dressed in costumes.
Here's what I told her:
Purim is a crazy little holiday. :)
Like Chanukah, it's one of the holidays where we can work and use phones and stuff (unlike Shabbos and some of the days of Passover, etc). Where do I begin?
Basically, there was a King way back when who had a guy, Haman, working for him who decided he hated Jews. And like usual, the guy, Haman, tried to wipe out the Jews by turning the King against them. But what the King and Haman didn't know was that the Queen (Esther) was Jewish!!! She came, at the last minute, and divulged this little secret, got the guy Haman killed and the King on her side. Jews still had to kick butt because Persian law said a law on the books couldn't be revoked. But the king was on there side so the Jews triumphed.
Also, the book of Esther which we read on Purim is the only book that does not mention G-d. And so on Purim, we celebrate the hiddenness of G-d, all the mysterious ways G-d helps us and shows love for us.
To celebrate that hiddenness, we even disguise ourselves. And we get drunk, totally drunk, so that we can't tell the bad guys from the good guys. At night, we go to shul and hear the Megillah Esther, the book of Esther, read aloud and every time the bad guy's name is mentioned everyone boos, stomps their feet and uses those groggers from New Year's Eve. And the following morning we read the book again in synagogue and afterwards, we have a big feast where people drink some more!
Most Jewish holidays are about joy, triumph against adversity (you know, how I know about all that) and of course, FOOD!!!!
Pretty Woman moment. My akwardness is not just about being a convert, it's about growing up on welfare and now being surrounded by "rich" Jews.
I am in a Julia Roberts movie! Remember when she can’t figure out how to eat lobster and mistakenly launches it across the room and yells, “Slippery little suckers.” Yeah, that’s me, only I’ve done projectile salad. Specifically, tomatoes.
I remember when the high school students at the inner-city public school where I taught asked me if all Jews were rich. I said that indeed they were not. Certainly, there would be no trust fund awarded to me at the end of the conversion process so that I could join the Jews that were rich.
Sadly, there was also no Miss Manners school to prepare me to make the leap from growing up on welfare to hobnobbing with middle and upper class Jews. They had day school educations; I went to a public school without enough books or chairs. They had mutual funds; I had $25 in my savings. I had barely survived a haredi conversion school in Israel and I knew how I would have fared at finishing school. Badly. You see, I have no manners.
I tend to blurt things out. I tell people they’re racist at the Shabbos table after they make jokes about Mexican housekeepers. I’m not actually Mexican but being Dominican is close enough for discomfort.
I don’t know how to eat at a table. It doesn’t help that growing up I ate dinner in my bed in front of the TV with my three siblings who spilled so much rice, beans and chicken on my pillowcases and sheets that I had to beat the cockroaches away at night.
I call the Republican next to me classist after he asks, “Do you really want your tax dollars going to poor people?” I explain that if it hadn’t been for the welfare checks my mentally ill mother collected throughout my childhood, I wouldn’t be alive today.
I have been told that I am frequently “inappropriate for the Shabbos table.” I make people laugh. I make people cry. Sometimes, I make everyone at the table stop talking altogether. Social norms and cultural codes go over my pretty little head. Why is homosexuality too controversial when the state of my ovaries is not? Talk of my fractured family too intense but pleasantries about manic shopping sprees okay? It’s never a secret that I am a convert, a stranger, in the Orthodox Jewish world.
I made myself a chart of do’s and don’ts after one particularly memorable meal. It didn’t help. When I finally lost a friend over my manners (or lack thereof), I proclaimed myself “The Worst Guest in the World.” Of course, our friendship ended over email. I was indicted on two counts of putting my feet up on the furniture, three counts of serving myself before others and one count of not excusing myself before leaving the table.
But weddings are by far the worst. I have only a fuzzy recollection of the one wedding I attended as a child. I remember pulling the door open for the limo and then all the rest of the memories are gone. I attended one Jewish wedding before I had my own. And the first year I was married, I was invited to back-to-back weddings where I cried at the bottom of my closet before each one, feeling intensely shallow for having nothing to wear, nothing in the right shade of appropriate black. Where was Richard Gere with his unlimited Amex to save me? One time I bought a new dress the same day and changed in the backseat on the way to a wedding. I thought if I looked right, it wouldn’t matter that I had no idea what was going on or how to act.
I walked into the latest wedding in my too red lipstick, my too red shirt and my mismatched headscarf instantly felt like a blazing, scarlet letter. I was swallowed by the sea of expensive sheitels and fancy hats everyone else was wearing. I bit my lip as my self-esteem plummeted several notches. I tried to remind myself this was the bride’s day, not mine. I mean, no one was going to notice me.
As my husband headed for coat check, I piled food onto my plate from the buffet stand at the bedeken. I hadn’t eaten before arriving or maybe it went deeper and overeating stemmed from a childhood worry about not knowing when to expect your next meal. I worried little about looking like a pig when I sat at a nearby bistro table. I was eating some juicy appetizer when a friend, a dentist, approached me and asked me to translate some words her patients had tried to teach her the day before. She related the words in slow Spanish. I laughed.
“Those are dirty words!” I said.
“But what do they mean?” she asked.
I told her. Too loudly. The couple sitting across from us got up, gave me a long, disgusted look and stalked off.
“Oops,” I said as I watched them walk away.
“What happened?” my husband asked popping up from behind me.
“You know, someday you’re going to be a Rebbetzin (a rabbi’s wife),” he said shaking his head.
“I know,” I answered glumly. That meant there would be plenty more non-wedding opportunities to lodge my size 7 foot into my big, big mouth.
Later, on the dance floor, an old friend whispered in my ear. “Is that how you’re covering your hair? Is that considered covering?” If I actually drank alcohol, I would have headed for the bar. Instead, I headed for our table. What had happened to going unnoticed?
At the table, the fear of making a future faux pas overtook me. It was all I could think about and so I probed my friends with questions like: Do you have to send a thank you card to everyone after a Shabbos meal? Do people do Chanukah cards?
When dinner was served, I decided the table was out to get me. There were too many glasses in front of me and more silverware spread across the tablecloth than I knew what to do with. I looked around wildly for my husband but I couldn’t find him. With a sigh, I picked up the nearest fork and started chomping away at my salad. That’s when my friend returned from the bathroom and said, “Has anyone seen my fork?”
She looked in my direction.
“Oops,” I said smiling sheepishly though I could feel the lettuce stuck between my teeth. I handed her another fork which I wasn’t sure actually belonged to me. Then I made a quick grab for one of the random, empty wine glasses in front of me.
“That’s my glass,” another voice said when I had my hands around a stem.
“Sorry!” I apologized. My hot face surely now matched my too red lipstick.
I saw my husband walking over and I gestured to the glasses in front of me and mouthed, “Is this one mine?”
No one told me that the conversion process was not over when I stepped out of the mikvah. That it would be never-ending. The ensuing period of cultural and class integration has left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. In the pit of my stomach, I always worry I’m doing things wrong or saying the wrong thing. I am a mere pauper trying to pretend I grew up as a princess. I’m frequently told I’m funny when I’m not trying to be. I’m told I’m brave for frequently saying what no one else will say when really, I don’t realize why no one else was saying it.
Some memories still make me cringe. Early in the conversion process, I tried to shake a rabbi’s hand. He demurred kindly. After hearing a friend’s good news, I bought her a $25 gift certificate for baby goodies. Another friend gently pointed out that the cultural norm is to wait until after the baby is born to buy gifts. I even lost one friend because she labeled my table manners uncouth. Didn’t I know I was supposed to help serve everyone else before myself? I even managed to break her fancy dining chair.
And it took several trips to Macy's and several boring black dresses before I realized I was never going to blend in at any fancy affair. I was never going to be cast in the part of nice, Ashkenazi Jewish white girl. I was going to be different no matter what.
But I still found myself apologizing for things frequently. I apologized for not knowing what to do and when. I apologized for not knowing what to say and how. I apologized for frequently “murdering” my husband, my friends and myself through embarrassing circumstances. Still, miscommunication abounded. Cultural cues confused. Social norms seemed to change at whim. After every excruciating social event, I went home and played them back and tried to make sense. But I still felt like a wolf trying to pretend to be sheep.
My super appropriate friend said the first time she met me she thought I was a little crazy. In my defense, she caught me in the midst of wedding planning.
“Gee thanks,” I said with an eye roll. “And now?”
“You’re just you,” she said. “I don’t know anyone else quite like you.”
I furrowed my eyebrows in the way that creases my forehead and begs for Botox. (Just kidding.)
“That’s a compliment,” she said.
I realized that it was.
I wasn’t supposed to be trying to be like sheep or penguins if I was really a wolf. It about time I stopped apologizing for being me.
On Shabbos, when a woman at synagogue stared at the hiking boots underneath my skirt and made a face, I smiled at her.
“They’re really comfortable,” I said eyeing her heels. They were probably worth three times as much as my boots and they didn’t have had any space for my orthotics.
She smirked. I smiled. No apologies ensued.
Someday I’ll be able to tell the difference between a desert spoon and a soup soon. Someday I’ll even learn how to set a table properly. And maybe part of my conversion process is a crash course in a finishing school run by my peers. But somehow along the way, I forgot that there were plenty of people who accepted me just for being me. Because I didn’t.
I was too busy worrying about fitting in. Too busy forgetting how far I’d come. The first college graduate in my family was me. The first to obtain a Master’s was me. Despite being a first-generation American, a child of poor native Spanish speakers, I became an English teacher who inspired students from similar backgrounds. Plenty of people were proud of me, except me.
Maintaining my membership in the Jewish club was never going to hinge on table manners as faux pas after faux pas had convinced me. No one was going to revoke it if I never learned which fork was mine. I was a lifetime member. But perhaps, the greatest lesson Judaism has taught me is that G-d wants me to be the best me I can be. And I can’t do that unless I learn to accept myself. So I’ve got some work to do.