It was Shabbos, and I was about four years old. I sat in the back room at Shul with the other children and the new childcare leader, who I remember as a smiling woman with long black hair. We sang “modeh ani” and the Shabbos dinosaur song, and played red rover. Most weeks, I tried to sneak out at some point to find my mom in the women’s section. This week was no exception. When the childcare leader’s back was turned, I reached above my head and pressed down on the heavy metal door handle.
“Baila!” she said. I jumped. “You can’t go out there and bother the adults.”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” I said. “You’re not Jewish!”
I don’t remember how I found out that she was in the process of converting – I must have heard my parents or some other members of the congregation talking about it. But I do remember quite clearly the feeling that Jews were better than other people, that we had the moral upper ground. I was certain that the reason she was stuck in the back with the kids was because she wasn’t a real adult, she was some in-between being that was out of place and certainly had no authority over me.
My parents gave me a talking-to afterwards. Like most of the rebukes that followed my frequent outbursts of childhood honesty, this one focused on what we are supposed to say and what we are not supposed to say in front of other people. If my parents took a moment to tell me that the sentiment behind my words was wrong, I don’t remember it.
* * *
I don’t know when I found out that my mother was a convert. At a young age, I knew. I started reading books at age seven, and I used to lie in bed and imagine myself as the main character in an epic story. I would read and reread On a Golden Chain, a novel about a woman who finds out that she is secretly Jewish (and has a surprise ultra-Orthodox identical twin). I knew that a good story had to start with some kind of grand upheaval in my life. In between daydreams of finding out that I was secretly adopted and gaining the ability to fly, I would imagine that my mother’s conversion was invalid and that one day Rabbi Bukiet would knock on our door and tell me, “I’m sorry, but you’re not Jewish.” My family was Chabad, a picture of the Rebbe looming on the wall. A revelation like that would certainly be dramatic enough for a good story.
My mom frequently told me and my brothers, “We don’t tell people that I’m a convert when we first meet them. We only tell good friends. Some people can be judgmental.” I took her words to heart, and still do. Only my good friends know.
* * *
Once, when I was visiting my friend Amital at Princeton, we got into a conversation with a guy who identified as a cultural Jew.
“I don’t believe in converts,” he said. “Judaism isn’t a religion, really. It’s a culture. You can’t convert into a culture, that’s like cultural appropriation.”
Amital looked at me and said in Hebrew, “Should I tell him?”
“No, please don’t,” I answered.
“What did you say?” he asked. He looked at me. “Are you a convert?”
“No,” I said, and Amital and I both giggled. “Just something private. But anyway, even if you see Judaism as completely cultural today, you have to admit that it was mainly a religion for millenia. Judaism has had converts since Biblical times. Many of your ancestors converted, I’m sure. Why do you think you’re white?”
We continued the conversation like that – abstractly, academically, as though it didn’t have any real bearing on any of us.
* * *
In college, I met a convert my age for the first time. Her name was Angela, but within a few months she started going by Ayelet. She was a year above me and I wasn’t close with her, but every now and then we ate lunch together with a group of other observant Jews in the Kosher part of the cafeteria.
Why in the world does she want to convert? I found myself thinking. Judaism was such a hassle. It was logically inconsistent and logistically complicated. She chose to take time off for the holidays in the middle of finals? She chose to stand on the women’s side of the mechitza, the side that isn’t allowed to lead davening? She chose to believe in a deity that issued confusing orders left and right and then disappeared, never to be heard from again?
I know why I continue to practice Judaism into adulthood. I find spiritual meaning and intellectual engagement in the texts and rituals. But I don’t believe strongly in a Jewish God or in the aging legal system. If I were born Christian, I would have found the same meaning and engagement in that religion as I do in Judaism. In an alternate universe, if I were born into a different religion, there is no chance I would have chosen to convert to Judaism.
After eating lunch with Ayelet one day, I called my mom and asked her the question I’ve asked a thousand times: “Mom, why did you convert?” I used to ask this question to hear a familiar childhood story, an important part of my family history. This time I asked in genuine confusion.
She paused as if to think, then gave me the same answer she always did. “Well, when I was in Sunday school, they used to teach us lines from the Bible. I went home and looked up the quotes that my teacher brought from the text, and I saw that he was quoting them out of context and making the Bible say something that it didn’t really say. When I tried to ask about it in class, I was told not to ask questions. Judaism let me ask questions.”
For the first time, I pressed her. “But don’t you think that Judaism has a lot of unanswered questions, too?”
“I guess so,” she said. “But we’re allowed to ask. It’s a religion in search of truth.”
* * *
The story of Rut and Naomi is held up by our sages as the original conversion story. Moabite Rut follows her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to an unknown land where she is sure to face poverty and xenophobia. ‘Wherever you go, I will go,’ Rut says to Naomi. ‘Wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.’ In my life, the roles are reversed: my mother, the convert, is Naomi, confidently leading me to God’s promised land. And I am the foreign daughter, uncertain in the truth but following because of my loyalty to her. “Your God is my God.” Not a declaration of logical faith, but rather a declaration of love and commitment to my mother’s choice.
* * *
I was homeschooled until I was seven years old. My mother was my teacher. She taught me to read in Hebrew and English. She taught me math and davening. She taught me to bake bread and take challah. She taught me how to be a good person: visit the sick, keep shabbos, give tzedakah, be kind, make a bracha before eating, say thank you, wear a long skirt outside. Jewish and secular morals were intermingled to the point where even now, well into my adult life, I am unable to extract them from each other. To be a good person is to be a Jew. That is what my mother taught me.
* * *
Josh was my first serious boyfriend. We were walking out of the subway on our way to a date at an artsy coffee shop he liked. He was a student at Yeshiva University and loved to talk about niche Jewish topics.
“Yeah, a Cohen can’t marry a widow, a divorcee, or a convert, of course,” he said.
“It’s funny – you know, my dad was supposed to be a Cohen,” I said. I knew this would interest him. “But my mom is a convert.”
“Really?” he said, turning to look at me. “How?”
“Well, they made my dad’s mom testify that she wasn’t a virgin when she married my grandpa. In front of a Beis Din! They basically rescinded my dad’s Cohen status retroactively so that he could marry my mom.”
“Interesting,” he said. “Huh.”
“Yeah could you imagine my grandma getting up before a beis din and telling them that she had sex in college? You don’t know my grandma of course, but trust me, it’s pretty funny.”
“Which Rabbi did that?” he asked.
“Uh…Rav Dovid Feinstein, I think.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” he said. “You know, you’re probably not allowed to marry a Cohen.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “You should talk to a Rabbi about it, especially now that you’re dating.”
We walked in silence for a few seconds.
“You know,” he said finally. “It doesn’t bother me. Not everyone has a conventional background. If Rav Dovid says it’s okay, that’s good enough for me.”
“Huh?” I said. “Oh. Yeah, thanks.”
He was trying to make me feel welcome – to let me know that he saw me as just another Jew, like him. But I never felt more like an outsider in my life. My mind raced. Would some people not want to date me, because of my mother? I didn’t like that Josh saw me as someone who needed to be welcomed in. I was a Jew – that was my entire identity. I welcomed other people in. I didn’t need acceptance. I already belonged. Didn’t I?
After talking to my parents, I found Rabbi Bukiet, my parents’ Rabbi at the time that my mother converted, on Facebook. I messaged him:
“Hi Rabbi Bukiet,
I just turned 21 and I’ve started dating recently. At this life stage, I’ve decided to look into the details of my parents’ marriage and status to see how it might affect me. My dad remembers going through Rav Dovid Feinstein to get the psak. Would there be any way for me to get in contact with him to ask for more details? Or would you know?
I followed that with a second text giving him my phone number.
He called me over a month later. By that time Josh and I had broken up.
“Hi, Baila!” he said. “It’s so nice to hear your voice. I got your message. How are you?”
“Baruch Hashem,” I said. “How are you? How’s the Rebetzin?”
We caught up for a few minutes, then turned to the topic at hand.
“It’s probably best if you don’t date a Cohen,” he said eventually. “You’re not dating a Cohen, right?”
“No,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Just try to avoid it if you can. If you need anything else, please let me know.”
* * *
A couple of years later, I got engaged to Louis. Louis’s family background was complicated in the same way that mine was. His dad, Ben, was supposed to be a Levi just like my father was supposed to be a Cohen. But Ben’s own father, like my grandpa, had given up his Levi status – by marrying a non-Jewish woman. Ben’s mother was not Jewish, which meant that technically Ben was not Jewish. But then he married a Jewish woman and so he gave birth to Jewish kids, including Louis. But those kids were not Levi – that status had been Halachically lost. If Louis and I have children, they will be genetically 62.5% Jewish, and 100% of those Jewish genes will be from the tribe of Levi. But Halachically – they will be 100% Jewish and 0% Levi. Complicated enough? Great.
As we began to plan our wedding and the process of making Aliyah, we found that we had to explain both of our Halachically confusing family backgrounds over and over again. First, we had to explain to the Rabbi who was supposed to marry us, Rabbi Wieder at Yeshiva University. Before he would agree to marry us, he needed a copy of my mother’s conversion certificate. I sent it over to him. Then COVID hit and we ended up doing a two-part wedding so that our older family members wouldn’t have to travel, one part in my hometown in Florida and the other part in Louis’s hometown in California. That meant two more Rabbis! So we had to explain the situation again. Then, in the process of making Aliyah, we needed a letter from a Rabbi saying that we were Jewish. I went to my OU-JLIC Rabbi, who I had known for four years at that point. He needed my mom’s conversion certificate. No problem – it was already in my email inbox. I sent it right over. He needed to know Louis’s Jewish background. I explained it again. Then on the Nefesh b’Nefesh website itself, there was a question: “Are you Jewish through your mother? Jewish through your father?”
Each time I had to answer these questions, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. It was the same feeling I had with Josh – I know I’m Jewish, I know my parents are Jewish, so why do I feel like an outsider? Why do I have to keep explaining myself? There were no hitches in the process – my mother was converted by an eminent Orthodox Rabbi, so there were never any more questions after I sent over the conversion certificate. But having to validate my place in the community again and again was beginning to wear on me.
At some point, my mother’s conversion stopped seeming like a cool aspect of my life with the potential to make me the protagonist in an incredible story. It started seeming like a worry. Without that conversion certificate, I couldn’t get married. Without that conversion certificate, I couldn’t go to Israel – my home. And I will continue to need that conversion certificate to be accepted into the Yishuv I want to live in, maybe even to get my kids into school. I am a woman, so my children’s Jewishness will come from me.
My constant religious questioning also seemed suddenly illuminated in a different, more negative light: I was a Frum-from-birth woman entertaining new ideas at a secular, Ivy League college – yes, that was how I saw myself. But I was also the daughter of a convert, questioning Judaism. If I gave it up, my family would have been Jewish for only one generation. Would the community think of my leaving as a great loss to the Jewish people? Or would they say goodbye to me without a second thought? My mother’s conversion left me with a legacy of Jewish uncertainty.
* * *
For as long as I can remember, my mother was more religious than my father. When I was little, I would see her davening from her leather-bound Chabad Siddur every morning, while my Abba got ready for work. She went to Shul every Shabbos without fail, while my Abba eventually settled into a routine of staying home on the couch.
“What are you doing?” she shouted at him. “You need to take the kids to Shul. How else will they learn to be Jewish?”
But he would sit on the couch and complain that his head hurt, that he didn’t feel like seeing people, that he didn’t feel like davening. So she walked to Shul with me and my three younger brothers in tow, and gently shoved them through the door into the men’s section before bringing me with her to the women’s section. The boys didn’t have an adult to sit with. They would wander around awkwardly, visiting the candy man, before sneaking out the back to hang out with their friends in the hall. My mom and I stayed and davened.
According to a survey sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, this is a common phenomenon. The survey found that “more than 68 percent of converts, compared to 34.8 percent of non-converts, described themselves as ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ religious.” Similarly, “84 percent of converts and 44.8 percent of non-converts thought it was ‘important to have a religious identity’ and “73.8 percent of the converts and 59.5 percent of non-converts felt a ‘personal need to pray.’”
For this reason, when I had to answer the Nefesh b’Nefesh question about my Jewish parentage, I put down, “Jewish through my mother.”
I also follow my mother’s minhagim. While my family gradually drifted into Modern Orthodoxy, my mother continued to keep some Chabad practices. When I light candles, I say the bracha, “Lehadlik ner shel shabbos kodesh,” not “Lehadlik ner shel shabbat” – because that’s what my mother says. I only hard boil eggs in odd numbers – 3, 5, 7, etc. – because that’s what my mother does. When I got married, I decided to cover my hair the same way my mother does. My mother is a convert, but she is also the strongest link to Judaism in my ancestral chain.
* * *
My mom looks like a Jew. And not just any Jew – one Jew in particular. Her name is Batsheva, and she lives in Beit Shemesh. She is my mother’s doppelganger. Over the years, my mother has been approached by countless people. “Batsheva!” they say, “I didn’t know you were here in the States!” Once, at a pizza shop in Boca Raton, she even met Batsheva’s parents-in-law. They walked up to her and told her, “You look just like our daughter-in-law!” My mom said, “Oh – Batsheva?”
Whenever my mom goes to the doctor, she is told that she should be tested for certain cancer genes, as an Ashkenazi Jew. She explains that she converted. But they keep asking anyway, year after year.
I have a good friend that I’ve known since we were born. His name is Ari. Like me, his mother converted. But she is Asian-American. Even though he was born an Ashkenazi Jew, Ari looks very different. He’s married now to an Orthodox Israeli woman, and has a baby of his own. But it hasn’t been easy for him. When we were in high school, he had a sweater custom-made with a huge “made in China” label on the front (even though he’s never been to China). He was always quick to joke about his Asian features, before anyone else could. More than once, I’ve had the thought – I’m glad my mom “looks Jewish.” I’m glad I “look Jewish.” It’s an incredibly unfair situation for converts-of-color and their children. I think it’s an indignity that must change. But I’m also glad it’s not me.
* * *
Twice a year, my mom packed me, my brothers, and at least four Kosher pizza pies into our minivan and drove us three and a half hours north to Arcadia, Florida. Population: 7,637 – significantly more people than when my mother was growing up there. We drove to my Papa’s house, which was hidden at the back of a grove of orange trees outside of town. Garbage trucks didn’t drive all the way out there, so he burnt his own trash – recycling was, of course, out of the question.
Like all of my mom’s relatives, Papa had a thick southern accent. My mom used to speak just like the rest of them, but deliberately picked up a city accent around the time she converted and moved to Boca. Whenever she spoke to her family, though, the Southern accent returned. We could always tell she was on the phone with someone from Arcadia when we heard her Southern twang come through.
Papa used to play hide-and-seek-tag with us in the orange grove. My eight cousins, my brothers, and I ran squealing away from the menacing figure of his shadow, an outline of a man with a broad-brimmed hat. It was the most thrilling and fun game I can remember. Afterwards, we would gather for a large family dinner on Papa’s front porch: them with Pizza Hut pizza; us with our Kosher pizza, which had to be double-wrapped in tinfoil before it could be reheated in the oven.
My cousins were a diverse group. Uncle Gene married a Burmese woman, so his three children were Asian-American. Aunt Donna married a professor of Christian Bible studies, so her three children were religious church-goers who grew up knowing as much about the Bible as I did. Uncle Jeffery married a woman who was even more authentically Southern than the rest of the family, so his two children grew up hunting alligators (and eating them) and showing their hogs at the local hog fair. Then there was us – the Jewish cousins. One day, Papa remarked, “I never imagined I’d have some grandchildren who were half-Asian and some who were half-Jewish!”
Sometimes, Papa would have surprises waiting for us when we arrived at his house. More than once, a wooden cross larger than I was casually rested against the closet door in the bedroom I stayed in. Once, he quoted something and told me it was from the book of John.
“I haven’t read that,” I said politely.
“A girl your age should know the book of John,” he said.
My mother glared at him from the corner, and he didn’t say anything else on the subject. In my mother’s words: “he knows that if he pushes the point, I won’t bring you here anymore.” But these incidents were few and far between. Our small Jewish enclave made its way through Christian family gatherings with joy and love, and mostly without trouble.
As I grew older, I came to be grateful for the fact that I knew non-Jewish people. Thanks to my Orthodox upbringing, my mother’s family members were the only non-Jewish people that I knew. Most of my friends had never met non-Jews, outside of interactions with gas station clerks and mailmen. It added an awareness to my life that would later develop my understanding of what America looks like, and would help me understand and accept different cultures more easily.
* * *
Before moving to Israel, Louis and I were regular attendees of the Beis, a Shul in Washington Heights. One Shabbos, there was a special kiddush in honor of a couple that had just gotten married that week. During davening, the Rabbi called the groom up to the Torah for an Aliyah.
“Perry…do you have a Hebrew name?” the Rabbi said.
“Pinchas,” the man answered.
“Pinchas ben Avraham, shlishi!” the Rabbi said.
From that interaction alone – the “do you have a Hebrew name?” and the automatic “ben Avraham” – I immediately understood that the man was a convert. I was surprised when Louis told me later that he hadn’t noticed.
At the Kiddush, the Rabbi gave a speech. He said how happy he was for the new couple and wished them a happy life together. He also congratulated Perry on his first ever Aliyah, and welcomed him as a convert into the community. Perry stood awkwardly with his wife, smiling, but not mingling with the other community members.
Did the Rabbi ask Perry’s permission before announcing to everyone that he was a convert? I wondered. My mom would have been really bothered by that. The Rabbi didn’t mean anything by it, of course. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Rabbi’s flippancy towards conversion reflected well on him – he didn’t think conversion was a big deal or a reason to ostracize people. He thought it was worth congratulating, just like a marriage. He didn’t imagine that his words would have any negative effects for the convert, because it didn’t occur to him that negativity was possible. In an open, welcoming community like the Beis, he may very well be right.
Will Perry raise his children to avoid telling others about their father’s conversion? Or will he approve and echo the Rabbi’s openness? Will his children have doubts about their own place in the Jewish community? Or will they be able to accept their place without thinking twice? Will they spend their summers with people of different faiths, who live very different lives? Will they keep those magical family summers secret, or will they tell their friends about their family’s traditions? How will they feel? How will they live?