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Funny, You Don't Look Jewish

Funny, You Don't Look Jewish

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Why does everyone stare at me in shul? My hair is furrier, fuzzier and a foot taller than everyone else's. Even 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.

That was when I found out my family was staunchly anti-SemiticAt 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 anti-Semitic, 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?"
Um, G‑d.
"No, really? Don't you believe in Jesus?"
Um, no.
"You're going to hell."
Um, thanks?
"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 dedicationAlthough 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.

Aliza Hausman is a Dominican-American Latina and Orthodox Jewish convert (Jewminicana for short!), freelance writer, blogger and speaker.
Originally published in PresenTense Magazine.
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Discussion (128)
August 15, 2016
Whenever I attend an Orthodox (or Conservative) congregation in Houston, most of the "white" Jews look a lot like Aliza, and many others are black or Latina or Sephardic [middle eastern background).

Aliza, you look like a normal Jew. I can't imagine who goes to your synagogue, that they would fail to see you as SO Jewish.

I am so pleased with you, that you have chosen to live a Jewish life.

Welcome home~!
Hanalah
Rochester, NY
August 13, 2016
Aren't Ashkenazi Jews supposed to be partly of Mideastern Origin?
It's strange that you're considered non-Jewish looking? I have seen Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi women that look just like you. It seems to me that too many 'White Jews' forget that their most of their male ancestors who came to Europe were Mid-eastern Levantine men who married/converted local women in Roman Europe and picked up a few proselyte Roman Italian, Iberian and Greek men to join them. After all it's easier to convert/marry a local gentile than arrange to bring over Jewish women from Judaea, Alexandria and Antioch in Ancient Roman times! Perhaps since the rise of racial antisemitism and colonial racism in the 'White West', Europe's Jews desperately wanted to be seen as White to fit in. I think Armenians, Lebanese and Sicilians did the same thing in early 20th century America. It would be better for Jews to be less 'White' and go back to being a 'people of color' as that's where we came from and that's the future! Welcome to our tribe/faith!
Eric
London
January 27, 2016
Thank you!
As a half white, half black convert myself, I found myself avoiding the synagogue or large gatherings. I couldn't help but to be hurt by the oogely-eyed question "where did you say your mother goes to shul?" This article has given me a new breath of confidence and insight. It's better to laught than cry. Face this with strength and humor...Besides, the rabbis said it wasn't easy being a Jew!
Anonymous
December 21, 2015
You look very Jewish to me. Even your facial expression is Jewish.
Ann
Dallas
December 20, 2015
Hey lots of Jews have "fuzzier hair", my grandmother was a Jew from Poland and had a Jewfro. No worries :)
Anonymous
August 10, 2015
I'd like to also say you look as Jewish as I do I get called Israeli here in Williamsburg and I'm ethnic Hungarian decent. Hatzlocha rabba! :-)
Naftali Racz Yerushalmi
Williamsburg, New York
February 17, 2015
funny, you don't look Jewish
I like the author's frankness and positive outlook.
Many converts turn inwards and feel sad when they face the same reality ,but Aliza's sense of humor and sunny disposition has made it a different experience for her altogether.
I'll stick out like a sore thumb too , but if I do get to be among you I will remember this story and smile.
Anonymous
February 13, 2015
There are Europeans who convert t become Jews, and since "white" means "of European extraction" that means that "white" Jews exist.

But most Ashkenazic Jews have only a slight European heritage. Our Jewish heritage is Middle Eastern, which is to say, Asian. Jews tend to be Asian. But we have converts who are white, black, east Asian, and what-have-you.

(As for you, Aliza, you LOOK like an Ashkenazi Jew to me. You even have the facial expression. You certainly look more Jewish than I do.)
Hanalah
Austin
February 13, 2015
Re: Pete from LA, unfortunately, there is much truth in what you said. It is easy to do the right thing when you don't have much to lose but far more difficult when you have everything to lose. Years ago, Jews were on the fringe of American society and it has long impressed me that people with less are nicer and actually do more. It is a sad state of affairs when one would turn his back on a culture thousands of years old for the sake of a zip code. I was brought up with "nouveau riche" people, mostly Wasp, who were self serving and not nice and I think it is a reflexion of new money more than anything else. Well,, have to go to work but hope to resume this discussion later.
JDV
July 12, 2012
Ethnic Judaism
If 85 percent of Jews in the world are ethnic Ashkenazi Jew then what is so hard to understand when people say you do not look Jewish? I don't have any idea if the statistic I quoted is correct. The source was very suspect but that aside . I am an atheist who once looked up to the Jewish people but I lost my innocence in the last few decades because of Israeli policies and because Jews seem much different now when it comes to social policies. It seems much more self serving now to me and much less magnanimous towards others. Jews were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. What happened to them? I hope I don't get a bunch of emails accusing me of anti antisemitism.
Pete
LA, CA