Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
June 27, 2016 by Amelia Dornbush
“You aren’t really a convert, though.”
I have heard these words numerous times. Usually from friends trying to exclude me from whatever comment they are about to make about converts. Instead of making me uncomfortable, these moments remind me of the varied ways there are to be Jewish.
My Jewish journey isn’t typical—but whose is? My Dad began his conversion to Judaism when I was thirteen, and my Mom followed shortly after, saying she felt like she had discovered that she had always been Jewish late in life. Dad was of Jewish descent on his father’s side, and conversion was like coming home for him.
I spent my adolescent years rebelling against Judaism. Mom forced me to come downstairs on Friday night for our new family tradition—my parents saying Shabbat prayers while I pointedly remained silent. For me, religion was a disingenuous way to make the world easier.
When I started college, Dad persuaded me to go to Hillel for the free food. “Do you really think I’d sell out my principles for free food?” I asked when he first suggested the idea. “Your principles are free food,” he countered.
Feeling like he had a point, I went.
Hillel became my home on campus. My obsessive-compulsive disorder was undiagnosed, and Hillel kept my head from sinking too far beneath the water. I attended services weekly and slowly came back to a better mental space. Despite my best efforts and insistence that I wasn’t Jewish, I began thinking of myself as such anyway. Upon realizing this, I told our Jewish student life advisor that I wanted to convert and began the formal process.
Just over two years later, I emerged from the mikveh. The ritual was meaningful, and I was glad to have experienced it. Nevertheless, I did not feel like it had made me a Jew. At some point, without my noticing, I had become Jewish long before.
Did I choose Judaism? Perhaps. I chose to go to Hillel, I chose to be examined before a beit din, and I chose to submerge myself in a mikveh. Yet, I chose neither my family history nor my now Jewish parents. My history and my family cannot be chosen or unchosen. Before I officially converted, I remembered wishing to myself that I wasn’t Jewish. I then realized that—according to the religious law at least—I wasn’t. I thought about what it would mean not to be Jewish, and realized it wasn’t an option. Paradoxically, the moment I no longer wanted to be Jewish was the moment I knew I was a Jew.
Because of this, I hate the term “Jew by Choice.”
The phrase creates a false binary between those who choose to be Jewish and those born with Judaism. Not only does it assume that those who converted had a completely autonomous individual choice to opt-in to Judaism, it implies that those who were born Jewish have no agency in their Jewish identity. This sits poorly with me. I have multiple relatives who would halakhically be considered Jewish, but are not viewed as such by themselves or the outside world.
What, then, does being Jewish mean? It is not only a religion—Judaism houses avowed atheists. It is not only a set of political beliefs—Judaism houses those with directly contradictory political positions. It is not only a culture—Judaism houses many cultures, as well as converts without a culturally Jewish background.
I’ve come to see Judaism as a relationship with, rather than adherence to, a given set of texts, religious practices, histories, cultures, and/or political views. We can be Jewish by “refusing to cross a picket line” (as one civil rights veteran described the Judaism passed to him from his parents), by eating latkes, by keeping kosher, or by gleefully breaking kashrut.
The phrase “Jew by Choice” is meant to be affirmational, but instead erases the ambiguities of my experiences and the experiences of so many others. Individual choice plays a role in Judaism, as do societal factors outside of anyone’s control. This is true regardless of whether one had a B’rit Habat as a baby or was examined by a beit din in their twenties. How can I do anything but reject a term that dichotomizes what should be a messy spectrum?
Amelia Dornbush officially converted to Judaism in the summer of 2013. She now celebrates Shabbat without coercion, though does not do so as often as she would like.