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A Time To Ask And A Time To Embrace

You, like me, have probably sat around countless Shabbos tables where the conversation started with, “So… were you born Frum? How did you get here?”.
Often, as the Matzo Ball Soup is being passed around, I anxiously await my turn as each girl spills out her entire life story in a record amount of time.

I have yet to find the words to put my life into 60 seconds-but in any case, I always wonder how people are so comfortable asking that as a first question.

Tablesetting by Jordan Arnold via Unsplash

One warm Shabbos afternoon, we sat around a big table. Girls from all kinds of different seminaries joining in on conversation-when the fateful question arose.

A lovely girl from Eastern Europe was the first picked to tell her story.
It was excellently interesting and definitely didn’t leave anyone stirring their soup with impatience-but it was the questions that followed that made me wonder if this was such an ethical question to ask your new guests after all.

” Why would you convert when you could just become a Noachide? ”

” Are people accepting of you? ”

” Your conversion isn’t over yet…don’t feel stuck-you can always back out! ”

” What do your parents think? ”

” Do you break Shabbos every week? You’re supposed to, you know. ”

With every question, I watched this girl’s face become pinker and pinker- clearly feeling a little put on the spot just as any of us would.

Of course, part of being a Baal Teshuva or a Convert is answering questions-and inevitably uncomfortable questions- but when do we stop?

Do we have to ask until the person is so visibly uncomfortable that she excuses herself from the table to get a break?

How many times are we going to play an intense game of Jewish geography ending with
“But…my family has ALWAYS lived in (insert place)! How could you NOT know them?!”

Trust me, there may be a good reason that your guest doesn’t know your Uncle Shloime.

I truly never thought of it too much until I became at the receiving end one Shabbos, and subsequently, many others.

I was the first to share my life story at the table that day (lucky me!) and as I was starting- a shrill voice came out onto the porch yelling to the other girls sitting at the table-
“Just make sure you pour Yiskah’s wine instead of handing it to her!”

I was slightly taken aback by the directness (< insert, extremely disconcerted and quite uncomfortable >)

Their first question happened to be if I was German.                                                          While I’m sure plenty of people enjoy a good guessing game-a word of advice-let your guest tell you about their ethnic background on their own terms!                                                         (I’m quite Sephardi in case you were wondering).

I was completely taken aback. Not just because it felt that with every question, the hosts were picking apart every thread of my identity-but because I realized how deeply rooted of an issue insensitivity really is.

Challah by Svetlana via Unsplash

Some of the questions that are easily asked to a Bais Yaakov girl, could bring up lots of pain and emotion for converts and baalei teshuva.

Another friend that I met in Seminary told me that she looks at her story as a separate entity from herself in order to tell it without it overwhelming her.

Yes, it’s normal to tell your “how you got here” story, It’s also normal to want to know someone else’s. But we have to be careful that our curiosity doesn’t turn into something invasive.

And also, to only serve mevushal wine. I’m begging you. It will save everyone from a lot of unnecessary and uncomfortable feelings.

I look forward to a world where ” Do not oppress the Convert.” is fully embraced.

But I’ve also come to appreciate how supportive and special so many of our communities are.

Whether it’s checking in on your new neighbor who just scheduled their first meeting with a local beit din or a simple smile (without prodding) to a new face in shul.

I promise you, from my own experience, it makes a world of a difference to us.

About the Author
Yiskah attended seminary in New York & Israel before moving back to the states. She currently teaches in early childhood education and is working toward a degree in Psychology and a certificate in Holocaust Education. She is a contributor to "Every Name Counts", "The World Memory Project" and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's project "History Unfolded" and has written articles for Refuat Hanefesh as well as others on the topics of mental health, Jewish identity and conversion/geirus.
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