These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Coming Out Jewish

Posted on July 13, 2016 by Ma'ayan Dyer

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This blog was originally posted on the author’s personal blog, Lost in Jerusalem.

In the eternal words of every human being since the beginning of spoken language, life is not fair. It never has been and never will be. Not that we will ever shut up about it.

Perhaps I should back-up a bit and preface that with some background.

You see, none of us were born the same. This should be an obvious thing, directly observable in our daily interactions with the world and with each other. We are all walking through the world on different paths, some of us in male bodies, some of us in female bodies or in bodies undefined and redefined by gender; bodies that are tall, bodies that are short, some fat, some skinny, some black, some white, as Jews, as non-Jews, etc, etc. No matter how hard we try to insist that these days we are post-racial, post-gender, and post-every label under the sun (while we come up with yet more labels to define ourselves with), human beings seem to be hard-wired to place things into categories and we love throwing labels onto things. “Don’t label me! You’re putting me in a box!” we yell in defiance, patting ourselves on the back for pushing back against the status-quo. But let’s be honest–we came born with a label or a dozen, much of them written into a genetic code that we get no say in, and we continue to collect labels as we go throughout our lives. Nobody put you in that box; you were born into it.

It’s not so bad as it sounds though, and the box doesn’t have to be small, confining and never-changing. Labels can be a good thing, depending on what you decide to do with them, and which ones you put personal stock in. What was once an offensive label can even be collected and re-cultivated into something more positive; “queer,” “b*tch,” and a whole slew of other epithets that were once relegated to the vocabulary of the uneducated and the hateful, are now used to denote something that can be seen as a source of pride and inspiration as it becomes subsumed into the multi-faceted nuances of who we are. When we have labels slapped onto us by other people that are not fair or accurate, we have limited control over how others see us, no matter how much we would like to have more power over that. We can however, try to break free from the power that those labels have over us by making them our own.

In 2011, I chose the label, “Jewish.” I converted through the Conservative movement in the United States after realizing that the Jewish label was something that I had been missing my whole life, and I didn’t even know it. At the time, when I stood before my beit din and proudly announced who and what I am, I felt confident that I basically knew Judaism at that point–sure, there were a lot of books on the shelf that I would still need to read, and looking at a page of Talmud made my head spin, but really, who reads the Talmud these days, I thought? (by the way, quite a few Jews do read the Talmud. And Koreans, for some reason. I am still not among the readership). I am a Jew, after all. That was all that mattered. I wanted to step into that role officially, publicly, and openly. I came out as Jewish, and adopted all of the complexities of what that means, for better and for worse.

Yes, I am a Jew. But, I’m also not a Jew. It’s taken me some time to acknowledge and come to terms with Herzlthis particular revelation; I’m a goy. But also, I’m not. I am these two people, these two contradictions, showing two different faces at the same time, like a Batman villain, but not nearly as intimidating or ominous (or cool). I always will have this duality to plenty of people, depending on who you talk to, and in what context you talk to them in, from my fellow Jews to my fellow goys. There is not much I can do about these two labels now, either.

On the one hand, I chose to take on the Jewish label, even though not doing so would be like living a lie. You can always be gay and choose to live your life like you’re as straight as Judd Apatow bro stereotype, but that doesn’t mean that you are magically not gay; it just means that you’re pretending to be someone you are not. I could know all that I know about Judaism, experience my very real affinity and inexplicable draw to the Jewish world and people, but even that doesn’t mean that I have to “become” one officially. I could be enjoying a delicious BLT as we speak, completely guilt-free, while pouring over an ancient Jewish text, right in the middle of Jerusalem without all of the complications that come with being a Jew.

But I didn’t go that route, as much as I mourn parting ways with my favorite sandwich. Obviously, such personal sacrifices only occur when you really want to step into a role, completely and totally. You don’t come out of a closet half-way like some tease. If you’re going to come out, you’ve got to come out the whole way, making some noise as you do it. If you can dance the horah while reciting the shemah as you come out, that’s preferable (obviously).

And then on the other hand, I come from goyish stock. Mind you, when I use the label “goy,” I am not doing so pejoratively. I just mean that I am an “other” even in Jewish terms; I didn’t have a bubbe growing up; I had a grandmother. I never went to summer camp at Ramah or was involved with BBYO and I still can’t remember what BBYO stands for. There was no bat mitzvah to welcome me into my womanhood–just regular old, terrible, horrifying puberty without an awesome party. I didn’t know how to pronounce Chanukah or challah for years, even though I had no trouble with pronouncing Christmas properly. lulav etrogMy family is not Jewish and they have no earthly idea why I have separate dishes for dairy, meat and pareve food items, and when I explain something like Sukkot to them, I must sound like I’ve joined a very strange cult, where I spend a week sleeping in a makeshift hut, shaking branches and citrus fruit in a less than impressive rain dance for God.

I have rejected this label for a long time, since it is so much the opposite of the Jewish label that I embraced so wholeheartedly. Besides, you have reject the goy label for the Jewish label when you complete your conversion. You don’t get to have both, the rabbi explained to me as I stood before him to take on the mitzvot of the Jewish people, my hair still wet with mikveh water. I understood the rejection of this goy label and I gladly shook it off of me. I was not going to be Megan from small-town Oregon any more; I was going to be Ma’ayan Emuna bat Avraham v’Sarah, a proud neo-Jerusalemite.

Fast forward five years after my conversion date and I am not the same person I was when I came out of the mikveh. I’m not the same Jew either, and the goy label has slowly crept back into my consciousness, despite my best efforts to push it back down. This blog has been going for more than three years now, mostly quietly and cautiously, and I’ve used it as a public journal to half-hardheartedly explore this rather difficult, often painful and confusing transformation that seems to be a never-ending process of “becoming” rather than “being.” Looking back at some of these blog posts, I’m fascinated with how much I have changed, but how familiar the feelings I had when I wrote them still are to me. In some places, I write about how thrilled I am with this new identity that I’ve stepped into, describing it in romantic and sentimental terms–finally, I’m at home in my own skin and the most authentic version of myself has stepped out into the light, for all the world to see. At other times, I’m indignant and sarcastic, frustrated with my self-perceived lack, or my perceived lack in Judaism to prop me up like a pillar standing against the tide of eternal, but cyclical moments of loneliness, self-doubt, and isolation, always coming and going in the ebb and flow my self-discovery. There was, and still is, a lot that I don’t know about when it comes to Judaism. I wish I could say that I’m okay with that–after all, there are plenty of Jews born into this world who don’t know everything, and more still who know far less than I do. But the difference lies precisely in the way in which we are born into the world; it doesn’t matter if you know nothing about Judaism or Jewish culture or history, or if you don’t keep any of the mitzvot, or even if you don’t believe in God. After all, you were born with a Jewish mother–you’ve got it made! You get to have that BLT and no one will ever eye you with suspicion, like when they discover your very goyish last name, or that your background consists of no fond memories of camp Ramah, of learning to braid challah made lovingly with your bubbe’s family recipe, of making out with a cute IDF soldier on birthright, of getting smashed on Manischevitz as a kid at the Pesach seder table. You never have to prove your Jewishness down at your core. I, on the other hand, am well-educated in a wide breadth of all things Jewish, religiously, culturally and historically, and have no doubt in the existence of God, and I keep the mitzvot. I don’t even want that BLT anymore (no, really! I’ll drop it now, I swear). Yet, I will always have to prove myself, over and over again. And no matter what I do, I will always arouse suspicion, doubt and outright rejection in someone. Even thoughhalakha (Jewish law) states quite clearly that one is not permitted to bring up a person’s conversion, their non-Jewish past or the validity of their Jewish identity after she finishes conversion, people always, always do exactly that, either explicitly or implicitly, vocally or privately. I will never be “good enough,” to even the strictest adherents to halakha (who seem to conveniently find it in themselves to violate the law in this special case, and with relative impunity). Mt. of Olives

I have been outed about my non-Jewish roots at Shabbat dinner tables from complete strangers who can sniff me out after a few telling answers to the typical Jewish Geography questions. I have been outed by well-meaning friends who think that my story is fascinating, and that I never tire of telling it over and over again, to complete strangers who demand that I explain myself and why I wanted to become Jewish in the first place. I have been told to my face that I look like a shiksa (quite the equivalent of asking a black Jew what it feels to be a schwarze, if you ask me). I have been informed laughingly by a guy I was interested in that he would never be interested in me because I don’t have a Jewish bloodline and his now deceased father required that to keep “true Jews” in the family. I was once told by a guy I was dating that we could date and mess around, but he would never be serious about me because of my conversion–he was on a “different level” than me, you see. I’ve been told by another peer when he found out about my conversion, “wow, I thought you were a real Jew!” as though he was truly complimenting my ability to seem like one of the natives.

Clearly, my rejection of the goy label means little when I’m constantly reminded of it. And now that I’ve made aliyah and live in Israel, I am undergoing a second conversion through the Rabbinute, an ultra-Orthodox institution. I am Jewish enough to be here in the holy land of Israel. I am not Jewish enough to marry a Jew here, or to be buried among them. My children will not be considered Jewish. I am not even sure what I think of my own status as a Jew anymore. I know that my soul is Jewish, and that I was born with it. But for practical halakhic reasons, I’m in this strange twilight zone, caught between two worlds and neither one of them is fully my home. I’d like to embrace both of them as what makes me who I am in my entirety, but I fear being misunderstood and perceived as trying to hold onto my goyish past and therefore rejecting my Jewish present. This is not what I feel embracing the goy label and the Jew label would mean–it would simply mean being one within myself again, while shattering the power that the goy label has whenever a boy calls me a shiksa and proceeds to treat me as though I’m not a real human being with feelings and just as much worth as him. Or whenever I’m told that I shouldn’t pour the wine at the Shabbat table with my filthy shiksa hands that will taint its kashrut status, in case I decide to pour some out in honor of the pagan god, Moloch. You know how we shiksas do that and all. But really, who would pour out wine to an imaginary god that isn’t even going to drink it? What a waste of wine!

Ma'ayanSo as I go through a second, more rigorous conversion, and I continue forward in a state of constant flux, I am aware that for some, I will always be some sort of hybrid, caught between kosher and treyf, between two defining identities that are often at odds with each other. Both of them feel like me. As uncomfortable as that realization is, it is just true. Life is not fair, remember?

And yet, maybe my situation does not have to be looked at in terms of what is fair and what isn’t. I don’t believe that people should reject parts of themselves or that by embracing who we have been means we can’t fully be who we know are, or who we want to become.  Denying my history would be to deny my present and who I am becoming. It would be to deny myself out of existence.  As one of my teachers, the man I learned halakha from, recently told me, “You’re never going to be “enough” of anything to everyone. None of us are. But that is not your problem. God made you and put you here for a reason. You were born enough.”

Ma’ayan Dyer