I’m a convert. I converted. I wasn’t “BORN” Jewish, whatever the heck that means.
The way I look — my golden complexion and the abundance of ringlet curls on my head — combined with the difference in my upbringing have always challenged my place in society and even in the Jewish community. It brings me joy to say that actually, I feel more accepted today than ever before, but that’s not how it always was.
It’s hard being a little girl. Being born with a vagina isn’t always the easiest, especially being of color in a “non-traditional” family. I was raised with a single mom in Hollywood. I attended a private school in Los Angeles’ infamous valley but lived a very urban life with my filmmaker mom. I lived between black and white and didn’t really have any sense of grounded identity, which created a lot of self-doubt and issues that manifested particularly in middle school and probably still have effects today. I continually faced people who told me, “You’re not Jewish because your mom’s not Jewish,” which angered me because it denied me of my own identification and reminded me that my parents aren’t together, and that many viewed my existence as illegitimate.
I think I always wanted to be Jewish because that would validate the white side of my heritage, the “right” side. Societal ideology has played a huge part in my life. I never wanted a black baby doll growing up: Blue eyes were always my favorite, and it always stung that the blond girls in elementary school didn’t accept me because I didn’t look like them.
Seventh grade was a formative year for me. That year, we studied the Holocaust, propelling me to reach out to my paternal grandmother who is a survivor. Her story inspired me to find my identity through the deliberate representation of my heritage and the honoring of her legacy. Finding an identity is an integral step to growing up in this crazy, confusing and kind of hostile world.
My role model for conversion was my aunt Kathy. She converted upon marrying my uncle, and I always loved going to her Passover seders. My memories of Judaism were always positive and included being with family, my cousins, the food, the smells and the sounds of the Hebrew language. My aunt and my uncle got divorced when I was in seventh grade, at the exact time I was struggling with those identity issues and going through the dreaded dark ages of puberty. Their divorce cut me off to all that I knew of Judaism; I felt like I had lost half of my identity, because my dad didn’t really do Judaism in a traditional way. So I decided to go to a black women’s meeting at my middle school, to which I unfortunately didn’t connect. I craved a way to embrace both my matzah-loving side and my cornbread-eating side with no problem, but I didn’t know how to have those two worlds co-exist without knowing much about either.
So I did something abnormal for a twelve-year-old. I told my mom I wanted to convert, and being the spontaneous person I am, I took a shower to cleanse myself, went downstairs naked (emotionally and literally) got salt water and celery (symbols I knew from Passover), dipped the salt water in the celery in front of my mom and said “I’m Jewish.” Then we decided I needed to be part of a greater community to help me grow into the identity I was choosing for myself. We found Temple Israel of Hollywood, where I met with a female rabbi I felt connected to instantly. The openness of this new environment encouraged me to have a conversion ceremony, to finalize what I was already feeling, learning, and going through.
Since I was raised with a Christian mother and converted as a teen, I didn’t have the traditional Jewish upbringing that entails ritual and tradition, etc., so I really latched onto the social justice aspects of the Jewish peoplehood, especially after taking a social justice religious school class at my temple when I was 14, and traveling to Washington D.C. for the L’Taken (social justice) conference. As a woman, it’s hard to not think about your future career in the face of knowing that motherhood and maternity leave can be “obstacles” in that path. As women, we really have to think more about whether or not we want to have children, and how that will fit into our career paths, the woman’s burden as I like to call it, is unique and special and makes us strong in my opinion, and showed me that even though I don’t know if I could manage medical school and motherhood, I can still have a role in health care, a role that reaches the people through the public health arena. The combination of being a woman, a feminist, and a Jewish person have led to my career path, which I think is freaking incredible. What I learned at the L’Taken conference I mentioned above is the Jewish principle – Ahavat Ger, Love of the stranger in your midst – and I’ve continued to take that to heart, as we all should – it doesn’t matter if someone is a stranger, we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
After hosting my very first Passover seder in college, I fell into the Peer Network Engagement fellowship at Columbia’s Hillel. I instantly fell in love with engaging other Jewish students, especially empowering young women as we struggle to represent ourselves in a way that makes us happy individually and acknowledges the pressures to ascribe to what society wants us to look like, act like, and socialize like. I want to work in public health on campuses, because I love working with students, especially with community – and Judaism is more than just a religion, it’s a peoplehood that is a community like no other. Growing up, I had really hard time grasping issues of diversity at my predominantly white upper-middle-class private school in Los Angeles, but since being exposed to diversity programs and human rights courses at Columbia University, I have recognized my purpose as a Jewish social activist, especially drawing on both sides of my mixed heritage.
So I guess it doesn’t really matter that I’m a convert, does it? I can still be an impactful member of the Jewish community. Matzah, gefilte fish and kugel with my dad’s family; yams, cornbread, and collared greens on my mom’s side – these were the symbols of my mixed identity that so divided my upbringing, but completely empower me now. Dare to be unafraid because it doesn’t matter what you look like, or if you have a vagina: You matter.
Note: Elle originally wrote this essay for performance at the VaJina Monologues (a place where young woman can express themselves freely and openly despite the fact that we have vaginas, and were not granted the right to speak in many spaces for centuries), hosted by Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s Jewish Women on Campus for Jewish Feminism Week 2015. Elle performed alongside her peers about the struggles of feminine identity within the Jewish sphere.