I can’t count how many times people walk up to me and blurt out “So did you convert?” It’s always a disconcerting conversation starter. Why? Maybe, because people use it instead of “Shabbat Shalom”, “Chag Sameach”, “Hi, are you new?” or “Hi, I’m ____.” Let me give you a hint. This is not an appropriate opening for a conversation with a Jew of Color. It’s rude.
I get it, you’re curious. You want to understand how this person of color fits into your world. In your world Jews aren’t black (unless they’re Ethiopian), Latino, Asian, or Indian. Therefore, this person of color chose to join the tribe or has some non-obvious European ancestry.
Or maybe you’re really impressed by converts. Their decision to join the Jewish people is inspiring and adds to your personal emunah (faith). Each Jew of Color you meet is like Jewish Chicken Soup for the Soul personified.
Here’s the problem—with that question you’ve just distilled me into a curiosity. Or entity for your personal enlightenment. I’m now here merely to satisfy your curiosity. You are obviously not interested in me as a person or you would have least asked me my name. Maybe you would have tried to find out my likes, interests, do we have things in common that would foster further conversation or a continued relationship before asking me for “my story”.
This is absolutely not about conversion shame. Many Jews of Color are indeed converts. The vast majority of those who are will discuss their story with a friend or acquaintance. However, in general every convert is not interested in sharing what may be a very personal journey with a stranger. They have no interest in answering questions any and every curious stranger may pose about the conversion process, their family dynamics, or personal history. If they were, they’d write a book, give speeches about their story, or volunteer the information willingly.
Also, trust me…. you’re not the first person who has asked them about their conversion status. You’re X number in a long line of curious people who feel their curiosity must be satisfied regardless of circumstance. Were they in the middle of a conversation when you walked up and asked? Are they sitting at a Shabbat or holiday table full of strangers and now all attention is squarely centered on them? Have you considered that their conversion journey might include pain or heartbreak they don’t want to share in the middle of simcha? Have you considered the fatigue of having to explain yourself and your presence to people you meet almost everywhere you go? I didn’t think so. If someone doesn’t volunteer that information, just assume they are not interested in sharing that information with you at this time…or possibly ever.
The convert question also discounts the presence of Jews of Color naturally occurring in the Jewish community. Not every Jew of Color is a convert. The Jewish people are as diverse as the rainbow regardless of what popular culture tells us. Jews have settled all over the world and come in every shade and skin color. We are truly a mixed multitude. Why should Jews of Color have to detail their family tree for strangers. Although some Jews of Color welcome the role of educator, some do not. They don’t want to give you a detailed history of Jews in the Caribbean at kiddush, or explain that yes, there are large and vibrant Indian Jewish communities while in line for pizza, of confirm, yes, there were Jews in South America before the influx of Europeans fleeing World War II while trying to break their fast.
Treat each Jew of Color like a person first, not an oddity. And most of all…you have to respect that your curiosity may never be satisfied.