Black, Gay, And Jewish: How Do You Jew?

When I was converting everyone wanted to know why I wanted to be Jewish. I knew why I wanted to be Jewish, but I found that articulating it to others in a way that is universally understandable was difficult. Talking about a connection to God to an atheist is not easy task. Explaining my love of Judaism to a non-practicing Jew was exhausting. Dissecting a religious connection with someone who thinks religion is the tool of the blind, was not a walk in the park. I’m a writer, so I came up with a metaphor.

I described Christianity in this way: It feels like you’re in an expanse of space with a beautiful horizon in front of it. You walk towards that horizon. You can walk for days and days and suddenly, you hit a wall. You step back and realize that the horizon is a sort of mirage, it’s a physical wall that looks beautiful, but one that isn’t real. So you turn around and walk in the opposite direction, towards another horizon. Eventually you get to another wall. This happens in every direction until you realize that you’re stuck in a box.

When I explored earth-based and eastern religions it was as if I never reached an end. I could literally walk on for ever towards that beautiful horizon and never come to an obstruction.

When I started learning about Judaism I felt like I was in a large expanse. I saw a beautiful horizon and walked towards it. I could walk towards it for ever until I hit a wall. When I step back and look at the perfectly painted wall disguised as the horizon and notice a handle to a door. I walk through that door and find myself in another place with another beautiful horizon. That imagery seemed to worked with the people who took the time to hear me explain it, or those who read it on my blog. It helps, I find, to paint a picture.

Now I’m a Jew. I’ve not quite hit my four-month anniversary as a member of the Tribe, but I’ve celebrated an entire year of holidays. I light candles on most Friday nights and try to make it to synagogue. I’ve tested the waters of modest dressing, kosher eating, and Shabbat observance. I’ve visited Israel and prayed at the Kotel and there are mezuzahs on all of my doors. Yet, most of the time I feel like a failure as a Jew. I feel like a bad Jew for craving cheeseburgers, for liking my v-neck shirts, and for texting friends on Saturday afternoon. Being a Jew is hard work and I’ve discovered, after only four months, that it’s not going to work. At least not like this. I can’t fit into a perfect, neat little box of what it means to be Jewish.

There are many things about How I Jew that aren’t kosher. Take my version of kosher, for instance. On Pesach I removed all of the chametz from my home like most Jewish folks do. I scrubbed everything, cleared out cupboards and not a single non-kosher food item has entered my house since then. Well, sort of. See, I can’t keep kosher in a way that a rabbi would approve of. I don’t eat non-kosher foods meaning I don’t eat all of the wonderful yummies I used to enjoy like bacon cheese burgers (goat cheese and cook it medium, please), scallops (seared, please and wrapped in bacon), or ribs (hello, Fette Sau in Williamsburg). That said, for me it’s more important to eat locally and sustainably than it is to eat a chicken that happens to be under rabbinical supervision. So, the chicken in my freezer isn’t technically kosher, though it’s a kosher animal.

I love pants, I love V-Neck T-shirts, and the last time I wore a kippahI got so many looks on the street that I ducked into the subway and took it off. Modest dressing isn’t a requirement for Reform Jews. I don’t haveto cover my sinful collar bones, my scandalous elbows, or my lusty ankles. But, the reason I tried out the kippah wasn’t because I felt like I had to. My exploration into modest dressing isn’t because I feel like I’m supposed to, it’s to feel a connection with God and with Judaism. Wearing a kippah makes me feel like there is something bigger than me, something higher than me. So to compromise, I’ve taken to wrapping my hair on occasions when I can’t make it to synagogue on a Friday night. When I do wear V-neck t-shirts I make sure that the scarf around my neck covers the girls.

I keep Shabbat to the best of my ability. Whether or not that means going to synagogue on Friday night and on Saturday morning is a matter of choice, really. For a while I went to shul on Friday night because I felt like I was supposed to. I would sit there and get distracted and wish I was home watching T.V. So I shul shopped until I found a place I really enjoy and feel connected to. I can’t wait to get to service on Friday not because it’s what I’m supposed to do, but rather because I actually want to. Lighting candles (even when I rush through them) or making challah feels amazing because it feels like I’m connected to my Jewish identity.

Keeping kosher in a way that’s meaningful to me, observing Shabbat in a way that I’m excited about and dressing in a way that shows less skin feels like I’m connecting to God, Judaism and to the Jewish people in a real and profound way. When I stopped worrying about doing it “right” it started to feel right.

It started to feel as though I was physically wrapping myself in Judaism. Which is my new metaphor now that I’m a Jew. Instead of trying to fit into neat little boxes; Religious/Secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. I’ve decided to mold Judaism around me. How I Jew will never be really Jewish to some people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Whether we admit it or not, there is racism within Judaism. Seeing a Jew who isn’t white is a hard reality for some people. “But I’ve never known a black Jew” or “But you don’t look Jewish” or “How are you Jewish?” are a common statements heard by many racially and ethnically diverse Jews. They’re things people have said to me.

The fact that I’m a convert, specifically a Reform convert, isn’t Jewish enough for some Jews. I’ve been told to my face that I’m not “really Jewish” so keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, having a Jewish home don’t really matter. The fact that I’m a lesbian isn’t really Jewish for some Jews. But, the reason I chose to be Jewish didn’t have anything to do with what anyone else thinks. It had to do with my connection to God through Judaism and love for Judaism.

When I interviewed Goldie Goldbloom for The Big Jewcyshe told me something her rebbe told her when she moved from Australia to the U.S. He told her that she would see and hear a lot of things in America. Her rebbe told her to remember that people are Jews, but they are not Judaism. Her words struck me then and they resonate with me now. As a firm believer in local and sustainable eating, a person in love with skinny jeans, and an opinionated and passionate Jew I can’t try to be the kind of Jew that anyone else wants me to be. I can only be the Jew that I am.

There will always be people who don’t get or approve of how I Jew. I’m used to having people give me unsolicited advice or tips on what is and what is not “kosher”. I’ve gotten disapproving looks walking into Jewish bookstores and confusion and awe when I respond to Hebrew. I’m not the Jew some folks expected, and that’s fine. Judaism doesn’t work for me if I try to fit into boxes that aren’t my size. Instead, I’m rubbing it between my hands and making Judaism warm and pliable. It’s getting comfortable and it’s starting to mold around me. From where I stand, it’s going to fit like a glove in no time.

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