Sitting on the beach with my parents and sister this weekend, I asked my mother about her experiences being a Taiwanese woman who had converted to Judaism and raised two daughters Jewishly. My mother’s answers mirrored many of the feelings I have: “People are curious and pay me more attention when they see me in a Jewish space,” and “often I’m asked to explain myself but when I say I married a Jewish man and converted, they’re fine with that.” In my personal favorite of her responses she said, “everyone is welcoming, they see my energy and enthusiasm, and are happy to see me so involved.”
Together, riding the high of how open and welcoming Judaism is for us converts and half-Asians, we weren’t prepared for my dad’s question:
“If you were dating an Orthodox boy and he asked that you convert under Orthodoxy before marrying him, would you do it?”
Immediately, my mind reverted to my impertinent ten-year-old self who used to sass mistaken pure-breds who dared to call me a “half-Asian, half-Jewish girl.”
“I’m half-Asian, full-Jewish,” I’d retort, proud to educate on the difference between ethnicity and religion.
But am I really?
Having an Asian mother means it’s doubtful that my maternal line is Jewish through-and-through. While there are some Jewish communities in China (the Kaifeng Jews), Wandy Wang wasn’t from one, and to some, I realize, her Conservative conversion with intent to marry my father doesn’t cut it. So if mom’s not Jewish, then neither are the kids.
What do you say when your own father asks if you will admit that you’re not really Jewish in order to marry your hypothetical Orthodox future-husband?
A fighter by nature, I laid it into him.
“It’s an affront to my identity! How dare anyone question my Judaism, do people question if you’re actually from Caucasia?! If this hypothetical fiancé won’t marry me unless I convert, what’s he doing dating non-Jews in the first place?”
My mother also took it personally.
“Judaism is a way of living.”
She argued that if I knew my mother to be Jewish, and lived Jewishly – the following of tradition, the observance of ritual, the commitment to certain beliefs – then I was already Jewish. Judaism isn’t something that someone can take a DNA test to determine. It doesn’t show in bone structure or the face.
“If Meredith continues to do all that, why would she have to convert?”
I affirmed my mother, “Should I be asking proof from my potential Jewish suitors that their maternal ancestors are Jewish or Orthodox-converted all the way up to the matriarch Sarah?”
I didn’t really answer the question. Defensively, I said “no” to my father only to stop the conversation. Sure, if it made things easier, why wouldn’t I convert to Orthodoxy? But then, would converting mean that I’d be acknowledging that I am not a Jew now. Who’s the one that needs to compromise here?
The greater question in all of this is that of religion vs. ethnicity. Is Judaism my ethnicity, a way of life and a group of people I happen to have traditions and beliefs in common with; or is it my religion, the way I service and worship G-d? In modern day terminology, we throw around the phrase “cultural Jew” to identify those of us that are members of the Tribe but don’t follow strict religious observance. Then, of course, there are religious Jews. Somewhere along the line, you can’t be a cultural Jew if your mother/grandmother/great-grandmother, etc. was not recognized as a religious Jew in her conversion….If I’m somewhere in the middle (a cultural Jew who believes and worships G-d and follows moderate observance levels), what’s my new categorization now? Half-Asian-Half-Ethnic-Jew-Three-Quarters-Religious Jew (…but only if you approve of Conservative conversions)?
Let me tell you, I can’t wait for the day when I can say, “I’m Jewish and I’m Asian” and no one will blink an eye.