Pre-Wedding Jitters: A Convert Contends With Her Past
Menorah number three just arrived as a wedding gift from my sister–– the same sister who thought the song “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” came from the “south park” Christmas special. I should have been touched by my sister’s demonstration of support for my conversion, but I was annoyed. I know exactly what was going through her mind as she bought it. To an outsider, a menorah is something Jews use in lieu of a crucifix.
When I first decided to convert to Judaism three years ago, I went to West Side Judaica to equip myself Jewishly. In one swoop, I purchased a mezuza, a siddur and a menorah, but not without turning red at the register. I couldn’t help feeling that I was repeating the scene from “Hannah and Her sisters” in which Woody Allen’s character decides to become Catholic and buys a crucifix, a catechism, a jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of wonder bread. I hoped that the saleswoman would ring me up and let me pass. No chance. “Are you converting?” she asked sweetly. “I think that’s great.” Advice to converts: Don’t buy menorahs in the middle of summer, and don’t buy Judaica in mass quantities.
Why is there so much shame associated with being a convert? It is considered halachically incorrect for Jews to refer to a convert as a “convert,” to refer to the anniversary of their conversion or to allude to the fact that a convert was not born Jewish. I appreciate the provisions that Judaism makes to protect its newcomers, but they are not enforceable. Today, for example, I had lunch in Café Classico, a kosher restaurant in Manhattan. When I asked the proprietor where the hand-washing bin was, he quickly sized me up and barked, “You’re not Jewish. If you mean the bathroom, it’s in the back to the right.” Thank God my family and friends aren’t here to witness this, I thought. Right before my wedding, my Jewish wedding, the last thing I need is for someone to say, “I told you they would always consider you an outsider.”
Nothing has forced me to contend with my non-Jewish past as much as my upcoming wedding. I had been attending services and keeping kosher long before I began dating my fiancé. I felt comfortable in the illusion that I was a self-created Jew. My wedding presented a great threat to this illusion Case in point: the wedding invitations. My Hebrew name is Ya’el, daughter of Abraham v’ Sarah is the standard last name assigned to converts. But my parents are not named Abraham and Sarah, so the invitation reads:
“Dr. Hwi-Shin Hong and Dr. Sung-Woong Hong request the pleasure of your company at the wedding of their daughter Euny Hong, Ya’el, daughter of Abraham and Sarah.” In other words, two sets of parents are listed, which, according to Emily Post’ etiquette book, is only appropriate if the daughter’s parents have divorced and both remarried.
A convert’s survival as a Jew is contingent upon her continuous re-invention of self. In every way, Judaism is a religion of remembering the past; yet my life as a convert is a process of forgetting the past. My wedding is forcing these contradictions to coexist. The result is that I achieved the incredible and perplexing feat of deeming a menorah an inappropriate wedding for a convert.
Ms. Hong is writer living in New York. Her wedding is Sunday