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Shake Hands with Whose Uncle Max?

I love davenning shacharit (saying morning prayers), but as with all things formerly unfamiliar there’s one thing I never counted on. Tefillin hair. When I began laying the ritual leather phylacteries on my arm and forehead, it took awhile to realize that the hair bump in front of my kippah was from my shel rosh. That’s something I might have learned if I had grown up Jewish. (Even if I had grown up Reform, I’m sure I would have had an Orthodox grandfather or uncle somewhere to learn this from.)

The stress of being the new Jew in a room full of lifelong Jews. It’s something all Jewish converts face–especially during the conversion process–but that feels unkosher to talk about with fellow congregants. Yet, it’s valid to feel out of place when for the first (or even the second, third, or fourth) time in your life, you’re the sole Foley in a room full of

“Smallowitz, Wallowitz, Tidelbaum, Mandelbaum, Levin, Levinsky, Levine and Levi, Brumburger, Schlumburger, Minkus and Pinkus, and Stein with an ‘e-i’ and Styne with a ‘y’.”

I was an Allan Sherman fan when I was eight, so that lyric from Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max has been in my head my whole life. In fact, growing in New York City, I’ve known families with last names like that my whole life. But even with most of my lifetime’s closest friends having been Jewish, I still found it a shock early in my conversion journey the first time I realized I was a non-Jew standing in a synagogue full of lifelong Jews.

My first time at synagogue (nearly a year ago, now), if I hadn’t already been punishingly aware that I didn’t share the same background as the people surrounding me in the pews when the chanting and bowing started, my inability to follow along or figure out the choreography made it obvious to all. I can remember fearing that Jews sitting near me would judge me for my lack of knowledge, and for my newbieness. When the service was over, the man who is now my rabbi came over and asked, “So, have we totally alienated you yet?”

“No,” was my answer. “No, but…” was my unspoken thought. But what was that bowing about? But how will I ever learn all of this? But does everybody here speak Hebrew? But what was that camp thing where the people sitting behind me were talking about sending their kids next summer?

But all of these people share common backgrounds and experiences directly related to their Judaism, and I wish more than anything in the big, fat, whole, wide world that I did, too, because I am so in love with Judaism. But how can I ever make up for that and stop feeling like such an outsider?

I remember how pungent this anxiety was for me. I’ve had concerns like this shared with me by my partner, Ryan, who is undertaking conversion studies. I’ve read about such angst on the blogs of my fellow Jews-by-Choice. One blogger in particular, the fabulous Erika Davis of Black, Gay and Jewish who officially became a Jew only yesterday, still openly struggles with how to conceive of her identity as a black woman and a Jew at the same time. Even though Jews come in every color of the spectrum, that kind of inner struggle is absolutely valid.

I think the answer to all of the “buts” that we new Jews and soon-to-be-new Jews share is, simply, time. It takes time to get used to any new situation, and frankly, being the new Jew (or new pick any religion) is one heck of a new situation for anyone to cope with. But the commonalities we share with our native Jewish brethren outweigh the differences. Those commonalities are love and compassion, a desire for justice and fairness, a yearning for peace. All things, I might add, tied in with the mitzvot (commandments) that undergird the Jewish faith.

As a conversion candidate, you may find it hard to pronounce the last name of the person sitting next to you in shul. They may look different than you do, and have knowledge about different topics than you do. But how would that be any different than the things you might be able to say about the person sitting next to you on the bus, or in a restaurant, or in your row of cubicles?

No, new Jews cannot go back in time and attend summer camp, study for young-adult b’nei mitzvah ceremonies, or invent Jewish Bubies and Zadies (grandmas and grandpas.) Then again, fellow congregants can’t go back in time and relive your life experiences, either. And they matter just as much–add just as much meaning and context–to the ancient and continuing story of Judaism as do the Jewish experiences of lifelong Jews.

Figuring out the Hebrew prayers, the nusach (melodies), the choreography of the worship service, the meaning of commonly spoken Yiddish phrases, and the alphabet soup of acronyms that describe Jewish community institutions, all of that comes with study. If you’re a conversion candidate, you are already studying, just give it time. If, like me, you’ve already converted, you probably realize you’ll be continuing that study very happily–if not voraciously–for the rest of your life.

Feeling comfortable with the cultural differences just takes time, too. I can’t give you a timeline, but look at it this way. Who would you want to sit next to every Friday night at shul: someone who doesn’t share your last name; or someone who doesn’t share your ethical worldview? It’s that ethical worldview that matters–it and a shared sense of the nature of God are what draw conversion candidates to Judaism in the first place. And a year or two from now, it won’t be the surprise of the differences between you and a lifelong Jew that will make you stop and wonder.

It will be the surprise of remembering that once you weren’t a Jew.

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


4 replies

  1. Michael,

    You would be surprised, I think, how many Jews there are that experience the same feeling of being out of synch. The first actual Jewish service I attended was the Friday night before my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. I read the Torah blessings for the “parent Aliyah” in English, I didn’t know an aleph from a bet, would not have been able to tell you anything about Jewish choreography if my life depended on it. And the synagogue my family attended very sporadically when I was growing up was “traditional/Orthodox”.

    Being Jewish is always a choice, knowing Jewish too. And that being said, of course it is important for those of us “knowing Jews” to be open, welcoming and reassuring to all the “newbies”, regardless of how they got to us. Emanuel is wonderful in the way someone is embraced and allowed to learn. Truly one of the greatest blessings and strengths a congregation can have,

    The more Jews the better. Am Yisrael Chai!

    Shabbat Shalom,


    1. I agree very much about Emanuel [Note to readers–Emanuel Congregation, our “home” synagogue], and I am even further in awe than I was before about your ongoing journey through rabbinic school learning what you shared above. I guess I wonder a lot how things are different for people who grow up in one denomination and stay there versus leaving for another denomination or for a purely secular lifestyle. As with all things, there’s just not one conception of how to be Jewish–that’s what I love about Judaism.

      I wonder whether it’s just in the nature of converts (at least, judging by me and fellow convert bloggers whose blogs I read) to be a bit strident about exploring all aspects of Jewish identity and shaking this up a bit.

      I’m also learning to be self-confident with my own observance–without griping at others who may feel confused or uncomfortable about my particular style of observance. In reality, the Reform movement gives me the freedom to adopt and explore the breadth of ritual mitzvot without telling me I have to adopt them or else (or shaming me into it.) The other side of that coin is that if you’re going to explore the further out edges of ritual mitzvot observance as a Reform Jew, you better be prepared for lots of opportunities to discuss–and, sometimes, teach–about those mitzvot with fellow Reform Jews.

      There’s a post about the nature and importance of ritual that’s a-coming, I know it.

  2. Shul choreography is still hard for me!! I love siddurim with the instructions in italics (rise on the balls of your feet as you say holy, holy, holy-Bend at the knees at baruch, bow forward at atah, stand up at Adonai) I always feel like I’ve got the groove until I go to a new shul with a Hebrew siddur and no cheat sheet!

    Conversion is easy, being Jewish I think is going to be the more difficult thing. I don’t know about you, but I feel a bit like an abandoned animal. You know when you watch those nature shows on PBS and the mother finally kicks her baby to the curb to fend for himself in the wild. I know that my rabbis are still there for me, but the shul I’ve attended for a year is so far away I’m actively finding a new one, but feel like I’m treading water.

    The great thing about the fabulous Mike Doyle and his blog is that you open the discussion to these things they never tell you in conversion class 😉 So many of my fellow classmates were on the marriage train and therefore had a partner to guide them along. While my partner is Jewish I find myself “learning” her on many things!

    1. So I almost cried on that. Thank you for the kind words–and you’re welcome for the discussion.

      Now here’s a wonderful, powerful thing to keep in mind: you’re Jewish now. That means your opinions, your study interests, the places that your heart leads you in terms of ritual and observance and prayer, they’re all totally valid ways of approaching being Jewish. Because now you’re Jewish. I wish you so much good mazel on finding the right shul. Just remember, the person in charge of your Jewish choices is first, and foremost, you. Because, have I mentioned, you’re Jewish now, 100%. If you feel at sea right now, just remember, the person in charge of your Jewish rudder from now on, is you. And no matter how you steer that rudder, your choice about direction is going to be a Jewishly informed choice. How lucky are you?

      Welcome to the tribe!

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