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The number one question you want to ask a convert is exactly the question you shouldn’t. Asking someone why they converted, just after meeting them, is a little like asking to see their underwear. It’s like you’re asking us to get very naked about something deeply personal when we’ve just met. Like anything else, wait until you really get to know someone before expecting them to bare their souls. People will often let you see the skeletons in their closets when they’re comfortable with you.
If a convert does tell you about her conversion, that doesn’t mean it’s your story to tell. My friend Danielle says her former roommate told everyone Danielle was a convert. Danielle didn’t want people to know (and no, not because she was embarrassed about it). It just wasn’t her roommate’s story to tell. I know you’re wondering, “Why can’t I tell someone that Danielle is a convert, it’s a fact!” Remember how Judaism feels about gossip? What if people were discussing your personal business behind your back without your permission? Indeed, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b-59b) forbids us from oppressing converts by treating them as anything other than a regular member of the tribe.
Remember, no one looks like a convert.
“James William? That’s not a very Jewish name!” People of color and blondes with oh-so-blue eyes, the “exotic” faces in the Ashkenazi Jewish fold, frequently get questions like this that try to get around directly asking, “Are you a convert?” In The Color of Jews, Yavilah McCoy, whose ancestors were converts, says, “When I walk into a room and say to people I meet ‘I’m Jewish’ often I will get the response ‘but you’re Black.'” Since when are the two mutually exclusive? People often make offensive racial assumptions about Jews (and converts) of color. Just like we’re not all named Rosenberg, one convert of color says it’s helpful to note that “Judaism is not a ‘race’ of white people. One of the things people should be mindful of is not to assume all people of color in the synagogue are converts (or the help, for that matter).”
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