After my conversion folks treated me as an “average” part of the Jewish community, I was passing as a Jew-by-birth. This passing meant of a lot of different things. It allowed me to take leadership roles at my Hillel that I was previously barred from. It allowed me to function and be treated like everyone else within the Jewish community. To everyone else in my community, I was not any different. There were no invasive questions asked, just a slew of assumptions and a feeling that I was hiding.
As a Jew-by-choice I often feel forced into playing along as if I remember that time in my life where there was a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend, or that I know exactly what a stereotypical Jewish mother is like. I don’t have an answer when folks ask me what it was like to be in a Jewish military family because, while I came from a military family, I’m not from a Jewish military family. The assumption that my childhood looked like every other Jew’s silenced me and kept me from sharing stories of my non-Jewish past.
This feeling of keeping a secret was not a new one for me. By the time I came out as Jewish, I had already come out as queer. The feeling of “playing along” was, in many ways, akin to how I felt as a closeted youth. I feared that sharing parts of me would only mark me as different and knew that people don’t always take kindly to “others.”
So what do you do when you’re afraid of how people will react to your difference?
You pretend and make every attempt to pass.
In middle school I made up crushes and played along while the girls I sat with at lunch ogled over one celebrity or another. And, in college I would nod knowingly when someone talked about how Jewish mothers are or how their rabbi was terribly long winded.
I remember the first time that someone read my appearance as Jewish—I was ecstatic. I was passing with flying colors! But it wasn’t long until passing felt like erasure.
Being seen as Jewish did not leave room for my family. I didn’t have space to acknowledge that my curly hair was Puerto Rican and Cuban—or that Hanukkah and Passover time at my house looked a whole lot like Christmas and Easter. The passing was suffocating and I longed to take a deep breath.
I knew that the only way to breathe was to do what I’d done before: come out.
But this time I saw things differently. I’d been in queer circles where I was introduced to the idea of “inviting in” rather than “coming out.” Sharing this piece of me was my choice and an invitation to come in and share this part of my life—rather than handing over information in a way that would leave me feeling exposed and vulnerable. This coming out as a Jew-by-choice would be framed by my agency in sharing.
Now, every aspect of my life is enmeshed with Judaism. I moved to Boston from Georgia and have found myself in a population where Jewish people are not an anomaly. I’m a JOIN fellow seeking to find Jewish framework for the organizing that I do. I work as the Boston Community Organizer for Keshet bringing queer Jews together and moving Jewish institutions towards inclusion.
I chose to wrap my life up with Judaism and I acknowledge how that choice, if I’m not careful, would allow others to paint over my Jewish story with assumptions and wash my identity away.
During my conversion process I searched every nook and cranny of the internet for stories to relate to and voices that could speak to my own experience as a queer Jew-by-choice. I came up short, and felt pretty alone. I know that had someone else come before me it would have been easier. It is my hope that being a visible queer Jew-by-choice makes other’s searches just a little more fruitful. And maybe, just maybe I can be the hope Harvey Milk talked so much about—a hope that being visible makes room from someone else to live their truth.
Like this post?
Last week, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Private first class Bradley Manning, made headlines. Her announcement that she would be living as a woman eclipsed the news of the previous day–her 35 year prison sentence for leaking classified government documents.
So while the mainstream media was tripping over itself, The Forward was wrapping up a terrific series exploring transgender and Jewish identity in all of its wondrous complexity. The series looked at how Jewish summer camps welcome gender-nonconforming campers, the link between gender transition and conversion for trans Jews by choice, mikveh rituals for transitioning, transgender rabbis who paved the way as well as rabbis still in rabbinical school.
Tomorrow, we talk with editor Naomi Zeveloff about what inspired her to produce this series and what she learned while working on it.
For Transgender Converts, Changing Gender and Finding Faith Come Together
For some transgender converts, turning to Judaism is intrinsically linked to gender transition. The process of soul-searching unearths one truth, then another.
Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh
When Max Strassfeld helped write a ritual for a friend’s transition, he mapped contemporary ideas about gender onto a very traditional Jewish space — the mikveh.
When Jewish Transgender Teens Come Out of Closet, Many Leave Camp Behind
Summer camp has not always been a welcoming place for transgender Jewish youth. That’s changing as new camps spring up — and existing ones try to be more inclusive.
First Generation of Transgender Rabbis Claims Place at Bimah
When it comes to transgender Jews, the community is in a moment of transition.
New Generation of Transgender Rabbis Ties Jewish Practice and Gender Change
The number of transgender rabbis in America will soon double — from three to six. The next generation is blazing a trail with a unique approach to gender identity and Jewish spirituality.
Emily Aviva: Creating a Jewish Community for Trans Women
(For readers of this blog, you probably recognize Emily her from her deeply personal and thoughtful blog posts like Wrapping Myself in the Fringes and Learning to Return to Myself.)