From Looking Jewish to Being Jewish

Cultural anthropologists call it ‘going native’. You find yourself in the field as a participant observer of your host culture and before you know it, the lines blur. You fall in love with this culture, you want to transition and be part of it. You adopt language, mannerisms, dress, philosophical outlook and eventually you consider yourself one of them.

I was doing cultural anthropological fieldwork in New York in 2004 and I went native. In my case, the order of affairs was reversed. I had already fallen in love with Judaism, wanting to convert. So I adapted my graduate project to suit my needs by traveling to one of the epicenters of Diaspora Jewish life. I moved to Brooklyn, davened (prayed) at a shul (synagogue) in Park Slope, hung out with independent minyans such as Kehillat Hadar on the Upper West Side and meanwhile interviewed Jews for my fieldwork while at the same time studying towards conversion. And in order to facilitate entry into the community for the sake of my fieldwork, I dyed my blonde tresses an unassuming dark brown.

Now, I didn’t hide my identity. All the people in my new community knew I was converting. But when interviewing Jewish professionals and activists on the topic of my research project (Progressive Zionism), I decided that toning down my glaringly Nordic looks would build trust and ease communication. I was practically a Jew already, spoke the lingo, was familiar with the cultural tropes and dreaded not being able to have meaningful interviews because people deemed me too much of an outsider.

I’m not sure it helped—or that it mattered. People spoke to me regardless and in some other cases, my non-Jewish ancestry was easily uncovered. I will not forget that priceless moment, shortly after my conversion, that I showed up at a morning minyan (prayer service) in your average Conservative shul, proudly donning tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). As I was wearing a kippah, tallit, tefillin and a Star of David necklace, a woman remarked, ‘Are you Jewish? You don’t look Jewish’.

Posted on August 30, 2016

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