Uncomfortably Jewish in the Deep South

Despite my mom's inconsistent observance of Judaism as a religion, she always reminded me we were different from those around me.

white south illustration 88 248 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
white south illustration 88 248
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Recently a non-Jewish friend of mine, who is married to an Israeli, told me about her plans to convert. Over dinner that night, I passed the big news along to my boyfriend, also Israeli and typically secular in what he refers to as an "Ashkenazi" way. "Oh, guess what? 'Kate' is converting," I said. "Really? And then she'll be a Jew? Just like that?" he snapped his fingers. I thought about it - is there a moment that one suddenly becomes a Jew... a second that one is infused with some essential Jewishness? I started to tell Boaz, "I guess so. I mean, according to rabbinic law... " He shook his head. "I don't know. It seems weird to me. You can't just become Jewish." "Well, technically, you can. We do accept converts, you know." "Yeah, but what? Poof, just like that, and she's Jewish?" The conversation was going nowhere - he obviously sits on the "Judaism as an ethnic group" side and me... I'm not sure where I sit on that one. But I know where I used to sit - uncomfortably Jewish in the Deep South. I remember feeling a heat spread across my face in elementary school when my classmates would question me about my hai pendant - small and delicate, dangling from an equally thin and fragile gold necklace. "It looks sort of like a dog," someone told me in fourth grade. "It's a hai," I said, giving my best cccchet. "A what?!" "It's a Jewish thing..." I didn't know exactly how to explain, because I didn't know exactly what the necklace meant. It was something that my grandmother, a first-generation American who was born and raised in New York, made me wear. Though I was too young to realize it at the time, I look back now and I realize that I spent much of my childhood looking for a way to slip my "Jewishness" off. Like Kate, I was moving toward a moment of change. In fourth grade, I did my best every day, tucking my hai necklace under the collar of my shirt when I arrived at school. When I got older, I took it off altogether, tucking it into a corner of my jewelry box. The corner of my closet was also full, as I piled the books about Judaism that my aunts sent to me. They'd somehow taken responsibility for my Jewish life and from afar the best they could do was send me books. Every Jewish holiday, every one of my birthdays, another book arrived and dutifully I tucked it into the closet so that my friends - non-Jewish, every single one - wouldn't ask me questions. What about my parents? My mom practiced her own peculiar brand of New York Judaism, which consisted of pointing out all the churches whenever we were driving. "Look at this place," she remarked in her New York accent, "there's a church on every corner." My mom's brand of Judaism also had something to do with bagels - I never figured out exactly what. My mom was what is sometimes referred to as a "Jew-Bu," short for Jewish Buddhist. Far before Israeli kids fresh from the army were descending upon India and the Far East in droves, my mom burned incense, decorated our house with Buddhas, Hindu deities, and practiced vegetarianism, all in addition to "observing" the Jewish holidays. For Pessah, she added matza to our leavened-bread-heavy diet. If we had a Seder, there was no mention of the holiday, it was just a big meal. During Hanukka, she would light the candles for the first few nights, and then forget about it for the remainder of the holiday - wandering off to leave our abandoned hanukkia to sit on the kitchen counter, bereft of candles, for weeks on end. But despite my mom's inconsistent observance of Judaism as a religion, she always reminded me we were different from those around me. We were Jewish. In fourth grade, a black girl cut ahead of my best friend while we were standing in line for the swing at recess. Already a believer in social justice, I'd said, "Hey! It's Christy's turn!" and the girl punched me in the stomach, called me a cracker, and ran off to the swing. I didn't know what the term "cracker" meant, but her tone of voice told me it wasn't something you ate with cheese. At dinner that night, I asked my mom, "Am I a cracker?" "No, honey. Crackers are white people. Where did you hear that word anyways?" she asked. "A black girl at school called me that," I said. "You're not a cracker. We're Jewish," she said, almost indignantly, with a haughty flip of her black hair. There was no one moment that I underwent a conversion from who I was to the ola hadasha I am today. Rather it was a piling on of moments... a process. I suspect Kate's conversion will be the same - it won't be a magical moment where she suddenly becomes a Jew. It will happen over time, through understanding the world around her and where she fits in to it, both with her Judaism and without. That's how it happened to me.