This is a guest post by Steven Philp in the Fearless Judaism series articulating visions of affirmative Judaisms and Jewish community. Steven is a postgraduate student in Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford, Mansfield College, originally from the States. He received his Masters in Divinity and Masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago this past June and served as rabbinic intern for three years at Mishkan Chicago.
Last week a colleague of mine told me that if I hadn’t mentioned it, he would not have known that I converted to Judaism. I know it’s not politically correct to say this, he confided, but you look Jewish. Perhaps a couple years ago, when I had just entered the community, this comment would have served as an affirmation of my belonging. I would have walked away from that conversation with my head held high, yarmulke pinned firmly in place. I look the part. I fit in. Now it felt like an erasure, both of my choice to become Jewish and those characteristics that co-exist with my Jewishness.
His comment, however well intended, is symptomatic of a Judaism that carefully guards its borders against intrusion. It is a Judaism that reflexively erects barriers against change, fearing that it has become thinned out or diluted – whether through assimilation, adoption, intermarriage, or the various other bogeymen of the Pew report. When my colleague says that I look Jewish, he reifies a static image of what it means to be a Jew: a certain genetic heritage, a particular phenotype, and a fixed set of cultural markers. He is telling me that I am not threatening. He is giving me a pat on the back for not rocking the boat. It is a remark that simultaneously warns and affirms: Stay the course. Do not deviate.
When someone tells me that I look Jewish, I immediately think of my students. For several years, I worked as an art teacher at a synagogue on the north side of Chicago. My older students worked on portraits of each other, learning how to translate the proportions of the human face on to paper. To me, their drawings show what it means to look Jewish: light skin and dark skin; curly hair and straight hair; blonde, ginger, brunette, and black; blue eyes, green eyes, and brown eyes. My students’ ancestry spanned the globe, contributing to rather than detracting from their Judaism. Their Jewish identity was the glue that bound these stories together.
In many communities, there is an immense pressure placed on the convert to adopt the cultural markers of American Judaism, i.e. become Ashkenazi. And so the individual who chooses to be Jewish finds themselves erasing their heritage to make room for a new identity: they replace old family recipes with unfamiliar foods, they repress their particular accent and pepper their speech with Yiddish, they change their wardrobe, they watch Fiddler on the Roof on repeat. I know of a person who, after converting to Judaism, began to perm their hair so that they could look the part. I understand why. During the year immediately following my conversion, I did similar things – all to dodge questions about when I converted, why I converted, or to avoid the dreaded statement: “Well, you’re not really Jewish.” As a Jew-by-Choice, your membership in the community relies upon the opinion of others; if it didn’t, there would be no use for the beit din. I believe this pressure for assimilation stems from fear, that by allowing for diversity within our synagogues and day schools we will chip away at the integrity of the Jewish community. Yet Jews have never been a homogeneous people. We left Egypt as a mixed multitude; we are still a mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38).
What the demand for conformity does produce is fear. It causes the Jew of mixed heritage to shy away from those parts of themselves that make them appear less Jewish. It forces the convert to erase the person they were before they chose Judaism. It negates the experience of Jews of color, telling them that their story is not a Jewish one. Each one of these people becomes afraid of the moment that their Jewishness is invalidated. This is a real fear. It is one that I live with every day. On some days it is a small nagging at the back of my consciousness, something I can casually ignore. On other days, I need to face it head on: “Well, you’re not really Jewish.”
This past Hanukkah, I remembered a teaching from Rabbi Sharon Brous, an inspiring and courageous individual whom I am honored to call my rabbi. She asked us to not only appreciate the candles of the hanukkiah for their external beauty, but also for what they represent -– hope, possibility, and abundance. Similarly, with people we must look beyond the surface, to “find beauty and depth in everyone.” This is a fearless Judaism, one that requires the audacity to believe that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
It is a Judaism that is expansive, recognizing that just as there are countless facets of the divine so too is there is multiplicity within the Jewish people. It is a Judaism that finds strength in its heterogeneity, rather than hiding within its sameness. It is a practice that is not threatened by other ways of being Jewish, that does not shy away from trying things a different way (or at the very least, considering the value of alternate models), by a Jewishness — like that of my former students — that glues together many stories. This does not mean abandoning all normative demands – we are still a people who believe in one God, in a particular set of teachings, and so on.
Certainly, there are essential and important differences that set us apart from other religious or cultural traditions. However, we cannot let the fear that we have lost our communal integrity to serve as a bludgeon against the diversity that is already inherent within our community. The inclusion of many voices within the rabbinic corpus created a tradition that was able to survive millennia; a fearless Jewish future may well depend on the same.