My name is Ariel bat Avraham v’Sarah. That is my Hebrew name, the name that, like other Jews, delineates my ancestry and connects me to my forbearers.
But my mother’s name is Deborah, and though Abraham may be our collective father, he is not my father.
The Jewish Journey I am here to tell you about is my process of coming to terms with being a convert.
Converting to Judaism brings with it a new identity, a new community, and a new name. For me, it also brought shame.
I went to bed the day of my conversion deeply ambivalent and inexplicably sad at the culmination of a choice I knew to be the one I wanted, but which I found to be conflictual and packed with emotions for which I had no words.
The first layer of my sense of shame was a feeling of betrayal. By taking the name given to all converts—the name that identifies me as an inheritor of the legacy of Sarah and Abraham, “as if I myself was there to receive the Torah at Sinai,” I felt I had in some way betrayed my parents by erasing them from the name by which I would be known as a Jew.
On top of that, I also felt ashamed for being so conflicted about a patronymic that reaches so far back in our history. It was not that I didn’t want to claim a connection to Abraham and Sarah, it was more that I had never walked with Abraham through brown leaves in Volunteer Park, pocketing the shining, mahogany-rubbed smoothness of horse chestnuts. Abraham didn’t smell like cigar smoke, summer evenings on the back porch. Sarah never kvelled when, at four, I suddenly picked up and read our bedtime book Heidi to her (instead of the other way ‘round); Sarah never taught me interpersonal relations with TA for Tots, or sang me the melodies I now sing my own kids.
Sarah and Abraham did not shape me, or give me the gifts I now bring to being a Jew.
However, it was not just the fleeting sense of losing my past that made me ambivalent about taking that name, it was the sense of creeping shame associated with the idea that every time I would be called to the bimah, my name would reveal that I was a convert, that I was not a real Jew, that I was somehow an interloper, a counterfeit who did not share the powerful cultural shaping that creates the identity of Jewishness. At twenty-three, the thought of all those eyes on me felt searing.
Twenty-two years ago, when I first started studying to convert, with my dark features, an ear for Yiddish, and a conveniently Hebrew first name, it was all I wanted to pass. I knew that there have been times in our history when even basic safety has depended on the ability of Jews to pass as gentile, but in this privileged country and era, I was the opposite: I wanted to pass as a Jew.
Like many converts, I threw myself into Jewish practice. I studied our history, built a sukkah every year, tied tsit-tsit, helped lead High Holiday services, created my own haggadah, and raised Jewish children. When friends talked about their b’nei mitzvot or their experiences at camp, I remained silent. When someone assumed I was a born Jew, (which happened most of the time), I said nothing.
Ironically, trying so hard to be a Jew only served to painfully remind me that I did not feel like a “real Jew.” I lived with the subtle, mostly suppressed sense of shame that I was fooling people—that I was “passing.”
I think shame plays a greater part in most of our identities than we usually realize. One of the most powerful mechanisms of oppression is the way shame becomes internalized and self-perpetuated by the members of marginalized communities. I have been thinking a lot about the enactment of shame lately because each of my sons had a powerful experience this past summer that daylighted ways in which they carry deeply embedded shame around particular aspects of their identities.
For Avi, it was the experience of attending and presenting at a national Conference for Autistic Community—a conference put on by and for autistic people. The conference really changed the way Avi thinks about being autistic, and he and gave me his permission to share about it.
Because of my work doing neuropsychological assessment of kids, I already had an awareness that autistic stimming and focused interests are valid and important parts of the autistic experience. But at this conference, for the first time, Avi and I got to be immersed in autistic culture, encountering autistic people who were spending none of their energy trying to appear “normal.” I began to understand in a much more visceral way what total, unashamed embodiment of being autistic looks like.
The autistics at the conference flapped and ticked, hmmed and moderated eye contact as much as they liked, and as they did so, they were able to inhabit their natural fluency and articulateness to a far greater degree. As I worked to censor my own frequent “corrections” of Avi’s behavior, it was the first time I really got it how often I am the vehicle for those messages of shame to Avi. It was not until Avi and I were in a place where autistic traits were the celebrated norm that we began to be aware of the level of internalized autism shame the two of us both carry.
Jacob, my older son, came face to face with internalized shame not in a community of shared experience, but by traveling to a very different culture. He has also given me permission to share his experience.
Last summer, Jacob attended AHMSI high school in Tel Aviv, at a time when a daily barrage of rockets polarized his peers into rigid ideologues, casting any skepticism of Israel’s methods as barely a step away from treason. There, Jacob encountered vitriolic messages of shame when his fellow students, and even AMHSI staff, reacted to his slightly left-of-center politics as if he was anti-Israel or even a self-hating Jew.
For Jacob, growing up surrounded by progressive Jews who view Israel as a complex and nuanced issue, this black-and-white thinking took him completely by surprise. He did not expect to have to defend the idea that Palestinians are people worth caring about, even if their leadership is bent on violence, He did not expect to be attacked for wondering why the UN was condemning some of Israel’s actions.
While visiting his Caspe family cousins living in an Israeli settlement across the green line, Jacob came up against a kind of hawkish hatred for a demonized enemy he had never before encountered, and in reaction, he himself became more polarized in his views, and shifted farther left. Meanwhile, here at home, non-Jewish members of our family were viewing Jacob as not left enough, emphasizing to him their views of Israel as oppressor and bully, ignorant of the lessons of the past, and tone deaf to the reactions of the rest of the world.
A few days ago, Jacob told me, with a kind of heartbrokenness, “I felt like in Israel, the little bit of Seattle that was in me was despised, while back here in Seattle, I’m despised for the part of Israel I’ve brought home.” In trying to articulate his own emerging beliefs, Jacob finds himself on the defensive at every turn, besieged by a sense of shame related to core parts of his sense of identity.
On his Facebook last week, he posted, “I’ve come to realize that sometimes it takes more courage to say nothing than to speak up. Constant argument is just as futile as complacency, and twice as tiring. Stay strong to yourself and it doesn’t matter if you change anyone’s mind.”
The thing about shame is that it eats deep into our core sense of self. Ultimately, though, shame cannot be changed or challenged by resistance—it can only be replaced by something new.
Avi experienced this replacing externally when he found himself surrounded by his people—autistics who did not simply tolerate, but rather celebrated his quirky ways of being. Jacob experienced this replacing internally when he was realized he would never get the validation he craved from the contradictory and clashing values that surrounded him, but was able instead to quietly claim his strength by turning inward to find his own truth.
I first discovered an antidote to my convert-shame in a course I took in my doctoral program at Antioch University titled “Counseling Jews.” Here, I encountered an idea that could replace rather than resist shame about being a convert.
This is it: Converts are not just a tolerated and necessary burden of modern assimilated Judaism, not people to reach out to with “inclusiveness,” not even a kind of tzugecommener overachievers working hard to measure up—No: Converts are a critically important part of Judaism because of who we are rather than in spite of who we are. And by that, I mean—all of who we are—not just the Jewish parts.
We converts bring a perspective and set of gifts that are not only uniquely goyish and wonderful, but are in fact essential to the life and ongoing health of Judaism as a culture and a tradition. I have time to tell you about only three of the gifts that became visible to me with this significant shift in thinking:
First gift. I used to feel “less than” because I thought that not having experienced the subtle oppressions of growing up Jewish meant I had somehow not suffered enough to be a “real Jew.”
As a proud convert, I can now own that, because of my experience growing up with gentile privilege, I have kept intact a kind of optimism—an instinctive, unexamined sense that things will probably go well for me, an assumption of entitlement, and sense of efficacy that could well have been extinguished by marginalization. …Because here’s the big secret about privilege—if you have it, the thing to do isn’t to feel guilty about it, the thing to do is use it. Converts bring to Judaism the energy, expansiveness, and yes—entitlement—of growing up with gentile privilege. The blind optimism to just plunge ahead and try, even when things look a little doubtful, because—what the heck—the universe is probably on our side.
Second gift. I used to feel embarrassed by my knowledge of Christian tradition and culture (a few of you may know that I spent my teen years planning to be a minister). As a proud convert, I came to feel excited that I can facilitate communication between Jews and non-Jews. A few years ago, the choir from the Alki UCC eagerly shared with us a major choral work telling the story of Exodus. They couldn’t understand why their portrayal of Moses complaining to God like a spoiled adolescent made our congregation so wincingly uncomfortable—wasn’t this a humanized. average-Joe that Moses everyone could identify with?
Around that time, I was part of the “vision committee,” an inter-organizational committee that worked to improve understanding between our two congregations. My bi-cultural perspective gave me a window into each side’s worldview and an opportunity to “translate” some of the meaning and intents lost in transmission—to help KHN members understand why modern American Christians want their religious figures to be relatable and ordinary, and to help the Alki members understand that Jews need Moses to be a patriarch, not a peer; aspirational, not accessible. Converts bring a useful bridging perspective to Jewish-interfaith relations.
Third gift. I used to feel confused by some of the ways our congregation unintentionally acted out internalized oppression by marginalizing ourselves. As a proud convert, I came to feel empowered to call attention to these enactments. Part of the work of the vision committee focused on ways Kol HaNeshamah was deferring to Alki in terms of scheduling, or feeling excluded from the symbolism of the worship space.
The vision committee focused on sorting out which of these deferrings were appropriate tenant-landlord agreements, and which parts of our sense of exclusion we were inadvertently amplifying and bringing on ourselves without awareness or critical reflection. Partially as a result of the input from that committee and the board at the time, we now have a co-equal sign out front, a fair procedure for scheduling, more Jewish art in the building, administrative presence, and even storage space inside the building. Converts are better able to notice and call out the enactment of Jewish internalized oppression because it has not been our lifelong habit.
There are more gifts, but that’s all I have time to call out today. I challenge my fellow converts to name your own proud convert moments—own your gifts! Know that you are valued here not just because of your Jewishness but because of ALL of what you bring to KHN.
So, here I am today to tell you my Jewish Journey, this journey I have uniquely chosen, and to which I bring unique strengths. I am excited and honored to be called to the bimah by my Hebrew name.
My Jewish Journey has been a progress from passing to pride, from shame to celebration, from internalized outsider status to embracing my full and valued membership in this community.
My name is Ariel bat Avraham v’Sarah and I am proud to be a convert, and a Jew, and a vibrant and critical part of the future of this community.