I converted to Judaism around age 11, coming from a multicultural household with both Christian and Hindu influences. Those two religions were always in my peripheral vision, but I had no direct religious affiliation myself. I grew up with visits from my Amma (grandmother), bringing home artifacts from her time in India, telling me stories of what life was like back home. But there was always a distance between me and the rest of my family’s cultures — one I desperately wanted to fill.
Deciding to convert to Judaism did fill that gap, in some ways. It gave me my own culture, and it filled that sense of longing in many regards. But that doesn’t mean I abandoned any sense of who I was before — and who I still am today. Now, I’m learning how to reconcile years of fractured identity tied to being both South Asian and Jewish.
During my conversion journey, I felt at odds with myself. I struggled matching up these aspects of who I was — being both Indian and Jewish — because I didn’t know any other Indian Jews. In fact, I had never even seen a South Asian Jew in real life or represented in the media. None at all. In my mind, these were two separate spheres of who I was.
This was perhaps most evident in my interactions with others. From (non-Indian) Jews asking me if I was adopted, if my parents were really Jewish or Hindu, if India even had Jewish communities, all the way to (non-Jewish) Indian people asking me if I was really Indian, if I was only “half” Jewish on my white side. It often felt as if I was being asked to choose one side of my identity — to fit myself into a labeled box, if only to make it easier for both of my communities to perceive me. I felt like an anomaly or a miracle. Something that only happens once, and never again. It was lonely. It still is at times.
Once my conversion journey had ended, a childhood and young adulthood spent in Jewish day schools further ingrained in me that I was the only one. Being raised in Ashkenazi communities, I didn’t see myself represented in the community, and the community didn’t see me represented in them, which led to others — and eventually myself — doubting my legitimacy as a Jew.
This feeling of unrest has never truly let up. Can I be both Indian and Jewish? Or am I neither? I am taken back to the verse of the Torah in which Jacob wrestles with God — a Jew struggling with the Almighty, fated to find out where Hashem will guide him, or if Hashem will guide him at all. I am lucky, as God has decided to show me a path: a way to embrace who I am.
In the last year, I have been finding my footing through sharing my story. For the first time in my life, I have started sharing my experiences as an Indian Jew on social media, thanks, largely, to the pandemic restricting my interaction with any Jewish community in real life.
Since taking to the online Jewish community, I’ve realized that the more I share my blended self, the more I find others who share fractions of my experience. We are each totally unique — there is no “one” Indian Jewish experience — but I’ve been able to meet a few people who can relate to me in ways that no one ever has in this regard. It is a truly humbling experience, and one I approach with great honor and interest.
From meeting Tamil converts to members of Bene Israel, I’ve started to find other Indian Jews who relate to me, and whom I relate to. This past January, I was invited to speak at the University of Toronto’s event detailing the modern lives of Indian Jews. As I sat in the Zoom call, I looked at my screen in awe — my Indian Jewish counterparts were prolific and published authors, community leaders, and public educators. As they spoke about their experiences, my confidence at my own presentation began to build — I felt less nervous about sharing my own truth. They spoke on feeling alienated in North American Jewish communities, feeling ostracized and unwelcome due to racism, but talked about how that didn’t stop their Jewishness from blooming — realities that spoke deeply to my own experiences.
After the event, several Indian Jews reached out to me through social media, some calling on the phone to reassure me that I belong — that every aspect of who I am is Jewish and is valid. I was even invited to attend services at Congregation BINA, an Indian Jewish synagogue in Toronto, by its founders. Our community is small, but we exist. Whether we are Cochin, Paradesi, Baghdadi, or otherwise Indian and Jewish, our identities overlap in ways that make me feel less alone.
Beyond Indian Jews, meeting many other Jews of Color for the first time in my life, even if only virtually, has given me unbelievable confidence in who I am — and in who I am allowed to be. I have never really felt confident being both Jewish and multicultural in that sense. I have always hidden parts of who I am to fit into what I believed to be the mainstream in Jewish life.
I have come to understand that I don’t have to give up either part of myself — there is room for all of me, for all of my family’s heritage. This realization most obviously presented itself to me this fall. I celebrated Diwali for the first time on my college campus — an Indian festival of lights marking the triumph of good over evil, and then I immediately moved into celebrating Hanukkah with my family at home — a similar festival of lights with a thematic relevance of the ability of good to overcome the bad. These two holidays, though belonging to two different groups of people that seem so vastly different, share so much in common. As I lit the Hanukkah candles, my mother, father, and sibling standing behind me, I thought about the same unadulterated joy I felt at witnessing the light show with my Desi friend back at college.
Seeing Mizrahi Jews celebrate aspects of their unique culture through photos and videos, or seeing Ethiopian Jews showcase their cultures online, has helped me realize that I don’t have to hide who I am or who my family is to fit in. Jewishness comes in a variety of shapes, colors, sizes, and forms, and the sooner we celebrate the “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” of Jewishness (to quote Commander Spock), the sooner we will be better able to grow and thrive as a global community — rich in variety and beauty.
Perhaps this is the one good thing to come out of being quarantined inside of the house for me. When we speak with each other, we learn that we have so much in common, and that the differences are not “divisive,” but representative of the fact that Judaism is a living, growing mosaic rather than a still, unshifting stone.