All too often, people fall into the habit of sorting converts into “good” and “bad” categories. There are the good converts who work their asses off studying, who have inspiring relationships with God, and who typically convert under Orthodox auspices. And then there are the bad converts – the ones who don’t work hard enough for their conversion, those who convert “for love,” those who struggle with their relationships with God. They are usually Conservative or Reform. And this category is subjected to all sorts of abuse from the Jewish community. The vitriol is only heightened online.
I wish people could see that there are no good and bad converts. Ruth from the Bible, often seen as the ideal for conversion in Judaism, converted out of her love for her mother-in-law, Naomi. She did so without studying for years with a rabbi. People hold converts today to a higher standard than they hold Ruth herself, and it’s ludicrous.
I’d like to talk about a third group that’s often unjustly overlooked in conversion discourse: the children of converts. But I can’t talk about my identity as the child of a convert without talking about my mom’s identity as a convert first. You can’t detach the two.
My mom is what many people would call a bad convert. She started studying Judaism when she started dating my dad, and she essentially stopped keeping the rules of Shabbat and kashrut after their divorce. She converted very officially with the Conservative movement, but all records of her fully halachic Orthodox conversion (overseen by a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi) were lost. To make matters worse, as a spiritual explorer herself, she always encouraged my own spiritual exploration, and not necessarily just in Judaism. She was not a “typical” Jewish mother in any sense, and this was never clearer than when she would give me books about ancient goddess worship or take me to New Age stores in middle school.
People don’t care that, prior to my parents’ engagement, my mother was more certain about Judaism than she was about my dad. They don’t care that she studied with three rabbis over the course of two years and read dozens of texts on Jewish life and tradition, because if she started studying while dating my dad, then she couldn’t possibly be sincere. People don’t care that losing my father meant losing her Jewish community, her Jewish family. They certainly don’t care that my mother still proudly (and rightfully) identifies as a Jew. They just see a bad convert. They don’t bother to understand, and they don’t care how their judgement affects me.
This sort of judgement of my mother comes from Jewish institutions and casual social situations alike. It is never appropriate, never welcome. It just makes me vulnerable, as my mother’s daughter.
Orthodox and Conservative Judaism traditionally follow the matrilineal principle, meaning they believe a person’s legal status as a Jew hinges on her mother’s legal status as a Jew. So, when people judge my mother’s status, they judge mine. When they question her Jewishness, they question my Jewishness. As someone who places a lot of value in her Jewish identity, this questioning or outright denial of my legal status feels like the ground being pulled out from under me.
I’ve been told that I need to convert in order to enter Jewish spaces, and it hurts. Others have assumed that I’ve already converted, because how else could I have entered a Jewish space? This is nothing compared to the abuse that patrilineal Jews endure, but it’s awful. It’s really awful.
The easy conclusion to draw here is that people simply need to stop judging converts, because it’s a bad thing to do in itself and because it hurts the families of the converts in question. But I think there’s another point to be made here – one that will probably make some people uncomfortable, but one that should be made all the same.
I believe that the children of converts deserve a voice in conversion discourse, and that we deserve a loud one. Despite not having converted myself, conversion is the reason I’m considered legally Jewish. Being raised by a convert means I cannot detach conversion from my more informal Jewish identity either. It’s a part of me, and a part of people like me. So our voices deserve to be amplified – and not just when our points conveniently align with other people’s arguments.
Converts have been part of the story of the Jewish people since biblical times (once again, see Ruth), meaning their descendants are woven into the very fabric of our history. We all deserve to be here, and to not have our very identities questioned. So the next time conversion discourse starts up, as it inevitably will, remember us.