The Real Reason People Question My Judaism

Anti-Asian sentiments do exist within the Jewish community, but I suspect a different problematic bias is at play.

In light of recent events, many in our community have been shedding light on the racism and added micro-aggressions that Asian Jews face within the Jewish community. Many of these commentaries focus on how the tentacles of white supremacy have made their way into our community, causing our fellow white Jews to deny us unconditional acceptance.

It is true, of course, that many anti-Asian sentiments within the Jewish community are by-products of white supremacist ideology (such as my sister’s classmates calling her a “chink,” or campmates asking me if my eyes hurt due to their shape). However, I’ve long suspected a different issue was at play when it comes to my particular acceptance (or lack thereof) in the Jewish community: The reason my Jewishness is questioned is not because I am Japanese; it is because I am the daughter of a convert. My eyes are a mark that someone in my background was not born into this faith, that my blood is not purely Jewish.

I came to this realization one day at camp, when a counselor came up to me and asked me why I looked “oriental.” I could have responded with an explanation of the mechanics of reproduction, but of course that was not actually the point of her question. What she meant to say was, “How are you in an Orthodox camp when you are clearly a descendent of a gentile? Are you adopted? Or did one of your parents convert?” She was asking me to show an entrance card, to explain how I was able to finagle my way into her space.

Treatment of converts is a topic that is rarely discussed in the Orthodox circles I’ve run in. For what it’s worth, there is a tenet that one is not supposed to remind a convert about where they came from. But the exclusion of this topic from conversation only further isolates us, becoming the elephant in the room that no one wants to address but creeps up when you least want it to.  It’s why I was contacted on three separate occasions to dunk in the mikveh in front of a beit din the night before my wedding “just in case;” it’s why the main insult I received throughout elementary school was not about being Asian but about how I was “not a real Jew.”

I wonder why I find pieces that emphasize white supremacy in discussions about Jewish anti-Asianness so triggering. Perhaps it is because I myself am Sephardic (my father is Turkish), and so many of the Jews with whom I interact are Mizrahi Jews of color. I am proud to be Sephardic; I love my Moroccan synagogue, my Turkish heritage, and my Syrian and Persian friends. When I see fellow Sephardim, I truly feel they are my family. This is why it is so heartbreaking that I know at times the feeling is not mutual. My sister and I have been confronted numerous times by our Mizrahi siblings who gossip about our mother’s conversion, or joke that we would never be able to date a Syrian boy. To focus on white supremacy is to ignore the non-acceptance of converts in many Mizrahi circles, a problem which is very real and too often left undiscussed.

The most devastating part of all this is that the underground culture of mistrust of converts is so ingrained in our psyche that I, too, have subscribed to this ideology at times. When I hear someone converted, my first instinct is to wonder if their conversion was totally kosher, if that person is “really Jewish,” if they deserve to be in my space. In these times I try to recognize that my gut reaction is only a mechanism I’ve built to feel my own sense of exclusivity, to feel for once that I belong and they don’t. I remind myself that my doubts have no basis in Jewish law or tradition. I am only perpetuating the very systems that have caused me harm.

There is, of course, a natural instinct to haze the newcomer, an instinct so human that God reserved a commandment in the Torah to warn us against this proclivity: Thou shall not oppress the convert. Yet, this natural inclination has painful effects not only for converts, but for so many Jews who recently became more observant. Among the majority of women in my close circles, those with the most impressive yichus (lineage) were the ones who found shidduchim (marriage partners) first. My husband, a ba’al teshuva himself, has become wary of attending Shabbat meals because he knows he will inevitably need to explain his history to all the fellow meal-goers. So long as lineage is held on a pedestal within Orthodox circles, unconditional acceptance remains unattainable.

The solution, then, is not to ignore someone’s legacy, but to celebrate it. Celebrate it, but make sure that my access to your spaces is not dependent on it.

I once heard a beautiful idea that for the many years that Abraham and Sarah were barren, each time they were together, they created souls that were never actualized. These souls ended up being the souls of converts. As such, when we call a convert so-and-so ben Avraham or so-and-so bat Sarah, we mean they are literally the children of Abraham and Sarah. So as the children of converts, we are the descendants not only of a rich tapestry of unique history, but we are the literal grandchildren of Abraham and Sarah. We are the beautiful children of converts. Why not say it proudly?

Esther Malka Issever

Esther Malka Issever (she/her) graduated Yale University in May '19 and currently works as a financial analyst in New York City. She is a proud Turkish-Japanese Jew and together with her husband, enjoys taking photographs of families and perfecting their kebap recipe.

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