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Well, volandum asked for it... - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Well, volandum asked for it...
volandum asked about linking to a rant on the term "Jew by choice," which I realized that I don't think I've done.

For those who don't know, in the liberal movements of Judaism, converts are frequently referred to as "Jews by choice."

I am a convert to Judaism. Call me a convert. Call me a proselyte. Hell, if you're Orthodox, call me a shiksa with pretensions. Or just, you know, call me a Jew.

But Jew-by-choice? UGH.

First off, and most superficially, can you think of an uglier, clunkier term? Well, maybe "person of conversion," I guess, but please. It's three words where a single word will do. My word-brain cringes.

Second, and more important, I am vastly annoyed at the reasoning I heard for this when I first said, "Er... what's wrong with 'convert'?" The answer: "It sounds like you think you've made a judgment on some other religion and decided ours is better."


Yeah, you know what? That's pretty much what conversion's about. I looked around, examined many faiths, and decided on the one that was best for me. As it happens, it wasn't the one I was born into. So I converted. Because for me, it's closer to how I view God. In other words, a better religion for me. That's the point of the conversion. I would assume that someone converting in the other direction would feel the same. Otherwise, why not just hang out and be comfortable and not get into family arguments and...?


Have some faith in your faith, okay? Please? Can we stop with the Woody Allen shlmieling and just have a little confidence? Try it: "Converted. She's a convert." Feels good, doesn't it? As to the potential grave offense it would give to Christians, trust me--lumping them all in with Pat Robertson and not knowing the difference between a Catholic and Protestant would be taken much more seriously. (Though I suspect most would be forgiving of not knowing the difference between United Methodist and Free Methodist.) "Convert" is, in most cases, a more or less neutral term to your Christian neighbors; it's not going to offend them.


But even when that reason isn't given, there's a bigger reason to my way of thinking.

This is America, and it is 2005. There are no ghetto walls, no legal barriers to people of Jewish ancestry doing, being, or believing anything they want. Any practicing Jew, in whatever capacity, is so by choice. The term "Jew by choice" could be legitimately applied to pretty much every practicing Jew, and the use of it only to refer to converts implies, without any offered explanation at all, that "normal" Jews would never choose such a thing. And that's insulting.

And that's my Jew-by-choice rant, just for volandum. ;)
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biichan From: biichan Date: September 2nd, 2005 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)
*grins* Two thumbs up from another shiksa with pretensions.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 2nd, 2005 12:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad I'm not the only one of us it annoys. :)
mmeubiquitous From: mmeubiquitous Date: September 2nd, 2005 12:07 am (UTC) (Link)
A big amen from this convert (to Catholicism, but the principle applies :))
caitie From: caitie Date: September 2nd, 2005 12:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Random: Is it true that you have to ask three times to convert?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 2nd, 2005 12:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Sort of. It's not, like, ritual or anything. The philosophy is to pull forward with one hand while pushing away with the other. "We want you... but are you totally sure you want to do this? I mean, really?" Since Jewish theology doesn't require acceptance of itself for salvation (or equivalent, "to enter the Kingdom of Heaven"), the convert is taking on quite a lot that's unnecessary to his or her personal afterlife (or whatnot), so there's not a pressing need to get someone to convert. I converted in college, and when I went freshman year, my rabbi said that he wouldn't perform a conversion while I was still in school, because it's such a time for searching. I was welcome to be part of the community in all ways during my stay, and if I still like it at the end of things, he'd be happy to put together a bet din. I went to him during freshman orientation, and converted the week before graduation. (Two Reconstructionist rabbis, one of whom was a woman, and a Reform rabbi, so despite the mikveh, it wouldn't stand up in an Orthodox court.)
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mafdet From: mafdet Date: September 2nd, 2005 01:11 am (UTC) (Link)
"It sounds like you think you've made a judgment on some other religion and decided ours is better."


Um...isn't that why people convert to a religion or set of beliefs in the first place? Because they think it's better FOR THEM? That's not the same as saying "Judaism" (or any other religion) is the best religion in the whole wide world and others are second-rate and inferior."
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: September 2nd, 2005 01:51 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for this.

This ties into one of my favorite rants about certain right-wing efforts to frame homosexuality as a "choice" rather than orientation, because somehow one's "choice" doesn't deserve protection against discrimination.

To which I always want to scream that "religion is a choice!" and our government outlaws religious discrimination. Even if most people stick to the faith they were born into, that's still a choice...
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 2nd, 2005 02:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Oddly, I think of calling it a "choice" as more empowering, just as religious choice is more empowering than saying, "Well, I was born Lutheran, so I guess I'm stuck with it." However, I agree that calling it a choice doesn't make it somehow unworthy of protection. That's just stupid.
story645 From: story645 Date: September 2nd, 2005 02:17 am (UTC) (Link)
I want the title Jew by choice too. What? I am, I just chose to be more practicing. Yes I find the term very amusing.

Hell, if you're Orthodox, call me a shiksa with pretensions.=I'd never do that, I find it cool that you like my religion enough to give some form of it a try.

"that "normal" Jews would never choose such a thing"
Actually, that's not so far off. An experiment done once by NCSY asked two groups, one frum from birth, the other secular two choose between two pills, the first being their life and identityy as a Jew, the second being the life of a typical Christian. Most of the frum kids wanted to be born Christian, most of the secular kids wanted to be more Jewish.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 2nd, 2005 03:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I think Judaism is in one of its flux times (in Wanderings, Potok describes this sort of time as kind of cloudy, and when you see the community again, it's different), and the secular kids seeking to be "more Jewish" are coming up with a different Jewish culture than the frum kids who would just rather be something else. I mean, just on a minor level, I joked in a different response about my utter inability to grasp traditional Jewish music--I'm hopeless--but more seriously, I think more and more people are looking at different means of musical expression. The same is true of service forms and a lot of other things. One reason I find myself more at home in the liberal movements is simply that, when they're not hyperventilating about keeping those awful kosher kitchens out of the synagogues, there's a lot of creative cultural thinking going on, a lot of asking why. And--I swear this is quite true--I've been in three Reform temples now where the kosher kitchen issue has come up, and it's always the younger people who are saying, "Wait--shouldn't we have a kosher kitchen so that there's an option to keep kosher?" and older people who are going on about how "Only the Orthodox do that! And it's so confusing, with all the different marks! We don't do that!" At the same time, it's the younger people who bring guitars and tamborines, while the older people prefer the old tunes. Though in Reform temples, nine times out of ten, they're sung to a pipe organ, which drives me a bit crazy, since that has very definite churchy connotations. In Buffalo, I went to a temple which boasted that it had the second largest organ in the city. My mother's pastor--her church has the largest--burst out laughing when I mentioned this when he dropped by for tea, and said, "Yeah... but is it circumcised?"

Er, slightly off-topic.

My point is that things are in flux, and I think that may explain why some of the frum kids feel stuck.

Though if they still feel like that as adults, as Ellyne says, there's this part of my brain going, "Then why in the world are you still in the religion and not finding one that suits you better?" The concept of being stuck in a religion and unable to leave it is very foreign to me.
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naomichana From: naomichana Date: September 2nd, 2005 02:37 am (UTC) (Link)
I've always thought "Jew by choice" sounded ridiculous, too -- but I suspect some of it stems from Judaism's long-standing taboo about identifying converts as such. While the original idea, I'm fairly sure, was simply not to hold the convert's origins (family, nationality, whatever) against him/her, it's evolved into this weird etiquette deal where the word "convert" itself is off limits (even though any halfway awake Jew in a Torah-reading service will draw the appropriate conclusion if someone is called up as So-and-So ben/bat Avraham v'Sarah).

On the very rare occasions when I find myself explaining one person's background to another, I tend to say "So-and-so wasn't born Jewish." But the appropriate term for a convert to Judaism is, last I checked... Jew.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 2nd, 2005 02:48 am (UTC) (Link)
I actually go by Elisheva bat Avraham Avinu rather than Avraham v'Sarah. I'm not sure why. It's a quirk.

I (obviously) don't mind people knowing I'm a convert, and I'm not sure why people would mind, as it explains things like not always knowing the etiquette or being a little out of step culturally or being totally and completely clueless about the cadences of the music (I despair of ever understanding the music on an instinctual level, and desperately miss four-part, major-key tunes collected in hymnals!). It's just a place I come from. And I've kind of taken on being a bridge person as my own mission--trying to explain Jews to Christians and vice versa--so it comes up pretty regularly. "Wasn't born Jewish" is as good as anything else if someone's asking about a person's origin.
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sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: September 2nd, 2005 02:45 am (UTC) (Link)
The problem with this is people who assume that if one chooses a particular religion, one must disdain all others. If the world could just go with the idea that there are many different ways of getting close to God, or whatever, and they're all equal, then "convert" would not be such a loaded term.

I guess it gets back to humanity's obsession with groups, and belonging to them, and the lingering implications of betrayal if you choose to shift groups. Thinking with our hindbrains, not our minds.
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 2nd, 2005 03:00 am (UTC) (Link)
I come from a faith with a definite proseltyzing streak and I don't begrudge anyone the right to feel that their faith is better (or my right to disagree). I mean, I've always kind of assumed that's why they belong to their religion. If they don't think it's better (whether they feel better for them personally or better in broader sense), why don't they go join whichever one they feel IS beter? I mean, isn't that the point?

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: September 2nd, 2005 03:21 am (UTC) (Link)
If they don't think it's better (whether they feel better for them personally or better in broader sense), why don't they go join whichever one they feel IS beter? I mean, isn't that the point?

Right there with you. I wasn't born into a heavily evangelical church (though it was in the name, "English Evangelical Lutheran"), but certainly, the concept of it was that if you didn't feel right about your religion, you would seek out one that better suited you. It's typical American religious behavior. (G-d bless religious America; you can be entertained for years studying its incredibly robust creativity.)
veryshortlist From: veryshortlist Date: September 2nd, 2005 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Good on you for having a faith at least. If it makes you happy, I don't care if you were a goy once upon a time. :)
kelleypen From: kelleypen Date: September 2nd, 2005 04:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Another convert here, although not to Judaism. And my faith is a proselyting one.
Actually, I've been suspicious for years that I'm at least part Jewish on my father's line. Which would be very okay with me--I love Jewish lit, I'm pro-Israel, and have had many Jewish friends throughout my life. But he got so freakily defensive when I asked him if he had Jewish blood (Austrian and German immigrant parents in 1910 and 1925), that I was convinced that he was assimilated. Do you think the Chabad would be interested in me?
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 2nd, 2005 12:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ask them! I find it hard to imagine the Chabad turning any potential Jews away...
dalf From: dalf Date: September 2nd, 2005 06:48 am (UTC) (Link)
The more liberal side of society preaching all their tolerance have always struk me as the most intolerant of all of us (well except perhaps Reverand Phelps). Its an incedious and (IMHO) stupid sort of intolerance. To me what it seems most of these types of peopl e are saying (or at least the message I get form them): "I have no problems with yoru religion or anyones religion orginized monotheistic whatever as long as you dont actually believe it. The moment you begin to behave (or even speak) in a manner that indicates that you believe in what you say you believe in then you are a bigot and I must therefore give you teh harderst time I possibly can since I am incapable of being bigoted myself".

Its the same sort of system that would have a problem with the word convert. "You can believe what you want but I believe no religion is better than any other so if you indicate that you might think somethign like that then I am going to have a fit."

Sorry that felt like a rant ..... but it was good to say.
aesshen From: aesshen Date: September 5th, 2005 02:30 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, with all due respect, do you have any idea how offensive it is when people start talking about how their religion is so much better than yours? Because at least in this country, that would seem to be more than the number of people who are perfectly willing to admit that any religion is as good as another if it makes you happy. Judging someone's religion swiftly turns into a judgment of them as a person. And there's not much more intolerant, and intolerably rude, than that.
Plus, umm, might want to spell-check before you post something like this. :)
volandum From: volandum Date: September 2nd, 2005 10:09 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, I'm learning more through reading your comments.
ambyr From: ambyr Date: September 2nd, 2005 12:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've never heard the Jew-by-choice term, but it does strike me as weird and awkward.

Likewise I am irritated by those goyim who seem to believe that because I am not terribly observant, I am not Jewish, and struggle to come up with a separate term for me ("You're a Hebrew, not a Jew" seems to be a popular one.) Umm, no. My mother was Jewish, her mother was Jewish, I am Jewish. What I do or do not believe, how often I go to synagogue every year, and whether or not I maintain four sets of dishes in my kitchen is not relevant.
alkari From: alkari Date: September 2nd, 2005 01:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Um ... why does any one NEED to know whether you are a 'convert' or not? Of what relevance is it at all? *scratches head in puzzlement* If you are asked your religion, why not just say: Jewish / Quaker / Hindu / Catholic / Zoroastrian/ whatever ... what business is it of any one else whether you were born into a particular faith, or you chose it? Surely it is your commitment to that faith which is the crucial thing, not when or whether or how you decided?

Seems to me that if people in this world simply got along with letting everyone choose and be their own religion, and stopped worrying about who was right / wrong, or trying to convert the others, we might all be a lot happier, and the world might be a lot more peaceful.

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