My name is “Chriss,” as in, Chris(t). My name has proved to be a blinking neon sign indicating to all in the Jewish world that I am the odd girl out. The first question is “are you Jewish?” and the second is “how?” Funny, that wasn’t my first question to you.
I came to Judaism knowing nothing… except for Anne Frank, I knew who she was. I had also read a few books by Chaim Potok, though I pronounced his first name like “chain” with an “m.” Yom Kippur-the tiny printed words on every calendar was just an obscure Irish holiday (imagine my surprise…).
I grew up in a homogenous small mountain town in Northern California where everyone was from a Christian background. The primary faiths represented were Mormons, small evangelical groups or Protestants, like my family. I didn’t knowingly meet somebody that was of another faith (like Judaism) until freshman year of college.
I moved to New York City at age 22, and several years later I dated a Member of the Tribe. Friday night dinners with his observant parents, fasting during Yom Kippur and eating cheesecake all night once a year. It seemed awesome but everything was one big Hebraic blur. So, I enrolled in a “Judaism 101” course at a synagogue in Park Slope. They were egalitarian, friendly, engaging, and progressive in their views— everything I was looking for in an “organized religion.” I asked a lot of questions throughout the course and when it ended after 6 months, I knew that I wanted to start the official conversion process (despite the end of my romantic relationship as well).
The first thing my Rabbi said to me was “just so you are fully aware- a Reform Judaism conversion is a bit controversial among the Jewish community.” I shrugged it off. A Jew is a Jew.
It took 2 years of studying, meeting with my Rabbi and observing various traditions, like keeping Kosher and Shabbat. As my Reform synagogue didn’t have much of a thriving social scene, my best friend showed me the social landscape of the Modern Orthodox in Manhattan. I was excited as well as a bit intimidated. Soon I started to feel that I was ready to be a full-fledged member of the tribe.
In May of 2014 I nervously met with a Beit Din who officially “approved” me and immersed myself in the warm waters of a mikvah on the Upper West Side. Outside the mikveh door stood my Rabbi, brother, and two good friends. I was a Jew and I shouted this (literally!) through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn that day.
Prior to Judaism I connected with potential dating partners solely on good vibes, mutual interests, etc. Religion played virtually no part in it. Now that I am not a “shiksa” it is of the utmost importance. I want to have a traditional Jewish family with a smart, funny good-looking man who embraces his faith and culture, finds meaning in tradition, loves Israel and is progressive thinking. Should be easy in New York. Right? Wrong.
I didn’t understand how my “type” of conversion would come into play in the Jewish dating world. First, as a convert I have to cross off all men with the last name of “Cohen.” I learned this after a man at shul said he’d love to date me but he was part of the Kohanim and as a convert I am forbidden fruit. The Ultra Orthodox, Haredim and most-any sect of Orthodoxy automatically discredit my conversion entirely. The hypothetical children I might produce down the road may be an issue for Reform or Conservative Jews as our offspring’s “Jewishness” maybe called into question. So that leaves me with secular Jews. So much for the dream.
Most men aren’t worried about my level of observance or thoughts on the religious front. My “worthiness” is contingent on being the “right kind of Jewish.” Their verdict is usually asserted loudly and rudely after a few drinks. Apparently a traveling rogue Beit Din.
On a first date with a cute guy I had met at a costume party called “Challahween,” I learned he had grown up in a very religious family and was impressed that I had converted. His enthusiasm quickly faded when he learned one of the Rabbis I studied under was a woman. Huh? This is 2016. Aren’t we passed the antiquated notion that only men can be accepted as rabbinical figures? Not to mention that nowhere in the Torah does it forbid it. We disagreed and still made out. Regrets in feminism.
Recently I introduced myself to the host of a house party (where 99% of attendees were Jewish). He loudly exclaimed that now he knew “who the goy” was. He didn’t know it that the next day marked my 2nd anniversary of going to the mikvah. I looked at my best friend sitting across from me. She was bracing herself for one of my long, bitter, tearful diatribes. Instead I simply said “I AM A JEW.” He didn’t understand his words pushed an atomic bomb like button inside of me. I spent the next hour singing my feelings out on his karaoke machine.
Last week “Sammy” on Jswipe asked for my phone number. I was delighted but as his profile mentioned having Jewish parents I decided to tell him upfront that my parents were not. “Who and where did you convert through?” I knew where this conversation was going. I told him that I wasn’t Orthodox but I am Jewish. “I question your intentions when you go through conversion and don’t one hundred percent the life of a Jew with our culture. You are not a Jew.”
My intentions? Did he think I was some breed of religious terrorist? I I keep kosher, lived in Israel, observe Shabbat and chagim. He then called me a Christian… as a slur, and blocked me.
As my name often serves as a conversation “ice breaker”: I have thought by going solely by my Hebrew name (Miriam), but for 30-something years I’ve been Chriss. I don’t want to negate my family or the journey that brought me here for your convenience. There are Jews named Chriss. Here I am.
This past Shavout I heard a fellow convert say something very simple but powerful – we forget that despite our different backgrounds we once stood at Sinai together as one community. Maybe that was only a desert mirage.
Chriss Williams is currently finishing her degree in Religion at Hunter College. She created the blog “Shiksaism.com” which chronicles her adventures as a “Jew by Choice.” Chriss lives in Brooklyn and loves red wine, hookah, and dancing. Please swipe right.
Images courtesy of Chriss Williams