Jewish Geography is Assur

I’m kidding, of course, but only halfway. This past Sukkos, a family from another shul in town invited myself and three of my friends to a meal at their home. We were making small talk and getting to know each other, and for this family, like for most frum folks, that meant trying to figure out who we have in common, as opposed to what we have in common. One of these friends happens to have a complicated family situation, involving conversion and relatives hostile to her religious choices. Not wanting to reveal her private life to these complete strangers, she dodged the interrogation with aplomb, but it got me thinking: if there’s a mitzvah to avoid reminding a ger of his past, and a mitzvah to avoid embarrassing others, then playing Jewish Geography with someone you’ve just met is probably not a great idea. 

To the uninitiated, the barrage of questions traded back and forth when two frum people meet for the first time – What’s your last name? Where’s your family from? Which shul do they go to? What does your father do? Do you know my cousin Shira? – sounds pretty invasive, but to most people in the Orthodox community, this is a standard, perfectly acceptable way of making a connection. For FFBs, it’s admittedly a great way to get a sense of a new friend’s place in the broader Jewish community. But for someone who wasn’t always frum – ba’alei teshuvah and converts alike – Jewish Geography is a terrific way to embarrass someone who can neither answer the questions properly nor dodge them.

Imagine the following scenario: I’ve just met David, a university student who came to daven in my shul. He tells me he’s from Small Town, Texas. “Small Town, Texas!” I exclaim. “Why, you must know Rabbi So-and-So! After all, there’s only one Orthodox shul in Small Town.” Now David is faced with an uncomfortable choice: he must either lie (which, actually, is probably mutar in this case, since I invaded his privacy) and say that he does know Rabbi So-and-So, even though in fact his family goes to the Reform synagogue (or none at all), or he must out himself to me, a stranger, as a ba’al teshuvah, which will probably provoke further, more personal questioning about his reasons for becoming frum.

That’s not to say that every BT or convert is embarrassed about his past. Some BTs are perfectly happy to reveal their status, and even to discuss when, why, and how they became frum. But many aren’t, and understandably so – the decision to alter one’s lifestyle so radically is a highly personal one. And, unfortunately, the frum world doesn’t always look at BTs with respect for their sacrifice and commitment, but with disdain, and even, occasionally, suspicion. It’s not hard to understand why a BT might want to avoid this topic with total strangers.

Moral of the story? Don’t play Jewish Geography with people you’ve just met, especially if you’re unsure about their family background. Instead, make a connection by asking questions that aren’t as likely to “out” a BT or a ger – ask about your new acquaintance’s job or studies, for example. Use your seichel and be sensitive. It’s not just common courtesy – it’s a mitzvah!

LM

Hebrew and Yiddish words can be found in the Glossary.

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5 comments on “Jewish Geography is Assur

  1. Ben-Yehudah says:

    Yeah, I was wondering if you were going to say something about the prevention of lashon hara’ or something like that,…which I could of accepted. But, I’m glad you were just kidding. :-)

    I think this can be a great way to meet new people, and bring Am Yisrael closer. It’s also a great ice breaker.

    • Thanks for the comment, B-Y! Jewish Geography is undoubtedly a great ice-breaker for those who are able to play, but for those who aren’t it can feel very intrusive and awkward. BTs and converts shouldn’t have to share their life story every time they meet someone new.

  2. SoG says:

    You make a lot of good points! As a ba’al teshuva, I definitely understand what you’re talking about. I’m in the more open/proud BT camp, though. I’m not a fan of BT’s who dump their past instead of utilizing the positive elements from their past in their new avodas HaShem.

    As Rav Simon at YU says, everything happens for a reason, so we should examine everything, even our aveiros to find the positive aspect hidden therein.

    I certainly agree with you on gerim, though, which can be far trickier to interact with and not inadvertently insult them.

    Your bottom line about seichel and sensitivity is universal, though.

    • I like that perspective. I think that a lot of people who are making major contributions in the Jewish world are ba’alei teshuvah who are bringing with them skills they probably never would have learned had they grown up frum, like many of the Tzfat artists, a lot of Jewish musicians, etc. It’s a shame that many people feel they have to get rid of all the things that made them who they were in the secular world, just to fit in with the frum world.

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