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!
Hebrew and Yiddish words can be found in the Glossary.