When my high school students at the inner-city public school where I taught asked if all Jews were rich, I said that indeed they were not. Certainly, there would be no trust fund awarded to me at the end of the conversion process so that I could join the Jews that were.
Sadly, there was also no Miss Manners school to prepare me for the leap from growing up on welfare to hobnobbing with middle and upper class Jews. Private day schools for them. Public school without enough books or chairs for me. They had mutual funds. I had $25 in my savings. After barely surviving a haredi conversion school in Israel, I knew how I would have fared at finishing school. Badly. You see, I have no manners.
I blurt things out. I tell people they’re racist at the Shabbos table after they make jokes about Mexican housekeepers. I’ve even thrown turkey at a guest for such humor. And no, I’m not actually Mexican but being Hispanic, Dominican American specifically, is close enough for discomfort.
I also don’t know how to eat at a table. I grew up eating dinner in my bed in front of the TV with my three siblings who spilled so much rice, beans and chicken on my pillowcases and sheets I had to beat the cockroaches away at night.
And when the Republican at the table asks, “Do you really want your tax dollars going to poor people?” I rather impolitely explain that if it hadn’t been for the welfare checks my mentally ill mother collected throughout my childhood, I wouldn’t be alive today.
I am frequently “inappropriate for the Shabbos table.” I make people laugh and cry. Sometimes, I make them stop talking altogether. Social norms and cultural codes go over my pretty little head. Why is homosexuality too controversial when the state of my ovaries is not? It’s never a secret that I am a convert, a stranger, in the Orthodox Jewish world.
I made myself a chart of do’s and don’ts after one particularly memorable meal. It didn’t help. When I finally lost a friend over my manners (or lack thereof), I proclaimed myself “The Worst Guest in the World.” Our friendship ended over email after I was indicted on two counts of putting my feet up on the furniture, three counts of serving myself before others and one count of not excusing myself before leaving the table.
But weddings are the worst. I attended one wedding as a child. I remember pulling the door open for the limo and then nothing else. I attended one Jewish wedding before I had my own, a big beautiful Jewish Dominican bash where I secretly dreamed of eloping so I would have a heftier savings account for trying economic times. Plus I think the wedding cost more than I’d ever made in a single year. Gulp.
The first year I was married, I was invited to back-to-back weddings. I cried at the bottom of my closet before each one, feeling intensely shallow for having nothing to wear, nothing in the right shade of appropriate black. Where was Richard Gere with his unlimited Amex to save me? After all, wasn’t I in THAT Julia Roberts movie where she can’t figure out how to eat lobster and accidentally launches it across the room while yelling about those slippery things. Though, since I started keeping kosher I traffic in projectile salad. Specifically, tomatoes. For one wedding, I bought a new dress the same day and then changed in the backseat on the way. I thought if I just looked right, it wouldn’t matter that I had no idea what was going on.
I walked into the latest wedding with too red lipstick, a too red shirt and a mismatched headscarf. The little silver star of David pendant felt like a blazing, scarlet letter next to everyone’s family pearls. I was swallowed by a sea of expensive sheitels and fancy hats and my self-esteem plummeted several notches. I tried to remind myself this was the bride’s day, not mine. No one was going to notice what I was wearing…were they?
As my husband headed for coat check, I piled food onto my plate at the bedeken. I hadn’t eaten beforehand or maybe such nervous hording stemmed from a childhood worry about not knowing when to expect your next meal. I worried about being called Miss Piggy as I sat at a nearby bistro table and bit into a juicy appetizer. A friend, a dentist, approached me to ask me to translate some words her patients had tried to teach her the day before. She related the words in slow Spanish.
“Those are dirty words!” I laughed.
“But what do they mean?” she asked.
I told her. Too loudly. The couple sitting across from us gave me one long, disgusted look and stalked off.
“What happened?” my husband asked popping up from behind me.
I explained remorsefully.
“Someday you’re going to be a Rebbetzin,” he said shaking his head.
“I know.” There would be plenty more non-wedding opportunities to lodge my size 7 foot into my big, big mouth.
Later, on the dance floor, an old friend whispered in my ear. “Is that how you’re covering your hair?” Overcome by a beet red blush, I thought about heading for the bar but instead headed for our table. What had happened to going unnoticed?
At the table, an overwhelming fear of making the next faux pas overtook me. I probed my friends with questions like: Do you have to send a thank you card to everyone after a Shabbos meal? Do people do Chanukah cards? Does everyone get an afikomen present?
I decided the table was out to get me when dinner was served. There were too many glasses and more silverware spread across the tablecloth than I knew what to do with that moment. I looked around wildly for my husband but couldn’t find him. With a sigh, I picked up the nearest fork and started chomping away at my salad. That’s when my friend returned from the bathroom and said, “Has anyone seen my fork?”
“Oops,” I said smiling sheepishly imagining lettuce stuck between my teeth. I handed her another fork which I wasn’t sure actually belonged to me. Then I made a quick grab for random, empty wine glasses in front of me.
“That’s my glass,” another voice said as my hand circled around one stem.
When my husband walked over, I gestured to the glasses and mouthed, “Which one is mine?”
The conversion process was not over when I stepped out of the mikvah. It is never-ending. And the ensuing period of cultural and class integration has left me with a sinking dread. In the pit of my stomach, I’m always worried I’m doing or saying the wrong thing. I’m funny when I’m not trying to be. I’m brave for frequently saying what no one else will when really I don’t realize why no one else was saying it. I’m a pauper trying to pretend to be a Jewish American princess.
Early in the conversion process, I tried to shake a rabbi’s hand. He demurred kindly while I died from shame and wiped my sweaty hand across my skirt. After hearing a friend’s good news, I bought her a $25 gift certificate. Another friend gently pointed out the cultural norm is to wait until after the baby is born to buy gifts. I even lost a friend for my uncouth table manners or maybe it was because I somehow managed to break her fancy dining chair?
I have found myself frequently apologizing for things. I apologized for not knowing what to do and when. I apologized for not knowing what to say and how. I apologized for frequently “murdering” my husband, my friends and myself through all manner of embarrassing circumstance. After every excruciating social event, I went home and played them back in excruciating detail.
It has taken several delirious trips to Macy’s and several boring black dresses later to realize I am never going to blend in. I am never going to be cast in the part of nice, Ashkenazi Jewish white girl. I am going to be different no matter what.
My super appropriate friend said the first time she met me she thought I was a little crazy. (In my defense, she caught me in the midst of wedding planning.)
“Gee thanks,” I said rolling my eyes. “And now?”
“You’re just you,” she said. “I don’t know anyone else quite like you.”
I furrowed my eyebrows in the way that creases my forehead and begs for Botox. (Just kidding.)
“That’s a compliment,” she said.
And I realized it really was.
Why was I spending so much time trying to pretend I could be someone else? It was time to stop apologizing. So on Shabbos, when a woman at synagogue gawked at the hiking boots underneath my skirt and made a face, I smiled at her.
“They’re really comfortable,” I said eyeing her heels which were probably worth three times as much as my boots and didn’t have any space for my orthotics.
She smirked. I smiled. No apologies.
Someday I’ll be able to tell the difference between a dessert spoon and a soup soon. I’ll even learn how to set a table properly. And maybe part of my conversion process is a crash course in a finishing school run by my peers. But somehow along the way, I managed to forget that there were plenty of people who accepted me just for being me. Because I didn’t.
I was too busy worrying about fitting in. Too busy forgetting how far I’d come. I was the first college graduate in my family. The first to obtain a Master’s degree. And as the first-generation American child of poor native Spanish speakers, I became an English teacher who inspired students from similar backgrounds. Plenty of people were proud of me, except me, until I realized that maintaining my membership in the Jewish club was never going to hinge on table manners. No one was ever going to revoke it if I never learned which fork was mine. I am a lifetime member.
Perhaps, the greatest lesson Judaism has taught me is that G-d wants me to be the best me I can be. I don’t want to get to heaven and be asked why I wasn’t the best Aliza I could be. Because I know the sorry answer will be that I spent all my life trying to be like everyone but me. So maybe it’s about time I started learning to accept myself and stopped worrying about whether my flats match my dress.
Aliza Hausman is a Latina Orthodox Jewish convert, freelance writer, blogger and speaker. Currently working on a memoir, she lives in New York with her husband.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.