Conversion in any form is a rather foreign concept to me.
My motto in life has been largely to perserve and further my legacies and heritages–I am a rather conservative person.
My two heritages are being Jewish and Japanese. I am lucky in that these two leagacies have few conflicting values; in fact, they compliment each other extremely well.
I am also lucky in that I get the two heritages from the “right” parent: My Japaneseness–traditionally a patrlinial heritage–is passed down by my father and my Jewishness–traditionally a matrilinial heritage–is passed down by my mother.
Hence, I can claim that I am both, while there are always those who challenge that: Many hold that, to be an authentic member of the tribe, you have to be “pure.” Actually, I find this attitude to be that of the majority in both Jewish and Japanese communities. Hence, we halfsies turn into human “bridges” or tragically “mixed up” and confused existences forever…But I digress. Let me get back to my main point.
The first point is that I have never converted into or out of anything as far as I know. To the contrary, I have tried to maintain and build my originally flimsy and conditional ties with the communities of my heritage.
Yet, as a “halfsie” (a term I hate, but will use here intentionally), my membership in my respective communities has always felt conditional.
Conditional upon the fact that I know enough about the history of the people, the language, the culture, etc. That is because I lack the physical traits and inevitable mannerisms that I might get if I was steeped in the “pure” culture passed down from both of my parents coming from the same tribe. As a result, ironically, I have become much more educated in both of my heritages a lot more than the average tribal member.
I must say though, being a conditional member is a lonely existence. Constantly feeling like your membership is conditional upon your proper display of knowledge of your people, feeling like you might be under constant scrutiny… I hate it. And I see no reason why anyone else should be made to feel like this–especially on an institutional level.
This is why I am troubled by the developping discussion in Orthodoxy towards converts, Jews by Choice, or those who become Jewish after being born into this world. (see http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c36_a4809/News/New_York.html) Even disregarding the shocking decision made by a certain institution barring not only women from becoming synagogue presidents, but converts as well (!!), the general attitude towards those who want to “become” Jewish, or in many cases, who never questioned their Jewishness (like “Sharon” in the New York Times Magazine article) as guilty until proven innocent, is problematic.
I have been told to my face that I couldn’t be Jewish. Most of them were ignorant Jews who knew very little or cared very little about Judaism and largely regarded Jewishness as a (pure) racial heritage, represented by chicken soup and matzo balls. (Let me not get into the ridiculousness of that right now.) While I found those incidents hurtful, it is also true that I felt more sorry for my friends who were sitting right there next to me not knowing what to do with such a tactless and ignorant comment being directed at me by their family or friends.
But, there was an instance where it wasn’t that. There was a time where the comment, “You can’t be Jewish” was coming from someone for a different reason. I never tracked down that reason, but I sensed that this guy was trying to be more halachically stringent and that’s why he was telling me that I wasn’t Jewish. This actually shocked me. It was the first time that someone who was religious would deny my Jewishness. There was some other prejudice at work here that was “based on halacha“. This is the kind of stringency I smell coming from the Israeli Chief Rabbi: “If you want to claim that you are Jewish, first, prove it.”
I knew of someone who grew up Jewish in the US her entire life, and far as her family knew, she was Jewish from both sides for generations.
She went to Israel, got a little (too) religious. She had a boyfriend and they decided to get married.
The community that her boyfriend and she were now a part of looked into their backgrounds and found out that, “oh no, the girl’s maternal grandmother was adopted!!” Although they knew that she was converted upon adoption, they were not 100% sure if this conversion was in fact Kosher, so they decided that “just to be on the safe side,” this girl had to convert before getting married.
Another really common thing is converts going through many many conversions because they keep having to convert under the “new” standards of the new community they want to belong to. Essentially, their conversion is conditional upon their community accepting that particular brand of conversion. I have heard of and met many converts who converted twice, thrice, sometimes even four times.
The madness has to end somewhere.