I don’t like talking about the fact that I’m a convert. It’s an old, tired topic. Alas, it comes up all the time. So, I just deal, just as I deal with comments about how much I love cats. “No s***, Sherlock.” Pardon my French.
Speaking of French, so is my last name. For years, my family was told that it was Scottish, but my grandfather’s idea of a scandalous deathbed confession was to confirm the rumor that our surname is French (a big deal, I suppose, since his part of the family is mostly English). Personally, I think it’s just another cool part of the ethnic mystery mosaic of my family tree. I’m English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, Swiss-German, possibly Austrian, Italian, and possibly Greek. My Italian great-grandfather’s family was from Cosenza, a port city which came in contact with people from all over Europe and North Africa and the Middle East. As a result, I may have ancestry as well from Morocco and who knows where else beyond Europe. I love the vibrancy!
What’s depressing to me, though, is that not everyone appreciates ethnic vibrancy. I’m not just talking about certain members of my family of origin. Sadly, I’m also talking about certain members of our Jewish community. When I learned about how we are scattered to all four corners in the Diaspora and that we are now finding each other in good part thanks to modern technology, I was in awe. It shattered the stereotypes that I was fed as a child about Jews only being European looking. But, there are many Jews who either fetishize our long-lost relatives at best or, at worst, treat them with blatant racism, and that throws me for a loop. And, what makes matters worse is that somehow, some Ashkenazim have this notion in their heads that because I inherited primarily the English genetics in my family for my facial appearance and complexion that I’m supposed to pick up their minhag and nusach because somehow, I physically fit “that” role.
I grew up eating Italian food and developed a fierce Italian temper. My Shabbat dinner of choice includes tortellini with a nice pesto and some sorbetto for dessert. And NO gefilte fish (shoot me now, even my cats won’t eat that fishspamwhateveritis). I’ve deliberately chosen the Sephardic minhag, which I’ve been told is my right. I learned how to speak and read Hebrew with Sephardic pronunciation, I learned Sephardic terminology for things when I converted, and frankly, the Sephardic minhag makes sense to me and fits more with the Italian part of my upbringing in certain aspects. Plus, frankly, beans and rice make sense to me on Pesach. Deal.
I really relate in my own way to Vanessa Hidary’s poem, “The Hebrew Mamita”. “You don’t look Jewish, you don’t act Jewish.” Or, in my case, “You don’t look Jewish, your last name doesn’t sound Jewish.” Really?! I’ve heard those very statements. I still can’t help but wonder what the heck is wrong with people. There is no excuse for talking to any person like that under any circumstances. It’s gotten to the point that I no longer voluntarily tell people at Jewish functions my last name unless I absolutely have to or if they badger it out of me. It’s just not worth the drama. I go to a synagogue at which people for the most part behave themselves, but most of the time, elsewhere, I get a condescending “Oh…” Or, worse. And I am done.
Certain people bristle when I say “Shabbat Shalom” instead of “Good Shabbos” and act shocked when I tell them that I eat kitniyot on Pesach, but then, when they learn about my last name, I get treated even worse. Whatever, honey.
I look like my great-great-something-or-other-grandfather, Jonathan Edwards. Yes, the fire and brimstone preacher, author of “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry G-d”… and one of the very first English immigrants of this country who did civil rights activist work on behalf of Native Americans. As for my last name, I now take a bit of liberty with the lyrics of a song by the Steampunk band, Frenchy and the Punk: “Yes, I’m French, but don’t hold it against me… I’m also half-English, confusing but true, imagine the inner turmoil I go through!” So what if I look English and have a French last name? News flash — so do lots of other Jews, and they’re Jews by birth! If certain people busted out of their self-imposed shtetls, they’d see that. Or maybe they do, but they’re being especially rude to me because they are purposefully ignoring all that stuff in the Torah itself about “the stranger in your gates”?
Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi, etc… which is mine? I may be able to daven in any nusach with ease but keep with the Sephardic minhag at home, but I maintain that the whole Jewish diaspora is “mine” as I am still learning from all of you as a giyoret. But what I’m bringing to the table and am informed by is the Italian food I was raised to eat, the ethical passion and fortitude of a certain English direct ancestor of mine, and… well, this French last name that was thrown at me as a family dark secret. Don’t even try to hold any of it against me, because I will just laugh if you do. You cannot hurt me with what’s already mine.
Gavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.