One thing that I was asked by the beit din when I converted was how my family would react to my decision. I thought it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Maybe a big shock initially with my mother, but I was sure that she’d come around to accept my choice. I knew I’d have no problems with her family, but with my father’s family, I did expect perhaps some surprised reactions. But then again, one of my cousins has Jewish family on her father’s side, and one uncle is married to a Jewish woman. All in all, I figured things would be fine in the end.
I was wrong.
Just around the time when I converted, I visited with two of my aunts from my father’s side of the family, my sister, and my mom at a beach house. It also happened to be my birthday and the first time that I’d seen these aunts in several years. One of the first things out of my aunts’ mouths was, “Now that you’re becoming Jewish, don’t have a ton of babies.”
One aunt, who still talks to me, said, “I just don’t want your body to get too stressed out, and I see those huge families with ten kids, and I worry.” We’ve since talked about this, and she’s admitted, she was really thinking about her own previous miscarriages and the toll that six babies had on my grandmother. I heard her personal suffering before she even made her confession, and I’d already let it go.
The other aunt spewed–for two days straight–hateful things about overpopulating the planet. (Wow, my endometriosis-battered uterus and my cyst-laden ovaries are nuclear bombs now that I’m Jewish? Does the Pentagon know?!) She also accused me of planning to become a “welfare mom”. Someone in the house told her to take a nice long walk to calm down.
It didn’t work.
My aunt spent the whole time out to ruin my birthday and everyone else’s vacation. I did my best to ignore her.
Months later, though, she made immature comments on my Facebook timeline when I posted jokes about Jews on Christmas, insinuating that I was celebrating the wrong holiday and that I should shut up. When I messaged her that she was upsetting me in front of my friends and rabbi and to please stop, she said some really foul things to me in return.
I asked my mother for some guidance on what to do and was advised to consider whether or not this aunt really would stop with her behavior. I felt that the smartest move was to unfriend her (this was before we had the ability to set audiences for posts, I should add). The ensuing backlash was predictable. What was sad for me, though, was finding out just a few years ago, a year after the unfriending, that she moved to my section of Queens, a short walk away. She wouldn’t even reply to an email check-in during a recent hurricane (she lives in an evacuation zone). Nobody can accuse me of not caring despite everything, perhaps more than I should.
Since then, I’ve also been cut off by an uncle, my “godfather”, and have inexplicably been unfriended by other members of that part of my family as well. I messaged them to ask if I did something to offend them and to try to fix whatever may be broken, only to get no reply. The other family members are his children or his kids’ spouses. I asked an uncle with whom I’m on good terms if he had any idea why my “godfather” wasn’t talking with me. He tried to intervene and get an answer. I got a terse reply back from the “godfather” online. I had no right, I was told, to laugh at a joke sent in an email from the other uncle about Pope Benedict resigning–“you of all people” were his words.
He was fine communicating with me when I wasn’t a member of any religion at all, after I left Catholicism. But soon as I became Jewish… the birthday cards, emails, and my permission to laugh at pope jokes, too, apparently, stopped.
According to my “godfather”, I no longer am an active part of that side of my family (not that everyone obeys him, but he thinks he’s the reigning patriarch for some reason). Members of that side of my family have a habit of disowning people, the old Italian vendetta way. One uncle was cut off for marrying a woman from the wrong part of Italy. One aunt won’t talk to another aunt and hasn’t for decades and won’t even say why. My grandmother and her sister hardly spoke, but my grandfather, who was not Italian, refused to play into this garbage and demanded that she not sit at home alone on holidays and had someone bring her to the house to be with family.
Now, apparently, it’s my turn to be left home alone, but nobody’s putting a foot down for me. Some claim it’s because family gatherings overlap with Shabbat. If things were on Labor Day, I’m sure there’d be another excuse.
Learning about the pogroms, expulsions, and Shoah and going through what I’ve gone through with my family have changed me to a fundamental degree. I’m grateful that my becoming Jewish purged me of that vendetta “tradition” of my family’s. It’s one thing to distance one’s self from an abusive family member. It’s another to just cut a person off for doing something that seems too hard to comprehend, uncomfortable, or just not fitting with the expectations that one might have had set in place for the future for someone else.
Today, as a Jew, I think I finally understand what “family” means–and I cherish the family that I know to truly be in my life. I will never cut them off in the way that I have been.
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.