When I became a Jew by choice, it was for no other reason than the fact that I felt a calling: I had a Jewish soul. I embarked on the long and arduous journey of becoming Jewish through a Conservative conversion, only to discover later that neither my son nor I was considered Jewish according to strict religious law, as I had not converted through the Orthodox movement.
To become an Orthodox Jew requires a lot of study, commitment, sacrifice and tenacity. It took me nearly two years to complete my Orthodox conversion. But I did it. I was not dating at the time, and my rabbi informed me that I couldn’t date throughout the process. I was okay with that, because I wanted to “own” my conversion.
Due to a tragic set of circumstances, my husband was no longer in our son’s life and mine, and I recognized that my chances of marrying within the Orthodox community were very low because of my age. I started my Orthodox conversion process when I was 44, and most people in this movement marry early and stay married for many, many years. Still, I was determined to become an Orthodox Jew and to raise my son Orthodox.
Since completing my conversion, I’ve had three dates with Modern Orthodox men. But there was always some disconnect. Recently a woman tried to set me up and was surprised when I told her that I’m 51, whereupon she informed me that she’d have to talk to the man, who is in his late 30s. He told her he wasn’t interested.
Another man I dated was slightly older than I am. But later on, I discovered that he is a Cohen, which means that according to the Torah he cannot marry a convert.
Then there was the man who met up with me for dinner. Over the course of the meal, he told me that he was “used to being the intimidator” on dates. But with me, he was too intimidated because of my “exotic beauty,” life experiences and intellect.
It’s not only these experiences that have made me reticent to date. Here’s another reason: Any man I’m with has to be committed to raising my son as his own. It’s very hard for a man to do that if he can’t see himself in a child — and that would be the case with most Ashkenazi men and my biracial son. Depending on who’s looking, my son is seen as either Latino or Israeli. But no one will ever mistake him for an Ashkenazi.
My son knows that I am single and not dating because I refuse to marry a non-Jewish man. He understands that this decision is sometimes difficult and that I have to deal with the reality that I may never remarry. But this is a decision I have made because I am a Jewish woman, and though my journey was long, my desire to be recognized as a sincere Jew is a lifetime commitment that I will not abandon just because I’m alone.
I don’t want my son to be alone, though.
And that’s the problem. It’s not just that the process has been difficult for me — my son has suffered because his mother was “not yet” Jewish, and because he is biracial. Bullied from kindergarten until he left Hebrew school, he was often excluded from events like birthday parties or sleepovers, and he never really made friends. He missed out on opportunities to develop the social skills that are practiced during these formative years. It was painful for him, and excruciating for me to watch him go through this, though I tried to protect him as much as I could so that he’d continue to get an Orthodox Hebrew education.
During all this, we kept on attending Orthodox synagogues — mostly Chabad, sometimes Modern Orthodox. But after my conversion was complete and we were fully Jewish, I noticed that my 13-year-old son was starting to look at non-Jewish girls his age. I confronted him: Why didn’t he like the girls at synagogue?
Because of the rejection he experienced, and the fact that he never saw himself reflected in the community, he observed that Jewish girls were “very pretty, but they all look the same.”
When he told me that he needed diversity, needed to see people from all different parts of the world — including Jews who looked like him — I explained that he could find that in Israel one day, but that we couldn’t make aliyah at the moment. He was firm: He wanted to see himself and he wanted to be seen.
My solution was to go synagogue-hopping. I’ve been trying desperately to find an Orthodox community with more diversity so that he can meet a Jewish girl he may eventually want to marry, someone with whom he can raise the next generation of Jews to carry forward our faith and traditions.
At a time when roughly 58% of the estimated 6.8 million Jews in America are intermarrying, I would think all streams of Judaism would make every effort to keep Jews by birth and Jews by choice in the fold. To keep kids like my son — who feels Jewish, knows that he is Jewish, but has only experienced rejection and been rebuffed at every turn by many Jewish children — we will need a community that is truly diverse and inclusive. I hope that sharing stories like mine will help us achieve that.
Ayanna Nahmias is the Editor-in-Chief of The Nahmias Cipher Report.
Ayanna Nahmias is the publisher and editor of The Nahmias Cipher Report, an online publication dedicated to human rights issues. Her writings have appeared in the Forward and The American Spectator, and she was interviewed by Jonathan Groubert on The State We’re In: Radio Netherlands Worldwide. She is a frequent public speaker, most recently presenting at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. An American by birth, she grew up in East Africa and currently lives in Arlington, Virginia.