Our faces reflect who we are and what we’ve experienced. Someone who has never had to struggle for something meaningful will reflect that in an open trusting expression. They can smile easily but it’s a blank smile devoid of purpose, a standard greeting to anyone they see. Someone who’s had to learn to trust people again will have a wary smile, if it’s not genuine it’ll look forced but the upshot is that when they smile you know they mean it with every fiber of their being.

All converts are equal as Jews but not all converts are equal in the struggle to attain that status. A pretty girl with a non-Jewish mother re-discovers her roots. She goes before the Beis Din, she’s young pretty and charming, a valuable asset to the community, especially with so many single young men. She dives head first into it, aided by her wealthy parents suddenly buying a rental property in the heart of the Jewish community for her to live in. With her looks and warmth she’s quickly accepted by the community and within a year they declare her conversion complete. Her smile is happy and genuine but reflects no true understanding of her good fortune, that’s this is not the way it always is.

A Korean girl discovers the beauty of Judaism in her late teens. She makes multiple inquests to the Beis Din. By Halacha they turn her down several times, but she insists and perseveres. Rejected by some more right wing Beis Dins she carves a path for herself and completes an Orthodox conversion in a more liberal community. Having struggled for so long she recognizes the beauty of halacha and it’s ever so much sweeter for the work. She chooses to hold to higher standards of kashrus above most of her peers and continues learning both for the joy and intellectual struggle. Despite her personal accomplishments she’s always aware of the strange looks she’ll get in a new shul and she’ll ignore the whispering gossipers wondering who she is and what she’s doing here. She’ll be polite even to the misguided ones who assume she must be merely there as a shabbos helper to an elderly woman and ask her to serve as a shabbos goy. Her smile is genuine but the pain is there nonetheless. She’s always aware that despite wanting to be as strict as possible in a way she also must as it’s the only way to prove to them that this is her birthright too and she’s claimed it harder than they can comprehend.

A girl from Minnesota with no Jewish background finds something to admire in the Jews she meets. She’s never had to struggle for anything thus far and she couldn’t start now. She doesn’t know how to. Finding the path to Orthodox conversion strenuous she opts for a Conservative one, rationalizing that with that under her belt she can move up the ladder in an easier fashion in the future. After her programs completion she lives as an semi-Orthodox Jew, with her lack of credentials a secret. She wants to marry a Jewish boy and live a Jewish life but that’s on the back-burner while she integrates into the community and joins the struggle of the orthodox egalitarian movement. Her smile is open and open to all, but with nothing behind it she offers nothing with it. She likes to talk about getting stares when she walks into a new shul for being so mid-western and blond. It’s a game to her and she doesn’t recognize the pain this causes her Korean friend who only feels anxiety at the new shul stare. She isn’t mean on purpose, she’s just never had to fight for anything, and therefore can’t recognize the face of someone who has. Her biggest struggles so far are related to ex-boyfriends and looking at the world through this prism she’s confused why some people seem so reserved. She doesn’t understand the idea that a smile is only as good as the meaning behind it.

A girl from an immigrant family discovers Judaism on her own. Fighting her own family and their deep religious faith she struggles to find acceptance in a Beis Din that demands a complete break with her previous life. Instead she shoulders the burden of acquiescing to everyone’s request, unwilling to break off any family ties yet also unwilling to let go of this new beauty she’s discovered. When she walks into a shul she doesn’t have to worry about a questioning stare but she also doesn’t delight in it. For her it isn’t about the thrill of the new or impressing the ladies with naturally blond hair spilling over her siddur. She’s here for the struggle that’s eternal, of studying it and internalizing it. She’s here to struggle because that’s all she’s ever known. Her conversion takes longer than she’d ever dreaded because the demands of the Beis Din must coexist with the demands of her family. She can’t easily live near a shul because her commitments must keep her close to home, so instead she lives amongst strangers from lecha dodi to havdallah but only on the weeks when she doesn’t feel up to the walk from her home to the community. Her smile is shy and reserved because she doesn’t know how to give it easily. All she knows is the struggle and the struggle becomes her. But it’s the brightest of them all.

11 Responses to “Faces”

  1. I think this post was well worth waiting two years for.
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  2. great post. are these people real or are they proto-types?

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  10. Very interesting post especially since I am in the process of re-discovering my roots. I’m trying to find out more about my ancestors from southern Spain. I’ve suspected for awhile now that they were conversos. I hope I can find out the truth soon. Not sure about making a conversion back to Judaism though, because I’ve considered myself an atheist punker up until now. What really matters to me is learning about the culture and history. To know where I come from. Anyway I know what you mean about the “empty smile”. I have trouble relating to such people. Thanks for this post!

  11. Thank you and thanks for your time reading.


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