Danielle Freni is Senior Communications Associate for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in Washington, D.C.
A Jewish Looking Soul
Before I actually got up the nerve to contact a real live rabbi and begin my official journey towards Judaism, one thought was holding me back. It held me back for months, maybe even years: I can't pull this off. I don't look Jewish.
I imagined the blank expression that would confront me when someday, I would actually say aloud, "I'm Jewish." I cringed at the confusion that would surely overcome any stranger, employer, or potential date. I imagined them saying, "But your last name is Italian." I thought of the awkward explanation that, every single time, I would have to give. I was intimidated by the feeling of walking into a synagogue alone, all 5 feet 10 inches of me, with my mother's Irish coloring and my father's round Sicilian nose. I was sure I'd stick out like a sore thumb--among a people who could recognize each other as members of tribe with one quick look-over.
When the thirst to begin my spiritual journey finally became so great that all the Gatorade in the world couldn't quench it, I started researching local synagogues. And thank God for the Internet, because going door-to-door was out of the question. I'd plead my case via email, or on the phone, anything but face-to-face.
I wanted a Reform synagogue, in my neighborhood, preferably with a female rabbi--and within seconds, Google had found her. Even better, she had a picture--a small black and white headshot. I couldn't believe my eyes. She was stunning and didn't look a day past 25. Her pin-straight, lightly colored hair framed her wholesome face. She had no frizzy curls, no frumpy glasses, no tell-tale Jewish nose. She looked friendly, not stiff. She looked like someone I might have hung out with in college. This was a rabbi? This was a rabbi. This could be my rabbi.
When we met in person for the first time, I nearly walked right past her. What I hadn't been able to tell from the website's black and white headshot was that her light-colored hair was actually a golden red and her face was sprinkled with freckles. I didn't want to ask, but I wondered if she were Irish, like me. Doubtful, but possible, I guessed. Maybe she was married to a Jew, maybe her parents weren't Jewish either. I started searching for some clues. The college degree on her wall bore her maiden name, Zimmerman. Okay, I thought, just checking.
Days later, I traveled to meet with another real live rabbi--this one Conservative. While I was fairly sure I would be more comfortable with the Reform movement, I was looking for another opinion on conversion. Since this was our first face-to-face meeting, I didn't know whom to look for, but I expected that she'd spot me. Sure enough, as I stepped off the elevator, a middle-aged woman was waving her hands in the air furiously from the library, hoping to catch my attention. She was shorter and wider than me with dark curly hair resting on her shoulders. "You can spot me a mile away, huh?" I asked, feeling somewhat deflated. She laughed. "You're actually the sixth girl I've flagged down." Phew. She ushered me into her office, where her walls and desk were littered with Judaica.
She focused her dark eyes on me. As she started to talk I couldn't help but think how Jewish she looked and how Jewish I would never look. I told her my story anyway. "I was raised Protestant… Methodist actually." She quickly interjected, "So was I." Pause. "I converted at 19."
Walking out of the building and falling into step with the crowd along New York's Upper West Side, I felt suddenly energized and optimistic. I was comforted, even encouraged. Like, somehow, these rabbi's faces were inviting me, saying "See? I'm Jewish." And they were. Every part of them was Jewish, whether they were born that way or not. They were Jewish because they had chosen to be. And I was determined to look at myself the same way without feeling out of place or discouraged.
Ultimately having decided to practice Reform Judaism, I was ready for my first Shabbat (Sabbath) service. I arrived feeling a bit more courageous, but still terribly uncomfortable, until the rabbi introduced me to some people in the congregation. I met a woman from Venezuela who had been raised Jewish. We chatted back and forth in Spanish. She was surprised I spoke it so well since I was not a native speaker. I think we were both learning not to judge books by their covers.
But my crash course on "what Jews look like" did not end there. A white couple arrived with their Asian children in tow. And when it was time to light the candles, their children, 6 and 4, took to the bimah (podium) singing the Candle Blessing--words I did not know--at the top of their lungs.
It took time for me to become comfortable in synagogue. But it had more to do with learning the language, prayers and songs than with blending into the crowd. When I look around on Friday nights, I see people, not facial features. I see Jews, even in the mirror. And I know now that it is not my complexion, my nose, my eyes, or my last name that looks Jewish--but my soul.