I knew as soon as I saw him that he would come talk to me after services ended.
It was a Friday night in early July, ten months after my conversion, and we were probably the two youngest people at the oneg (informal gathering after services). He wasn't bad-looking: average height, brown-eyed, dressed in a burgundy polo shirt and khakis, but with a somewhat supercilious expression on his face, as if he wanted to judge something, and couldn't find what he was looking for.
"It's my first time at this temple," he said, after he introduced himself. "I haven't been to a lot of services in this area, but I figured I should start attending. You know, it's always better to be with your own people."
A little taken aback, I asked him what he meant.
"Well, you see, I just ended a relationship. My last girlfriend..." I knew what was coming next from the disdain in his voice. "...was a shiksa."
I nodded, not quite knowing how to respond. After a moment, I murmured, "I'm sorry," and quickly walked away. But inside, I was both angry and shaken. Not only had he said that word, but he said it at my temple, a place where I felt safe; where even though it had taken a couple of years to become fully involved with the community, I finally felt as if I were accepted there not as Jew-by-choice, but as a Jew.
With that word, all of my fears of being an outsider, being someone who would never be fully accepted, came back in full force. Because, I was sure, had he known that I was raised as a Catholic, he never would have spoken to me as if I was one of his "own people."
A cultural schizophrenia has grown up around the term shiksa. Most people think it's a fairly harmless word. In some instances, I've even heard it used as a term of affection ("My shiksa daughter-in-law makes the most delicious challah!") by people I know and respect. I can also remember the look of utter disgust on the face of the rabbi who taught my Introduction to Judaism class, when a Jewish man in our class used the term shiksa to describe his girlfriend, who was in the process of converting. "I despise that word," the rabbi told us. "Few people realize that it really means 'an abomination, a crawling thing.' It's an ethnic slur, full of disrespect and hate." Among the members of our class, I never heard it said again.
In recent months, I have heard and seen shiksa both denounced and popularized. In Dan Friedman's column in the Forward this past April (which was reprinted here in InterfaithFamily.com), he took a hard look at its ugly historical context. Yet just the other day, I saw it proudly emblazoned across the babydoll t-shirt of a twentysomething woman riding the 6 train.
I'm not blond or blue-eyed. I have a Jewish last name. I don't necessarily fit the stereotype of a woman raised as a Christian any more than I fit that of a nice Jewish girl. But for me, the word shiksa is the one word guaranteed to make me doubt my own self-acceptance as a Jew, because it embodies my heritage of otherness, of not belonging--the exact feeling that kept me from converting until I was in my thirties.
For someone on the path towards conversion, even the slightest sense that they will never be truly accepted can keep them from ever walking through the door of a rabbi's study.
It's a feeling I remember very well. For all of the times in college that I wanted to walk into my campus Hillel office and ask about conversion, for all of the Friday nights after work in my twenties when I was too afraid to attend a Shabbat service, and for all of the seasons before my conversion, in which I celebrated Jewish holidays on my own, without the support of a family or a congregation, the word shiksa was the door on which I was afraid to knock, because it was there to remind me--and my kind--to stay out.
In spite of my comfort level with Judaism, I still haven't learned to live with that word, or how I hear it used. I know that deep down, my fear of the word shiksa, and its context of being forever cast as an outsider, can only be diminished by means of living a more Jewish life.
But for me, the cornerstone of living a Jewish life is respect for all people, and affirming the dignity of all beliefs--particularly as a way of honoring the mixed religious heritage of my own family. Even though I cannot, nor would I want to, change where I come from, I realize that what is equally important to both my Jewish and Christian heritage is where I am going. And in the life I wish to lead, I wouldn't tolerate a term that could be used to disparage my mother or sister, any more than I would tolerate a term that could be used to disparage my father, or myself.
The first time I ever spoke at my temple about my journey toward conversion, a very strange thing happened. I had imagined that if I revealed my status as a convert, I would, at the very least, surely be looked at strangely and at worst I might be completely shunned. Instead, something very different happened. Many of the congregants that night congratulated me very warmly on my talk, and, in a delightful surprise, many others told me about their own conversion journeys. Their willingness to share their stories and praise was a way in which I knew I had found the right congregational home.
I guess it wasn't the same for the young man who talked to me after services that night in July. I never saw him again, but I do wish that I had had the courage to answer him the way I would have liked. I would have said, "Maybe you shouldn't use the word shiksa. Because you know, there are a lot of us here."