There’s a phrase that has always been offered to me in an explanation as to why some women might treat me a certain way, specifically, why they might stop talking to me without a word (or never begin to speak to me in the first place). Believe it or not, the explanation has been that these women were being “too kind”.
This brings to mind an experience I had early on in my conversion process. As a woman new to the area, let alone new to the religious culture I was attempting to adopt and the community in which I was trying to adopt it, I did not know anyone. Not knowing anyone and often being left alone on the women’s side of the synagogue to figure out for myself what I was supposed to be doing, I typically resolved to finding a seat somewhere and trying to look like I knew exactly what was happening in the service entirely in Hebrew (a language I did not speak). During one of these Shabbat services, I was feeling particularly sensitive about my inability to understand, and so I retrieved my notebook and pen from my purse, and began to journal a prayer as I fought back my tears — reluctant to let anyone see that I was crying in public. After writing a few lines, I glanced up to see a small group of women a few rows over (the seats were positioned in a sort of semi-circle) watching me. Two of them quickly looked away to hide their expressions of disgust, but were ultimately too slow. I had noticed their clear judgment. However, I didn’t understand why and, shrinking further into my prayer, I worked even harder not to cry. Soon after that, I left.
It wasn’t until literally years later that I was informed that writing is considered work, and therefore forbidden on Shabbat. By then, however, we had already left that community (the story of why we left can be found in other articles).
Many times, I have reached out to women in the Orthodox Jewish community, online and in person, asking for help, asking for resources to better understand, asking for advice or even simply friendship. Too many times, I was given false niceties and no follow-through, in the rare times I was responded to at all. (Though, I need to add that I have recently met a couple beautiful souls who have been pivotal to my spiritual/Jewish journey.)
Upon disclosing some of these experiences with a veteran Jewish convert and fellow woman, I was told that all these people were just “too nice” and that they thought they were sparing me embarrassment by not saying anything. I was told that these women were probably having conversations behind my back, pitying me because I thought I was doing the right things to be Jewish, but alas, I was not, in their opinions. Supposedly, it’s been out of generosity, the whole time.
Normally, I would call this kind of explanation bullsh*t, but it honestly has happened so often that I simply will not accept the idea that Jewish women are largely cold-hearted, which is what it might seem like at face value. No, actually. I think there could be truth in that response.
Most people, let alone women, don’t enjoy correcting people they don’t know well. Most people don’t like to share their thoughts on how someone else’s lifestyle might not meet their community standards. Most people feel bad when they’re met with someone who is nice but clearly “misguided” — at least according to them. It’s uncomfortable, and most people prefer to keep themselves comfortable. I understand this and, in a way, I don’t necessarily blame the women who have fallen into these situations when interacting with me.
However, here is the harm in being “too nice”: Letting someone walk off a cliff they were unable to see, because you didn’t want to startle them when you would have had to yell “STOP! There’s a cliff!” is not a kindness. Especially when this person has joined your presence with the clear intentions of learning where all the cliffs might be.
In sharing this story, I am not trying to bash the Jewish people or the culture amongst Jewish women that seems to cross several states and communities. If anything, I hope to bring light to what a lack of support and communication toward women converts can look and feel like. I think if long-standing Jewish women see a new face at schul (another name for a synagogue), they should consider welcoming her and understanding her goals for being there. And if she discloses that she is in the conversion process or newly religious, bring her under the wing of Hashem that your community now represents, because odds are, she needs your help and your warmth. And if you see her writing on Shabbat when you think she shouldn’t — for kindness sake, let her know about the cliff.