Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Frum Here to Eternity

"Are you frum?," British cousin X asked me the first time I phoned. "I'm...uh...very, very Reform," I responded carefully, having been warned that X might reject me out of hand because my mother is a shiksa, even though I'd officially converted years ago.

Literally, frum means "pious" in Yiddish, but colloquially it means strongly observant. I suppose it's a sign of how un-frum I am that I'd never heard the word in conversation until I got in touch with my UK cousins. (One of them joked that my response to X should have been, "Yeah, I'm frum America.") I consider the UK cousins who keep kosher and go to shul regularly as being frum. But to them, that's just run-of-the-mill Jewish practice. The "frummies"--always spoken with a bit of a sneer, even by their doting parents--are the ultra-Orthodox in the tieless black suits and big hats (men) or wigs/scarves, long sleeves & skirts and high necklines (women). They keep strictly kosher (even when going out for Chinese food!), strictly observe shabbat, strictly segregate the sexes and have very strict notions as to who is really Jewish (themselves) and who isn't (everyone who is less frum, including yours truly).

As I kept hearing till I thought my head would explode, the UK bet din (rabbinic court) takes a dim view of Reform conversions. But wait: I had a Conservative conversion. Oh, those too. In fact, it seems that any conversion outside of England doesn't pass the sniff test.

There's a big brouhaha going on over a woman whose Orthodox conversion in Israel was declared invalid. Her kid wasn't allowed to attend a London Jewish school--or maybe he was kicked out; my ears started to glaze over--because she was deemed not frum enough. Now she's threatening a lawsuit because one of the rabbis is on record as having been prejudiced against her from the get-go.

To which I responded, "Oh please." At least I did in my head. Out loud, I said to X and spouse, "I'm with Moshe Dayan, who said something like, 'A Jew is anyone crazy enough to consider himself to be one.'" That went over like a lead balloon with them, and also with another relation to whom I later recounted the conversation. Though they were too polite to say so, they'd accept me as kin, though not as being fully Jewish. (Thankfully, not all my UK cousins were similarly minded.) I wanted to yell, "I don't care what you think! I am so Jewish!"

Lest others think that this is strictly a Jewish concern, it applies to other groups as well. An opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post, "What's Not on My Coffee Table," touches on "the question of black Americans' identity--most often framed in terms of whether one is 'black enough'..." An attendee at one of my workshops apologized because her first novel wasn't intellectual enough.

And so I'm wondering: How do we remain true to ourselves, and resist being pigeonholed as not [whatever] enough?

No comments: