By Rivki Silver
Being a Ba’al Teshuvah or Ger is sort of like being pregnant. Pregnant women are often bombarded with all sorts of personal questions from complete strangers.“When are you due? What are you having? Are you going to have more? Are you happy to be having this baby?” Well, random person behind me on line at Target, I wasn’t really looking to discuss family planning during this shopping trip.
When people encounter someone with a secular past, a very similar phenomenon can occur – curiosity goes way up and common courtesy goes way down. While Ba’alei Teshuvah may have different backgrounds and a somewhat more limited reach in Jewish geography, focusing unduly on the past does zero favors to anyone. Our past is where we come from, but it doesn’t define us.
At the end of the day, we all have similar struggles: to remember to take the wet swimsuit out of the camp bag, juggle all our carpools, pick up caffeine pills before Tisha B’Av and to balance all the personal, communal and spiritual responsibilities we have as Jews.
Here are the top five questions to avoid asking:
- Can you tell me your story?
There you are at a Shabbos table, and you find out that the person sitting next to you didn’t grow up frum. It’s so natural to be curious, and it’s true that everyone has a story, but it’s also true that not everyone wants to or is able to tell their story. Just because someone made an inspiring choice doesn’t obligate them to inspire you on demand. Maybe they’re a very private person. Or maybe they’re comfortable with being open about their past, but they just want to eat their kugel in peace.
- Do you miss eating treif?
First of all, it’s prohibited to remind someone of aveiros they did, so don’t do that. Second of all, why would you want to remind them of the days when they could eat literally anywhere they wanted? Going from having all the choices to only kosher choices is not easy. Also, asking them if McDonald’s fries are really as good as everyone says they are (they aren’t) isn’t going to truly satisfy your curiosity.
- So you won’t have to sit shiva for your parents?
I hope I don’t have to explain this.
- Does your family accept you?
Well, how’s your relationship with your mother-in-law? What’s the level of shalom in your family chat? Family is complicated; relationships take work and aren’t always smooth sailing. Maybe everything is fine in the family. Maybe it’s an incredibly sore topic and you just dredged up a whole bunch of painful memories. At the end of the day, no one’s family dynamics are your business, so skip this question.
- Do you regret making the choice to become frum?
Have you ever been 100% sure 100% of the time about your major life decisions? Have you never encountered challenges and pain that made you, however briefly, rethink certain parts of your life? On the DMC podcast, we’ve discussed the reality of the very normal fluctuations in our religious life on more than one occasion. It’s a lifelong journey and there are going to be ups and downs, for those born into a life of observance as well as those who chose it later.
If you’re thinking to yourself “But I’ve asked people these questions before and they didn’t seem to mind!” That could very well be the case! Sometimes people like discussing these topics. I personally don’t mind fielding most questions about my background, and I’ve also learned how to redirect a conversation when I’m not in the mood to get personal.
Different people have different comfort levels about discussing their past, and a good rule of thumb is that if you don’t know someone well enough to know what they’re sensitive about, err on the side of caution and stick to more pareve topics of conversation. Like politics.
By Rivki Silver
Rivki Silver is co-host of the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast, a Meaningful Minute Podcast. She is a regular contributor to Family First Magazine and also plays music for all the local day schools in Cleveland, where she lives with her family.