Walking into TribeFest, I immediately decided that everyone knew my secret.
Tribefest, the Jewish Federations of North America’s bi-annual gathering of young adult Jews from across the nation, was obviously packed with thousands of young Jews. And maybe it was my social anxiety, but I felt like they were all looking at me thinking, “What is this shiksa doing here?”
Not only was I positive I was the only blonde person in the crowd, if anyone looked closely enough, they’d notice my name tag declared my last name as Anderson—ubiquitous in Minnesota, but not exactly a common Jewish last name. In fact, when I checked in I discovered I was the only Anderson in over a thousand people.
But as I got to socializing, I realized quickly that no one– not even some of the members of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s contingent that I was there with – knew my secret. I decided I was overreacting. No would know I wasn’t born Jewish if I didn’t tell them.
But obviously this story wouldn’t be going anywhere if I just happily hid my “status” for all three days of TribeFest.
People I met inquired after my unusual first name, asking where it came from or what it meant. I generally gave some generic comment about my parents mispronouncing a Swedish name. But to my surprise, no one asked about my last name.
Then, it happened. After we heard from Greg Liberman of JDate, a couple of Minnesotans were discussing JDate’s new ad campaign, which includes the slogan “Shiksappeal is overrated.” One member of the Frozen Chosen remarked to me “you don’t even look Jewish, so you could probably pass as a shiksa if you wanted.”
I froze like a deer in the headlights. Did she know? Should I tell her? She was right — I do look like the stock photo of the blonde woman JDate’s ad is telling you not to date. I considered just laughing and saying something like “I guess that’s being blonde for you!” But I decided to let the cat out of the bag and stop trying to pass as something I’m not and maybe relax for the rest of TribeFest. So, I owned up to the fact that while I’ve been an active part of the Twin Cities Jewish community for the past few years, I won’t be “officially” Jewish until May when I go before a beit din and immerse in a mikvah.
Contrary to what I thought would happen when I told someone at TribeFest my secret, the world did not end. No one took my badge and asked me to leave.
In fact, not only was I not asked to leave, but the next two sessions I attended affirmed my place at something like TribeFest. The two panels featured Rabbi Sharon Brous, Stosh Cotler, Eric Elkins, Alana Himber and Allison Josephs. The five of them came from various Jewish backgrounds and, to my surprise, bits of each of their stories resonated with my story.
During the final panel Eric Elkins asked the audience a question: How many of you have apologized to other Jews about your connection to Judaism? I raised my hand — along with many others in the room. I realized that by trying to pass as being just like everyone else, I was in essence trying to apologize for and prove my Judaism to the thousands of people at TribeFest.
Looking around that room, I realized I didn’t know anyone else’s stories, but I did know this: all of our stories are ours and valid. We all bring something else to the kaleidoscope of Jewish experiences.
Plus, I got to sleep in and skip the genetic disorder testing session.
Liv Augusta Anderson is a public policy graduate student, improv performer and instructor. You can find her Jewish puns and photos of her cats on twitter @livaugusta.