Why Choosing Love Didn’t Mean Conversion for Me

  

Holding hands

Although I am the half that’s not Jewish in an interfaith marriage, my husband never put conversion on the table–not until I brought the question up on my own, three years after we got married.

Shortly after my husband and I first started dating, Ben brought me to Friday night Shabbat services at a large Reform synagogue in Boston. A cantor with a guitar led the congregation in a wordless melody at the beginning of the service, and as the service progressed into as-yet-unfamiliar Hebrew phrases, I appreciated his help guiding me through the prayer book, not all of which offered transliterations of the Hebrew. Afterwards, we drank small cups of Manischewitz and ate tiny chunks of challah at the oneg. He led me excitedly past cases of shimmering, evocative Judaica: menorahs, kiddush cups, haggadot with messages such as the feminist haggadot or Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a vegetarian Passover classic). Afterwards, we went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant, holding hands across a table and talking about religion.

Conversion wasn’t on the table that night, and it wasn’t even on the table when we became engaged, and then married. The only thing truly on the table that night, and in the nights since, was our desire to choose each other, and by doing so, to choose love.

Five years after that first date, three years into our marriage, though, I almost converted to Judaism. I’d attended a friend’s conversion ceremony, and during the joyous celebration of her joining the People of Israel, I found myself unexpectedly and profoundly moved by the experience. She converted in a Reconstructionist synagogue, and in keeping with the vision of Reconstructionism’s founder, Mordecai Kaplan, of Judaism as a religious civilization, the congregation emphasized a joyful spiritual approach that offered no insult to the modern intellect.

When my friend stood on the bimah and received her Jewish name and held the Torah in her arms, my mind flashed forward to times when I’d seen babies dedicated in the synagogue, being welcomed into the Jewish people. I realized, in a flash, what it might mean to hold my own child, and welcome her into the Jewish people, when I myself was not Jewish. There, in that room, with the resonant Hebrew prayers resounding throughout, it seemed that perhaps the covenant could extend to me as well.

I returned home and bought books about conversion, about Jewish ritual, about interfaith families. I listened to all of the major prayers on YouTube, and wondered how long it would take to do formal morning and evening prayers. I whispered the Shema to myself, imagining that my Jewish husband would look at me as if I were “going frum,” a somewhat pejorative way of referring to becoming overly observant.

A few days before Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t keep my curiosity in any longer. I wrote Ben a letter, explaining, in convoluted, circular words, how drawn I felt to Judaism at that moment and how much I appreciated many aspects of his religion. I gave the letter to him at breakfast on a Saturday, and the question of conversion now glimmered there between our held hands, right there on the table. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes.

That afternoon, we went on a hike in the mountains near our home, holding hands, marveling in the wonder of the world we live in, and wondering what it might be like to have a religiously united family.

A few weeks later, I found myself in New York on a Friday night, and decided to attend services at a historic synagogue on Fifth Avenue. I had never been in a synagogue that so closely resembled a cathedral before: soaring ceilings, gilded walls covered in elaborate mosaics, and at the back, a Star-of-David “rose” window and a very impressive organ. A professional choir, accompanied by the organ, sang the prayers, while the well-dressed and equally well-heeled congregation listened in aesthetic appreciation of the music’s beauty. I left feeling confused, out of place, wondering what had happened to that initial inspiration.

In the end, this “crisis of faith,” so to speak, lasted for a few months. I talked with my friend who had converted, with other friends, with my parents. All were supportive, but cautious, not wanting me to confuse one moment of inspiration with making the right choice for both myself and my husband.

I found myself coming back to several facts from which I couldn’t escape: Unlike some converts to Judaism, including my friend, I don’t (so far as I know) have Jewish relatives somewhere on the less-well-known branches on my family tree, other than my husband’s family. In addition, although I appreciate Jewish religion and culture, my own understandings of religious culture, if I’m honest with myself, were shaped in the liberal, liturgical church in which I was raised.

It wasn’t an easy choice, mind you. I struggled with how to choose loving my spouse (and eventually, God willing, our children), with choosing a religion, and with being true to myself. I’d made religious choices for a significant other once before–choices I came to regret–and in the end, wasn’t willing to do that again, no matter how well-intentioned a similar choice might have been, this time around.

Throughout it all, my Jewish spouse stood steadfastly with me, choosing to love me every day, even if that meant we would remain an interfaith family. We knew, in the end, as the words on our ketubah had suggested, that we could choose love by letting each other be ourselves.

Should We Pray for Bad People?

  

temples

Shortly before the inauguration in mid-January, I was contacted by a Chicago Tribune reporter about a story he was working on related to prayer. I worked with him on a Passover-Easter story in the past. This time, he was looking for various faith perspectives on the question: Should we pray for bad people?

The idea for the story came to the reporter after hearing Fidel Castro’s name included in the list of names read during a memorial prayer at his mainline Episcopal church. He was surprised to hear Castro’s name since he was not generally thought of as a good guy. He asked his priest if anyone questioned the inclusion of Castro. The priest said no one did, but people had asked if prayers would be offered for the new president.

The reporter posed this question to me: “Should we pray for bad people or bad leaders?” My first response was that bad was subjective. Who decided who was and was not bad? Bad to one person may not be bad to another. Assuming the debate over the definition of bad was settled, I continued my answer based on my Reform Jewish beliefs and rituals.

In the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to respect or honor our mothers and fathers, which can be extended to our elders and even leaders. We are not commanded to love them or even like them. One way to respect and honor them is through prayer.

I gave the example of the prayer for our country which was read at my synagogue during Shabbat morning services. It was recited regardless of whom was in office and to which party they belonged. It prayed for our leaders to have patience and wisdom and that they would help to make our country an example of justice and compassion. The prayer was said when those in government made decisions we agreed with, but also when they enacted policies which we opposed.

I was intrigued by the question and my thoughts returned to it throughout the day. I decided to pose the same question to my 12-year-old son preparing for his bar mitzvah and my husband who was raised Episcopal, but has been questioning the concept of the divine for years, during our regular Friday Shabbat dinner. Both strongly felt that prayers should be said for bad people.

They said that offering a prayer was a rebuke and it was a way to show that goodness and righteousness triumphed over evil. Neither suggested that prayers should be offered to “save a person’s soul.”

The consensus of the respondents from across faiths in the Chicago Tribune article was also to pray for bad people or leaders. You can read the responses here.

I’m curious to hear what others in the InterfaithFamily community think. Please join the conversation. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Celebrating a Holiday That’s Not My Own

  

Valentine's design

It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m sitting in my car at 8 a.m. listening to a Jack Kornfield meditation talk called “Inner Strength and Kindness.” Did I mention that I’m also crying? Winter is never kind in New York and it’s been a rough month. I’ve been so busy and stressed lately that the only time I get to feel in touch with myself is in the front seat of my car. Last week, I sat in the front seat eating a box of donut holes and listening to Led Zeppelin. So, Jack Kornfield and a cup of coffee is an improvement.

I’m trying to decompress. I’m trying to get centered, which is what my religion and my culture often help me do. But, I’m crying on Valentine’s Day for no apparent reason. My Jewish family growing up didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, but my significant other Adrian and our 15-month-old daughter Helen celebrate it. Adrian is Mexican-Catholic and he loves anything with red roses. His Virgin of Guadalupe is known to appear to people surrounded by roses, so Valentine’s Day is a big deal for him. I still have the first rose he ever gave me. I dried it and now it lives between the pages of an Octavio Paz poetry book on our shelf.

I left Adrian and Helen cards and little stuffed animals with hearts all over them. I even left my mother a card and a stuffed Valentine’s Day Snoopy doll at her house, which is three blocks away from us. Maybe that’s the problem­—I can’t sit still. I’m so concerned with everyone having gifts for a holiday that I don’t celebrate and about Helen having the best of both Judaism and Catholicism, that I forget the world I come from. In the middle of trying to fit two religions into every crevice of our lives, I forget my own spirituality. I forget the main reason those two religions and those two cultures exist in our lives.

KindnessIn the front seat of my car as I meditate and cry, my yogic “monkey-mind” shows me a few things. First, I remember a conversation I had about a piece of literature in which a “many colored coat” is mentioned. Of course, this was a piece of writing about the story of Joseph. Joseph in the Old Testament has two dreams. In both dreams, Joseph’s brothers bow down to him. When Joseph tells his brothers about these dreams, they grow angry. They end up selling Joseph to some merchants and then they dip his coat in goat’s blood to make their father believe that wild animals killed him.

My thoughts are interrupted by Jack Kornfield’s calm voice asking me to breathe. I go back to my breath, but I can’t stop picturing Joseph and how upset he probably was that his brothers sold him for 20 bucks and some cigarettes. What I think about, though, is the fact that I can remember this story. I was probably no older than 5 or 6 years old when I heard it. I also remember that Joseph becomes a powerful leader and meets his brothers again in Egypt, but they do not recognize him. They bow down to him just as he had predicted in his dream. Joseph ends up playing tricks on his brothers to test their wicked ways, but he ends up forgiving them. After all, the story of Joseph is a story of forgiveness. In the moment that Joseph forgives his brothers, he also forgives himself.

With this memory, Valentine’s Day becomes something else for me. It becomes a day of not only love for my diverse, ever changing and challenging family, but a day of love for myself. I can forgive myself for not knowing how to be perfect all the time. I can forgive myself for not celebrating one holiday that’s not even really a holiday. I can forgive myself for escaping because, sometimes, moms need to escape.

My thoughts turn to a Catholic altar in the Mexico City Cathedral called “The Altar of Forgiveness.” The story goes that a famous painter was accused of a crime and while he was in jail, he painted the most breathtaking picture of the Virgin Mary. It was so beautiful that God forgave him and the altar was built. I think of the old Jewish tale of Joseph and his forgiveness. Then, I go back to the meditation talk and Jack Kornfield quotes Nisargadatta Maharaj when he says, “Wisdom says I am nothing; love says I am everything. Between the two, my life flows.” I cry some more. I breathe some more. I turn off Jack Kornfield. I turn on Led Zeppelin and I drive.

Make the Most of this Valentine’s Day

  

Valentine's giftsI have not posted here in a little while. In part, because the business of life has caught up with me, and, in part, because in the midst of huge changes in this country, inspiration is not coming as quickly. But I can’t miss a chance to embrace this Valentine’s Day.  

You may call it a Hallmark holiday, or a day reserved for lovebirds, but as you may have read before, I disagree. Valentine’s Day is a day you can chose to dread or relish, or anything in-between. This year, as February 14 approaches I am hoping we can use it as a reminder that we all can actively #ChooseLove, and see if we can find some joy and maybe even understanding.

Remember when you were in elementary school, and had to spend all afternoon the day before Valentine’s Day making sure you had a card for every other kid in your class? Or remember last year, when you stayed up late finishing your child’s class cards? The Valentine’s Day of early childhood isn’t just about your romantic partner, it’s about your friends (and maybe some kids who aren’t really friends at all). It might be about buying things–cards, stickers, candy–but it is also about performing a gesture of caring for the people around you.

We are living in a time of tremendous divides in our country and our communities. Be it politics, faith, country of origin or some other line that separates one from another, this is a great time to #ChooseLove. You can choose whatever you want for your February 14: a hot date with your partner, a boycott of the Hallmark store, a giant candy heart to share or not to share, but I’d encourage you to think of it as a chance to try to see your friends, neighbors, colleagues or the strangers in your life with love.  

Just like writing Valentine’s cards for your classmates, it is easier to do this for some people than others. But I believe that the act of trying to extend love can bring us closer together, or, at the very least, warm our hearts just a bit more than the day before Valentine’s or the day after. So will you try it with me?  

Please Stop Asking if My Daughter’s Boyfriend Is Jewish

  

By Judy Mollen Walters

holding hands

My 22-year-old daughter is seriously involved with a wonderful guy. He’s smart, funny, kind, and they just click. He lives in England, so they only get to visit every eight weeks or so, and have been flying back and forth to each other’s countries since they met while my daughter was on a semester abroad trip a couple of years ago. Video chats and texting and phone calls have been their lifelines. I’ve spent time with them together, observing them, and they are very much in love.

Last week, I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store. I hadn’t seen her in a year or so—her children and my younger daughter had been in the same high school class. We chit chatted a bit, catching up on how the kids were all doing, adjusting to their first year of college. Then she asked me about my older daughter. How was she doing, what was she up to? I told her about my daughter’s graduate school work and how hard it is but how she is excelling. Her next question was, “Is she seeing anyone special?”

“Yes,” I responded enthusiastically. I told her all about the lovely boyfriend with the charming British accent and the incredible commitment each of them have made to keeping their relationship alive. She leaned down then (I am short!) and whispered, “But is he Jewish?”

This was a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband who had raised three kids with both traditions—b’nai mitzvot for her children one year, communions the next. The question she asked was not made in light or silliness or fun. It was dead serious.

“No,” I said, feeling uncomfortable.

“That’s OK,” she said, “since he’s a great guy.”

I turned the conversation back to her children and her life and left the grocery store quite disillusioned. But not shocked. Or even surprised. Because the fact is, I’ve been getting this question from Jewish friends—even if they had married someone of another faith or don’t care about being Jewish personally—for the entire two-plus years my daughter and her boyfriend have been dating. It is often the first question out of their mouths—before “Do you like him?” or “What does he do for a living?” or even, “How do you feel about him living in England?”

Then there is the inevitable pitying look they give me—as though I somehow screwed up in raising my daughter. As though my life is going to be terrible if my daughter marries this man who may be her beshert. And that feeling hurts.

So I’ve asked myself the question a dozen times, maybe more—am I uncomfortable if my daughter marries someone who’s not Jewish? I’m strongly Reform Jewish. I love the holidays and look forward every year to making Passover for 16 people with all of the classic dishes and a simple, short Haggadah. I enjoy toasting the Jewish New Year and take the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur very seriously. I enjoy lighting the candles and making latkes at Hanukkah and giving the children in my life gifts. I feel very Jewish. I use Jewish values in my everyday life and let them guide me when I feel I need guidance. Those values inform how I treat others, how I think about the world, and how I choose my political affiliations.

My husband is Jewish. We raised our children in a very purposeful, Jewish way. They started Hebrew school at the age of 3 because we wanted them to learn that Hebrew school was part of everyday life. They attended a private Jewish preschool where holidays were celebrated. When they attended public school, I fought for the school to stop bringing Santa Claus into their winter holiday party—and won. They were bat mitzvahed and my older daughter chose to go to Hebrew high school at our synagogue until her high school graduation. She actively participated in the temple youth group and spent a semester in Israel her Junior year of high school.

So we did everything we could to instill a love of Judaism in our girls’ hearts. We think we were successful.

But were we? Because now my daughter is seriously involved with a man who is not Jewish.

And people are questioning her choice.

And they are making me uncomfortable.

And all they seem to care about is whether he is Jewish.

And that’s not all I care about, but I get it.

And I wish they would stop asking.

Because in the end, what I want for my daughter is a lifetime of happiness with whomever she marries, Jewish, Christian, Muslim…I want her to feel Jewish in her spirit and heart and know who she is and what she stands for. But I also want her to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and atone at Yom Kippur and get excited about the Passover seder she might make for her own family. I want her to think and act Jewishly. I want my grandchildren to embrace Judaism, in whatever form, just like she did.

Can she do that with a non-Jewish husband? I like to think so.

But when these people keep asking, first thing, “Is he Jewish?” I feel like I failed. Maybe I did. But, then again, maybe I didn’t.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

Judy WaltersJudy Mollen Walters is the author of five novels, A MILLION ORDINARY DAYS (March, 2017), START AT THE BEGINNING (2016), THE PLACE TO SAY GOODBYE (2015), THE OPPOSITE OF NORMAL (2014), and CHILD OF MINE (2013). She is also an essayist whose articles ave been published on the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, and ScaryMommy. She can be reached via her web site at judymollenwalters.com.