Originally published September, 2003. Republished July 11, 2011.
"You're missing my point, Eric. It was disrespectful and showed an utter lack of consideration for your parents and their feelings."
My brother's new girlfriend, Ashley, had made the mistake of showing up for lunch with my parents wearing a small, gold cross, the same day that my brother made the mistake of wearing sandals and forgetting to shave. This was only a few weeks after he had made another mistake--telling my folks that "religion doesn't matter to Ashley," when what he really meant was, "Judaism doesn't matter to me."
And I made the mistake of telling my grandmother that I didn't think it was such a big deal.
"Let me tell you something," she said, pausing between bites of a sesame seed bagel with a little bit of cream cheese and thin slice of lox. "It's very upsetting to the parents when a child is involved with someone who is not Jewish."
My boyfriend Adam reached for a piece of rye bread.
"But lots of people have non-Jewish partners," I protested. "Adam wasn't Jewish when we met."
"But he was open to it, and that's wonderful," my mother chimed in.
Adam munched silently on his own bagel, staring at the tablecloth, reluctant to be the case study. It was true: when we met, he was not Jewish, raised in a family that is close and loving and totally non-religious. Although they observe Christmas and Easter faithfully, his family's celebration is about togetherness and cookies and mechanical Santas bellowing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" or their bunny-faced, egg-shaped counterparts chirping "Younger than Springtime," rather than marking the life or teachings of Jesus. Adam was an adolescent before he discovered that these were religious holidays for some people.
Halachically, Adam still wasn't Jewish. Although we were members of a nearby synagogue, kept kosher, and had observed the Sabbath together for more than a year, Adam was only six months into study with our rabbi for conversion to Judaism, a process that we imagined would take several years.
"Our rabbi's partner isn't Jewish either, Grandma," I offered.
"And I think that's terrible," she said. She also thought it was terrible that we didn't get dressed up for services at our shul, and that I had cut my hair really short. ("You look so much better when you let it grow in a little.")
Adam and I looked at each other and said nothing.
* * *
When I was in eleventh grade, I told the vice principal that I was angry about the seven Christmas trees that he'd placed around the halls of our public high school. "If you want to see your faith represented, why don't you bring in a menorah or some dreidels to hang on the multicultural tree?" he'd lisped.
I wanted to scream, "It doesn't work that way!" Quoting Lenny Bruce years before I'd even heard of him, I tried to explain the difference between Jewish and goyish. It was either Jewish, or it wasn't.
* * *
Two days before the lunch with my family, Adam and I had talked about his conversion. "Lately, I've been getting the feeling that people will never see me as a full Jew, or that they'll always think I'm doing it for you," he'd said.
I didn't know quite how to respond. While it was true that I was glad that Adam wanted to convert to Judaism, I was clear that I didn't want him to convert for me. But in the past, I hadn't been able to see any other options--either he was Jewish, or he wasn't.
* * *
Adam asked tough questions, and got me to question things about Judaism that I'd taken for granted my entire life. The first time we celebrated a seder together, he marveled at the hagaddahs.
"Why are prayerbooks sponsored by Maxwell House Coffee?" he'd asked.
I had no idea.
Although I have always "cherished my doubts," as my favorite prayer in my childhood siddur suggested, I hadn't always investigated them in tremendous depth.
One Hanukkah, Adam's friend Andrea--who is also non-Jewish and has a Jewish partner--sent us a pair of joke glasses that turn points of light (namely, Christmas lights) into the shape of Stars of David. Falling in love with someone who was not raised Jewish was like those glasses; it gave me a new, slightly different, sometimes amusing, sometimes confusing, way to see the world, and my world.
* * *
I liked my brother's last girlfriend, Lauren, because she was friendly and warm and engaging and a good baker. I liked another woman he dated, even though I never met her, because she worked at Ikea.
I haven't met Ashley. I have no idea whether I'll like her or not. But for now, I hope she doesn't take off her cross. I hope my brother asks her some questions about her ideas and faith because of it, and I hope that he asks himself some questions about his ideas and his faith because of it, too.
* * *
Adam and I have a Jewish home. We study and engage with Judaism together, and we are even members of a synagogue community that we really like. Adam clearly has an interest in and passion for Jewish text and prayer--so much so that he has managed to help rekindle and even deepen a similar interest and passion in me.
His reservations have led us both to believe that he might ultimately choose not to complete a conversion process. Whether he does or not, though, he will likely live in a world somewhere between Jewish and not, between insider and outsider. He has already demonstrated that he will work to create an environment that is questioning and challenging while remaining supremely respectful of our families, of our relationship, of the family we create together and around us, of our beliefs and of our home.
Adam has given me a tremendous gift. He has welcomed me to dwell in that world, that third option, that marvelous place in between--with him.