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It Can't Happen Here

The stereotype of the Jewish partner in an interfaith relationship lulled me into thinking this would never happen to me. She would most likely be non-observant, minimally involved, and connected to her Judaism primarily through some vague sense of peoplehood or bagels. I, on the other hand, had studied, practiced and taught Judaism since childhood. As the child and grandchild of Conservative rabbis, the Jewish Theological Seminary had been my playground and my classroom and I had access to every Jewish day school and Ramah camp experience the Conservative movement had to offer. True, my life in my early 20s was somewhat schizophrenic. Sabbath was spent with my alternative Jewish community but during the week I hung out with my secular communal housemates, ate with them when the ingredients were kosher and immersed myself in their interests and concerns.

It was a perfectly balanced life--until I fell in love with one of my housemates. Taking my cue from the relaxed and open atmosphere in the house, I allowed myself to "live for the moment" for the first time. It was fun and relaxing, and then it was more serious than I had ever planned. I didn't know what to do. A young adult in love doesn't tend to think about the consequences of that love in the years and decades that will follow, but I had always been one to seriously consider the implications of my actions. I was intensely connected to Jewish life through my family, my friends, my Jewish community and many other affiliations and here I was, in love with a non-practicing secular American from a Presbyterian background.

Arzt-Porter Family
Aliza and Meredith with their three children today.

For me the issue wasn't only the fact that he wasn't Jewish; a conversion in name only would not solve my problem. I knew that for me, a marriage without a shared Jewish life wouldn't last. I not only needed him to convert, I needed him to become a believing, practicing Jew.

To complicate matters further, traditional Judaism doesn't encourage conversion. In some communities the potential convert is turned away three times. How could I ask someone to convert sincerely for my sake? How could I set up such high stakes: if you can truly embrace an active Judaism you can have me but if that doesn't happen for you the deal is off. I felt that this was an impossible burden to put on someone so I did the only thing I could think of at the time. I left.

I was miserable. I cried every night for two months before I left and felt no better after I moved to a different house even though we never entirely stopped seeing each other. I dated unenthusiastically, wishing I was more a woman of the moment but knowing that a marriage had to contain enough shared values to outlast the initial passion.

It took me more than six months to realize that my unilateral decision not to consider conversion denied him the opportunity to make a choice. It might be an agonizing choice, but it should be his to make. We spoke again and I told him that I was willing to re-negotiate our relationship if he would be willing to explore conversion to Judaism. To my surprise and pleasure he said that he had already started reading about Judaism.

The next few months were electric. We would come home from work, close the door against the music blaring for whoever was cooking dinner that night, and open our books. "Teach me kiddush tonight," he'd say. "Teach me to read Hebrew." So I did. Before we fell asleep he would practice his new Hebrew skills by reading to me from the Book of the Maccabees, the only thing I could think of that was unfamiliar enough to keep me awake. I moved back into the house. On Friday nights we would shut ourselves into the upstairs bedroom, spread a tablecloth over his desk and share our Sabbath dinner with the cat. It was exciting and fulfilling to be creating this new thing between us. Neither of us ever formally proposed. The pursuit of his Judaism was, in effect, the proposal. There was never any doubt that we were heading toward marriage.

Early in this new stage of our relationship we tackled the most difficult issue: telling the parents. When I called my mother, a lifelong Jewish educator, to let her know what was going on, the first words out of her mouth were an inadvertent "Uh oh." Once my mother understood our plan though, both she and my father were completely supportive, sharing my certainty that a functioning Jew was the result of study and commitment, not an accident of birth. We went to see his parents to explain matters face to face. Though initially nonplussed ("Why can't she convert?"), they too became supportive when we explained that this conversion was not going to take away the son they knew or estrange either of our families. This support from both sets of parents held through the conversion process, our preparations, and our marriage, which happened eight months after we told our parents--nearly 25 years ago.

Reflecting on these events of so many years ago, I have wondered why this worked out so well. Was it luck? Perhaps it was as my father said just after I told him about our intention to marry as Jews: "Oh I get it. You couldn't find a suitable Jewish man so you made one." I think it was something else entirely and nothing so one-sided as my somehow causing my husband to become a Jew. My Judaism has always been basic to me, inseparable from my other inclinations. My deep sense of connection to my future husband had to somehow touch on that Jewishness for it to have been so compelling. My husband and I both feel that he was always a Jew just waiting to actually become one. I feel lucky that I was able to be the one to activate that potential. I trust that the deep commitment to Judaism we have worked to instill in our three children will lead them, as well, to committed, long-lasting relationships, whatever the specifics may be.

Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.
Aliza Arzt

Aliza Arzt is a long-time member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass., an alternative Jewish community. She is a traveling speech language pathologist and an avid gecko breeder.

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