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My husband is Jewish, I was raised Methodist. This August marks our 14th year of wedded bliss--for the most part. I embrace Judaism and find great satisfaction in studying Torah, but I have not converted.
We joke as a family that perhaps I was born Jewish, then kidnapped by a band of roving Methodists and raised as one of their own. It does feel that way at times.
When my husband, Gerry, and I married, I had an immediate and strong connection with Judaism. I’ve been the motivating factor in our marriage to raise our children as Jews. When we move to a new area, I’ve taken on the role of shul researcher, looking into congregations and finding one that would best fit our family.
So why haven’t I converted?
It isn’t that I haven’t considered it. When we first married, the subject of conversion didn’t really arise. Gerry hadn’t been active in any congregation since his Sunday school days at the Conservative Jewish center on Long Island, where he and his brother were instructed by Orthodox rabbis.
No one in Gerry’s family pressured me to convert; I received no veiled comments, no tears, no sighs. We married in a very small service on a Friday afternoon in judges’ chambers at family court in Brooklyn, then held a non-religious get-together on Saturday afternoon for the rest of the family.
After we married we joined a small, liberal, unaffiliated congregation in Brooklyn. I admired our rabbi, and grew to love many in our group.
Each Saturday morning we’d meet at a different member’s apartment, work through a service, sing a few songs, then open the Torah and wrestle a bit. Our group included folks from many areas of the Jewish experience--Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, a few children of Orthodox parents, and me--the non-Jew.
At that point in the life of our congregation, I was the only non-Jew who was quite so involved in our weekly services. I could tell that my enthusiasm threw some people off at first, but for the most part they welcomed me with open arms as a sister traveler in our quest to find some connection with Jewish scripture.
And so? No conversion?
I seriously considered conversion at this time. Gerry and I attended Introduction to Judaism classes, I studied and read, and felt that I was in a good place to make this commitment.
Then I became pregnant and the issue seemed much more complex. I wanted to be able to focus entirely on my conversion as an individual act, not something I did--or was viewed as doing--to “turn” the baby growing inside me into a “real” Jew. So I put off my thoughts of conversion until after the birth of our daughter.
Once or twice during this period I would find myself in the odd situation of defending our interfaith marriage.
I can only write from my own subjective experience, but often those who were the most divorced from a weekly Shabbat-driven connection to Judaism seemed to be the most troubled by the implications my non-Jewish status would have on the future of Judaism and the future of the baby growing inside of me.
Often I was told, “You know, if you’re not Jewish, then the baby’s not Jewish...”
I’d respond that we intended to raise our children as Jews, and if a conversion ceremony for the kids seemed important at some point in their lives I’d fully support them.
I found it unnerving to realize that those who seemed most bothered by our Jewish/Christian union weren’t our Orthodox friends or members of Gerry’s family, but folks who were unaffiliated, self described “non-religious” or “cultural” Jews.
These folks were less concerned with my internal connection with Judaism than with their ability to count me--to quantify my commitment--as a Jew. In simple terms, it seemed to me that some of my unaffiliated Jewish friends just didn’t “get it.” They desperately wanted to be able to put a check next to my name that would categorize me as a Jew.
It seemed that if I would just agree to convert, then they could relax, safe in the knowledge that my kids would be Jews, and the future of the Jewish people would be that much more secure.
I talked this over with an Orthodox cousin-by-marriage who, from the announcement of our engagement, had made me feel welcomed, accepted and loved. She suggested that perhaps because I was developing such a deep--and complex--relationship with Judaism, the process of conversion wasn’t as straightforward as I’d originally thought it would be.
I felt that this cousin “got it.” Regardless of religious affiliation, if a person works to be good, to make the world better, and seeks to find a place of peace within themselves where they can grow their soul, that’s the best that can be said of anyone.
And here lay a tremendous irony; those I would have expected to be rather lackadaisical about my conversion seemed oddly invested in it. And those who I thought would have wanted me to convert yesterday, were happy to have me walk slowly toward such a serious decision.
The past few years have been filled with life-altering events. The sudden loss of my only sibling, followed by the death of my mother by cancer and my own struggle with a serious illness took much of my spiritual focus. And, I have to admit, both my husband and I felt a bit superfluous living in New Jersey, where the Jewish community is large enough that it’s not easy to feel needed by a congregation.
I am discovering beautiful connections between my own religious upbringing, other spiritual paths I study, and Judaism. Examining these connections a little more closely I’m left with haunting questions: What makes one path better than another? What is the best way of connecting to the bit of god that rests inside of me? Is there such a thing as better and best?
Finding questions can be almost as satisfying as finding answers. I feel certain that a conversion will unfold for me in time. There may be those who are comfortable on the superhighway to the mikvah, but I can only travel on a road, and at a speed, that feels comfortable for me. ***
But once again, life gets in the way of--life. We’ve recently moved to St. Paul, Minn., and while in the process of settling into the area and joining a local temple, Gerry was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. It’s a blood cancer affecting the plasma cells in the bone marrow, but we feel lucky to be 81 miles from one of the preeminent research centers on that cancer in the world, The Mayo Clinic.
Dealing with this disease has consumed all of the time not devoted to simple daily tasks, so we haven’t yet been able to register both kids in Hebrew School. Realizing that she would have a several month hiatus from her semi-weekly classes, our 10-year-old daughter, Hannah, has been directing some of her pertinent questions about Judaism to me.
“Am I a Jew?”
“And Dad’s a Jew?”
“Yes, he's a Jew, too.”
“Well, why aren’t you a Jew?”
Which begins a necessary and honest conversation. It’s not uncomfortable, and I’m happy to have a chance to discuss this issue. I explain that--in much the same way that I didn’t take her dad’s last name when we married--becoming a Jew just hasn’t felt right. I love her father, I’m with him for the long haul, but I prefer to remain a Modesitt.
It doesn’t make me less of a wife, or less of a mother to keep my own name. She has friends whose parents have divorced, even though they had the same last name, so she understands that is no guarantee that a marriage is strong.
In the same way, me saying that I’m Jewish through a conversion process won't change anything inside me. I am who I am.
When conversion feels that it is the absolute best choice--the only thing that seems right to me--then it will be time for me to convert.
As we settle into St. Paul in the coming years, I may finally feel comfortable enough to go through the ceremony that legitimizes what I’ve already come to think of as my.Jewish soul.