At the time I proposed to my wife Michele, she was a Jewish atheist and I was a lapsed Episcopalian. We decided to celebrate our engagement at an upscale pizza place and invited our parents to join us. When the hostess showed us to our table near the pizza ovens, Michele's father Jack, who was a bit nervous, announced, "Jews don't like to sit near the ovens." Everyone was confused for a moment, and although I was used to Jack's sense of humor, I worried that my mild-mannered parents wouldn't know how to react. And, in fact, they didn't, so Big Jim, my father, became unaccountably jolly while my mother put on a worried look and said little. The evening was not a success.
Later Michele and I decided that Jack's invocation of the Holocaust--hardly a joking matter, although that was how he presented it--had to do with an unstated fear that my family's Christianity would sweep away his Judaism. On another occasion, Michele's mother Judie shuddered with horror as she imagined her grandchildren crossing themselves. These were not unreasonable fears, given that their childhood Orthodox Judaism had atrophied into a steady stream of Yiddishisms and Jack's deep-seated inability to drink milk with a pastrami sandwich. His children had all despised Hebrew school and as adults had abandoned regular Jewish practice. And his only daughter Michele had long given up on marrying a Jewish man.
Not Jewish was one thing, but what about this James Lee Morgan IV, the tall, blond, blue-eyed son of High Church Episcopalians who worship at Trinity Church on Copley Square?
What Jack and Judie didn't know, however, was that although my parents are as true-blue Yankee as Michele's are Jewish, my parents' families are models of religious diversity. My mother, Joyce, converted from Methodism when she married my father, and her sister's husband is a Presbyterian minister. My father (Jim III) supported his sister when she married an Israeli and converted to Judaism, and my dad's father's third wife was a Catholic, as are, at least nominally, her five children from previous marriages. There are even some evangelical Baptists on that side of the family who earnestly encouraged my grandfather, Jim Jr., an excoriating atheist, to repent before he died and faced the fires of hell. With all of these various religions coexisting in their families, my parents have always believed that faith is extremely personal, a puzzle with an infinite number of solutions. They believe that the experience of religion--the connection to the divine, to a tradition, and to a community--is far more important than the particulars of that connection.
That night at Figs, celebrating our engagement, I don't think there was any way to get Jack to calm down, but I do wish that we had been able to replay for him a conversation Michele and I had had a year earlier. Even though we weren't engaged yet, it was clear where things were headed, and our talk had focused on two central topics: children and religion. We were both eager for children, but we had some disagreements about religion. I knew that despite my indifference to Christianity, I wanted to give my children the kind of spiritual grounding that my parents had provided for me. Michele, however, was unhappy with her religious upbringing, and although she was proud to be Jewish, she didn't want to force religion on her children. When I suggested that I might convert to Judaism, she was dubious: what about my faith, she wanted to know, and how would my parents feel?
I told her how I had loved church when I was young, how it had been a refuge from the cliques and materialism of high school. As a teenager I had considered the ministry as a vocation, but in college I lost my faith. During graduate school, I had occasionally visited Episcopal churches, hoping to reconnect to that tradition, but to no avail. My problem with Christianity, as I understand now, was that I could not accept the divinity of Jesus. When I stopped going to church, I assumed I was the equivalent of a secular ethnic Jew, a WASP without the P. But my craving for a connection with the divine was strong, and my relationship with Michele made Judaism the obvious choice. My parents, I knew, were comfortable with the fluidity of religious expression, and I believed they would support and even welcome my decision to convert. They would, I believed, want me to be the same religion as my wife. And given how well they knew and loved Michele, they understood that she, because of her paradoxical attachment to both atheism and Judaism, would never convert.
As it turned out, I found in Judaism more than I had ever expected. I converted at Temple Israel in Boston, which welcomed Michele and me into a vibrant religious community. Our rabbi, Elaine Zecher, encouraged us to make my conversion a joint project, which allowed Michele to reconnect to her tradition. I have fallen in love with Judaism, with the mystical experience of praying in Hebrew, the joy and peace of Shabbat, the chanting of Torah (which I'm now beginning to learn), the emphasis on social justice and acts of loving-kindness, and the lack of dogmatic faith. This last quality in particular has let Michele rediscover what she had liked about Judaism when she was a child--the singing at services, the feeling of community, and the keeping of Shabbat--and she has even enjoyed the challenge to her complacent atheism.
As for my parents, they started talking about my "new religion" before I officially told them my decision. They celebrated my conversion at Temple Israel, watched with pride as Michele and I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy), and beamed with excitement at their first grandson's bris (ritual circumcision).
With the birth of our son Samson, I've begun to wonder how Michele and I will balance the religious tolerance we inherited from my parents with the strong sense of Jewish identity we take from Michele's. What if he decides to marry a Christian and baptize his children? I know we would react more like Jack and Judie and less like Jim and Joyce. I am a Jew-by-choice, committed to religious pluralism and convinced that everyone must find his own spiritual home. Yet I am a member of the children of Israel, convinced that I was at Sinai with every other Jew and committed to passing the traditions of Judaism down through the generations.
So I am left admiring my parents, forever in their debt for both my spiritual upbringing and their loving acceptance of my new faith, but hoping that I'll never face the challenge they met so gracefully.