Originally published October 1999. Republished February 13, 2011.
"Your people shall be my people, your God my God." These powerful words in the Book of Ruth have pointed the way for many new Jews. But as we are becoming one with a different people, what do we do with our original family?
For me, the search for this answer has been one of the most challenging parts of becoming Jewish. My Irish-Catholic parents do not believe in choosing a religion. You are what you were born and that's that. There's no choosing. My parents are "good" Catholics. It was unimaginable to them that their daughter would be anything but Catholic always. Perhaps not observant, but Catholic, nonetheless. They were, therefore, unprepared for the discussion I needed to have with them.
Facing my parents meant looking at the face of the past that I was leaving. My parents envisioned grandchildren who would be baptized and celebrate First Communion and Christmas. With my news, I was taking that dream away from them. There might be grandchildren, but they would be Jewish, as would their daughter. Knowing I was precipitating that loss for them was so profoundly painful that I avoided the topic rather than facing it.
I married my husband, who is Jewish, without talking too much about our religious differences. After several years of marriage, and a few hundred miles distance from my parents, I began to fall in love with Judaism. I began to see my future more and more tied with the Jewish people. My parents and I needed to talk, but I dreaded the conversation.
My mom and I were having lunch in a local diner in New York. I had come in for the weekend to visit and "talk." I told her that Rich (my husband) and I had been talking more about religion, and especially as we began to think about having children, we wanted to decide what we would do as a family. I knew that many interfaith couples tried to celebrate both religions as a family, but I didn't think that worked well. I then told her that we had decided to raise our children as Jews and that I had decided to convert to Judaism. I can still hear her response: "You're not asking my opinion, right?" Right." "I don't get a vote, right?" "Right." "Then I'm old enough not to worry myself about things I can't change. You're still my daughter. Nothing can change that." "Thanks mom. You're a wise lady."
She then shared her appreciation that we weren't going to "do both." For her, that seemed like a belittling of both traditions. Obviously, she wished Rich would be Catholic. She wondered whether I was sure about my decision, and asked if I was doing it "for Rich." She also had practical questions about holiday celebrations.
The one unfortunate request my mother made was that I not tell my father about my decision to convert to Judaism, because "he wouldn't understand." Both of us were afraid of his reaction. People in his family had stopped talking to each other for smaller infractions. Reluctantly, I agreed not to share my decision with him. It was a mistake. Unfortunately, the secrecy didn't work and made things worse.
A few months after talking with my mother, my father accidentally learned of my conversion. He confronted me about it, and I tried the best I could to explain my decision to convert as well as my reasons for not having told him. It was useless. He was too angry to listen. Unfortunately, he continued to speak. He launched into an attack and assured me that "the Jews who you want to join don't want you. They know you're not really one of them. You'll learn the hard way. You've turned your back on your family, so you'll have no one." He then cut off all contact and refused to speak with or see me.
No one could persuade him to reconsider his position, which was dictated by his rules and his fear of a vengeful God who would punish him for failing to raise a good Catholic daughter.
My father's response, while extremely harsh, is, unfortunately, not unique. His angry threat that the Jews will not accept me has, at times, worried me. His banishment of me lasted a few long and painful years, but not forever. Ultimately, he acknowledged the truth of my mother's loving response, that I was "still [his] daughter."
Despite my conversion, my parents and I know that we are inextricably connected to each other. I am learning what it means to be a good Jewish daughter to my Irish Catholic parents. They are learning to cope with what was once unimaginable: having a Jewish daughter.