A return to one's roots often comes about in unexpected ways. Ben and his first wife had never been religious, although both were Jews by birth. He, however, had spent his youth in an observant, Conservative household, so his return to Jewish life many years later was not uncomfortable. It was Marilyn, the Christian wife of his older years, who brought about that return.
When Ben met Marilyn he was 68 years old and a widower. A Jewish colleague of hers had invited Marilyn, a long-time divorceé, to Passover seder. Across from her sat Ben, with his shy grin and quiet charm. "I loved Ben the minute I met him," Marilyn said.
After several months of dating, Marilyn readily accepted Ben's proposal. "I was glad he was Jewish," she said. "I had been drawn to Jewish people as a young woman growing up in Chicago. I liked the candor and warmth of my Jewish neighbors and classmates."
Ben and Marilyn were older and had raised their families. Religious differences didn't seem to matter at this stage of their lives, and each saw the other as a gift.
A secular Jew in adulthood, Ben rarely practiced the rituals of his faith. Similarly, Marilyn had been raised in an observant Roman Catholic household, but had drifted away from the church during her marriage to a non-practicing Christian.
"I took our sons to church for a while," she said, "but their father never went and I yielded to their protests. I think, though, that I wasn't that happy in the church myself. I hadn't found my spiritual center, and I felt that lack."
Now wanting to be spiritually united with her second husband, Marilyn began thinking about converting to Judaism. When she mentioned this to Ben, he was ambivalent. Since they were in their sixties, he felt they didn't have to worry about raising a family in one faith or the other. "I'll take you to services if you want to go," he said. "You don't have to go through a conversion."
However, at Marilyn's urging Ben accompanied her to "Introduction to Judaism" classes offered at the local synagogue where I am the education director. By the end of the eight-week course, Marilyn began learning on her own. Armed with reading lists, she spent hours in the local bookstores, often coming home with stacks of literature on Jewish history, culture and ritual. "Ben was beginning to feel like he had lost his wife," she said with a laugh. "Even though I was right next to him on the sofa or in the bed, I was immersed in pages and pages of Jewish life."
To Marilyn, conversion was becoming a genuine need. She was convinced that her own thinking paralleled Jewish thought more than that of any other theology she had known.
One day Marilyn approached the rabbi about preparation for the conversion ceremony. "I think Ben was happy about this. He just didn't understand why I was doing it," she said. "I know it won't be easy for my kids, but they have their own lives and families, and this matters to me."
Ben accompanied Marilyn to services every Friday night and Saturday morning for the next year, and marveled that he remembered so many of the prayers and melodies from his youth. He also began reading some of the literature she brought home. One weekend, when a son was visiting from out West, he took him to services. "This is what we do on Saturdays," he told him.
When it came time for the mikvah, the ritual submersion in a natural body of water prior to conversion, Marilyn chose to adopt the Hebrew name of Ruth. "I want that name," she told Ben, "because Ruth was strong and committed, like I am."
Ben, as a surprise for Marilyn, had invited her three adult children to come to the ceremony.
"They may not have understood my motives," she told me, tearfully, "but they accepted my choice as mine to make. For that I will always be grateful."
Ben and Marilyn continue to attend services every Saturday morning. Marilyn has joined the choir and is now planning to study Hebrew intensively. "I want to know what I'm saying without looking on the English side of the page," she said.
One recent Shabbat (Sabbath) morning, Ben was sitting in his usual row, without Marilyn. "Where is your lovely wife?" I asked.
"Home with a bad cold," he said.
"I'm impressed that you are here alone," I said.
"Well, Marilyn was resting comfortably and reading, and she seemed pleased that I wanted to come."
"You mean this was your idea?" I asked, incredulously.
"I've gotten used to being here on Shabbat," he said, and grinned shyly.
Along the way, Marilyn's story apparently has become Ben's story as well. Her spiritual path led her to the ancient faith he had long neglected, but now they are traveling together. In their later years, both Ben and Marilyn have truly become Jews-by-choice.