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When I met my husband, I was on a journey away from the evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity that I'd grown up with towards something that I didn't know the shape of, but was certain existed out there for me. When my husband first told me he was Jewish, I thought, "So what? I'm not. Let's discuss things that really matter, like which classes you're taking."
But as I got to know him more, I realized that he and I were very different in certain ways. I began to wonder how much of it was due to our cultural differences and how much was just the result of being two different, unique individuals.
I began to read about Jewish culture and religious experience. What I found fascinated me. I was drawn to the Jewish values of family and education. I loved the idea that learning was not considered a luxury or add-on but an essential part of the identity. I experienced the warmth of my boyfriend's Jewish mother and how family was so important to her. I was impressed by how, as a culture, Judaism seems to value the search, struggle, and questions rather than providing easy answers. I came to understand that the value was not in the answers as much as it was about struggling with the ideas.
As I began to explore Judaism, I felt that it was a belief system that I could grow with. My favorite story is the one where a young man comes to the scholar Hillel and asks to be taught the essential truths of Judaism while standing on one foot. Hillel said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Go and learn." I was fired up with the idea of going and learning more about Judaism.
In addition to reading about Judaism, I slowly began to incorporate aspects of Jewish practice into my life. It began the first Passover that my husband and I were a couple. He told me that during the days of Passover, he couldn't eat any bread products or leavened food. I thought, "Okay. Check. I don't need to buy much bread that week. Got it." He followed by asking me if I would mind not eating any bread either, at least in front of him. I thought about it and decided that I could give up bread for a week. What was the harm? And so that first Passover, I took my first step on the path to Judaism.
Over the last five years, I've fasted on Yom Kippur, learned how to make challah, bought a menorah, and learned the Hanukkah blessing. This year, I have started lighting the Shabbat candles every Friday and have eliminated all pork products from our house. I'm currently taking an Introduction to Judaism class with a rabbi at the local Conservative synagogue. I plan on making the final step and formally converting at the end of the class this spring.
Until recently, however, there were two things holding me back from taking the final step of formal conversion. For one, I was still quite emotionally attached to Christmas. The first year we lived together my husband made it pretty clear to me that he couldn't stomach having a Christmas tree in our home. I thought, "Okay, there's still plenty of decorating that can be done without a tree. I made some Hanukkah decorations, and in the first few years that we lived together, I made sure that both holidays were represented in the decorations. I questioned in my own mind, however, whether I would feel a sense of loss about not having a Christmas tree with trimmings once we started a family.
We got married in the fall of 2000, and a little over a year later, my husband and I welcomed our first child, a girl, to the family. Somehow having a child together changed everything for me. The hesitation I had thought I would feel about not celebrating Christmas failed to materialize. I found myself wanting her to have one identity and a solid, not fractured, sense of who she is.
When I held and touched my little girl for the first time, I realized that I was ready to change my status from being just a curious onlooker and voyager in a strange culture to that of a resident. It was during Hanukkah 2002 that I realized that Hanukkah can be just as exciting and meaningful a vehicle for creating memories for our family as Christmas had been to me as a child. Through my daughter I realized that giving up Christmas, one of the things that had held me back from embracing Judaism, was not going to be so bad after all.
The second thing that had restrained me from choosing Judaism for myself, and one that I continue to struggle with despite the fact that I have chosen it, is the refusal of my family to give my future conversion their blessing. Although I am in my thirties, I still want to make my parents proud and don't want to disappoint them. Choosing this path has not made them proud; and in fact, it has strained our relationship.
I'm not sure that my parents will ever understand what has brought me to this point. Despite email and discussions with them, we both may have to just come to the point of resignation, resignation that the gulf between Christian fundamentalism and Jewish pluralism is too wide for either of us to bridge. I'm hopeful that this only means that we have to avoid discussing religion. My door remains open, and hopefully someday, perhaps at their granddaughter's Bat Mitzvah, maybe before, they'll understand that this path is right for us.
All I know is that as I light the candles each Shabbat and sing my daughter a Sh'ma lullaby at night, I'm confident that I've made the right decision for both myself and my family.