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"In the Mix": Conversionary Tactics

This article originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week as part of a monthly column and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.thejewishweek.com.

Note: “In The Mix” is a monthly column about intermarriage and the lives of interfaith, or “mixed-marriage,” families. This is the first installment.

Early in my relationship with my Catholic husband, Joe, I pleaded with him to convert.

My yearning for him to become Jewish was less intense than it is for many Jews who are romantically involved with gentiles. I was not terribly religious, my parents didn't care if Joe was Jewish and I knew that since our future children would obviously have a Jewish mother, even the Orthodox would recognize them as members of the tribe.

In all honesty, I nudged and nudged in large part because I worried what other Jews--particularly more traditional friends and colleagues--would think of me if I intermarried.

Although quite accommodating in many respects, Joe was--and remains--unyielding when it comes to conversion. Being a lapsed Catholic is a major component of his identity and, as he pointed out, conversion can never make him the kind of Jew I am. It won't give him my messy, intangible mix of ethnic, spiritual and cultural loyalties, and after a childhood of forced Mass attendance he's spiritual (more than I am) and interested in reading the Bible (far more than I am) but not particularly drawn to organized religion or worship services.

I gave up, we married anyway and Joe will likely never see the inside of a mikveh. On the other hand, he now recites the traditional Shabbat blessings with our 2-year-old daughter, Arielle, and me every Friday night, got agitated about the fact that her school was spending too much time talking about Christmas, and even delights in discovering when certain celebrities are Jewish.

Recently, there's been a lot of talk in the organized Jewish community about “aggressively” pushing conversion of non-Jews married to Jews. I'm skeptical and not just because such rhetoric tends to alienate my husband and many others. I suspect that in more cases than the Jewish community would like to acknowledge, conversion represents little more than a cosmetic change.

Take my friend Anna. Raised nominally Catholic in Hungary, Anna knew few Jews until she met her secular, but ethnically proud, American husband. The two married, moved to New York and five years ago, when Anna became pregnant for the first time, her husband and his parents began pushing for her to convert under the auspices of the Reform movement.

Although no one in the family is religious, they wanted the couple's children to be recognized as Jewish. Ironically, they would have been viewed as Jewish by the Reform movement even without Anna converting and will still not be recognized by Orthodox Judaism, which does not accept Reform conversions. But I think the family also desired the conversion out of a sense that it would be more comfortable to tell inquiring friends and relatives, particularly ones judgmental about intermarriage, that Anna was Jewish.

Shortly before her water broke, Anna immersed in the waters of a mikveh, following several months of studying with a Reform rabbi. But she recently told me that in the back of her mind she often feels “like I'm a fake, because I didn't really buy into” becoming Jewish.

“I don't want to sound like I just did it under pressure,” she says. “I decided because I liked the religion, but I would not have done it if [my husband] and his family had not preferred it.”

Although her Hungarian parents were deeply upset by the conversion, Anna says the change has had little effect on how she, her husband and their two sons live.

“I wasn't particularly religious as a Catholic and I'm not more religious as a Jew either,” she says. The family celebrates major Jewish holidays but does not belong to a synagogue; at Christmastime they put up a tree and exchange presents, following the secular traditions with which Anna grew up.

I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing Anna and her husband or like I'm holding up my own family as the model Jewish household. For those of us who are not deeply observant or devout, being Jewish today is complicated and contradictory, and it seems silly to talk about “good” Jews and “bad” ones.

I'm also not saying Anna is representative of all Jews-by-choice. Obviously many people are profoundly transformed by their conversions to Judaism, and many gentile spouses who don't convert end up, unlike Anna, raising their children in another faith.

Traditionalists in the Jewish community are quick to point to demographic studies showing that children raised by a Jewish/convert couple are more likely than the children of a Jewish/gentile couple to be raised as Jews.

But in conversionary households that are deeply committed to Judaism, was the conversion itself the cause or the effect of the family's Jewish connection? I suspect it was the effect, and if that's the case, the Jewish community might be better advised to simply be welcoming to all people and make its case for the richness and rewards of being Jewish--then let people decide on their own whether or not to convert.

I can't help but think that pressuring people to convert is going to lead at best to pro forma conversions and at worst to driving wary interfaith families away from the synagogues that are purportedly trying to reach out to them.

Perhaps the organized Jewish community needs to move beyond the question of whether we or our spouses are officially Jewish and how many bona-fide Jewish offspring we produce and instead to ask just what is it about Judaism that we should all value and want to transmit to future generations anyway?

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Julie Wiener

Julie Wiener is an associate editor at The Jewish Week. You can reach her at julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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