Originally published April 25, 2006. Republished August 18, 2011.
I didn't think I could be more surprised than when my husband decided to convert to Judaism — until I lived with the issues that came with being wed to a Jew-by-choice.
Before we were married my husband made it clear to me that if we had children I could raise them Jewish, but that he'd never convert. The thought hadn't even crossed my mind, so I nodded and forgot about it.
I saw my Jewish identity as cultural. It was an essential part of who I was separate from religion. I had already accepted and worked through feelings I had about marrying a non-Jew. My husband was a very spiritual person who didn't care for organized religion whether it was the Methodist church he grew up with or Judaism. I knew he'd be a great father and that our kids would be Jewish because I was.
There were pros and cons about having a gentile husband during the first four years of our marriage. On the one hand, I had none of the tension in my marriage that friends had with their Jewish husbands about how they wanted to be Jewish. On the other hand, I noticed the missing pieces: his absence during High Holiday services, his guest-like presence as I lit Hanukkah candles or prepared our share of communal Passover seders, his blank look when I uttered the spattering of Yiddish I knew, the gap that exists when two people don't approach life issues from a shared ancestry.
Then an observant Jewish family moved into the neighborhood. Our daughters were the same age. We were invited to our neighbor's Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners along with every other holiday meal on the Jewish calendar. My husband enjoyed these events and willingly took our daughter home to put her to sleep while I stayed on to argue about Torah.
After their rabbi's wife gave birth, our neighbors were still able to invite them to join us for Shabbat dinner because, as a non-Jew, my husband could push the baby stroller without breaking the Orthodox rules the rabbi adhered to. With this group of people to be Jewish with, I felt as if I had the best of both worlds.
Then my world turned around.
As my husband stepped out of the mikvah (ritual bath) and the rabbi handed him his conversion papers, I was suddenly married to another Jew. He was changed by his conversion, and I was, too.
For one thing, I found I had new expectations of him. I was annoyed if I had to remind him to put on a yarmulke (head covering) when I lit Shabbat candles. After all, now he was Jewish! How could he forget?
The first time we went to Yom Kippur services together as Jews, I had an additional obligation: to share the childcare responsibilities so that my husband could also participate. It wasn't just my Jewish soul anymore that needed to atone.
One morning, my husband jokingly mused about having a kosher home. I nearly choked. His teasing suggestion made me realize that he would have his own ideas about how to be Jewish — ideas that would affect how I lived my life as well. Judaism had been my territory in our marriage and our parenting. I was conflicted. I found it difficult to give up the control. And as unattractive as it is to admit, I felt that I should have the final word on what we did because I had been Jewish longer!
On another level, I also felt more disconnected from my husband. When he was a gentile we shared what it meant to be born into an identity. He would explain to me that he was raised to smooth over differences of opinion, especially at a dinner party. And I'd point out to him that I lived among people who didn't consider it much of a dinner party without a lively discussion about opposing views. We had learned to honor our differences as they related to our respective heritages.
I had no experience of what it was like to opt out of a heritage and join a different one. I couldn't imagine myself converting. I knew a lot about relating to those in the non-Jewish world, but I knew nothing about the mindset of making a choice between them. I had to get to know the person I had married all over again.
It may sound as if I regret my husband's conversion, but I don't. I'm a better partner, parent and Jew for having to grapple with these issues. But I look back on his conversion with the same hindsight as I have about our wedding. After both rituals we celebrated and received congratulations for our joining together in a sacred covenant, and then the good hard work of holy love began.