May 6, 2011
I am one of those people who grew up bombarded by messages from the mainstream Jewish community denouncing intermarriage as the worst plague affecting the Jewish people. Often, when whoever was railing on was feeling charitable, their rant would include a parenthetical reminder that converts were considered fully Jewish, so marrying a convert to Judaism wasn't intermarriage.
Andrea Myers's memoir, The Choosing: A Rabbi's Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days, reminds us that there's more than one way to create an interfaith family. Although Myers's wife is Jewish, her own conversion to Judaism created many of the same dilemmas in her relationship to her parents and extended family that many interfaith couples confront. Her parents, themselves a mixed marriage of Catholic and Lutheran, are supportive and even eager to embrace their daughter's new faith — at times with hilarious results. You mean the Jewish new year isn't celebrated with midnight noisemakers? It's not appropriate for a woman to thank an Orthodox Judaica seller for a discount with a big bear hug?
Myers's story is full of similar anecdotes that both feel familiar (haven't we all been in similar situations?) and provocative. Arranged according to the Jewish calendar, this isn't your typical memoir unfolding from birth to now. Rather, we meet Myers's whole self up front: she is a Jew, a rabbi, a convert, a lesbian, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a scholar, a teacher, a writer? And then we see each of these identities and more reflected through holidays and Jewish texts related to our celebrations through the year. But this isn't just Myers's own story; it's really a memoir of her family. As she becomes more committed to Judaism, her family learns what it means to juggle Easter and Passover, or Christmas and Chanukah, and their growth and encouragement shines through every page.
As a teacher, Myers makes every Jewish concept and reference accessible to her readers regardless of their experience without ever needing to simplify. This is likely in no small part thanks to the patient way Myers taught her own family about the Jewish framework she erected around her life. I found myself dog-earring pages that delighted me with new insights that I look forward to sharing at holiday gatherings to come. In the book's preface, Myers insists "The Choosing lends itself to being read aloud." Although I was skeptical, I found myself pulling out the book to read sections to my roommate and friends.
On the other hand, I wonder if readers unfamiliar with lesbian culture will find themselves running to Google concepts like "the UHaul date" that are mentioned without definition. (Go ahead, Google it. It's not dirty.)
The Choosing is not a book of advice, but there is wisdom within that many of us could take to heart. Perhaps the central message is summed up by Myers's reflection from her chapter on Shavuot: "any major life change should only make you more of who you are." For Myers, this dictum applied to coming out, to choosing a college far from home, to her journey towards Judaism and then the rabbinate, and perhaps especially to forming and growing her family which now includes her wife Lisa (also a rabbi) and their two daughters.
In becoming more of who she, herself, is, Myers offers the reader support in doing the same. Her pathway through Judaism brought her to Israel, where she lived a fully observant, traditional life, and then on to Rabbinical school, where she learned that Judaism has always encompassed diversity of Jewish expression. Finding her place — and her family's place — within that diversity is at the heart of Myers's story. As she says, "Whatever differences we bring to the table, the labels fade when they are reflected in the faces of the ones we love. The stories take center stage. This is what family does."
We should all be so lucky as to have families like that of Rabbi Myers.