Converting for the Wrong Reasons in the Sixties

By Jeanne Olmsted


I was 19 and pregnant when I converted to Judaism. It was a time of brewing rebellion, and I was confused about a lot of things. Vietnam protests and women’s liberation were just around the corner. Having always been a “good girl,” and having grown up in a very culturally and racially homogeneous Montana college town, I was rebelling against my “middle-class American” family which seemed to not have much of an identity. I think I was also rebelling against the sense of “not belonging” that plagued me at the ultra liberal college I had chosen to please my father and where the majority of students were intellectual, metropolitan, and Jewish.

In part my sense of social estrangement stemmed from my inablility to distinguish “me” from the cultural expectations with which I was raised, in which girls, in particular, were supposed to be unassuming, please others, and subdue personal ambition and excellence enough to not stand out. The cultural milieu on campus was outspoken, iconoclastic, and outrageous. I wanted to redefine myself, but couldn’t break free of the image of the cute, unassuming, nice girl I had tried so hard to become. I couldn’t say yes, and I couldn’t say no.

Anyway, Denny was my boyfriend at college. He was different from anyone I had ever known. He was smart, musically gifted, and persuasive. He was opinionated; he was Jewish; and he liked me. His outgoing nature gave me a shield against the pain of isolation and relieved the pressure to be socially engaged with the many other people on campus whom I found intimidating. When I became pregnant in my sophomore year, we decided to get married–much to the dismay of our parents.

Denny was the dominant personality in our relationship, and he wanted a Jewish wedding. He had not been raised in a religious family, but the social culture and identity of his family was Jewish. His mother was Jewish, his father was not. His grandfather, who had escaped the pogroms in Russia and started a new life in America, was a big influence in Denny’s life. Gramps was a great storyteller and lived a life worthy of legend. Around the time we got married Denny was experiencing a surge of cultural identity with Judaism, so we found a Reform temple in Portland, Oregon, and I undertook the rather minimal required course of study for conversion. Then we had a Jewish wedding.

For the first year we were married we observed the Sabbath every Friday night. I made challah and we drank grape juice because we were too young to buy wine and, besides, neither one of us liked its taste. I said the Sabbath prayer, which I still remember–and which I occasionally recite to amaze unsuspecting friends who don’t know that I am Jewish. We might have gone to temple once or twice. And we observed Passover. It was all pretty superficial. We didn’t have a social support group which included Judaism in a meaningful way. I didn’t have enough experience or insight to distinguish the dysfunction within my husband’s family from the culture I had married into. Our marriage lasted seven years. Our divorce was painful, and the wounds have not truly healed. Our observance of Jewish religious customs had dwindled to next to nothing by the third year of our marriage. I no longer celebrate any Jewish holidays and my observance of Christian holidays is largely secular.

I have several regrets about having converted to Judaism. Recalling my observance of the Jewish rituals with such lack of understanding and commitment, I worry that I have somehow debased what others hold sacred. And It feels strange to me that, although I feel I am “not really Jewish,” my two boys both identify themselves as Jewish and are legitimately so by way of their maternal lineage. It occurs to me that I have never asked my sons what being Jewish means to them. Although neither one of them has had any significant religious education in Judaism, they both have married truly wonderful Jewish women. It bothers me a little that my sons seem more identified with being Jewish than being Norwegian, which is my family heritage. And sometimes I worry that being Jewish in this world is dangerous.

For myself, claiming to be a Jew feels insincere, so I would prefer not to be Jewish. But I don’t care enough to unconvert or even to find out how it is done. I guess that I probably would not feel genuine joining any organized religion. I did try to convince my parents to allow me to be a Catholic when I was seven. At that age I was fascinated by the mysterious rituals, the categories of sin and redemption, the adventure of sneaking into the church after school and lighting candles without adult supervision. My parents emphatically vetoed that proposal!

Though I identify with the Christian spiritual values I was raised with, I don’t really comprehend Christianity as a religion, nor do I understand why anyone would want to belong to a church. As a teenager I embarrassed my mother by refusing to be confirmed in the Congregational church because it felt hypocritical to me, though I couldn’t really explain why at the time. I realize that I don’t have much understanding of what Judaism is really about, either. I have recently done some reading on the monothiestic religions, exploring their common threads and divergences, yet the spiritual essence of Judaism eludes me. Christmas still seems like the very best holiday and Hanukkah seems so, well, pretend.

As an adult I became aware of a longing for an authentic sense of meaning in my life, but religion didn’t seem to be a promising avenue as I couldn’t see relinquishing my sense of spiritual privacy and autonomy to anyone outside myself. I had almost accepted a sadly disenchanted cosmology in which I could imagine, but not partake of, spiritual comfort. Then, on my son’s recommendation I read the gnostic gospels, which revealed something important to me: I could acknowlege “God” in a very personal, meaningful way. I could relate to God the way Jesus related to God when he was still Jewish and had not yet been set at the head of the Christian empire. Acknowleging my relationship with God didn’t have to mean embracing what churches and synagogues and mosques had done to the relationship between the soul and its own knowing.

Looking back on my experience with conversion, it is pretty clear that I was never a good candidate for membership in the Jewish faith. My conversion was driven by expediency. Had it been nourished by sincere and soulful observance of the Jewish faith, it might have germinated and flourished within me. Had a few of my Jewish friends shared with me how the spirit and wisdom of Judaism had shaped and sustained them, it might have been different. Those things didn’t happen.

My story is perhaps more about happenstance and ambivalence than it is about conversion or Judaism. Nevertheless, as one is enlivened by a beautiful work of art seen briefly, or recalls without regret an intriguing road not taken, I feel my life is enriched by my tenuous relationship with Judaism. There are treasures in my life which would not have been found on a different path. My global awareness is expanded by a sense of connection to the ancestors of my children and to the plight of my children’s ancestor’s children in the world today.

I delight in all the flavors of relationship and cultural expression now accessible to me. I have a great recipe for matzah ball soup, and I have my kids and grandkids who continue to link my fate to that of the Jewish community. I appreciate, and sometimes still envy, the strong sense of shared traditions and history that binds the Jewish community together in mutual identity. It’s just not me.


About Jeanne Olmsted

Jeanne Olmsted was born in Montana to descendants of Norwegian immigrant farmers and Mayflower travellers. She returned to college eight years after quitting to get married and ultimately became a pediatrician. She now lives with her husband in Washington, in the northern Puget Sound area.