My husband, a convert, is more observant than I am
It is not because Claude was born Catholic that I consider us intermarried. No, it’s the conversion to Judaism that that did it. Though the smoke has cleared for a while—now that Shavuot is over, we are blissfully holiday-free until September—I know that when the High Holidays come, the differences between our commitment to religious practice will make themselves known once again.
When I first met Claude, in 2004, I wouldn’t date him. Though I was barely affiliated with any particular Jewish movement, I come from an Orthodox family and wasn’t about to give up my relationship with them— yes, it would come to that—for someone I didn’t yet love.
“I’ll convert,” he said.
“The only conversion my family would accept is an Orthodox one,” I said. “For that, you’d have to live an Orthodox life.”
“I’ll do it!” he said. (I am that good a kisser.)
“But if you were Orthodox, I wouldn’t want to go out with you anymore.”
My resistance was worn thin by this warm, witty man, and I found one day that I loved him very much. And so when he began the conversion process, he did it through the Modern Orthodox movement.
Two years later, after a morning in which rabbis grilled him on everything from how to make tea correctly on Shabbat to Maimonides’s 13 Principles, Claude emerged from the mikvah a new man. His conversion had taken: The first thing he wanted was Chinese food. I suggested a restaurant here in Los Angeles, where we had had our first date.
“Let’s go to the kosher one instead,” he answered.
We had never discussed keeping kosher. Through all the rigor and study that was involved in the conversion, I’d never thought that we would end up really and truly religious. We liked the Modern Orthodox synagogue we’d joined, we certainly loved the rabbi, and we had no intention of leaving. But when we began this conversion process, it was something we were doing for my family. We weren’t signing up for a life so different from our own. Sure, things would change: Claude would be Jewish, after all. But we’d make our rules, decide what constituted observance for us, and we certainly wouldn’t keep kosher; I’d had a lifetime of that, and I wasn’t interested in returning to it.
But by the time the conversion was completed, it was clear that something in Claude had changed, After his conversion, Claude began wearing a yarmulke every day. He wanted to keep kosher, to observe Shabbat.
I was proud of him. I was moved by his sincerity, glad that I had not betrayed my religion by bringing in a man who only kind of meant it. And I decided that if he was in, I was in. I spent Fridays preparing for sundown. I invited people over for meals on Shabbat afternoon. I joined the committees at our synagogue. I paid more for kosher meat.
When we got married in 2006, I had the wedding I never pictured. No kiss beneath the chuppah, gender-separated dancing for the first hour, nondairy creamer for coffee. My dress covered my elbows and my collarbone. When our son was born a year and a half later, I fought every protective instinct I had and allowed him to be circumcised. Claude cried when Ezra did, the memory of his own adult bris still fresh.
Our home was kosher, but I decided I would start keeping kosher outside the home as well, now that we had a child. I did it so that Ezra would have one less thing to be confused about as he got older. I also hoped that maybe the meaningfulness of observance would affect me once I participated in it: Accept these rules first, and then understand them; that’s what God told us at Sinai.
I started slowly, first giving up shellfish and pork, items that can’t be kosher no matter how hard they try. Later, I refused to eat even vegetarian dishes at non-kosher restaurants, leading me to become well acquainted with the 15 kosher joints in my neighborhood.
Then, two years later, I found myself out with a friend and our kids at a playground with a lunch menu. On a whim, I ordered a Cobb salad. I ate it and, much to my dismay, didn’t feel anything. Not guilt, not regret, not shame. It was just food, and it tasted delicious.
What am I keeping kosher for? I wondered. Sure, Claude had made accommodations to be with me. But he had also found something his soul had been looking for. I just had new rules to follow, ones I thought I’d done away with years earlier. It wasn’t that I was contemptuous of religion. It’s just that it’s not easy to live a life committed to ritual driven merely by the absence of contempt, as opposed to by the quest for and presence of meaning.
Claude’s zeal for religious practice also seemed to eclipse the fact that I was Jewish before I met him, that I had a practice and beliefs of my own. They weren’t big practices, and they certainly weren’t intense. But they were mine, and they were meaningful to me.
Things came to a head earlier this spring, as I got ready for Passover. When observed at the Orthodox level, Passover preparation becomes wholly unpleasant. There is the wasteful discarding of food, the cleaning of floorboards, the covering of counters, the days of shopping and cooking. As we prepare to celebrate our freedom, we become slaves to our homes, to cleanliness, to the kosher market. They’re fools errands, time wasted. I found myself asking my husband via text message to consider seriously how badly he wanted to continue this observance, and to please pick up a bag of walnuts on his way home.
It wasn’t that I was angry with God or the rabbis whose rules we follow. I was angry with Claude for what feels like a betrayal despite the fact that it isn’t. He converted for me. I willingly met him where he wanted to land. I just didn’t realize it would be quite so far from where we had started.
You just got here, I thought. I’ve been here all along. What makes you think you get to decide how we live?
Recently a Facebook friend made reference to my dread of Shabbat. (We spend a whole day preparing for a day of rest!) Another person asked me why I observe if I don’t want to. I thought about that for a long time and about all the decisions I’ve made over the years to enhance my life—from regular eyebrow waxes to registering for enough china that I can entertain eight people at once. Adulthood is about making compromises to allow others into your life, to be part of something bigger—like those compromises or not. Claude has made similar choices: to visit my family more often than he’d probably like, to work hard so that I can stay home with our son, to accept the loss of friends who abandoned him when he became religious.
“We don’t have to do things this way,” Claude said to me after the holiday, seeing how dejected I was from all the effort. “We can do whatever you can live with.”
But what can I live with? What do I want? I don’t necessarily want an utterly secular life. I love the community and the values Orthodoxy provides. I don’t have a better suggestion for how to live our lives. Do I really want to watch TV on Friday nights when I watch it every other night of the week? Do I see my friends so much that I can’t stand another day in which we eat together leisurely?
Maybe I want to know that my happiness is more important than ritual. Maybe I want to know that covenant between Claude and me is more meaningful to Claude than the one he shares with God. It is when he tells me that we can be as strict or loose as I want that he proves I am still most important to him. “Not to worry,” I can say then. “This is fine.” I mean it, too.
I am not entirely in the clear until September. From now until then, I will light Shabbat candles exactly 15 times, prepare all those Shabbat meals, and endure a very long fast for Tisha B’av, which falls this year in July. But when Claude reaches across to me, when he reminds me that it’s us first and foremost, I can approach religion with a new kindness, as something we do together, not something being done to me. I continue to pray that my acceptance will lead to understanding, as God once told us it would. And I pray that that understanding will lead to endurance and willingness, too. I’ve always prayed, long before I got to this place.