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Layman’s Terms

A non-Jew who loves Philip Roth, making challah, and visiting High Holiday services wants to be a Jew, minus the religion

Stuart Vyse
January 13, 2012
Nick Harris/Flickr
Nick Harris/Flickr
Nick Harris/Flickr
Nick Harris/Flickr

At a dinner party several years ago I was seated next to a good friend who was a professor of Judaic studies. At some point I turned to him and asked, “Is it possible to convert to secular Judaism?”

My friend knew that, for me, this question was not entirely theoretical. He paused for a moment and said, “No. You have to convert the usual way and then have a fight with your rabbi.” He explained that I would be welcomed at shul—“particularly if you are willing to make a contribution to the building fund”—and could participate in many aspects of Jewish life, but to become a secular Jew you must first be a Jew.

Like most people, I grew up in the religion of my parents, which for me meant almost no religion at all. Neither of them were believers. I was baptized, but the only services I attended were at a Unitarian church my mother joined during my teenage years. I remember singing secularized Christmas carols copied on the church mimeograph machine.

In my youth, religion didn’t make an impression, but science did. My elementary-school days were spent in Park Forest, Ill., a Levittown-like planned community south of Chicago, where I often sat in front of our black-and-white set to watch Dr. Posin’s Universe, a public television science program hosted by a charming DePaul University physics professor. I loved visiting Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and when the family cat brought home a dead sparrow, I horrified my parents by dissecting the still-warm creature on my desk blotter. I read about the undersea adventures of Jacques Cousteau in National Geographic, and despite living over a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, I dreamed of being an underwater explorer just like him.

Nor did anything in my later years come along to pull me toward religion. College in the late 1960s and early ’70s coincided with a period of great social experimentation. Some of my friends joined the Church of Scientology; others became immersed in transcendental meditation. I got a mantra and started to meditate, and I went to an introductory Dianetics meeting. But in the end, none of it stuck. There were no holes in my life that religion might possibly fill, and nobody taught me to appreciate the ritual and emotion of religious life. As an English major in college, I was sometimes at a loss when novels and poems made references to biblical characters, but this seemed like a minor problem.

When I became a permanent member of the academic world, I began to meet more Jews and to learn bits and pieces of Jewish history and culture. I kept discovering artistic and scholarly heroes who turned out to be Jewish. I loved Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, and long after I left the suburbs, I learned what I had been too young to know at the time—that Park Forest was founded and led by a group of Jews making their mark in post-World War II America. But the real education was still to come, after I entered into a relationship with a Jewish woman.

As luck would have it, most of the women I have loved were of a different religion—which is to say they endorsed a religion of some sort. For 20 years, I was married to a Christian who occasionally took our kids to an Episcopal church. I never hid my lack of faith from anyone, but in solidarity with the rest of the family, I sometimes came along to services. Because Protestant Christianity was the default culture of my upbringing, the rituals were familiar to me. I loved singing the hymns, and when the sermons touched on social issues, I often found them quite interesting. The God-talk and prayer were lost on me, but I was moved by the hopefulness and generosity of spirit.

Several years after my marriage ended, I fell in love with a woman who was a deeply religious Conservative Jew, and suddenly the door swung wide open. I soon found myself attending religious services again, but with two important differences. First, the world inside the synagogue was shockingly alien to me. I was embarrassed to discover how little I knew of the religion and its practices. Second, in this case, I was a willing student. I never learned Hebrew or had any interest in converting, but I did my best with transliteration, took the rabbi’s class on Pirkei Avot, and learned to bake challah. I attended Seders, ate in sukkahs, and acquired the secret language of heksher symbols. It was a big Jewish universe, and I felt very fortunate to have such a wonderful guide.

For a time I thought I had solved the problem. I would become a secular Jew by marriage—or, in my case, by unmarried romantic relationship. I knew several friends who had married into the Jewish community. I never asked them about their reasons for not converting, but I watched these people assimilate quite happily. They enrolled the kids in Hebrew school and participated in services as a family. I seemed to have achieved a similar transition and was very happy.

Until the relationship ended.

Suddenly, I was back on the outside of my adoptive Jewish community, but I was not the same person. The relationship was no longer my ticket to secular Judaism, but it educated me in ways I will always appreciate. I now have a much greater understanding of Jewish religious life, culture, and politics, and I still participate in ways that are quite meaningful for me. I attend services at the High Holy Days; I have people over for Shabbat supper; and I feel a special sense of connection with Jewish friends and acquaintances. I am not a Jew, or even a secular Jew, but I have spent enough time in this world to know its customs and enjoy some of its many benefits.

In Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant recounts a famous episode of Louis Brandeis’ life:

A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, “Brandeis, you’re brilliant. If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved.”

Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, “I am sorry I was born a Jew.” His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. “I’m sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.”

The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation.

Brandeis was right: Conversion is only possible when moving from one religion to another or from a state of non-belief to belief. If, like Brandeis, you happen to be born into the religion you love, you cannot enjoy the additional privilege of deliberately choosing the religion you love.

For me, there is a parallel but opposite roadblock. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that 80 percent of Jews in Israel were secular. The percentage is undoubtedly much lower in the United States, but here, too, secular Jewish life is common. I would love to be a member of that group, but it is not possible for me. Just as conversion to the Judaism of one’s birth is impossible; so too is conversion from some other faith—or none—to secular Judaism. Becoming Jewish is a serious business. You cannot simply declare yourself a Jew. As a result, the person who is born Jewish is granted the choice of being a religious or a secular Jew. Though it might never have occurred to him to be anything but a religious person, this was a choice that Brandeis retained. But for the secular person who is not born Jewish, Jewish secularism is another kind of impossible conversion. The path to secular Judaism must go through belief, and if belief in the Jewish religion is impossible, then Jewish secularism is unattainable.

While this may be frustrating for a small group of secular non-Jews who, like me, are attracted to Jewish life—people who might be said to have a Jewish heart but not a Jewish soul—I think, in the end, there is something fitting about it. There is a Jewish culture, but it is a culture that grows out of a people with a common faith. The synagogue door is open. You may come in and sit with the congregation. But without adopting the religion, the person who is not born Jewish cannot call him or herself a Jew.

Stuart Vyse is Joanne Toor Cummings ’50 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College. He is the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition and Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold on to Their Money. His twitter feed is @stuartvyse.