Sharing My Conversion with My Parents
Judaism exposure therapy for the very loving gentiles in my life.
In converting, you cleave from your family. That’s by far the hardest part.
I’m choosing a path and a tradition that my parents did not raise me in and which is actually completely foreign to them. Your people will be my people, said Ruth, the first convert.
But what of Ruth’s people?
How do I leave the tradition my parents raised me in without hurting them? How do I thank them and show gratitude — these people who gave me every advantage in the world, including the advantage of being loved — even as I tell them that their faith and their culture are no longer mine and won’t be my children’s? How can my enthusiasm for Judaism not also be a rejection of the childhood I had and the culture they taught me?
Because of course, in part, it is.
It’s easy to talk about what you gain in conversion, but it would be a lie to pretend there is nothing you leave behind.
Converting for me is a glad repudiation of all sorts of things: of the secular lifestyle, of the happiness gospel, of wishy-washy trend-based moral codes, of a culture that puts pleasure above purpose, of unstructured time and lives — of all the things this blog writes about.
But at its emotional core, converting to Judaism — to any religion — is saying to your parents that what you offered me . . . well, it wasn’t enough.
It’s saying to them I found something better, actually. Or better for me. That’s a very hard thing.
I’ll pass on knowledge of my roots. When we have kids, I want them to know what incense in a church smells like. I want them to eat lamb with my Uncle Bill on Greek Easter. And if they want to be debutantes with the Episcopalians of San Francisco . . . I’ll consider it. But I have a Jewish home now.
I’m writing about this this week because we just had my Dad stay with us for a long weekend, and so parents are on my mind. (Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Soviet history. The amazing story of how the world’s Jewish community rallied to free those Jews stuck behind the Iron Curtain — will be next week.)
One of the most important things for me in converting has been to bring my parents in with me. My hope is not to convert them (though, hey!), but to keep myself from feeling foreign to them. And to show them what joy Judaism is bringing me and also to say that they are honored still in this life of mine.
Since most of my readers are converts or love-a-convert or are thinking of converting — I want to explain how I’ve woven my gentile parents into my Judaism.
Basically? Judaism exposure therapy.
I’m lucky here because the baseline is strong: they’re delighted by my conversion and supportive from the start. Still they just don’t know much about what it is I’m doing, exactly, like, day-to-day.
Judaism is pretty foreign to an Episcopalian + Greek Orthodox family in San Francisco. As a kid, I couldn’t have told you for sure exactly what “Jewish church” was called. I couldn’t have told you that the challah was off-limits til after a prayer or what the little hats were called. I’d been to a Bat Mitzvah! But that was about it.
So I started my own conversion and started introducing my parents to Judaism with the same thing: Shabbat. Far and away, the best Jewish thing to do with your non-Jewish parents is Shabbat. We did a Shabbat dinner with my Mom pre-covid, brought the candlesticks and everything almost like a traveling demo (thankfully my little sister was there to be hyper-enthusiastic).
But the ideal is to do the whole 25-hour shebang.
This weekend, we had my Dad with us. He came to a proper kosher Friday evening dinner (featuring a truly offensive amount of meat, for Ashkenazi authenticity). Bar washed his hands. I was nervous singing in Hebrew for the first time in front of him, like maybe he’d feel betrayed by me on some level. But he was just smiling, looking proud.
He even made a joke at some point about how “now that I have a Jewish daughter” — I forget the rest I was so delighted.
Saturday we turned off our phones and read and puttered around and talked about everything but work.
We’ve talked (endlessly when I was a teen) about how my childhood was too chaotic. He knows. I don’t need to explain to him that in the structure of religion, I’m hoping to avoid repeating elements of that. He knows that’s partly why it’s working for me.
When it was dark out, Bar and I brought him a little rosemary to smell for Havdalah.
And after watching us sing over the multi-wicked Havdalah candle, he said something I loved. He said his ancestors shed their Old World rituals and ran from them. The Irish long ago shed their Celtic rituals and then in America most of their religiosity (Catholicism? We’re not sure). The Germans shed their folklore and their names. They wanted to escape the old world, and they wanted their children to know little of it. We lived as something of blank slates in California. And here was his daughter, singing ancient words, practicing rituals that Jews have practices for centuries.
Where I had been worried about how my Judaism was a rejection, my Dad saw only addition.
I would love to hear from other converts about how they introduced Judaism to their parents. Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For my formal conversion education this week, I started watching an extremely good new Israeli TV show called Losing Alice. (I’ve been working a lot! I needed something fun, ok!)
I sent this post to that dad of mine for approval, as I do, and he wrote the perfect kicker:
We don't really know much about what religious teaching our grandparents received. Their worldly success was the example they set. The absence of religion was not noticed until today as my children struggle to find something transcendent and permanent.
Where can one find a better start than with the foundational beliefs of Judaism? My oldest daughter Nellie has found a guide and a spiritual home there. What better purpose can this life's journey have?
While I can occasionally feel unprepared for the songs and the rituals, I can hear and see the unity there that I seek in my own life. Having a sense of humor about my gaffes and occasional confusion helps too.
So the system is working. We are all building something here.