Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Review: Conversion to Judaism: Choosing to Be Chosen by Rabbi Bernice K. Weiss

I'd be lying if I didn't say I came into this book with a lot of...cynicism? I mean, really, this is the cover:

Conversion to Judaism: Choosing to Be Chosen: Personal Stories by Rabbi Bernice K. Weiss with Sheryl Silverman

And each chapter starts with a clipart graphic of a bouquet. I wish I were joking.

I couldn't help reading this book from two different angles. One from today and one from 10-15 years ago, when this Jewish stuff was all still new to me. No lie, I have a lot of cynicism, born from bad experiences and the many friends and acquaintances I've seen struggle post-conversion. But at the same time, I would have loved reading this book early in my journey because I was starved for personal stories.

Maybe today we're drowning in person stories (or at least pieces of them), especially on social media. I've had Facebook for the entirety of my Jewish journey, but it just wasn't used that way for many years. Things were different back in my day! Get off my lawn!

Despite everything I'm about to say, most of the stories are pretty pedestrian and about what you'd expect. I do think it's interesting that a lot of the stories, maybe 1/4, involved a very fraught upbringing, often abuse. Some very serious abuse. My personal experience suggest that abuse survivors of all kinds (including myself) are probably disproportionately represented in the conversion community. As someone told me once, it takes a lot to reject how you were raised. It's easier if you want to reject it already or you've already rejected it. Once you've done such a major rejection/emotional disengagement, it's less hard to do again. That makes sense to me, but maybe that's just me. Maybe the author could have addressed the high rates of abusive parents, since someone without my experience might find it odd. One story in particular was very extreme and today would probably be labeled with a warning. I felt blindsided by it. And it was the last story, so it was a very disturbing place to end. Left a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak.

Though I'm not wild about this book cover, it's an accurate representation of the book and its goals.  This is a book of about a dozen stories that is almost entirely couples where one partner converted during engagement or after marriage to a born Jew. They end up in every movement, and I did not find this book to be biased for or against any movement (though certainly aimed at the non-orthodox community). 

Since I spend every conversation about conversion trying to explain that marriage isn't the only reason people convert and that many of those people actually lose their partner in the process, I wish the title were reflective of its emphasis on marrying couples rather than presenting a title that implies "this is only what conversion to Judaism is." It confirms every single bad stereotype. I get this book is trying to do good things and might be good for relevant couples, but I also feel like things like this make my life harder by justifying the harmful stereotypes and judgments, even before they open the book. Many of us come to Judaism because of a Jewish partner. I did, though he checked out pretty quick and I didn't meet my husband for almost another decade. But my journey was my own, and no one is served by symbolizing conversion with a wedding given these widespread and pretty hateful biases.

The book is written by a liberal movement rabbi (she doesn't specify a movement), and she's very clear that she does not pressure anyone into converting. Each Jewish partner states the same. But guys, she founded an organization called The Washington Institute for Conversion and the Study of Judaism (apparently it still exists!). Could any spouse walking into that building or coming to her website really believe, "I have no vested interest in their converting. However, if they choose it (almost all do), I will arrange it for them." (That's really in the book, as are many other statements about her disinterest in the outcome.) It's ok to have an agenda here. It's ok to say you want to help people build Jewish families, whether or not both parents are Jewish. It's ok to say, "I hope you convert, but I know it's not for everyone. I'm just here to help you make an informed decision or help you raise Jewish kids even if you personally don't want to convert." Especially since so many of the profiles go into detail about how they think raising kids with two religions is actively harmful to children with no one taking the opposite stance, I assume that's her position too. That's a perfectly acceptable position to take, but take it. Don't pretend you're disinterested.

Also, can we take a minute to discuss how strange it is that the Foreword was written by the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury? Weird foreword name-dropping in a book about converting to Judaism sounds familiar. That said, at least this Foreword is on-topic and not antisemitic-sounding. It's just not who I would have found relevant. 

Likewise, I saw so many red flags that weren't identified as red flags, and I think that was... less than helpful. A Japanese woman and a Black woman both had profiles, and the writer interviewed each of them about "fitting in." I didn't see an explicit reference to racism. I'm white, but I know that I have heard more than enough stories from Jews of color about issues they face in our communities, and I think it's irresponsible to not warn people that racism can and does happen. This book was published in 2000, but this rabbi has worked with hundreds of couples as of the time of writing. Did she really not know that racism in our communities (and many batei din) is alive and well, and these women didn't feel like they could share it? Is it possible she found only two people of color and they really never had issues? I guess it's possible. 

Further, I think it was irresponsible to not have a single case where the conversion process ended the relationship. That is incredibly common, and many (most?) people decide to continue the conversion. This happened to me, more than once!, and it has happened to many other people I know. Sometimes it's just too much for the born-Jew, and it's not what they're interested in. One person becomes very excited while the other begins to go in another direction. It might happen early in the process or it might happen the week before the mikvah. This is so common and so underdiscussed. It's not exactly the thing people want to share over Shabbat dinner, so many conversion candidates feel isolated and like failures when they shouldn't.

In another red flag, I think I saw the beginning of someone's divorce. A woman converted while married to a non-Jew and now feels like it has created a huge gulf in her marriage to not be married to a Jew. And the story just stops there. It felt invasive to read, especially to be left on a cliffhanger like that. Such a negative and hard struggle to face, left without comment by the author. I wondered how much her husband knew about this internal struggle that was now being published to the world. This was some great RealBooking, as we middle-aged folks say (cross-reference the conversion breaking up couples above comments), but I don't think it should have passed without comment from the author to put it in perspective. I'm glad this was included, it just seemed thrown out there and left on the table.

Then the worst red flag of all. This one story was presented as beautiful and great. It was not. "I made the decision to become a Jew; this is the path I chose to pursue. I feel like I'm converting not for Rob, but for us, for our future family.  I felt it would take a toll on our relationship if I didn't.  He would be very disappointed. This means a lot to him, I know it. He's very appreciative and supportive." RED FLAGS ALL OVER THAT. 

18 years after publication, either that woman is divorced or is a passive-aggressive martyr. Unless they're one of the few people who started really badly and successfully corrected course mid-marriage.

I have two young children, and I'm around a lot of other mothers in real life and on social media. There is so much pressure, especially in a perfectionist high-achieving professional woman like this one seems to be (and especially in the 90s "Power Feminism" phase), to sacrifice ourselves at every turn for our family, and that our needs are always "unfortunately" mutually exclusive from the family's needs. Being the perfect wife, the perfect mother, requires absolute self-negation in our society, and that is what this profile felt like. When it doesn't work (and it won't), we blame ourselves. We should try harder. We should be less selfish. We could have done more, given more.

It continued into more red flags: "I don't fully think of myself as a Jew yet. I'd say I'm in limbo right now, like the man without a country. I think when I formally convert it will really hit home." I am going to be the bearer of bad news: that is unlikely. Most people don't feel hit by the lightning of life purpose coming out of the mikvah, even those who find the mikvah a very beautiful and meaningful experience (and many, like myself, didn't find it to be beautiful...either conversion). 

And it continues a little further down: "Sometimes when we're in synagogue, though, I wonder if people know I'm not Jewish yet, that I haven't converted yet. When I'm there, I'm more apt to say "Hi," not "Shalom." That kind of thing might give me away. But I think I'll feel differently when I go through the conversion process." I don't know anyone in America who says Shalom instead of Hi, but I'm sure there could be people who do. Hi is perfectly acceptable. Maybe she's thinking of Shabbat Shalom?? I cringed in self-recognition and pity at "that might give me away." After all, helping you avoid that feeling is exactly why I created this blog. Because I felt like that, and there was no need for people to keep feeling that way. My mistakes (and yours) could save others from making the same ones!

But here's the real lesson: don't count on a mikvah dip to suddenly make everything feel "right." Maybe it will. Usually it doesn't. And that's ok. It's not a sign that you made a bad decision or weren't ready. Most people never get a sudden "I MADE IT." It comes slowly, over time. Some of us will probably have Imposter Syndrome until they day we die at 120. I wish she had been told that. I want to make sure you know that.

Doesn't the author know these are huge red flags? Instead, the author makes some pretty annoying (to me) statements in the introduction to the story: "She really loves him and will do whatever it takes to make the relationship work [because she knew Judaism is so important to her fiance]."  She goes into detail about her rigorous work schedule, traveling between California and Mexico for months at a time, doing her classes each week by phone: "She could have decided that it was just too much of an effort, but she didn't. She did her assignments, and she and Rob went to services together (she found the places to go). I admire her for that. I have no doubt about her sincerity. The investment of her time is the indicator of her commitment." But her commitment to what? Sounds like she's really good at emotional labor already and is willing to sacrifice a lot for a goal. That doesn't tell you what the goal is. The goal may simply be to marry Rob and live a perfect Instagrammable life. She reminds me of many high-achieving professional women I've known, ones who will pull all-nighters and a lot of other unhealthy things to remain "perfect" in school or work. I think just about all of us feel the pressure to be perfect, but it's the people who can get close to perfect who are the most harmed by it. Mediocre people like myself give up or pretend they're countercultural and don't care about perfection. (I still care, for the record.)

And speaking of the perfectionist drive to please others rather than consider her own wants and needs, she chose her Hebrew name because it was the name her dead dad wanted to give her but her mom vetoed it in labor. "Now my father will have his wish. He'll have his Rebecca." I honestly shivered when I read that. This was just a creepy way to say it.

Very interestingly, in her profile, she actually asks him whether he would consider Christianity if he wants her to consider Judaism. He said no. "I felt I had to ask this question, even though I already knew the answer I would get. It has to do with the desire to preserve the Jewish people. It's very important to Rob's family that he carry on the Jewish tradition. I kind of shrugged my question off. If I had pressed Rob on it, I doubt we would be where we are today. I simply asked the question, got the answer and moved beyond it." 

Then this profile goes into how the future-husband's family is orthodox but forgot to mention to him until after dating this woman that because he's a kohen he can't marry a convert according to orthodoxy. He says he was shocked and surprised. Though because of this, I learned that the Conservative movement (what his family was when he was growing up) allows kohanim to marry converts (I knew the Reform movement did). My annoyance at this isn't with him or his family, really. Or even those rulings. It's at the larger issue that the Reform and Conservative movements "protect" their children from halachic positions they have rejected but other movements still hold by and that may affect their children. Patrilineal descent is my usual soap box here, but apparently now I need to add kohen-convert marriages. If you want to hold by patrilineal descent and allow kohanim to marry converts, that's your decision. But don't fail to prepare your children for this to come up later. when they come across Conservative and Orthodox Jews. All it results in is a 20-something year old crying on a Birthright bus, or in an Intro to Judaism class, or in a Jewish studies classroom, or in a meeting with a rabbi because he just found out that many Jews don't consider him Jewish. It is your job to prep your kids beforehand and give them a framework to keep things like this from destroying them. This man was not prepared for a completely predictable heartbreak that could have completely severed his relationship with Judaism, which I've seen happen more than once. /rant

Cynicism aside, let's get back to an actual book review. The underlining in this book could have been written by me a decade+ ago. Whoever it was, the underlining clearly favored every story detail that could be put on a to-do list. I could hear the question echoing: "Where do I start? What should I do?" Cooking dinner for Shabbat, attending a community seder, not driving on Shabbat... this person just wanted a clear path forward. This book doesn't provide that path forward (that's not its purpose), but it gives ideas. But mostly, it can help people imagine their own journeys. 

I guess this is a very long way of saying I don't know whether I can recommend this book or not. I know some people are starved for such first-person accounts, and I know I jumped all over getting this book as soon as I saw it. But is it worth the downsides? Probably not, but I'd still read it if I read this review because that's the kind of person I am.


  1. I came to Judaism on my own, and honestly I wish there were fewer books about conversion within relationships. I know they're important, but for me conversion was especially lonely because there wasn't anything for me, it felt like. I had no Jewish family backing me up, no SO, no community, no literature. Everything is focused on couples and relationships, and that's pretty sad.

  2. I am not sure I understand why it is solely the obligation of a non-Orthodox Jewish movement to instruct its children in halakhic decisions that it does not hold by, if it is not also considered the obligation of Orthodox movements' to respectfully (i.e., with the same intellectual respect afforded the differences between say Mitnagdim and Chassidim) educate their children on halakhic decisions they do not hold by.

    As a traditional Conservative giyoret, this rubs me the wrong way - as Ortho-supremacy and Ortho-privilege to assume that your rulings are inherently right/valid/to be respected when it comes to denominational interaction. I hold no ill will toward Orthodox movements and am always careful to out my son, never touch wine, etc in Orthodox communities. But in shared space, we are not any less worthy.

    Why not equally prepare Orthodox children to understand, "hey, if you happen to meet and want to marry someone raised Reconstructionist/ Renewal/ Reform/ Conservative, be prepared that they believe X, we believe Y, and they may not be willing to accept Y. Are you prepared to accept X in order to preserve the relationship, so you don't end up on Birthright bus in your 20s heartbroken because you assumed belief Y was the only Jewish one? Or is your dedication to belief Y so strong that you won't consider them as partners?"

    Why wasn't it this example BT family's own job to prepare its former USCJ son properly now that they were in Orthodox circles - to fully understand what their decision meant (prior to making it)? Why wasn't it the fault of whomevever was to be mikarev the former frei, for not preparing them to understand the differences they agreed to uphold? Why assume the fault lies entirely with us?

    1. I'm not saying anything about worthiness or not. I'm saying people should protect their children by preparing them for the totally predictable hurtful behavior of others. I'll be doing that by teaching my kids that Christmas and Santa exist and that non-Jewish people may tell them they're going to hell, as I was told frequently as a kindergartener of atheist parents (and my parents did not prepare me for that). People of color teach their children about the racism that they will face. Gay parents teach their kids they will face bigotry for having parents of the same gender. Honestly, if I were a reform parent, I would be teaching my kids that this is a form of orthodox bigotry they should be prepared for and that it is wrong, because that's how I felt when I was conservative: that orthodox standards were wrong and harmful toward me. Whether or not someone else should be doing or saying these things is irrelevant to the fact that they are and that parents (and the movements) have a responsibility to prepare their kids for it. In all honesty, I'm surprised the movements don't capitalize on this as an opportunity to show the kids (especially high school kids) why their approach to Judaism is "better" than the orthodox approach and how these differences of opinion reflect their values. And I'm surprised more people don't use it as an opportunity to slander the orthodox and show how "awful" they are (people being people, ya know).

    2. * "better" than the orthodox or conservative approach, I should say, since the conservative movement also doesn't hold by patrilineal descent.