A Twisted Thing: An Interfaith Story

Issue of the week #5

Note: The following letter was sent to us by a visitor to our site in response to an earlier "issue". We invite others to share their viewpoints with us.

The pasuk (verse) says: A twisted thing cannot be straightened, and that which is missing cannot be numbered. (Koheles 1:15).

My story is a different sort of an interfaith story. It does not include struggling with the December dilemma or deciding whether the children should go to church or temple, or Christmas trees and latkes, or "a celebration of our differences."

Deep within the soul of every Jew resides a longing which can never be extinguished. This longing is the very essence of yiddishkeit and is called the "pintele Yid" (the Jewish spark). When my future husband and I were engaged, we read a number of books about interfaith marriage. In one particular book, the author marveled over the "tenacity" of Judaism, that is, there is something within every Jew that makes us cling to our Jewishness for dear life, wanting to pass the torah and Jewish values on to our children, even as we make plans to exchange wedding vows with our non-Jewish partners.

Although I had been raised as a secular Jew, my mother had kept two sets of dishes and a "kosher-style" home. I attended an afternoon Hebrew school (6 hours a week) and after becoming a bas mitzvah continued on with classes at the community Hebrew high school (4 hours a week). This represented only a smattering of learning, and overall, my Judaic education was poor, but nothing more was available in my city. (I never knew that other cities had full-time Jewish schools that went from kindergarten through high school and beyond, but in any case, my parents were secular Jews and wouldn't have entertained the idea of one of those schools, even if I had asked about it.)

As a teenager, I attended weekly services at our Conservative synagogue and kept kosher for a while, but once I entered college, I drifted away from that. However, I always knew that someday, I would have a Jewish home and Jewish children. Other "interfaith" couples first "fell in love," then got married, and then decided how they would they would raise their children. Since I was not the type of person who ever left anything to chance, I marveled at their foolishness. On my second date with my future husband, I told him up front that I wanted a Jewish home and Jewish children and that I was not open to a so-called "interfaith" home. Much to my surprise, he readily agreed to the Jewish home and children. Although he had been raised as a Catholic, he had abandoned his Christian faith as a teenager and was completely secular. While I understood that the Jewish community disapproved of intermarriage, I didn't believe that would affect me because according to halacha (Jewish law), the biological children of a Jewish woman are Jewish. I took comfort in the fact that not even the Chief Rabbi of Israel would be able to deny my future children's Jewishness.

In our second year of marriage, we decided the time had come to start our Jewish family. Unfortunately, God played a little trick on us, and infertility reared its ugly head. After a series of medical tests, the cause of the infertility had not yet been determined, and the additional tests would not be covered by insurance. After much soul searching, we decided to adopt and put our money toward adoption expenses rather than toward more medical procedures which may or may not have resulted in pregnancy. I was open to adopting a Jewish special needs child, but the agency told me that "intermarried" couples were not eligible to adopt Jewish children. The following year, we happily adopted a four-month-old baby boy from another country. Since I knew that the only kind of Jewish conversion that would be universally accepted was an Orthodox one, I contacted a local Orthodox rabbi and asked if we could please put the wheels in motion to arrange an Orthodox conversion for my son. On that day, my whole world fell apart. The rabbi told me that an Orthodox conversion could be performed only in a situation where both parents were Orthodox Jews. Even a secular Jewish family would not qualify for an Orthodox conversion, much less an interfaith family. The reason is that Orthodox Judaism does not have an interest in creating Jews who will not keep shabbos, not keep kosher, not keep the mitzvos. I told him that our intention was to send our son to a Jewish school. He told me it was a nice idea, but it wasn't enough. After much soul-searching, we converted our son under the auspices of the Conservative movement. I thought I would be so happy the day our son converted, but instead I was depressed. I thought that I would eventually be reconciled to the non-Orthodox conversion, but I never was. The pintele Yid was sad.

I enrolled my son in the Orthodox day camp and later the Orthodox Nursery School. I would look at the other mothers with their long sleeves and sheitels (wigs), surrounded by lots of children. I wondered what it would be like to be one of them. I began to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of reading to increase our level of observance. I had a lot to learn. For example, I thought I kept a kosher home until I began to subscribe to Kashrus magazine and found out otherwise. I gave away my shorts and sleeveless tops and began to dress more modestly. Sometimes the other mothers would chat with me, and in the course of conversation, they would ask me how I had "found out" about the camp or the school. I knew they meant well, so I tried not to be offended. They clearly viewed me as an outsider. Eventually, I confided in one of the women about my situation, and my disappointment regarding my son's conversion. She advised me to phone the rabbi of her shul. Her rabbi told me that if we raised our son as an Orthodox Jew, he "might" be able to convert as a teenager. This wasn't the answer I wanted to hear, but it was the first glimmer of hope I had. I don't remember the remainder of the conversation, except that I told the rabbi we wanted to attend his shul. He told me we were welcome to attend but warned me that we could never join as members because of the intermarriage. He also told me that the community would not be very accepting of our situation. The following year, we adopted a second son, and the year after that, we bought a new house, which was within walking distance of the shul. Contrary to what the rabbi had told me, the community seemed very welcoming to us. Clearly, the rabbi had been wrong. I was so excited. It was like a dream come true. The pintele Yid burned bright.

As we grew in observance, I finally acknowledged that this was not just about my children. This was about me. I had found a spiritual home. I knew who I was and where I was going. I was so happy to be an Orthodox Jew and part of the Orthodox community. Once we had settled into our new house, I embarked on active participation in community life. I began to entertain and invite members of the synagogue to our home for shabbos dinner, etc. For the first few months, everything seemed great, until the day one particular woman turned down my invitation. She told me she was sorry, but if she accepted my dinner invitation, it would send the message to her children that she condoned my "lifestyle choice." My "lifestyle choice?" What was she talking about? Was I drug addict? A criminal? A pervert? I was in tears. I phoned a close friend, hoping for her sympathy. Instead she presented the cold, hard facts: I had been operating in denial mode for a long time - conveniently ignoring the reality. I was married to a non-Jew. I had deluded myself into believing that the community would fail to notice. Newsflash: They had noticed. This woman had simply stated the obvious and brought me back to earth.

And now I noticed everything, too. With each passing day, the ongoing ramifications of the intermarriage became more and more apparent. I wanted so much to integrate into the Orthodox Jewish community, yet little by little, I saw that this would never be. Now, eight years later, I rarely invite community members to my home for dinner, as I can never know who will accept and who will not. I'm a wonderful planner and organizer. I could be chairing committees and arranging fundraisers, but "intermarried" women cannot play this role in an Orthodox community. I want to be part of the chevra kadisha (a group which does "tahara," i.e., prepares the bodies of the deceased for burial). Tahara is one of the greatest mitzvos a Jew can perform for a fellow Jew, but I have been told that "intermarried" women cannot serve on the chevra kadisha. I am an outstanding teacher and have reached the point where I could teach or tutor a variety of Judaic subjects, but again, this is off-limits as "intermarried" women are poor role models. The shul has a women's study group where various women in the community are invited to give divrei torah (on a rotating basis). I have never been invited to speak. When someone in the community has a simcha (celebration), sometimes we receive an invitation; sometimes we don't. I would like to cover my hair and keep the laws of family purity like all the other women in my community, but under the circumstances, it would seem like a perversion of these mitzvos. I am like a child looking through the window of the candy store, wishing someone would let me in.

And what about my husband? He is generous, kind, loving and giving, a wonderful husband, and a wonderful father, but nevertheless I am profoundly lonely. We have grown apart and lead parallel lives. I envy the women in the community whose [Jewish] husbands keep shabbos and kashrus with them, learn with them, and share a personal relationship with God with them. Sometimes, I fantasize that I open my eyes one morning and see my husband davening. I envision the Jewish father who glows as he learns torah with his son. I dream of the Jewish husband who smiles as he recites kiddush for his wife. I imagine that I am Rivka, whose marriage to Yitzchak epitomized the holiness, purity, and spirituality it is possible for two people to share. I thought I could build a Jewish home with a non-Jew, but I was wrong. I often remind myself how fortunate I am to have such a kind and loving husband. Sometimes I reach a point where I think I have finally reconciled myself to the situation, but then the pain begins anew.

I firmly believe in hashgacha protis (that God watches each of us on an individual basis), and that He has a divine plan for each of us. With each passing day, I see my sons growing and developing into erlicher Yidden (refined Jews), with a true love for God, torah, and the Jewish people. One day soon, my sons will have their Orthodox conversions, learn in yeshiva, marry religious Jewish women, and have Jewish families of their own. The torah will be passed to the next generation, and the pintele Yid will smile. But for myself, the twisted thing has not been straightened and that which is missing will never be numbered. I am the eternal child looking in the candy store window, wishing I could walk through the door.