When I was pregnant with my son, I knew he was going to have blond hair and blue grey eyes like my father. I knew he would take after my American side–rather than his Israeli father–because all the time I was pregnant, I craved pizza, hamburgers, and Coca-Cola.
I was not surprised when he was brought to me: a skinny old man with blue eyes and strawberry blond hair. I gave him a name my Israeli-Jewish husband approved of: Eitan. In America we would call him Ethan, a Puritan name, to reflect my own American Protestant roots. I called him Eitan ha katan because it rhymed. Ethan the little. When my son was 2 years old, we moved, for six months, to Israel.
Conversion to Judaism had never really been a question. My husband and I married just seven months after meeting and I knew I had no chance at an Orthodox conversion. According to Israeli law, I would never be Jewish, nor would our son. And anyway, my husband had grown up on a kibbutz. His childhood was largely secular. His own father had been rumored to eat sausage on Yom Kippur. When we’d lived on the kibbutz for those few months, my father-in-law took great pleasure in bringing me wrapped deli ham from the Russian butcher as a Friday night treat.
My own parents raised me agnostically. My mother, scarred by a Southern Baptist upbringing, wanted me to make up my own mind about religion. My father was raised Congregationalist. He deferred to my mother. I was never baptized. At Christmas my husband brought home a Christmas tree. We lit candles at Hanukkah. We ate honey and apples on Rosh Hashanah, ate matzah ball soup at Passover, and conducted Easter egg hunts in the backyard.
We moved back to the States, where I became pregnant with my daughter, and I found myself strongly craving Israeli salads and the delicious Moroccan food my mother-in-law had so expertly made back in Israel. I began cooking recipes I gathered from Moroccan friends: chicken and paprika, spicy Moroccan fish, cous cous stews and tsitsot (meatballs made with parsley and onions). In restaurants, faced with a dish of the blander food I usually ordered, I forced my husband to switch plates with me. I became convinced this child I was carrying would look and act like my mother-in-law. My daughter, I believed, was a Jewish child, only she wouldn’t be born Jewish. For the first time, I considered converting.
My midwife told me: I have just the rabbi for you! He will convert you before the child is even born!
And so I found myself with my husband and my young son, eight months pregnant in the community center the rabbi used as his synagogue. He was well known in intellectual circles. He’d published books on Jewish inner life, survived the Holocaust as a young child in Italy, and taught a few weeks a year in the Vatican. Even more importantly, he understood my desire to have a Jewish daughter. He didn’t believe it should be difficult to convert. There should be a sincere wish; that was enough for him. The ceremony was brief. My 4-year-old son stood beside me, perhaps slightly confused. He’d always considered himself Jewish. He had an Israeli passport, liked to put crayons in the hannukiah (not to be confused with a menorah) and spoke Hebrew.
I like to say I was converted–and many would say I wasn’t at all–by magic wand and fairy dust. It was over in less than an hour. And while I can’t say I feel particularly Jewish, I can tell you my daughter came out looking just like my mother-in-law. Bidiyuk (exactly). Like my mother-in-law, she loves to cook. Now that she has grown, she does the messy cooking things I don’t like to do. She spreads the olive oil and paprika over the chicken thighs with her bare hands. She lines up the sweet potatoes on a baking pan and sprinkles salt over them. She stuffs the squash with spoonfuls of meat and rice stuffing.
My daughter has lovely brown hair that curls in humidity and soulful brown eyes. She has my mother-in-law’s strong trunk and pretty legs and her innate confidence and belief in her own beauty and intelligence. Her middle name is Annette, the name my husband’s mother arrived from Morocco with, and her Hebrew name is Hannah, the name she chose once she arrived in Israel.
We live in a multicultural world and our community now is largely interfaith. My children do not feel strange to have parents with very different backgrounds. This season, we will celebrate all the holidays we can cram into our busy schedule. We will light our Hanukkah candles and set out our Christmas stockings and celebrate the light that both Judaism and Christianity bring to winter.