Forty-five minutes. That’s how long it took me to say the entire grace after meals in Hebrew the first time I tried. I sat at my parents’ kitchen table and labored over each foreign syllable, determined to finish it no matter how ridiculously long it took or how weird it seemed.
This is fairly representative of my approach to Judaism in those first heady years. As a classic overachiever (a former boss gave me the nickname type triple-A), it was natural for me to want to excel in this new pursuit, the pursuit of being an Orthodox Jew.
Raised in a suburban Protestant family, I attended church regularly and participated in youth group until college, when I became devoutly agnostic. After graduating from college, I had the unusual experience of people continually asking me if I was Jewish. This and some superficial investigation into my geneology led me to wonder if I had Jewish ancestry, which then led me to explore Judaism. By the time I confirmed that, no, I didn’t have any Jewish ancestors, I was smitten with Judaism.
I spent every Shabbos in the nearby Orthodox community, eventually moving in with a family who became like a second family to me. After completing my conversion, I traveled to Israel and studied at an Ultra-Orthodox seminary. When I started dating, I did so through a shadchan (matchmaker), though ultimately it was friends and family who set me up with my husband. We dated for about three months before getting engaged, and were engaged for about four months before getting married. We’ve been married for seven years and have four (really cute) children.
My mother and I speak on the phone nearly every day. Before I started this article, I asked her how she felt when I was first becoming religious. She shared that she was nervous at first that they would lose me as I integrated into the Orthodox community. That they would no longer be involved in my life, like this story recently shared on Kveller. But that’s not how it played out, not at all.
The families I spent Shabbos with often invited my parents for dinner or lunch. Through the many invitations my parents accepted, they not only developed warm relationships with many of the families in that Midwestern community, they got to see whom I was spending my time with.
“It was really interesting,” said my mom. “I viewed it as a learning experience, to learn about the Orthodox world.”
When I expressed my desire to travel to Israel and spend a year in study, my parents were very emotionally supportive. Their only request was that I pay off what little credit card debt I still had, which was a totally reasonable request, of course. Even though it meant six more months of working at a job I didn’t particularly enjoy, I followed their good advice.
Although we got engaged after dating for only three months, which may seem quick, it wasn’t really an issue for my parents. They only dated for two weeks before my father proposed, and so in comparison, my husband and I actually dated six times longer than my parents did. They were also impressed with the way I was dating–how focused I was on seeing if my husband and I were compatible for marriage.
Since our wedding was full of traditions that were completely foreign to my parents, I brought my mother to an Orthodox wedding so she could at least see what the ceremony would look like before she was involved in ours. We involved my family as much as we could, and to the degree to which they were comfortable.
We invited much of my extended family to the wedding. My mother was concerned how her Catholic family would feel about my conversion and the, well, Jewishness of my wedding. To our immense delight, they were fully accepting of me and had a wonderful time. They were astonished at how many rabbis were there (“I’ve never seen so many rabbis in one room!” someone exclaimed), and were astounded by how all those rabbis were dancing, juggling, and doing shtick. Our wedding is still a topic of conversation, seven years later.
As an additional blessing, my husband’s family has also been very welcoming to my parents. We often celebrate Sukkot and Pesach with my husband’s family, and they always extend an invitation to my parents. My mother has even missed Easter services a few times because she’s been spending Pesach with us!
Sure, there have been some awkward moments over the years, like when my mother started snapping pictures of my kids on Shabbos. There wasn’t anything wrong with what she was doing, but it was jarring and interrupted the whole feeling of Shabbos. However, since my parents have always been so incredibly supportive, my husband and I were loathe to ask her to stop.
So I emailed my rabbi for advice. While I don’t remember exactly what he said, we did ask my mother if she would be OK with not taking pictures on Shabbos (she was). We make sure to send pictures regularly, and recently I started making photo books and sending them to my parents after each trip. With a little sensitivity, we get to retain the atmosphere of Shabbos, and she gets pictures of the grandkids.
I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for how open and accepting my parents have been of this decidedly unexpected path I’ve taken in my life. I’m so glad that my children have a close and loving relationship with them. I’m so grateful for the members of the Orthodox community for being so welcoming. And I’m overjoyed knowing that both my parents and I will continue to do all we can to maintain our good relationship.
Recently, my dad told me, “I don’t get the point of not turning on lights on Shabbos, but I do appreciate the strength of your community, and how you support each other. That’s wonderful.”
Well, Mom and Dad, I think you’re pretty wonderful, too. Thank you for everything.