It was on our first date that I told my gentile friend Mike that I could only marry a Jew.
So I guess he wasn’t technically my boyfriend yet. He was just my longtime racquetball partner and calculus buddy. And I guess it also wasn’t really a first date, because if he didn’t want to do what he did from that day on, it would’ve just been a really awkward night, which two friends would have had to pretend hadn’t happened when they played racquetball the next morning.
Soon, Mike started coming to Temple with me and celebrating holidays with my family. His kippah looked at home atop his dark curls. His intellect was sharp and keen as a Talmudic scholar, noted my Rabbi. He understood the importance I placed on raising Jewish children with two Jewish parents.
On our first meeting with the Rabbi, though, he asked Mike point blank, “What religion were you raised and what’s wrong with it?” Came the answer: “Nothing’s really wrong with it. I was raised Mormon.”
Yes, you heard me right: my husband was raised Mormon. How Mormon? Well, let’s see… Sunday school, accepting the priesthood, baptizing the dead, family in Utah who don’t drink hot beverages and strongly disapprove of “Big Love.” Should I stop now? Yes. Very Mormon.
Mike’s decision to convert to Judaism after five years of dating “SuperJew” (that would be one of my nicknames) was welcomed by his family. They saw his identification with any religion better than the identification with none that he had happily had since he left the Church due to disbelief and disinterest at the age of 12. In addition, an understanding and appreciation of Judaism is integral to the Mormon religion, and the Jews are regarded as a people chosen by G-d to receive the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament.
However, I would be naïve to assume that my Mormon in-laws would not love to see us find and love Jesus Christ, since a key element of Christianity is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as the son of G-d. Additionally, a core Mormon belief is that you can only be united with your family in the afterlife if you are all on the same page–the same page of the Book of Mormon, to be specific.
My husband’s Mormon family came to our wedding enthusiastically–with the women dressed modestly and the men in dark suits with starched white shirts, very much like my religious Jewish family. I don’t think they had ever met a Jewish person before that they knew of, so I felt a bit under pressure to make us look good. In general, they ask a lot of excellent questions about Judaism, and although their story begins where ours ends, I marvel at some of our similarities: their Sabbath is a day of family, study, and avoiding technology. They place a strong emphasis on outreach to their community, and I guarantee you that their food, social, clothing, and media restrictions rival those of observant Judaism.
There are times that I feel very much an outsider among my Mormon in-laws, though. Prayers before and after meals are recited in unfamiliar ways, with heads bowed and hands linked, thanking not a general “G-d,” but specifically Jesus Christ. And when I wore somber funeral black to my husband’s grandmother’s funeral, I was in the minority, as funerals in Mormon communities are often festive and colorful celebrations of one’s imminent and joyous reunion with Christ. In addition, at some family meals in the past 10 years, it has sometimes literally been impossible for me to find something to eat that does not contain pork. Now that I’m a complete vegan and dairy and eggs are out, too, forget it.
My husband can still feel okay in both worlds. In most Jewish circles, he can “pass” as a Jew, since he has studied enough to manage a Kosher kitchen, to say basic prayers, to understand the value of
to the Jewish community, to sing our boys to sleep with the
, and to remind me that Maimonides stated that once someone converts, they are not to be referred to as a convert ever again; they are simply to be known as a Jew.
Maimonides also pointed out (Mike reminds me frequently) that converts are awarded the rights and privileges open to all Jews by birth: to decide for themselves how to observe Judaism. Unfortunately, there is a place in the Jewish world where my husband is not awarded this right; where he is not seen as a convert. That is with my religious family. You see, they do not view Mike’s non-Orthodox conversion as legally binding by Jewish law. They still consider him a gentile even though they love him and respect our fairly observant lifestyle. Some of my family had to obtain permission from their Rabbis to attend our wedding, since it was technically that of a Jew and a non-Jew, which traditional Jews can’t attend by Jewish law. Mike is not counted in a
, and he does not receive honors in any Temple that does not accept his conversion. Mike’s Mormon family sees him as 100% Jewish, and my family sees him as 100% gentile. What a difference a few thousand years makes.
And so I must apologize to Maimonides for “outing” my husband. For the record, he gave me his blessing to write this despite Maimonides’ guidelines. The way Mike has handled my family’s rejection of his conversion has taught me a lot about being a mentsch. It might make someone else bitter or angry. But not Mike. He is patient and levelheaded and, as many would joke, very “gentile” about it. He is okay with being an outsider even when he is inside.
The next time you are in Temple, you may be able to pick Mike out of a crowd even though on first glance he blends in with his black suede kippah atop dark curls, his guttural “ch”s blending well with the native “ch”s around him, his body wrapped in a tallis among our faithful. He’s the guy who loves meringue, can fix anything broken within a 30 mile radius, knows a lot about Mormonism, and knows even more about being an outsider on the inside.