The One Who Chose: My Husband’s Conversion to Judaism
My parents never put any restrictions on the guys I could date. When I called my mother a few weeks into my freshman year at Temple University to tell her that I had a boyfriend, she was neither surprised nor concerned to hear he was not Jewish.
This doesn’t mean my parents didn’t care whether or not I married a Jewish man; on the contrary, they cared a great deal. But having given me a strong foundation in and a great love for Judaism, my mother was confident that when the time came, I would choose a Jewish partner. In the meantime, she wanted me to have the opportunity to socialize as I pleased. In this as in most things, she was right.
My boyfriend Robert grew up in a Presbyterian home. He had previously frequented church on Sundays and went to vacation Bible camp one summer. He even attended a Billy Graham revival with his family.
By the time I met him, though, he had left that behind him. He didn’t think of himself as a Christian or a particularly religious person. From the beginning of our relationship, my parents welcomed Robert with open arms and hearts, immediately seeing his intelligence, humor, talent, and sensitivity. It didn’t take very long for both of them to love him.
About a month or so after he and I started dating, my father said to my mother “Well? How do we feel about this?” The “this” was the fact that Robert was not a Jew. My mother told my father she wasn’t at all worried, which satisfied him. Neither of them discussed this with me at the time, and Robert was invited to our home for Rosh Hashanah meals, Pesach Sedarim, and Chanukah celebrations.
As Robert and I became closer, and he bonded with my family, he discovered that much of the way he viewed the world was similar to our view as Jews; our rituals and practices may have been strange but many of our beliefs resonated with him. He and I talked once or twice about the possibility of his converting to Judaism but it seemed unlikely. It wasn’t an issue, though, as at that stage of our relationship we had no serious plans to marry or live together.
Time went on, and we remained a couple. Nine years into our relationship, on my 35th birthday, my mother passed away, leaving a tremendous hole in my life. Robert was the rock I, along with my father and brother, leaned on.
Eventually, Robert and I talked about living together. At some point, he started joining me in synagogue for High Holiday services and fasting on Yom Kippur. During Passover he skipped bread and ate matzah and tuna salad with me. He knew these things were important to me, and would be important in my home. Without much discussion he let me know that this was OK with him.
Meanwhile, my father asked me what things would be like in a home Robert and I shared. “What things?” I asked. He hesitated, clearly uncomfortable about whatever it was he was trying to ask, while I wondered nervously just what he was getting at.
Finally, he asked if there would be a Christmas tree in my home. I let out a little relieved sigh and assured him that no, there would never be a Christmas tree in my home, that my kitchen would always be kosher and that holidays and Shabbat would be observed. He nodded his approval. “That’s all I needed to know,” he said.
Then came the day when we knew – some 17 years into our relationship — that we were going to get a home together and get married. We talked about the possibility of conversion and decided to take a class designed for those considering conversion, mostly accompanied by their Jewish partners.
At some time during the class, things seemed to click for Robert; he found enough value and worth in Judaism to make the decision to complete his conversion. He had long ago made the cultural connection but now felt comfortable making the religious one as well. I had suspected this might be the outcome but hadn’t counted on it.
Needless to say, I was very happy.
In addition to planning a wedding and house hunting, we put finding a synagogue and Rabbi shopping on our to-do list. Neither of us connected to the Rabbi teaching that class and knew we could find someone better to shepherd Robert through the steps to Judaism. We attended services at a few area synagogues and found the right fit – a progressive Conservative congregation led by a Rabbi who was both brilliant and down to earth, and very warm as well. This was not an easy combination to come by.
While Robert prepared for the final steps of conversion, we told our family members and friends our plans. I wondered how Robert’s father would react to this news. He surprised us both by being very pleased with it. He told Robert that the important thing was that he’d found a connection to G-d and religion.
My father was very happy and said that although he would have been OK if the decision had gone otherwise, this did make things easier. That was true – Robert’s decision meant our Rabbi could marry us in a Jewish ceremony.
When I shared the news with the aunt who had for years been my mother’s confidante and close friend, she told me she wasn’t at all surprised. My mother had secretly predicted it. Apparently, my mother had announced to her back during those early months of our relationship, “Mark my words: that boy has a Jewish soul. I’m not worried a bit!”
As I said, she was right.
So Robert prepared for completing the components of his conversion. He went before the three rabbis who would serve as his Beit Din, his rabbinical court, for questioning. He underwent a symbolic circumcision, which required drawing actual blood. He immersed himself in the mikvah, the ritual bath. Each one was intimidating in its own way.
We had no idea what to expect from the Beit Din, except that when we asked the Rabbi if anyone ever “flunked,” he said, “It happens”. Oy.
The circumcision ritual, the hatafat dam brit, turned out to be the easiest of the three. It was done in a few private seconds in a mohel’s (circumciser’s) office.
The Beit Din, held at our synagogue, was a far bigger deal. I wasn’t allowed to be in the room with Robert, so for 45 minutes I waited and looked around the synagogue book sale conveniently taking place that day, wondering what was going on behind the office door.
Then, Robert came out. He said it was over and they were deliberating. We waited and waited. Finally, they called him back in. When he emerged, his face gave nothing away, but he didn’t make me wait long. Once in the car, he said he’d passed. Whew – two down, one to go.
On Sunday, March 25, 2001, Robert and I drove to a nearby synagogue, one that housed a mikvah. He was a nervous wreck. The mikvah requires total immersion for which one must be completely naked, and of course, the Beit Din would be there to observe.
Being a very private person, Robert wasn’t looking forward to this, plus he worried about reciting the prayers – he wasn’t sure he had them all fully memorized, and without his glasses, he’d be unable to read them.
As it turned out that wasn’t a problem; the prayers were painted on one wall of the mikvah, in letters big enough to be seen without glasses. And our Rabbi handled the nudity discreetly. He advised Robert to enter the mikvah, get himself settled in the water, and then call out that he was ready so the Rabbi could come in.
Again, I was unable to participate and had to wait in one of the outer rooms. The other two Rabbis from the Beit Din were women. They too didn’t enter but waited in a small room where they could hear Robert and confirm he recited the proper prayers.
Before I had time to get nervous Robert was back with me, damp and smiling, and the Rabbi was beaming; Robert’s was the first adult conversion he had supervised. The other Rabbis joined us, and we all went to a small room for the final step: more prayers, this time recited over the Torah.
Then it was over. Robert had legally, officially, completely joined the tribe, as Yitzhak Shem ben Avraham v’ Sara, the Hebrew name he chose for himself. He was now and would forever be every bit as much a Jew as I. Three months later we circled each other seven times, stood together underneath the chuppah, and were consecrated to each other as a Jewish couple.
Robert has never regretted his decision to become Jewish, hunger pangs on Yom Kippur notwithstanding. His identification with the Jewish people – our history, our heritage, our values – is total and unshakable, and he considers himself Jewish, as indeed he is.
I love sitting with him in synagogue and hearing him recite and chant Hebrew prayers. The only place there’s ever a clue that he wasn’t born Jewish is at the holiday dinner table. He will never touch gefilte fish. That’s where he draws the line.
Although Robert and I don’t have any children, I sometimes say that I’ve fulfilled the commandment of bringing a new Jew into the world. I don’t kid myself, though. I didn’t make any of this happen. Sure, I was the catalyst, but Robert’s never been known for doing anything he didn’t want to do.
He chose this path, and I’ve been proud to join him on the journey.
Sheva Golkow lives just outside of Philadelphia in Glenside, PA. She works as an education specialist for a government agency, which is just as glamorous as it sounds. Sheva likes old books, loud music, and making her husband laugh.