I’ve often looked back on my choice to convert from Catholicism to Judaism before I got married. My then-fiance had explained how important it was to him to have Jewish children, which meant their mother had to be Jewish. He never said it out loud, but I knew this was important enough to him that it might have been a deal-breaker if I didn’t convert. I loved him, and I wanted to marry him. And I figured at some point, he’d be willing to make as serious a compromise for something that was equally important to me. I assumed he’d get his turn to be generous and selfless for the greater good of our marriage and family.
My mother was thrilled that I was marrying a Jewish doctor from New York. I could picture her using her hands like a scale–Jewish doctor in one hand, Catholicism in the other, weighing the pros and cons of each, then saying, “There’s guilt on both sides of the fence, so you might as well live comfortably while feeling guilty.”
My father kindly kept his opinions to himself. And my friends thought I was nuts.
“Oh, my God, you won’t get married in a church?” they asked.
“Nope,” I said.
“You can still have a Christmas tree, right?”
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
I knew there was no way to explain my choice to my friends, so I didn’t. They couldn’t accept that I had truly embraced the faith for what it was–a better choice for me. I was raised Catholic. My father took me to church every Sunday, and rewarded me by taking me out for breakfast to the place of my choice. But once I had turned 14, it became my decision to go to church, or not. Like any rebellious teenager, I stopped going to tick off my mother, who’d been the militant, insistent one about my religious education. She was equally insistent about her not having to go to church with us. As young as I was, I recognized the hypocrisy in her “do as I say, not as I do” attitude, and I didn’t like it.
I also spend a lot of time between the ages of 12 and 21 with my father at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, held in church function rooms full of people humbled by the power of addition, yet committed to breaking free of it. Their “religion” seemed the most manageable to me–decide who or what your higher power is, and pray like heck for the courage to be a better person. If you grasped this simple concept, you could find faith in your God of choice anywhere, in any situation. Call it what you want, as long as it worked.
So, by the time I was asked to convert, I’d been exposed to a few different ways to connect with God. I saw Judaism as a new and refreshing path to my higher power. When we were first married, I never considered how I would feel about having converted if we ever got divorced. But fifteen years after embracing Judaism, I found out.
I had chosen to convert, assuming that my husband and I would instill good Jewish values in our children, together. Instead, while we were married, the responsibility for my children’s religious education was relegated to me. Once we had divorced, I continued to do it as a single parent with no Jewish family for support. Suddenly, I was facing my mother in my ex-husband, someone who told me to do one thing in their best interest while they chose to do another. I had many private moments of festering resentment, when giving up Judaism seemed like the ultimate revenge. That rebellious teenager in me wanted to tick off my ex-husband in the same way I had ticked off my mother.
But I didn’t. I was no longer comfortable with Catholicism; and truthfully, I love being Jewish. I’ve been to Israel, twice. I can mumble through Hebrew prayers with the best of them. I love hosting the holidays, and going into my kid’s classroom to make latkes, and, yes, I even like sitting in temple on Rosh Hashanah for two and a half hours, thinking about the past year and the one to come, reflecting on my choices. The ones I’ve made, and the ones I’ll have to face in the future.
Just recently, my second daughter became a Bat Mitzvah. Her older sister did the same two years prior. Both events were hard work–for me, and mostly, for them. I had the privilege of watching them confidently stand before our congregation to lead a service, teach a lesson from that day’s Torah reading, and share their experience of giving back to the community. I don’t think they had any idea what they were giving back to me. But when each ceremony was over, the clarity of my choice was there. I had spent all this time driving each of my daughters to temple for lessons and tutoring, arguing with them about doing many things teenagers don’t want to do. By supporting the girls in the tasks necessary to be considered as independent, young Jewish women who were responsible for their own participation in their faith, I received the gift of clarity.
Emotions can cloud our judgement. We can be challenged by certain circumstances, such as divorce, to remember why we made a particular choice, what the benefit or reward was supposed to be. It can be difficult to understand the choices of others, or to explain our own. By sharing my chosen faith with my daughters, and seeing them take part in Judaism, I know why I made that choice, and I am reaping the rewards.
By guest blogger Beth Chariton.
Beth works for Art Matters, bringing eye-opening art presentations to groups in Eastern Massachusetts. A divorced mother of three teenagers, she welcomes the retreat into her basement office in the Boston ‘burbs. She writes short stories, essays, poems, and whatever else she feels like, and is currently working on a nonfiction book about growing up in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.