Developing a Relationship With the Born-Jewish Family

A convert must step gingerly across a minefield of long-held expectations, sometimes complicated by ambivalence toward Jewishness.

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While the offense is unintended, these words unconsciously reflect the belief that Jewishness is an ontological category--a status you're either born with or not. More than a few Jews-by-choice have been hurt by the announcement, "I don't believe in conversion. A person can't just become Jewish."

While the use of words like shiksa and the idea of an inborn Jewishness are rarely meant as insults to anyone in particular, Jews are not exempt from bigotry. Just as some non-Jews still believe that all Jews are stingy, some Jews harbor stereotypes about non-Jewish stupidity. It's painful to find those attitudes among your extended family, but there's no reason to let bigoted comments go unchallenged, "Oh, Al, I can't believe you said that. My parents are non-Jews and you know they're intelligent and hardworking people.…"

Converts Challenge Long-Held Worldviews

Whether or not it's always a welcome role, converts often end up as teachers and role models for Jews as well as for non-Jews. Your presence complicates and disturbs a sense of reality grounded in a very different period of history--when Jews were Jews no matter what they didn't do, and when gentiles could never become Jews, no matter what they did. If you--with your blond hair, or your black skin, or your Asian eyes--are a more knowledgeable, observant, and committed Jew than they are, then what does it mean to be a Jew in name only? Few people welcome such a serious challenge to their worldview.

Within your Jewish family, you and your partner may be the first Jews in a generation to light Shabbat candles or join a synagogue. While this may delight some of your relatives, it may cause discomfort, embarrassment, shame, or misplaced anger among others. Most Jews-by-choice try to minimize contact with the naysayers in their families and seek out allies.

But you can also open long-closed doors within your extended Jewish family; sometimes all it takes is a few questions. Ask your in-laws, or your wife's aunt, where the family name comes from. From which cities or shtetls [small towns] in Europe did the family emigrate? Who was Grandpa Max named after? What does Grandma remember about her childhood Hanukkah celebrations? The information unearthed as a result of your questions can knit a family together--with you as an integral part of the emerging pattern.

Not all Jewish families react coolly to converts. Many families take the Jew-by-choice under their wing, opening homes and hearts, sharing traditions and recipes, handing down heirlooms. One woman says that her conversion took place not only in the mikveh [ritual bath] but also in the kitchen, where her Jewish mother-in-law and Jewish grandmother-in-law taught her how to make favorite family meals and welcomed her into the world of Jewish women.

Of course, there can be too much of a good thing, as when family members presume to tell you how to live your Jewish life. Your father-in-law may be horrified by your child-centered seder [ceremonial Passover meal] that substitutes a puppet show for pages and pages of the text he's heard since boyhood. Your sister-in-law might inform you that membership in a Reform temple is tantamount to joining an Episcopal church. Then again, you might scandalize your relatives by refusing to miss Shabbat dinner and attend basketball games on Friday nights with the rest of the family.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.