We had just climbed into the car, Waze route calculated, toddler strapped in. I was tapping away on my iPhone, rapidly entering credit card information in the blithe manner with which my generation has grown accustomed to spending money. But this wasn’t a normal purchase, which is why I started to giggle.
“What’s so funny?” my husband asked.
“It just occurred to me,” I said, “this is totally crazy!”
For him it was a typical morning after a not-so-typical procedure. Having sat before the Reform beit din of Toronto in preparation for conversion, he had just two more boxes to tick, one involving a prick. Hatafat dam brit a ritual that translates as “drawing a drop of blood” is required of all already circumcised male converts.
As I entered the auspicious sum of $180 into our synagogue’s online donation form, the absurdity of the situation hit me: “Basically you drove an hour in rush hour traffic so some dude could prick your prick, and now we’re donating money in his honour! Who does that?!”
It took me a moment to realize my husband wasn’t laughing.
Born in a tiny village in southern Germany, he is the unlikely product of a marriage between a Turkish migrant and a Bavarian belle. Religion, for him, had always been what you might call “N/A.” But put a Muslim and a Christian together, jump ahead a few decades, and what do you get? A Jew! What once might sound like the corny setup of a Borscht Belt stand up routine is a plausible setup for a 21st century post-ethnic identity.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at my in-laws’ tepid response to their son’s news. We were sipping Hefeweizen on a pretty patio surrounded by the 500-year-old walls of Wolframs-Eschenbach, a town named for the great medieval bard, when my husband announced his impending conversion. His mother didn’t even lift her eyes from the menu as she said, “I think I’ll have the sauerbraten.” For a woman who married outside the fold back in the ’60s, contemplating her son’s entree into a new faith was less pressing than contemplating her dinner entree.
“Conversion” is hardly the right word for what that little drop of blood represents. For us, it’s more about the slow-filling bucket than the culminating drop. An organic process, albeit one shaped by a year spent in Israel. A year spent in Tel Aviv, I should qualify, among secular Israeli relatives and friends for whom the very concept of conversion is highly questionable. Which is why they were as bewildered by the news as my mother-in-law. Whereas Canadian friends offered courteous platitudes, the Israelis uniformly responded with a blunt “Why?” My brother, combining Canadian wryness with Israeli chutzpah, asked jokingly if we’d “considered the other options.” At such moments, “I’ll have the sauerbraten” seems to be the only appropriate response.
My husband chose to convert for me and for our son. But I never asked him to take the step, and according to the tradition of matrilineal descent there’s also no need. Plus, he made the decision well after we were officially hitched. Having adopted a Jewish lifestyle gradually – choosing to fast on Yom Kippur out of solidarity, relieving me at the stove during Hanukkah once my hair began to reek of potato latkes, and willingly giving up bread on Passover (but drawing the line at beer; he is German, after all, and only human) – he finally decided to take that leap of faith.
Why do something that many see as gratuitous, or worse, meaningless? It’s a fair question. But I think making such a conscious choice in this age of ambivalence, apprehension and extreme irony renders it that much more meaningful. My husband took the step for me, but he made the decision on his own terms.
So could he become Jewish and still remain secular? We posed the question to the teacher who led my husband through the conversion process. Without missing a beat he offered the following response: “There are only two ways to become Jewish: through birth or conversion. But there are countless ways to be Jewish.”
What initially seemed like a cop-out response grows increasingly profound the more I turn it over in my head. My husband will never be what he calls a “turbo-Jew,” baking challah every week like Brian, the most earnest member of his conversion cohort, who has become the object of my husband’s Keeping up with the Joneses-style anxieties (as in “I’m sure Brian will be at synagogue today,” or “I’ll bet Brian knows the blessing by heart”).
He’ll insist on showing up to synagogue on time (again, he’s German), but only when he actually insists on showing up. And although I did recently catch him watching a YouTube tutorial on how to put on a tallit, he keeps his in the back of the closet, not the front hall. His is a secular Judaism in the making, one that turns nothing into something, a capacious world view that embraces a choice without expunging doubt. Like his mom, he continues to peruse the menu slowly and deliberately.
Last week, realizing we hadn’t been to a synagogue for a while, my husband and I discussed whether it was time to make another appearance. We sat silently for a moment, just thinking. Had we reached a spiritual stalemate? Just then he perked up and asked, “Is there a bar mitzvah this Saturday?” I didn’t follow. “Why does that matter?” I asked. Although he may still be figuring out how he wants to be Jewish, his answer showed me just how Jewish he already is: “The food!”