Choosing Judaism - Part I

I've mentioned before that I'm in the process of converting to Judaism, and I've promised to write a longer post about my decision to convert and what the conversion process entails.  So here goes a loooong two-part post . . . .

The popular assumption is that anyone who converts to Judaism for marriage does so only after being pressured into it (usually by a naggy future mother-in-law, whom I'll call "Estelle," after George Costanza's mother).  "My darling baby boy.  You can't marry a shiksa!" kvetches Estelle.  "Did you eat?  Are you eating?  Vy are you so thin?  Is that shiksa not feeding you?" But Mr. HC's family has never expressed any concern about his marrying "outside of the tribe" or put any pressure on me to go Jew.  To the contrary, they're to this day incredulous that I'd want to do such a thing!

What led me to convert was this: Judaism has played a very important role in Mr. HC's life. His closest friends are those he made in Hebrew school, who bunked with him in the "dork tent" in Jewish summer camp, and who traveled with him to Israel.  He wanted our future children to have these experiences as much as I wanted our children to be celebrate their Chinese heritage. He hopes that our children will feel "at home" in both cultures.  I, on the other hand, hope that our children will inhabit a corporate identity, such that they are not sometimes Jewish and sometimes Chinese, but rather always a union of both.  But however our children choose to deal with the identity question, we know that we want them to be truly bicultural, to be Chinese and Jewish.  

The Chinese part is easy: I'm as chinky as they come.  FOP, yo (that's "fresh off the plane" for those of you not hip to the immigrant child lingo).  The Jewish part, however, is harder. Since Judaism is matrilineal, in order for our children to be Jewish, I'd have to be Jewish.

While that is my primary impetus for converting, I've always been drawn to Judaism.  I grew up in a part of L.A. that had a sizeable Jewish population.  I have probably sipped more Shirley Temples at bar and bat mitzvahs than many Jews-by-birth.  In fact, here's a picture of me leaving for my first bar mitzvah.  No, young un's, that is not a lampshade around my ass; that was actually a trendy dress style back in the day.  Also check out my sad attempt at teased bangs.  And my super long faux pearl earrings from Claires.  Clearly, I thought I was awesome.

[Hot Cocoa, circa 1990, all ready to slow dance to Belinda Carlisle.]

Anyway, this is all to say that Judaism has never really felt foreign to me.  Since Mr. HC and I started dating when I was sixteen (and I dated two Jewish boys before him!), I was always surrounded by Jewish culture, and have been struck by how the values of Judaism -- the respect for one's ancestors, the love of family, the focus on education -- were so similar to those of my Chinese family.  

Then in college I took a class on the Parable in the Western Tradition, which looked at influence of Jewish writings on modern literature.  And I figured out that the approach of Judaism toward texts -- the whole culture is focused around interpretation and debate of texts -- was completely suited to my worldview.  I'm a lawyer and a literature scholar -- could there be any religion more appropriate?!

[Image source.]

To say that I felt an affinity with Judaism, though, is not to say that I didn't have some doubts. Quite often, the thing that is difficult for those who convert is the taking on of a minority consciousness and identity.  Objectively speaking, it's pretty weird to want to become a part of a group that has been marginalized, shunned, and persecuted since time immemorial. 

That aspect of it was not so hard for me.  As a Chinese-American and an immigrant, I have always had a minority, diasporic consciousness and identity.  This is not to say that being Jewish is like being any other minority. Indeed, one of the tough questions I’ve been working out is what it means to be both Jewish and Chinese and American – how these identities interact, complicate, challenge, and enrich one another. But it is to say that I don’t expect to wake up the day after my conversion and be inhabiting a marginalized status that I never understood before.

What was -- is -- difficult for me, though, is the God thing.  While my family is Buddhist, I've always been agnostic -- not bold enough to be atheist, but too humble to insist that no higher entity exists.  Mr. HC is agnostic, as are most of our Jewish friends and family.  But it's one thing to be agnostic when one is born into a religion, and quite another to embrace a monotheistic religion while struggling with the concept of one God.  

I'm still struggling.  Mightily.  But here's what makes me think Judaism is a right fit for me: the rabbis with whom I'm studying are not only okay with my struggling, they welcome it -- encourage it.  My sponsoring rabbi (*more about this tomorrow, when I write about the conversion process) encourages me to be open to the concept of holiness, is careful not to characterize God as "He" or to anthropomorphize God, and allows me to ask the big, difficult, head-hurting questions. I don't think I would be converting if Judaism were a religion that insists on blind faith.  It just wouldn't make sense to me if a group of people who have suffered a Holocaust can have an unvexed relationship with God.

Do you and your fiance/e come from different religious or cultural backgrounds?  Are you considering converting?  How are you melding your respective religions or cultures into a family identity?

P.S. For more about the process of converting, see my next post.

Brittany and Jennifer  – (November 11, 2008 at 11:55 PM)  

Thanks so much for this post. I am Methodist (well kind of) and my future hubby is Jewish. I too do not have any pressure to convert from my future in laws but i have been considering converting because from the little I have learned about Judaism since dating my fi (over 5 years) and taking many classes in college i do believe it might be the path I will take in the near future. Thanks again

Graeme  – (November 14, 2008 at 12:27 PM)  

My fiance brought this blog to my attention because she's Jewish, I'm not, and we're both attending conversion classes at our synagogue. I don't know whether or not I'll convert--we're at a Reform synagogue and the rabbi will marry us whether or not I'm Jewish, as long as we attend the courses and commit to raising a Jewish family. This isn't a problem for us.

I'm finding the God thing difficult as well. I was raised in an irreligious family and I'm skeptical of religion generally. In some ways it maybe makes the process of conversion easier in that I don't have to draw a line under previous beliefs, like, say, believing in Jesus. At the same time, it might make conversion more difficult because the leap from being irreligious to religious is perhaps greater than changing from one system of beliefs to another. Ultimately, I imagine that everyone struggles with this and there's no real sense in talking about which is "easier" or "harder". You're right though about there being a real emphasis on the idea of struggling or wrestling with God instead of having certainty of belief. I find that to be reassuring, because as you put it "I don't think I would be converting if Judaism were a religion that insists on blind faith."

Miss Hot Cocoa  – (November 14, 2008 at 12:51 PM)  

Thanks for visiting and posting!

@ Graeme: I hear you on the leap from being irreligious to religious thing. What's funny though is that my fiance is actually having more of a difficulty with this than I am! He's flummoxed at the idea of having to go to shul each week now.

Anonymous –   – (November 17, 2008 at 11:20 AM)  


Great post - I have spent the last two years preparing for my conversion (which will take place in December), it has been an amazing time and I also love that there is room to question life and God in Judaism. I am in the UK - converting Masorti which I think is like conservative Judaism in the US? We are getting married next June - and my partner also has moments where he can't quite believe we go to Shul twice a week and keep Kosher. It has been good for us both though. I wish you Mazel Tov and thanks for sharing. Michelle

Bridechka  – (November 18, 2008 at 11:06 AM)  

Hi, this is the first time I am reading your blog and I am so glad to have stumbled upon it.

I was born Jewish, unfortunately I was also born in the former Soviet Union, where to practice Judaism was illegal. Because of the prohibition, my family has no idea what our traditions are or what our religion means or stands for. All we knew was that we were Jewish (it said so on our passports back in the USSR) and that our family members had died just for being Jews so we were fiercely proud of our background but completely clueless about it at the same time.

Now I am marrying a wonderful man who comes from a non-religious Jewish family but who practices Judaism with all his heart. He never puts pressure on me and is totally fine with any level of my involvement but recently I started taking classes from a Rabbi in our area and I could not be more thrilled. I am learning about my culture, my history, my religion, my ethnicity. I feel like I am finally reconnecting with a part of myself that has always been missing.

Last year we had the Passover Seder at my parent's for the first time. My father (a giant of a man) cried at the table and thanked me and the Big Guy for finally giving back to him what the soviets had stolen from us.

Thanks for your post! I cant wait to read more of your blog!

Miss Hot Cocoa  – (November 18, 2008 at 5:25 PM)  

bridechka, thank you for leaving your comment -- your story of the seder really touched my heart. i am looking forward to sharing this story with my fiance.

Adele  – (April 20, 2009 at 2:40 AM)  

I found your blog two days ago and I have the page open at all times so that there is always a quick way to get back to reading it. Love it! And congratulations on your wedding! I am sure it was gorgeous and spiritually meaningful.

You are asking whether your readers are in interfaith relationships and are planning to convert. This question is an important one for me personally. I am a Russian Muslim who born into a family that considered itself Muslim historically but could not practice because of the Soviet regime. My grandfather on my father's side was a Sunni Mullah who renounced his faith amidst atrocities of the revolution and civil war saying that no God would allow that to happen. My grandmother on my mother's side at the age of 60 picked up Qur'an and learned Arabic. My mother is an atheist and I was brought up in an agnostic environment. At the same time, respect for other people's religions and beliefs was an important part of my education. As a young adult, I attended Orthodox Christian services, spoke to Mullahs, read Sufi authors, and meditated as a Buddhist. I am 32 and I still consider myself to be not religious and I struggle with the entire concept of organized religion and one GOD.

Meanwhile, I am engaged to an American Jew from CT who was brought up following the values of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. He is not religious at all, and sometimes I think he feels sort of proud that I am Muslim :) His family has never mentioned anything about me converting to Judaism, and my fiance and I both agree that our future children will benefit from the fact that we were brought up so differently but still share the same values. It is also our agreement that I will be a stay-at-home mom once we start growing the family, and the thought of me being the major influence in our children's lives made me think seriously about at the very least taking the intro to Judaism classes or even possibly converting. I am not sure I will have enough faith in me to actually convert, but I definitely want to make sure that both our cultures are represented equally.

Pei Lin  – (March 21, 2011 at 10:49 AM)  

My husband is a Turk and believes in Christianity. I'm a Chinese and was born into the Taoism religion. We are comfortable with the status quo and have no intention to convert each other.
Great blog!

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