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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Excerpted with permission from Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends (Schocken Books).

There's an old joke: A Jewish boy is about to leave for college when his father takes him aside and says, "Look, we've never been a religious family, but please, promise that you won't go and marry a shiksa [a derogatory term for a non-Jewish woman]." The son promises. 

During his senior year, however, he falls in love with a non-Jewish woman. After serious thought and study, she converts and they marry. The couple moves back to the son's hometown, and he goes to work in his father's business.

jewish family pictureA few weeks after the couple has gotten settled, the phone rings in their home. The father is on the line, asking his son, "Where are you? We always go over the books on the last Saturday of the month." The son says, "I can't come. My wife says it's forbidden to work on Shabbat [Sabbath]." To which the father replies, "I told you not to marry a shiksa."

Expect Mixed Responses

Sometimes, you just can't win. Like when one young man told his Jewish in-laws that he had decided to convert, and their immediate response was, "Your poor parents!" In general, conversion tends to ease relationships with Jewish families, which view intermarriage with dismay, and any resistance to your marriage will probably crumble as tensions over the identity of future grandchildren are erased. If your conversion follows years of marriage to a Jew, the rest of the family may be overjoyed and throw you a big party. Then again, your choice may utterly baffle them and leave them unsure about how to react to you.

Regardless of the circumstances of your conversion, your Jewish family's response will depend not only on your relationship to them but also on their own Jewish identity. If you are the first convert in the family, it's likely that you will be a magnet for curiosity, questions, and comments that may seem extraordinarily rude.

Probably the most common offense against converts, usually committed without any malice, is the use of the words shiksa and shaygetz [a derogatory term for a non-Jewish man]. As in, "Here is Miriam's husband, Matt, who used to be a shaygetz but converted." Or, "This is my beautiful shiksa daughter-in-law, who is a better Jew than me!" Most Jews think that shiksa means "female gentile" and shaygetz "male gentile," but in fact, those words are anything but neutral. They mean "abomination" and convey the fact that non-Jews were strictly forbidden as marriage partners.

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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.