A good wife

Must would-be Jewesses cover up with long skirts and sleeves and wear hats? And if they won’t, is that reason enough not to convert them?

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There’s this young man I know in London; tall, handsome, clever, good family, holiday home in Israel – the works. He’s a good guy, the kind you instantly want for your daughter, and for your community. But he’s not available to be your son-in-law (he’s married), and as for being a member of your synagogue... well, there’s a problem.
This man, let’s call him Steve, grew up in an Orthodox home. His parents are stalwarts of their local shul – on committees, running children’s services, raising money, keeping Shabbat.
When Steve met his wife, he (and she) thought she was Jewish, too. She had been raised in a Jewish home, her sister was married to a Jewish man, her friends were all Jewish. She had worked in Israel for a time, and spoke some Hebrew. By the time they had fallen too much in love to separate, he discovered that her mother had been converted in the Reform Movement, so the girl was not kosher enough to be married into mainstream Jewish life. Okay, said the young couple, we understand. The bride-to-be had no objection whatsoever to doing what it took to be recognized by the rabbis. So they jumped onto the Conversion Carousel.
THAT WAS a number of years ago.
Steve and Judy (let’s pretend she’s a Judy) are married now; she’s pregnant with their second child. Despite going to learn things they already knew, despite having the requisite meat and milk plates and knives and cups, despite the fact that they feel Jewish and long to belong to a shul, they are not welcome in any London Orthodox community. The hold-up is that Judy, while prepared to keep kosher and even to keep aspects of Shabbat, is not prepared to cover up with long skirts and long sleeves each time she leaves the house, or wear a hat whenever she’s seen in public.
She says she’s happy to be Jewish; she just doesn’t want to be more “Jewish” than most of her Jewish friends. So the rabbis won’t convert her. And any day now the two of them may just give up, and their kids may not celebrate Seders, and their kids’ kids may have Christmas trees.
I might have the answer for them.
Many years ago, someone I know well was going through a similar story, although his wife-to-be was not Jewish at all. They started conversion classes with a wonderful rabbi, enjoyed their studies, and were on their way to success when the prospective bridegroom met a friend from abroad. “What’s going on with you?” she asked him. So he told her. “Don’t be silly,” she admonished, “There’s an easier way.
Let me help you.”
This girl, it turns out, was married to the grandson of the chief Sephardic rabbi of a sizable city in Israel. For $3,000 (in cash, of course), she revealed that anybody could become Jewish in the time it takes to disrobe and dunk in a mikve. So, armed with a bulky brown envelope, the happy couple made their way to the rabbi’s office. He counted the money and laid his hands on Sue’s golden (and uncovered) locks. “Sue,” he said, “you are now Saraleh. Mazal tov!” He instructed her to plunge into the mikve for a quick spiritual fix, and the future groom and his now- Jewish bride-to-be sat down to join other new converts. The catering was not, as I was told, commensurate with $1,500 a head: some stale-ish bourekas, a plate of Bamba – but who cared? The couples had their certificates of kosher conversions; they could be married in any synagogue in the world. (This particular couple never bothered; they figured that if this was Judaism, they didn’t really want to be part of it.) Presumably, things are a little less chaotic today.
OR MAYBE not. On June 1, The Jerusalem Post ran an article about the drop in applications for IDF conversions in 2010. There are, it seems, many complications along the way to becoming Jewish: Conversions of only 10 regional courts of the Rabbinical Council of America are recognized, IDF conversions are accepted by Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar but questioned by some Ashkenazi rabbis... perhaps the cash-andcarry conversion was the best solution after all.
I am not an expert on Jewish law, and I recognize the need to have religious standards. I know that converting every person who craves Israeli citizenship to escape poverty or tyranny would bring a host of other problems. But, living in Israel, one cannot but become familiar with the demographics game: numbers of Jews in the Jewish state, numbers of Muslims, and Christians, and others. Birthrates.
Immigration. Emigration. We want Jews to join us; we offer tax breaks and lessons in easy Hebrew. So it seems a little crazy to me that we make it so hard for people who are knocking on our door. Shouldn’t we be opening our arms wide and saying, “Shalom aleichem, welcome; good luck”? There is a horrible scene in The Merchant of Venice that gives me an stomach ache each time I have to teach it.
Jessica, Shylock’s misguided daughter, is planning to rob her father blind and elope with her non-Jewish lover.
“Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be ashamed to be my father’s child!” she exclaims. “But though I am a daughter to his blood / I am not to his manners,” she continues. Jessica then beseeches her lover not to let her down: “O Lorenzo,” she begs, “If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife.”
Mixed marriages are no problem for Christians. Jessica is welcomed into the church by eager Christians, who pronounce her more different from her Jewish father than jet from ivory or red wine from Rhenish. One interpretation holds that Jessica is unhappy- ever-after with the man who stole her soul along with her dad’s ducats; but that’s another subject. The point is that it is easy to deplete the numbers of the Chosen People; to swell them again is far more difficult.
IT WASN’T always so. During the time of the Judges, an Israelite family “went down” from Bethlehem to the more prosperous country of Moab.
There, a nice Jewish boy named Mahlon married Ruth, a Moabitess, no problem at all. His brother married her countrywoman. When the boys both died, along with their father, Naomi, the bereft sole survivor of the family, goes home to Bethlehem, her daughters-in-law in tow.
Orpah, son Chileon’s widow, is persuaded to stay in Moab, but Ruth makes her famous impassioned plea to her mother-in-law: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16–17).
Back in the land of Canaan, not only does Ruth get to marry the rich and Jewish Boaz, her son Obed becomes the grandfather of King David.
King David begot King Solomon, who had a penchant for non-Jewish girls; it is recorded that he collected “many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites” (Kings 11:1).
His 700 wives and 300 concubines “turned his heart away from his God.”
Which brings me back to the nice young man in a leafy suburb in London, and the soldiers who are prepared to die for the Holy Land but who can’t be buried in its cemeteries without controversy.
They want to marry Jewish girls (or at least one); they want to have Jewish children and serve the Jews’ God. Surely it’s time to reconsider the conversion laws. Maybe it’s not so critical that would-be Jewesses wear hats. Perhaps one will even become a great-granny to another great man.
Worth a try? The writer, a PhD, is a lecturer in English Literature at Beit Berl and IDC in Herzliya. She has just published her first novel, For the Love of God and Virgins.