The Shiksa Syndrome
by Laurie Graff
It’s been two weeks since my conversion to Judaism became complete. Coincidentally, I was invited to join a bus tour of Jewish Portland this morning, and our very first stop was the same mikvah where I’d been exactly fourteen days earlier to meet with the Ben Din and then immerse in the ritual bath.
Later in the afternoon, I was on the phone with a friend in New York City. He told me that when he’d mentioned my conversion to one of his co-workers, the man had replied, “Cool! Is she single?”
My friend thought this was hilarious and couldn’t wait to tell me about it. I laughed with him, then told him about my experiences trying to date Jewish men.
There really weren’t that many. Some I met through websites like Match, JDate and OK Cupid. Others struck up conversations with me at Jewish singles events in town. Not a single one of these suitors lasted beyond a first date.
Maybe I was meeting the wrong people, but I found a few too many who were too interested in my conversion activities. One guy pushed hard to tell me what he thought I should believe, how he thought I should be practicing, and what directions in life he thought I should be taking.
Yeah, it was pretty creepy.
Then, about a year into my relationship with Mike, I joined a Jewish Women’s Book Club. One the books on our list was The Shiksa Syndrome, a novel by Laurie Graff, in which the main character is an unmarried Jewish woman who is mistaken for a non-Jew by a Jewish man she very much wanted to date. So she keeps up the charade, hiding her own Jewish-ness from a fellow Jew, all in hopes of winning him over.
When I sat down with several members of my book club to discuss the novel, they all rolled their eyes. They’d seen the same problems that I’d been experiencing — Jewish men who want converts as wives, to keep a Jewish household without bringing all the “baggage” of a Jewish upbringing to the table.
It actually didn’t make a whole lot of sense, until I thought back on that conversation with the guy who was trying to convince me that I really did want to have children, and I wanted to send them to this Hebrew school and take them to this synagogue.
Control freak, much?
I’ve also met some lovely Jewish men — all married, of course — who seem to embrace the power and vitality that a born-Jewish woman brings to the table.
I used to lament the apparent lack of compassionate, non-jerky single Jewish men in my area. And then I began to more fully appreciate how good I’ve got it.
I’m settled with an atheist — raised Episcopalian — who has no input into my spiritual or religious life. He participates when I ask him to. He’s come to synagogue with me a few times for Shabbat, Sukkot, Shavuot and Simchat Torah. When I choose to involve him, he lights candles with me on Friday nights and shares challah bread and grape juice with me. I love his participation.
But he doesn’t tell me how to be Jewish. He doesn’t direct my observance or criticize my choices. Mike figures that being Jewish is my path, and while he’s happy to come along for the ride, he doesn’t get in the way of my explorations or try to turn me in a particular direction.
I can’t imagine trying to squeeze myself into someone else’s mold, as Graff’s main character does, not to mention the dishonesty required and the sheer exhaustion that would result.
I might have enjoyed having a Jewish partner, but I very much appreciate having a significant other who allows me to be in charge of my own spirituality. I feel less self-conscious about my choices, and I’m in no danger of deferring to a partner who would be able to hold the “born Jewish” card over me.
When I explained all this to my friend on the phone today, he again burst out laughing.
“Oh, man,” he chuckled. “Can you imagine someone who actually tried to tell you what to do or who to be? Yeah, that would just NOT WORK.”
So I am the Jew in this interfaith relationship. I’m the one who makes the matzo and lights the candles and knits the kippot, all under my own direction. I get to be the authority on what I believe and what I do, just as Mike is in charge of his path. That’s the way it should be anyway, I believe, though I’ve seen many couples where one is clearly the religious expert to whom the other yields. Or maybe the latter is more normal and I’m the one with the unique dynamic. Whatever. It works for us.