The first time my partner asked me to come home with him to meet the parents, I couldn’t have been happier. A relationship milestone so soon after we’d started dating held such promise. Plus, I had it on good authority that his previous girlfriend, whom he’d dated on and on-and-off for nearly two years, had never had the pleasure. So, when we packed our bags for that first Thanksgiving in Florida, I felt far more excited than nervous. Parents tend to like me. Except this time, it occurred to me, I already had one strike against me: I wasn’t Jewish.
When my partner and I began dating, I was only vaguely aware of his Jewish background. Unless the name ended in “Stein” or “Berg,” I didn’t have a clue. I’d grown up in a suburb of Buffalo, NY and I simply didn’t have a lot of exposure to Jewish people. Of course, it didn’t help that I’d attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade.
My friends and family were a bit taken aback when I announced that I was dating a Jewish guy from Long Island, given that my past serious relationships had been with men of African descent. Steve was short, funny (funnier than anyone I’d ever met) and extremely ambitious, and sometimes, when he grew animated, he’d adopt a Brooklyn accent, learned from his father and perhaps leftover from his first few years as a boy in that borough. I remember early on in our courtship a friend remarking that Jewish guys were great “because they really know how to treat a woman well.” I learned that they were also stereotypically regarded as ‘mama’s boys.’
I became fascinated by the all of the ways in which Jewish culture is characterized and defined—especially since some secular Jews offhandedly dismiss the religious component. My partner is not a serious practitioner of his faith, which I am grateful for, I suppose, not that I would’ve minding his going to temple regularly or seriously honoring the Jewish holidays or even fasting—though keeping a kosher kitchen would’ve been a big adjustment for me. Since I’m not a practicing Catholic, the two of us on the religious fence somehow seems more manageable than one or both of us strongly devout.
Eventually, as the relationship progressed—that first meeting of the parents behind us—we began speaking in earnest about our future. It had been clear early on that the relationship had legs, and as we both wanted to get married eventually, I started pressing him about what that would mean for us, a Jewish boy and a Catholic girl: What kind of ceremony would we have? Where would we do it? Would he want me to consider converting for him? I assumed I knew the answer to the last question—no—since my partner’s belief in a higher power is more muddled than my own fluid thoughts on the subject, but when we got to discussing how a non-denominational ceremony would affect our parents, he nonchalantly told me that on the day his sister had married her husband, who was raised Catholic like me, his mother had said, “Well, he’ll never be one of us.”
His mother, tiny and chatty and sweet, but not effusively so, could also, apparently, be quite cutting. I had spent little time with my partner’s family, but I hadn’t sensed anything odd or off about his brother-in-law’s interactions with the Jewish family he’d married into.
Anyway, what did that even mean? ‘Not one of us’? I reasoned that converting to Judaism was a moot point for me—for us—unless we decided to have kids, and neither of us wants children. In my few visits to Florida, I’d never received the cold shoulder from his mother, but neither had I gotten a sense that she was interested in me all that much either. Was she just waiting for him to settle down with a nice Jewish girl? Perhaps she saw me as temporary.
As it was obvious to both of us that I wasn’t going anywhere, I boldly broached the topic with my partner.
“So, were you supposed to marry a Jewish girl, or what? Did you parents ingrain that in you when you were growing up and started dating?”
Accustomed to my out-of-the-blue questions, he simply looked up from his laptop and said that although it wasn’t an issue that had been discussed directly, it was implied. “I don’t remember anybody saying this outright,” he admitted, “but it was definitely the model I grew up with.”
Uh huh. Seeing the confused (and, I don’t know, hurt?) expression on my face, he pulled me onto his lap and promised me that he didn’t care, that he wouldn’t be disowned or anything like that.
“You’re my little shiksa,” he said affectionately, and though I understood the root of the word to be derogatory, I heard it as a term of endearment.
I began to wonder if his mother had simply given up on his marrying one of his own, or if perhaps I was just fooling myself. While I was happy to celebrate Hanukkah with his family last year (when the first night of it happened to fall on Thanksgiving), I don’t really get it, nor, if I’m being honest, do I care to. And yet, maybe that was the exact problem. The not caring would certainly peg me as an outsider. If he were any more invested in his faith though and wanted me to take the same interest in it as his other passions—baseball, Marvel comic book movies, barbecue—I certainly would.
On Christmas Eve at my house, when my large, boisterous family partakes in a meatless Polish meal as is tradition on this holiday, and my meat-loving man says he thinks the pierogis should be stuffed with pork or beef and not just potato, cabbage, or cheese, I patiently try to explain that that’s our way. There’ll be a roast on Christmas day, I assure him. There, he’s the outsider, but it’s in such a small way and on a such a small, insignificant level (to us, at least) that I hardly think it matters or even really affects him.
My family has embraced him as far as I can see. There was a time when my parents would have been adamant about my marrying a Catholic man (or at least a Christian), but as time’s gone by, and my faith has lapsed, it’s been years since my father has threatened not to pay for a wedding if it’s not in the church. My sister, who married a Presbyterian three years ago, chose to have a traditional Catholic ceremony because she says, “Mom would’ve been crushed if I hadn’t.” It was just easier that way.
Converting to Judaism, however, would not be so cut and dry. The little I’ve read on the subject is enough to tell me that it would require a great amount of discipline and education, not to mention a renunciation of the religion I’ve been immersed in since I had water pored over my head in a baptismal ceremony 33 years ago.
When the time comes for us to take that next step, we’ll have to take a united front. Our wedding will probably be in Brooklyn—not in my hometown or in his family’s current place of residence, but in our home. The slight sting of not being “one of them” according to his mother may always be felt, but as long as my partner’s on my side, it won’t matter.
Stacey Gawronski is an editor at Refinery29. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, New York Family, Yahoo Shine!, The Billfold, xojane, and more. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their dog, Odie.
(Image: The OC‘s Seth and Summer, one of the most famous interfaith couples of all time.)