The Question

Among the Jews of West Los Angeles, I am cautious about mentioning my husband for an entirely different reason: guilt. Judaism is transmitted to children via mothers and even though Phil and I have no children, the notion that if we did my non-Jewish status would rob them of a vital birthright is enough to make many Jews, even those on the less traditional side of the spectrum, uneasy.

According to some orthodox strands of thought, the question exists as to whether my marriage is even valid.

The only thing that could potentially rectify the situation is if I convert. It doesn’t matter that Phil considers himself a None: the onus is on me as the potential vessel of life. When I do mention Phil, I can tell the question is on people’s minds—do I intend to convert?—though they are too polite to ask. I have a feeling that how they perceive me hinges on the answer. Even if I am the one within the marriage who is interested in Judaism, most eager to understand, and the only person who may eventually soften Phil’s heart toward a religion that currently makes him bristle; in my current state, I am an agent of harm to the Jewish people.

Non-Jews who wish to officially convert must receive formal education under the guidance of religious leaders. By contrast, it’s far easier to become a Christian. I just have to accept Jesus as “my savior”—though, frankly, I still don’t know exactly what that means. I suppose it has something to do with recognizing that Jesus sacrificed his life to absolve my sins, but the details of the transaction remain hazy. Luckily, I am about to get a tutorial on this exact subject.

I arrive at Saddleback on the perfect day. The church has constructed a replica of the original biblical tabernacle, which is temporarily being displayed on its grounds.

That the ancient Jewish tabernacle has been constructed at a church is not too shocking, as the Torah has been adopted by Christians as the “Old Testament,” making all the stories and characters it contains vital to their history as well. That the tabernacle is at the Saddleback Church is a bonus as far as I’m concerned since visiting a “mega-church” headed by a celebrity preacher is a gaping hole in my Christian experience.

I had to dig around on the website to find out that officially Saddleback is Baptist, as the denomination is overshadowed by the star power of Pastor Rick Warren, author of New York Time best seller Purpose Driven Life (a book that has apparently sold more copies than any other nonfiction book ever), and frequent Christian commentator on various cable news programs. Online, I find I can choose between three times for Sunday services, given at two hour intervals to accommodate the estimated 20,000 people who attend in person (or via video streaming) from all over the region, country, and world. Apparently, it’s become something of a tourist destination—the Sunday plans for families visiting other hot spots like Disneyland and Sea World. From my dad’s house, it’s about a 45 minute drive south on freeways blissfully free of traffic.

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Strange dance

It’s a strange dance Christians and Jews do around one another. When I first started attending church, I was surprised at how often Christians casually mentioned Jews during their services. Looking back, I don’t know why I should have been surprised or how it could be avoided, as most readings from the Old Testament mention Jews directly or indirectly. I suppose I still had Martin Luther in the forefront of my thinking. Earlier in his life, he treated the Jews kindly in his writings, expressing hope that they would soon come to embrace Jesus as the human incarnation of God, their long-awaited messiah. I don’t know why he thought Jews would choose to accept Jesus during his lifetime but when they didn’t he grew disillusioned and angry toward them. In 1543 he wrote a booklet called “On the Jews and Their Lies,” detailing all the reasons he believed Jews deserved to be despised. The fact that this hateful propaganda circulated in the region that is modern-day Germany is not lost on most historians, and some suggest it fueled contempt that simmered for 400 years and came to a head with the Holocaust.

Most of today’s Christians have distanced themselves from this hatred; they are more attuned to the debt Christianity owes Judaism. Jesus himself was a Jew and some of Christianity’s most vital tenets—the belief in “one God” and the idea that each person is valued deeply by a creator—are clearly bred by Jewish thought.

Still, some awkward tension remains. During my months of church-going, I was cautious enough not to mention being married to a Jew, even one as lackadaisical as Phil, until the morning I felt compelled to, and quickly regretted the decision. I was at a Presbyterian church. After the service, during the coffee and cookies part, a group of women gathered around me—the first recognized me as a visitor and approached to make conversation; others joined until we formed a substantial circle in the middle of the room. Several of the women were wearing name tags, and one in particular caught my eye. On this piece of plastic affixed to the lady’s chest was a decidedly Jewish surname. Years of Jewish classmates have made me aware of names common among Jews—like Cohen or Bernstein—and on this morning, in front of my very eyes, was one of these names—as strange and exotic, given the setting, as, say, “Sally Goldberg.”

“Are you Jewish?” I asked her. I couldn’t help it, I was curious. Obviously she wasn’t a practicing Jew, but I wanted to know what twists and turns of history might have led her here.

“No!” she practically shouted.

Our coffee klatch was silent, the air gone out faster than a whoopee cushion stomped with both feet. It occurred to me that perhaps my tone had sounded accusatory.

“My husband is Jewish,” I said. It was as lame as if I had followed a racial slur with “some of my best friends are black.” Apparently, it only made matters worse. The whoopee cushion might as well have been the real thing. Suddenly everyone had very important matters to attend. I was left wondering which had been the bigger faux pas: the question or the revelation? Of all the ladies, Sally herself seemed the least fazed. Before leaving, she returned to me and gave my arm a tender squeeze, “I hope we see each other again,” she whispered.