All in the Family

My wife was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism six months before our wedding. Her conversion was not one of convenience or social pressure—she flirted with Orthodoxy and Conservatism until I steered her to Reform Judaism. She attends temple service even when I do not.

This is often how it goes with converts, how it went with my grandmother, my father’s mother, an Armenian Christian who found Judaism when she married a Jewish man. We Jews born into the fold have the luxury of abusing our heritage because we are spoiled by its loyalty and annoyed at its persistence. No matter how many self-deprecating jokes we make, no matter how many holidays we blow off, we will always be Jews.

Converts believe they don’t have such a luxury. Their Judaism is earned. Holidays are sacred. Lit candles carry whispers of ancient mysticism. My wife’s Hebrew is unashamed and enthusiastic, a stark contrast to my own slurry, self-conscious prayers.

My wife is not the only convert in her family. Her oldest sister converted to Islam when she married. Her husband, Hatem, is an intensely private, devout man. He prays toward Mecca five times a day and he prays before meals. He studies the Qur’an and insists that his children do the same. He takes his family to Egypt every year, to his once-influential family, which has grave plots reserved near the pyramids where he intends to be buried. He is open in his love for Egypt, but he is unequivocally American. An accomplished lawyer and a devout Muslim, Hatem is both a solid pragmatist and a man of unwavering faith.

There is, as you would imagine, unspoken tension between Hatem and me. We are unwilling participants in a cultural war. I am assumed to be sympathetic to Israel. And I am sympathetic to Israel, even though I’ve never set foot there, even though I observe only the major religious holidays, and even though I’ve spent time with Israelis and wondered how anyone could tell the difference between them and the Greeks, the Armenians, or the Arabs.

Last year, my wife and I spent Thanksgiving at Hatem’s home. He was, as always, a gracious host. His prayer before dinner was a mixture of Arabic and English, calling for mercy, for understanding, for love and appreciation of what we have and what we have lost. It brought me and my wife to tears. It also revealed a side of Hatem I’d never seen—the perspective of a disenfranchised minority, calling for strength against a world that doesn’t understand. I recognized his perspective because it is my own.

How, then, should I balance this side of Hatem with the other manifestation of his belief? Days earlier, after he’d picked us up at the airport, I listened to him telling my wife about his son’s first semester at college. How his son—my nephew—had taken a class on the Israeli/Arab conflict, and how Hatem had been upset because the professor was Jewish. But it was okay, Hatem insisted, because the professor was a Jew concerned about human rights. I knew what he meant: it was an unspoken condemnation, a choosing of sides, but I said nothing.

Soon after we arrived at Hatem’s home, after he had taken us to lunch and insisted on paying, I lugged my bags into the living room and saw a lone book sitting on the coffee table. Its presence was unmistakable and purposeful, its title damning and aggressive: The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

There it sat, for three days. I pretended to ignore it, even as the rest of my wife’s family arrived. I reminded myself that politics don’t have a place at holidays, especially when I was a guest in Hatem’s home. But the book continued to sit there, growing in power, as if everyone saw it and cursed me under their breath, as if it symbolized a return to the old ways: the Jews vs. Everyone Else; Jews pulling the strings; America in the pocket of Zionist Elders.

My last night at their home found Hatem and me more relaxed. We’d discussed politics, the usual criticisms of George W. Bush’s failed war, the malaise enveloping a nation that Hatem had once been proud of. I can’t remember if it was he or I, but the book—that damn book—slithered into our conversation. I told Hatem I thought it was overwrought, its message one-sided. He said he thought the book didn’t go far enough. He said we could talk more about it, later, if we wished. I said no, I didn’t want to talk about it later. I didn’t want to talk about it ever.

And so we didn’t. It wasn’t the right time. I wonder now if there will ever be a right time. If the search to determine who’s right and who’s wrong will ever make any difference. Or if we will continue to manage that unspoken tension, a Jew and a Muslim with our converted wives, unwitting participants in a cultural war. Sharing the same perspective, the same Thanksgiving meal, and the same bitter disappointment.

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About the Author

Henry Cohen is a Boston-based freelance writer.