Moment brings you essential independent reporting from the Jewish community and beyond. But we need your help. Your support is critical to the work we do; every tax-deductible gift, of any amount, keeps us going. Thank you for reading and thank you for your help. Donate here.
“Do you have any advice for someone converting to Judaism,” I asked my French and Jewish Studies professor a few days before my beit din.
It was the fall of 1988 and I was at the University of Connecticut. My professor, Tony, twenty-seven years my senior, was an observant Jew and family man. In class, there was a meeting of minds, almost uncanny. But that was it. I was in love and converting to marry the man who became the father of my three sons.
“Schwer zu sein a yid,” the professor said and smiled, bemused.
He was intensely private, but I knew he was a convert himself, because I studied Hebrew with one of his colleagues, who’d let that slip.
Tony was right, it is difficult to be a Jew, and maybe even more so a convert.
In the beginning, I went at it with gusto. I taped light switches for Shabbat so my Jewish-born husband wouldn’t flip them on, and convinced him that observing the laws of family purity would prevent our sex-life from going stale. He didn’t know what hit him. Jewish friends asked why I kept kosher “so strictly.” My mom thought I could celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. (“The kids will love it!”) My plate was overflowing with the never-ending string of Jewish holidays, thank you very much, but waves of sadness washed over me when my family and friends in Norway didn’t know it was Rosh Hashana or Passover.
I wondered what it would be like to have a partner who’d sing Eyshet Chayil to me on Friday nights; someone who’d know what it was like to have abandoned our parents for Abraham and Sarah, although “only” symbolically, for this new life. Someone who’d initiate going to shul, building the sukkah, buying kosher wine.
Tony and I stayed in touch sporadically over the years. When l defended my dissertation in 2006, he hosted a reception in my honor at the Altnaveigh Inn near UConn’s campus; my mom, kids and husband by my side.
Then, in 2011, a folded, hand-scribed get in my palm marked my divorce ceremony. What should I do? Move to Israel? Go home to Norway? As devastated as I was at my failed marriage, I nursed dreams of a new beginning. In the years that followed, I raised my sons, held teaching jobs, traveled and began to write in earnest.
Tony and I eventually met for dinner, again at the Altnaviegh, to catch up and I learned that his life had also changed. Something palpable took us both by surprise as if a gate had opened to a field of unspoken possibilities.
“Hurry, Nina, it’s almost time to light your candles,” he calls out today, checking which lamps will stay lit for Shabbat. The house smells of my fresh challah and his simmering, vegetarian cholent. He’s wearing the crocheted kippah we bought in Jerusalem where we lived for a time.
When he sings Eyshet Chayil before kiddush, he reaches across the table for my hand. Not one convert, but two, we’re partners on the journey in the fullest sense of the word; soulmates, beshert.
Nina B. Lichtenstein holds a Ph.D. in French literature and an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her writing has appeared in numerous outlets, including Lilith, The Forward, and The Washington Post. She is currently working on a memoir and editing a book of personal essays by converts to Judaism. Nina blogs as the Viking Jewess. Born in Oslo, Norway, she and her beshert, Tony Perry, live in Brunswick, Maine.
Top photo: In Norway, May 2017