My Husband’s New Name
Margaret Lewis is an alumnus of the Houston Wexner Heritage class of 2006. Margaret is a psychology professor and Board President of the Initiative for Jewish Women, which is currently developing a sexuality-education app for iPhones. She can be reached at email@example.com
The impact of the Wexner Heritage Program on me has been wonderful, but typical: I have a more serious approach to my observance and practice; I have greater connections and visibility in my community; the depth of my knowledge has increased and I take my leadership role more seriously. For my husband, who was merely the “spouse” in this intense experience, Wexner was transformative. Through the retreats and seminars, David was introduced to the diversity of thought within Judaism and how that diversity is included in both Jewish religion and philosophy. He was encouraged to find his own path and he did: Just before Shavuot this year, he converted to Judaism.
David Singer, the editor of the American Jewish Year Book in 1979 wrote, “It is not intermarriage which leads to assimilation, but assimilation which leads to intermarriage.” If that is so, as it was for me, then perhaps the inverse is also true: Involvement in Jewish life is less likely to lead to intermarriage. But what happens when the relationship comes first? If you are lucky, you grow and learn together.
I met my husband David at about the same time I was becoming interested in learning more about Judaism. I grew up in an unaffiliated, assimilated, intermarried family; I had a strong sense of being Jewish, but no education behind it. In college, I began to pursue a Jewish education while simultaneously pursuing a non-Jewish mate. A typical adolescent, I managed to shrug off the cognitive dissonance that came with being president of Hillel and having a non-Jewish boyfriend. As my relationship progressed, so did my involvement with Judaism: David joined my graduate-school chavurah; we agreed to raise our children in a Jewish home.
Over the years, as I became increasingly involved in the Jewish community and continued to learn, my husband did as well, thanks to a welcoming community. During the havdalah after David’s conversion, our friend Rabbi Dan Gordon likened David’s conversion to the gradual transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week: The exact moment of change is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps this is why I struggled when our 6 year old daughter asked me how a person can change religions. I was able to explain the process of learning and preparation, the mikveh, the beit din… but what about adopting new practices and beliefs? How could I explain that gradual transformation on the short drive home from swimming lessons?
Social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz describes identity formation as the result of an ongoing process, rather than something which is fully acquired at a specific point in a person’s life. There may have been a moment, when the beit din signed the papers, that David officially became a Jew, but David had been engaged in Jewish learning and practice for many years before he started formally studying for conversion. Involvement in the Jewish community was a key factor in his journey and our participation in the Wexner program seemed to be the final catalyst. In the course of this process, David discovered that what he loves about Judaism is that struggle and debate are part of the canon. I don’t know when that kippah began to look like it belonged there but I am gratified that David is engaged in this process with me. For both of us, our Jewish identities continue to evolve.
So what does it mean to now have a Jewish husband?
I have discovered that I am trying to synthesize two seemingly opposing ideas: The first is that nothing has changed. (He is the same man I fell in love with many years ago; he still makes the best matzah balls and he still enjoys rebuilding his motorcycle in the garage.) The second is that David ben Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imanu has taken on a new identity and I feel more proud, relieved and pleased than I had ever imagined I would. I have been given an unexpected gift.