Things seemed to be working out great for my wife and me as an interfaith family: she and her Jewish extended family; me and my Italian Catholic extended family. Everyone was happy.
We shared and honored our respective traditions in harmony. There was a memorable moment during our interfaith wedding that came to represent this harmony for me. My wife’s grandparents performed a special blessing (modified just for us) over the wine and bread. They handed me some Manischewitz wine and challah, and gave my wife Italian wine and Italian bread. We were truly one of those couples who would make this interfaith journey succeed, even after the introduction of children into our lives. And we did.
So, why did I convert to Judaism nearly seven-and-a-half years after our wedding day?
I didn’t know much about Judaism before I met my wife. After we dated for a couple of months, my future mother-in-law gave me Harry Gersh’s book, When a Jew Celebrates. I clearly remember her saying: “If you are going to be part of this family, then I want you to learn our traditions and understand why Judaism is important to us.” This wasn’t an attempt to convert me. In fact, my future in-laws were respectful of my family’s traditions, holidays and beliefs. As strange as it might sound, this “homework” assignment left a big impact on me.
As the years went by, I realized something had taken hold of me—Judaism, with all of its captivating beauty. With each Shabbat celebrated with my family, my love for and connection to Jewish life would grow deeper and deeper. It gave me so much meaning. However, a force was pulling me away. It wasn’t my own Catholic identity, but my parents. I felt like I was betraying them and their love that raised me as a Catholic. So, I installed a barrier in my mind and attempted to keep conversion at bay.
But I couldn’t. I knew I wanted to become Jewish, and wondered if it was off-limits for me. My wife, kids and I had spent the last several years thriving as an interfaith family. Why change things now?
I eventually decided to face the resistance that I was feeling. I spent weeks preparing for and anticipating questions and arguments my parents may have had. I blocked off two-and-a-half hours for the most difficult conversation of my life. When the time finally came, the news was a shock to my parents, especially since I hadn’t intended to convert prior to getting married. Not surprisingly, the conversation was filled with emotion on both sides. I can still remember their parting words: “We love you, but we cannot support you in this decision.” I’ll admit my timing wasn’t the best with Christmas being around the corner. This was the start of many new and bumpy roads to navigate.
For my immediate family, I had hoped we would transition from an interfaith family to one big, happy Jewish family that was always on the same page. That wasn’t that case. As I studied for conversion, I adopted Jewish observances different from my wife’s definition of what it’s like to be Jewish. We also had to rethink what celebrating holidays with my parents would be like from this new perspective, especially regarding our children.
Fast forward two years of living a Jewish life since that difficult conversation with my parents. I was now ready for the last step before becoming Jewish: immersing in the mikveh. The mikveh is a ritual bath which, for conversion purposes, seals someone’s new Jewish identity. Upon immersion for the third and final time, I recited the Shehecheyanu blessing, which thanks God for bringing us to this moment. Although they didn’t attend, I couldn’t help thinking of my parents and how—even with their disappointment—they were responsible for bringing me into this world. They raised me as someone who could make this decision and choose this path.
In the Torah, name changes occur during transformation. With my first name being Joseph, I could have easily chosen my new Hebrew name as “Yosef.” However, like those in the Torah, I wanted my Hebrew name to reflect my transformation. That’s why I chose “Menashe,” who was one of Joseph’s sons. By choosing “Menashe,” I became the next generation of myself. This name would serve as a symbol of my new identity, while still retaining a connection to who I was prior to my transformation.
While my new Jewish identity was sealed that day at the mikveh, I recognize there are certain biological and psychological aspects the waters of the mikveh cannot wash away: my mother’s smile, my father’s sense of humor and the love I have for them. Becoming Jewish represented the fusion of the different paths I’ve taken in my life’s journey so far. The experiences and learnings gained along the way have prepared me to navigate what’s next, including new and bumpy roads.