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Jew Class and Korean Pancakes

My father is upset that I am teaching my boyfriend to be Jewish. We have even signed up for what we affectionately call “Jew Class” so we can meet other interfaith couples, learn together about many aspects of the culture and traditions, and maybe even pick up a great latke recipe or two. We want to get married and this is our first tenuous step toward creating our life together and cementing our future.

That’s right folks, it’s old fashioned romance involving studying, reading assignments, and, as I explained to my dad lightheartedly when I told him about the class, group circumcisions. (If that won’t bring us closer together, I don’t know what will.) For the sake of full disclosure, that last part is not true. But the fact that the future existence of our relationship is being reduced, or perhaps elevated, to a concept which must be studied for eight months may seem strange to some, but to us it is par for the course.

Paul and Danielle
Paul and Danielle

On our first date I cut right to the chase telling him, “If you are not open to eventual conversion to Judaism, this can go no further.” It’s a wonder there was ever a second date with that as my kicky opener.

I grew up as an Orthodox Jew, attended a yeshiva from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and neither foresaw nor was prepared for the realities of love in the real world.

He had moved from Korea at 5 with his parents, brother and many extended family members, and attended an all Korean church where he and his cousins went on retreats and sang Korean Christian songs by campfire. Somewhere along the way he lost some of his religious fervor and by the time he got to college, church was a place he went to only on visits home, and solely to please his parents.

At some point I too had strayed a bit from the confines of my religious upbringing. But somehow I still always assumed without question that I would fall in love with a “nice Jewish Boy” and that together we would figure out where we stood religiously: Would we keep kosher in our home? Attend synagogue every Friday night and Saturday? Even what sort of synagogue we would attend in the first place was an issue I hoped to push off until I found that somebody to explore these things with as a couple.

In reality, I lacked the strength to redefine my beliefs in the context of the life I have been living, and as it is becoming, which is in opposition to the way I was raised.

But then Paul showed up with his beautiful eyes, his love for spicy foods and strikingly calm and serene demeanor, and I accidentally fell in love with him. (And yes, we immediately rented Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to get a grasp on the cultural implications of our forbidden love.)

Suddenly I am happier than I have ever been, and meeting his entire extended family as they whisper to each other in Korean, “That’s not his girlfriend, right?” (His cousin explained later.)

He was supposed to bring home a Korean girl, maybe even a churchgoing one. When his grandmother asked him where I go to church he brushed off the question, saying I was from Boston and “worshiped” there, at a place she would be unfamiliar with.

Danielle with Paul's Family
Danielle with Paul and his family

When I first took him home I introduced him as my friend Paul, and took him to my dad’s apartment for a traditional Friday night dinner with my four siblings. Needless to say when my father found out later that we were more than just friends, he wished he hadn’t opened the good wine that night.

But now, three years later we are in the throes of making this actually happen and I’ve realized that I will still get to commiserate over the finer points of Judaism with my mate. The two of us will still decide what community we feel we belong to, or whether or not our children will attend a Jewish day school. And more importantly, I have had to reexamine my own commitment to this culture and these traditions, realizing I cannot just wait for someone else to decide for me what is going to be important in my future and for my family. I eventually saw that I cannot ask Paul to go through with this massive change when I am not sure where I stand myself. I could no longer be lazy about nailing down which aspects of Judaism I believe to be truly important in my future family’s Jewish life–what my friends came to call “the deal breaker”–and what was negotiable and not as integral to my happiness.

I have realized that besides kimchi (which is delicious, by the way), and a greater tolerance to extreme spice, the greatest thing Paul has given me is a newfound confidence in my beliefs and a willing partner with whom to share them and with whom I will continue to probe and explore and learn.

And there have been a few moments where I have felt I belonged with his family. When his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer his mother, sister-in–law and I stood around in his kitchen making pae jun (Korean Pancakes) as she broke the news to me. What followed was a reflection of the cultural differences regarding disease; she hadn’t wanted to tell Paul’s grandfather about the cancer but the doctor told her she had no choice, and eventually broke the news himself. Although it was a sad and difficult time, I had never felt closer, more in their circle, than when she shared this very personal news and asked my opinion on what she believed to be the doctor’s indiscretion.

And three months later, in the same house, the night of grandpa’s funeral, eating the same pae jun, I again felt I belonged. All of us had gone back to his parents’ house to sleep over: his brother, sister-in-law, two nieces, and three relatives who had flown in from Korea, and even though we had to camp out on the floor, his mother had insisted we join them. We stayed up late drinking whiskey together and talking, mostly in Korean which I could not understand, and only sometimes in English, but always I felt an indispensable part of the family, something which I had so hoped to feel for so long.

He had his breakthroughs with my father as well. When my sister had a car accident in New York on her way home to Boston from University of Maryland for a school break, it was Paul who left work to be with her and make sure she was alright. Eventually he brought her to a nearby train station to continue on to Boston, and had to speak to my dad on the phone for directions and train schedules. I know my father was grateful that my sister did not have to be alone. A few months later on Paul’s birthday he even told me to pass along well wishes.

It seems a simple and irrelevant thing, but in the four birthdays Paul has had since we began dating, it was the first one my father had ever acknowledged. Baby steps, I suppose.

We are truly attempting to make our way through the breakthroughs as well as the setbacks by navigating the traffic signals of our family’s feelings. It is a difficult thing to feel that you have to tread lightly around such happy subjects such as love, family, and eventually children, but we are forced to try and do this in our own stilted way, starting with our “Jew Class” and perhaps ending in a miracle?

Danielle Leeds

Danielle Leeds grew up in Newton, MA and works at a hedge fund in New York City. Although her day school teachers no doubt think they taught her all she needs to know about the Jewish food establishments in the city, she is now strongly considering trademarking a recipe for kimchi-filled knishes.