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Is it too much to ask my boyfriend to convert and move to Europe?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected]

Dear Bintel,

I was born and raised in Brussels, though I traveled back and forth to family in the US for most of my childhood, and I moved to New York for college, where I lived for the next few years after graduation. I work in the art world, and I’ve also spent a lot of time living in Paris, and speak French both with my family and many of my friends. Growing up Jewish in Belgium meant my family was always very aware and very proud of being Jewish, and the Holocaust loomed large in my connection and sense of the world (several of my immediate relatives are survivors). We celebrated the holidays and Shabbat, and went to synagogue, and I can speak basic Hebrew. We weren’t really careful about following the rules, and it wasn’t a community that I stayed very active in after I left home, but I am proud to be Jewish.

You can probably guess where this is going. I always assumed I would marry someone who was Jewish, or at least some who also spoke French or was European, though I invariably was attracted to men who were not Jewish. I’ve not had a lot of luck in my relationships. Now I’m dating a man who for the first time feels right. I’m almost afraid to say how good the relationship is, because I wonder if it can even be real. He’s sweet, and interesting, and smart, and handsome and kind and caring. I didn’t realize how much emotional labor I was doing in my past relationships, as they say, until I felt what it means to be loved so totally, and by someone also invested in making this work. I have never been this happy.

This man is totally and completely American, and he is not Jewish. As I mentioned, I’ve always assumed I would live in Europe, at least for some amount of time when I started a family, and also that my husband would be Jewish. I don’t even know why this is so important to me. But I can’t ask him to convert and leave his whole life behind for me. I would understand if I was Orthodox, but how can I ask him to convert when I don’t even do basic Jewish practices? This year we celebrated Hanukkah together, and he wanted to learn the songs and the prayers, but if he wasn’t in my life I wouldn’t have even thought to light the menorah. I know it would destroy my parents if I married someone who was not Jewish, but that isn’t even what is driving me. I want it too. Am I being completely unreasonable?

Not Jewish Enough For The Both of Us?

dove flies through broken heart

Image by Liana finck

Dear Jewish,

I think you know the answer — you have to ask him. I realize it seems like a lot, to put it mildly, to ask the first great boyfriend you’ve ever had if he wants to move to Brussels and convert to Judaism for you. But you are not asking him to do that, yet. You are opening up the conversation. You are finding out if those are things he would even consider, or if they are complete non-starters from his end. Either way, that information is useful for you.

I wonder if part of you is still a little scarred by your string of past relationships. Sometimes, when we are used to being in relationships that don’t feel secure — where we are always the ones expected to accommodate and understand and roll with the punches — we begin to think that any big asks will prove too much of a burden, and the relationship will collapse under the weight of our need. Those relationships suck! This sounds like a really healthy, loving, mature relationship, which both of you recognize is something special. Put a little weight on it, and see how strong it can be.

I would think about opening up the conversation similar to how you describe it here. You could try something like, “I know we are not there yet, but I was thinking about how growing up I always assumed I would marry someone who was Jewish, and that I would live in Brussels when I had a family. I’m so happy together, as you know, and I’ve been thinking a little bit about whether or not those things are still important to me.”

Then listen. Maybe he’ll be taken aback, and have some questions about what you mean. Maybe he won’t be surprised at all. If he lives in New York, he might know some people who have converted to Judaism in the context of a relationship, and it might not be so new to him. Maybe have some information handy about what conversion would even look like (and we can provide some resources if you’d like to learn more). But at least it will be out in the open, able to be explored and revisited as the two of you continue to build your bond.

And don’t feel guilty! When we think about building a life together, we think about the kind of family we want to raise and the heritage and traditions we want to share as a couple. Of course, even if you two get married and he does not convert, you can have a Jewish home. But there is something very meaningful about the Jewish rituals in your future home being shared. You might not always want to be ‘performing’ Hanukkah for him, or hosting a shabbat meal where he is the guest to the ritual in his own home. It sounds like you want it to be something you both share.

Sometimes, I get questions from people who ask why it matters if they marry someone not Jewish or a Jewish person who has no interest in practicing Judaism. First off, it doesn’t have to matter, of course. But I think whether the default religious tradition for your partner is Judaism, or not, can make a difference. After all, when your partner is Jewish — whether by birth or choice — the religious tradition they will reach for in moments of crisis or need or interest, is Judaism. And that is something you will share.

So bring it up! Gently, and with an open minded, but with honest sharing about your feelings. It’s not nothing, and it makes sense that you are realizing that as you consider this major life choice for your future.

Let us know how it goes!

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected]

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