Why “Will Chelsea Convert?” Is the Wrong Question

It drives me crazy.

No sooner had word of Chelsea Clinton’s engagement to Marc Mezvinsky hit the news, than the question, like a mah-jongg tile gone supernova, exploded sending shockwaves across the internet and into the hearts of our communal neuroses.

So let me say this right now: I don’t care if Chelsea Clinton converts. Her spiritual decisions are not some ethno-religious trophy we should seek to display like a white rhino head next to Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Ivanka Trump. If you need this point underscored take a stroll through The Daily Beast’s slide-show of converts and celebrity flirtations with Judaism (kicking-off with an always-classy nipple shot of Britney Spears). The accompanying article matches this level of sophistication with a plumb of a quotation from Ed Koch suggesting that Chelsea Clinton acquaint herself with Chinese take-out menus. Although to be fair, it does get some slightly more thoughtful comments from the likes of Ruth Wisse, Rabbi David Wolpe and Joyce Antler (who was here a few years back with her book You Never Call! You Never Write! A History the Jewish Mother). Yet it still misses the point entirely.

The question is not whether Chelsea will convert, but how important is living a Jewish life to Marc Mezvinsky? And to be really honest, I don’t truly care how important it is to Marc Mezvinsky specifically, as I do to the thousands of Marc Mezvinskim who are going to marry non-Jews in the coming years, most of whom will not be presidential offspring. Despite all the progress that has been made in how the Jewish community deals with intermarried couples, we still view a conversion decision as a make or break moment. While that decision is an important, and often desirable one, it is but one on a spectrum of decisions an individual and then a couple make in relation to Judaism in his or her life.

It is great that Chelsea went with Marc to Yom Kippur services. But if that was the only Jewish connection Marc was going make this year, either with or without Chelsea, then it doesn’t really matter if she converts. However, if Chelsea never feels like taking a dip in the mikveh, but they light Shabbat candles, observe the yearly rhythms of the Jewish holidays, make themselves knowledgeable in Jewish history and practice, and decide to communicate these values and practices to any children they might have… then I think we as a people will still come out ahead.

What about halachah you ask? If Chelsea doesn’t convert then any children of that marriage will not have a Jewish mother and thus not be Jewish. You’re right. There are parts of the Jewish community that will not accept that child as Jewish. But the same would be the case if Chelsea does convert, but does so through the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements. And there are growing sections of the Jewish community that will welcome that child, and contrary to the doomsday predictions of some, the Jewish community will be stronger for it.

So let’s stop acting like this is 1959 and the acceptance of the Jewish community by the “mainstream” needs whatever help it can get — and if that help comes in the form of Eddie Fisher marrying Elizabeth Taylor so be it. That was 50 years ago, and while tolerance and pluralism can never be taken for granted, neither should we be overly impressed when the elite of the elite decide to marry the elite of our elite. The kid is the son of two former members of Congress — it’s not like she’s marrying Motel the tailor.

I presume Marc and Chelsea will be setting-up shop in New York, but they should know if they decide to get digs in DC that they can come to our Pre-Marriage workshop beginning in January. If they don’t have the time to commit to that, then they should consider coming to the Washington Jewish Film Festival screening of Love and Religion: The Challenge of Interfaith Relationships this coming Sunday, December 6. The film is by Dr. Marion Usher who has been running our Interfaith Couples groups for the past 15 years. She’s been way ahead of the curve in reaching-out to intermarried couples and encouraging them to make Jewish choices, while still respecting the beliefs of the non-Jewish partner.

Chelsea. Marc. Dr. Usher is awaiting your call.

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On Your Wedding To-Do List

Wedding Hall? CheckMarriage Workshop: Actual Newlyweds Pictured
Caterer? Check
Flowers? Check
Pre-Marriage Workshop? Check!

Particularly in these trying economic times, many couples are focusing less on the costly parts of the wedding and more on the spiritual journey of getting married.

With this in mind, the J is proud to offer an inexpensive, high quality pre-marriage couples workshop.

Clinical psychologist Deborah Perlman will be facilitating a lively and thoughtful discussion about issues ranging from communication to finances to building a Jewish home.

All four sessions cost only $75/couple thanks to a generous grant from the the United Jewish Endowment Fund.

This is a wonderful opportunity to explore issues together while meeting other couples.

Information is below:

Tying the Knot: A Pre-Marriage Workshop for Couples

4 Tuesdays
January 12 – February 2
8:00 – 9:30 pm: $75/couple
Register online

A Blog Post About Circumcision That Resists the Temptation to Use the Word “Cut” in a Pun, and Ends Up Promoting a Washington DCJCC Program After-All

My wife is a blogger. She blogs mainly about family building and infertility and there are two topics she has learned to studiously avoid: breastfeeding and more to the point here, especially circumcision.  Why? People’s opinions on these two matters become quickly polarized and flame-filled comments inevitably ensue [ see below].

So it is with some hesitation that I even bring this up, but today’s Washington Post article about Intactivists by Dan Zak got me thinking. Particularly this excerpt:

Spend some time with intactivists and you will hear how circumcision is responsible for, among other things, the oppression of women, sexual disharmony, deforestation, militarization, the rise and fall of empires and the invasion of foreign lands for oil.

Here’s a little experiment. In the above paragraph substitute the words “intactivists” and “circumcision” with “anti-Semites” and “Jews” respectively and tell me if the result isn’t something that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Aryan Nation website.  I’m in no way equating the anti-circ crowd with anti-Semites, but the breadth of “crimes” that each assigns to their adversary is certainly resonant.

It also seems to me, reading the article that Zak went out of his way to avoid using the “J” word. (Acutally, Zak’s article basically read like an excuse to repeatedly print the word “penis” in a family newspaper.) Certainly both Muslims and Jews practice male circumcision — according to Wikipedia 68% of circumcised men are Muslims. But there has historically been an anti-Semitic fetishization of Jewish circumcision and Jewish sexuality. All sorts of nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature speaks of a close tie between Jews and the transmission of syphillis. Among the more hysterical claims was that circumcision was actually a means of transmitting sexual diseases for which Jews had developed an immunity. The explicit claim was that Jewish sexual diseases were infecting a pure culture from within, and that circumcision was both tactic and strategy in this conquest.

Anti-circumcision activists are more than conscious of this history and go out of their way to disown those who would conflate Jews with circumcision. And yet… It still sits weirdly with me. Does the article say that Jason Siegel and Zachary Levi Balakoff, two young men who are on a hunger strike to expose male genital mutilation, are Jewish? No. But, come-on.  And I immediately think, what better prop to deflect charges of anti-Semitism than two young Jewish men outraged over their mutilated genitals. Lots of young Jewish men like myself are circumcised, have had quite nice sex lives thankyouverymuch, and have chosen to circumcise our sons. It’s hard not to be defensive in the face of Misters Siegel and Balakoff’s outrage. But hey, we all have our conspiracy theories.

In any case, how you feel about circumcision is probably something you should work out with your mate prior to marriage, and hey, we just happen to be offering a Tying The Knot: Premarriage Workshop in April. If this is a more pressing issue for you, which is to say you’ve got a bun in the oven, then you can also puzzle through the bris issues in our two-part workshop L’Amazing Baby: Childbirth Preparation with a Jewish Twist which is coming up in June.

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