A damn good question was sent into my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly!
Why am I not considered Jewish even though my mother converted to Reform Judaism? My father is Jewish by birth. I’m dating an Orthodox Jewish guy, and his mother has asked me what kind of conversion my mother went through, which is really dumb, because she’s a convert herself. Isn’t it enough that I’ve grown up with a Jewish identity my whole life? How dare people question what I believe? I’m Jewish through my father. Why isn’t that enough? If I were to marry the man I’m dating, his family would accept it only if I reconverted! Why?
— Really Annoyed!
Dear Really Annoyed: There are several elements to your question, so let me begin with the halachic ones. For halachic Jews (those whose lives are informed by Jewish law), people are Jewish if they were born of a Jewish mother or if they converted. Therefore, you can’t gain Jewish identity through your born-Jewish father in a traditionally observant Jewish environment. This doesn’t mean that people can’t love you, have you over for dinner, enjoy your company etc., but it does mean that when they are determining whether a person is eligible to marry into their family, your father’s identity does not get you in.
Halachic Jews don’t see your mother’s conversion as authentic because the person who converted her was not authentically a rabbi according to their beliefs. That is, a Reform rabbi does not observe all the mitzvot, so is not really a rabbi and does not have the power to convert your mother.
You say, “How dare people question what I believe?” I’m betting that you question what they believe. Doubting the beliefs of others is a longstanding human practice. I doubt that you are going to be swayed to the views of your boyfriend’s family any more than they will be swayed to yours. I suggest that you don’t bother to go down that black hole, because it is highly unlikely there will be much mind-changing.
You mention that your boyfriend’s mother is herself a convert and had an Orthodox conversion. You feel that logically that would make her more willing to accept your mother’s conversion. But, in fact, that is all the more reason for her to not accept your mother’s conversion. She has taken on a way of life in her adult years that required a great deal of thought, faith and change. She surely did not do it lightly. I would bet that her conviction is strong and that she very much wants her children and her grandchildren to live within the framework of the life she chose.
Where to go from here? You need to talk to your boyfriend and see where he stands. Is he quietly letting his mother do the talking for him and is he not willing to marry you unless you have an Orthodox conversion? (This will not be a reconversion since you never converted. You were born a Jew, a Reform Jew.) If he feels as she does, he needs to stand up and be honest with you. If that is the case, then you should ask what being an Orthodox Jew means to him. Does he see his future married life as one with a kosher home, where the family is shomer Shabbos? Does he expect that you would modify your dress, hairstyle and activities, in order to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle?
If he does, then it’s your decision as to whether you want to live this way. You should certainly meet with an Orthodox rabbi to discuss what would be expected of you both for your conversion and your life as an Orthodox family. If you see beauty in a traditional lifestyle, then go ahead and convert. But you should do this for yourself, not for your boyfriend or his mother.
If on the other hand your boyfriend doesn’t really care about an Orthodox lifestyle and doesn’t intend to keep a kosher home or maintain the practice with which he was raised, then he needs to have a conversation with his mother. He should explain to her that just as she chose her own life direction when she chose to convert to Judaism in a traditional community, so he too is going to make his own choices. If he plans to marry you then he needs to tell her so. She may be angry with him but he is the person with whom she has a conflict, not you.