I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert from Judaism to Christianity. We had just moved from New York City to a small southern town whose local hospital had recruited her to open a medical practice. My new faith was a ruse—I never formally converted—but if anyone asked, I was instructed by my mother to say I was Unitarian. She also told me to keep these sectarian machinations secret from my father, who was still in New York and who would have filed a court order demanding custody if he had the slightest notion of what she was up to. Meanwhile, I was enrolled in an Episcopal school, where I studied the Bible, attended church each week, received communion, and even sang in the choir.
Understand, please, that I love my mother, and know that she had her reasons. In retrospect, her belief that our Bible Belt town would reject a divorced, Yankee, female doctor who was also Jewish seems not so absurd. Yet let no one mistake her either for a friend of the Jews. She was convinced that the ceaseless shtick that defines Judaism in this country—the wry exceptionalism, the ironic fatalism, the false socialism, the Zionist apologetics, the Yiddish jargoning, the hand-wringing over the Holocaust—barred her from the full American experience. For her, being a Jew meant being cheated of a piece of this country’s restless, rootless anonymity. She didn’t hate Jews or Judaism, and she certainly didn’t want to hurt me. She just wanted to be one of us.
I can relate. As an adult I find that I am uncomfortable with devout practitioners of my birth religion. I worry that if they knew of my past they might not accept me as Jewish, and, with some of my mother’s scorn cutting through the unease, I wonder why I would want their acceptance in the first place. The result has been a furtive fascination with Judaism, one that compels and repels in equal measure.
One evening not long ago, I came across an odd little children’s book. Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs told the story of a Hispanic boy named Jacobo who, while visiting his grandmother in Santa Fe, learned that he was something called an anusim, or a “Crypto-Jew,” which I learned meant that he was a descendant of the Medieval Jews of Spain, who were forcibly converted to Catholicism yet continued, for hundreds of years, to practice Judaism in secret.1