Dating should be, in my humble opinion, one of the topics that is openly discussed with the candidates. Say, pros and cons in terms of how it affects their relationship with the beit din. How will their dating life look post-conversion? What are the biggest struggles? Just as many aspects of family laws aren’t discussed with those that aren’t about to enter the new dimension of changing their marital status, so isn’t dating. It is, however, only natural that it will happen simply because we are human. Putting on a skirt, tzit-tzit or even learning the whole Shmone Esre by heart doesn’t miraculously change that.
My story is rather unique regarding dating and marriage post-conversion: my fiancé and I had very brief contact with one another, though strictly in a business sense – he’s a translator and I needed my personal statement essay to be translated into Hebrew (my written Hebrew currently reads a bit as if a seven year-old wrote it). One of my giur rabbis, who happens to be my fiancé’s eldest brother, made the connection for translation. After I completed the conversion, he was given my contact information… and the rest is history.
Dating itself was very different for me. In many ways, he knew my life story through my essay. While I didn’t have to explain myself and my decision, it was sometimes difficult to trust how to best conduct myself on dates with someone I knew was Orthodox from birth – or as many American Jews refer to as Frum From Birth (FFB). Halachically, I knew the social rules, but it was difficult to get over the fear of making some faux pas that I wouldn’t know to avoid. I suppose it would have been easier for me to begin my foray into the Orthodox dating world with a ba’al tshuva (someone, who became religious after living a secular life), but I’ve never been known to do things the “easy way”. And because my parents aren’t Jewish, I couldn’t turn to them with questions – so I relied heavily on my Orthodox girlfriends to reassure me that everything was okay.
The space between dating and engagement, however, was worlds apart for me. In dating, you spend time getting to know one another, deciding if you have mutual attraction, similar thoughts on life, and generally seeing whether you can stand spending large amounts of time together. Engagement is something else, altogether: I suddenly had to translate what I knew about the Orthodox Jewish World into building a home with someone who grew up in that world. Halachically speaking, the woman takes on her husband’s customs upon marriage – but this was especially difficult for me because I had no family customs of my own on which to rely or compare. All I knew was what I learned and took upon myself over the last three-and-a-half years. I took upon the customs of the Sephardim, that is, Jews originating from Spain. I had anticipated that my affinity with the Sephardic community and its customs would naturally lead me to fall in love with and marry a Sephardic man. That my fiancé is Ashekenazic, a Jew whose family originated from Eastern Europe, is proof that Hashem has a wicked sense of humor.
There are few differences between the customs in the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities: prayer books and prayer styles, Passover observances, Shabbat and Havdalah procedures, wedding customs, kashrut, and most especially the traditional foods they eat. It may seem simple, but adopting foreign-to-me religious customs, then adopting different customs due to marriage has been nothing short of interesting. And learning to balance communication between my fiancé and me on building a home together has had its pitfalls and strengths.
With any marital process, communication is key. But it’s important for the future spouse of a convert to know that though they may have studied for years – as I did – they come to Judaism with major holes in their education; most of those holes come from community social expectations and norms. Feelings were hurt unintentionally and emotions ran high. That I’m the only member of my biological family who lives in Israel exacerbates these problems, in that moving away from the Israeli community that first embraced me is often not recognized by others as a challenge. I know of many converts, who also struggle with deciding on family holiday observances between Jewish and non-Jewish relatives. I suppose it is helpful that my family lives out of the country, because we don’t have to fight over these issues, but it’s also sad for me because I’m not able to share my new family with my birth family.
One of the other major issues I have encountered with marriage after conversion is learning the laws of family purity. We learned very cursory information regarding this element of Halacha during our conversion classes, but what we learned was so much less than what we ultimately learn with our madrichat kallot (bride instructors). In my conversion course, we learned that going to the mikvah was highly important as it has roots in the mikvah practices from the days of the temples. I feel this is a major short-coming in my conversion education; in many ways, I had no earthly idea of what I was getting into for future family life – we didn’t learn anything regarding the harchakot, which are a list of extra precautions husbands and wives must take in order to avoid coming into physical contact with one another during the times of the month they are not permitted to one another. I was very thoughtful about taking on the rules of a halachically-observant life, yet I didn’t understand this piece of Halacha well-enough to make a truly informed decision. This information is absolutely necessary for male and female converts to understand what they will be taking on by choosing to live an Orthodox lifestyle. This should not have felt like a trick that was played on me as a convert.
I would like to think that I would have still chosen to complete my conversion process after knowing the rules, as I have chosen to remain living an Orthodox lifestyle, but it’s hard to speculate about something that didn’t happen. Learning more in-depth about family purity is as necessary to understanding Orthodox life as it is to learn about kosher laws, Shabbat, modesty, and not touching members of the opposite sex. I know that other conversion programs may go into more depth with this topic, but I can’t make a fair comparison of how much is covered between the various programs.
This is singularly the hardest piece I have ever written, because we have decided to talk about our dating experiences, not just theories in general. When the dayan asked me about my friend during the final meeting I was genuinely puzzled because I had little understanding of what kind of a friend he was referring to. It turned out that he was asking about a boyfriend. Because, after all, why would someone go through so many struggles if it wasn’t for a man, a lurking, well-hidden shadow, spreading his sexual allure and the sense of both adventure and danger under the beit din’s radar, like Phantom of the Opera, only, you know, Jewish. Yes, I am imagining Gerard Butler.
The beit din doesn’t necessarily discourage dating, but if you are converting because of a guy or a girl they will make both of your lives more of a hell that you can possibly imagine. I know a girl, also Polish, whose status was much less questioned than mine and the beit din repeatedly refused to convert her. Her fiancée moved heaven and earth (including the Israeli Knesset) to get her approved for the giur. The beit din kindly obliged and accepted her, but they made her process unbearable stretching it over the period of a few years. In the end they opted for private orthodox conversion, the details of which I really don’t have since we went our separate ways.
On the other hand many people around you keep raising these questions: Should you really be dating at this time? Shouldn’t you first finish the conversion?
Well, probably yes, mostly because of the stress involved. It inevitably reflects on the relationship. You genuinely think that this will just go on forever. You are not present with the other person. You’re everything between okay and depressed. That’s not healthy for any relationship. People whose partners converted continuously say that they had no clue how hard the process is. The beit din will somehow break you in pieces, even if you think that you are stronger than that and the more you defend yourself, the harder they will push until you stop fighting.
Nevertheless, life is an organic thing and opportunities continuously present themselves, despite our existent or non-existent readiness.
I was brought up in a very Polish-Nigerian-conservative way. Children, alike fish, shouldn’t speak. They should be invisible. We weren’t supposed to have our own opinions. In terms of boys one cardinal rule applied: do not let any boy touch you, ever. When I had my two crushes in my later teens they always reported back that they were people inquiring about our relationships and my dad was spotted more than a few times spying on us. Of course he could have just been on his break at odd hours, wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day and hiding behind a newspaper. In other words, the first several meetings with my dad were catastrophic. The guys would bend in half trying to show their respect to my dad and always said “hello”, but my dad refused to even look at them. Until he started looking at them and then they wished they could just disappear. The only thing my dad was missing was a rifle.
In London I wasn’t really dating that much to which I attribute my terrible choice of the long-term relationship in my early 20’s. As I increasingly realised that I wasn’t going to stay in the UK, I voted against dating altogether.
I was already in Israel, having a casual look at the fish in the pond, when I was introduced to one guy by my acquaintance’s boyfriend (until now I can’t understand why I was introduced to him in the first place). Number one, he was American. Yes, hate me now. I told myself that I would never date an American. But I was told that perhaps I was just judgmental? Perhaps he wasn’t at all as American? By the way, all American guys say that they aren’t like all Americans. But, in my opinion, why even say it? Be proud of who you are. You may not be my cup of tea, but, so what? I am not everyone’s shot of whisky (or vodka) either. There is something American about every American just as there will always be something (well, more than something) Polish about me. The going out with him didn’t last long. I can’t stand being around people who have no idea what they want.
The second one was Canadian. I have always liked Canadians. There is something slightly more European about them. He was really not my thing in any way, but asked me to give him a chance. That he could prove me wrong. I thought, well, he would be the first in the human history to prove a woman wrong, so why not give him a shot? I mean, how can I dismiss a person without getting to know him first? I can. I know that now. There is something called a gut feeling. It works like this: if you have a gut and if you can feel it, listen to it. Less than two weeks into pursuit he decided that he wasn’t ready for a relationship – good riddance.
The third one was actually the most fun to be around. I wonder however, if my fun was mostly related to the fact that he spoke very little English. I admit, he was talking a lot about marriage, but I was in no position to suggest a date. He was absolutely hysterical and he was an ars (a Hebrew term for Israeli gigolos). I know, I know. Don’t date arsim. Still, I don’t think I have ever laughed as much as I had laughed with him even though I was only slightly surprised that he was dating more than one person at the same time one of whom he just recently married. Mazal tov.
The point is that relationships aren’t perfect and many won’t probably work out before one does. I used that being-in-a-limbo time to explore both the pond and myself. I have come out with some conclusions, which I wouldn’t have otherwise.
For example, some people think that only because you had to go through the giur it means that you deserve less; that your choices can be made on your behalf, because you have lesser attachments to people and places as a result of turning your world upside down. The men that you get to choose from are of lesser category (before you get upset, read “How not to get married: We all discriminate in dating”) and the more religious you are planning to be the more defective man you are expected to settle with. You will be offered rejects in their own communities and you will be expected to comply. If, however, you find a gem who is sane, intelligent, religious and you find him to die for, like Elisheva did, hold on to him for your dear life. That’s one in two million.
Men, both religious and secular, will think that they can take advantage of you because you can’t do any better. I am telling you that you can. You don’t have to go for rejects, or for a lesser man, or someone who will mistreat you so you can live a religious life. You literally deserve the best because, if someone is willing to put up with the beit din having no Jewish background whatsoever, deciding to join this nation, love it and be part of it – they deserve the best. Remember that.