Fiction 2015 / Issues / Spring 2015 / Volume 45

Conversion — Esta Fischer

Jay Goldstein had heard all the stories. Jewish boy marries Catholic girl, who agrees to bring up the children Jewish. But while the child is still too young to report back, Catholic girl sneaks off to church and has the child baptized.

“To be fair, they can’t help it,” Sid, his lawyer and best friend, said. “They’ve been indoctrinated. Just like we’ve been indoctrinated.”

Jay raised an eyebrow.

“Well, that’s what it is,” Sid continued. “Children all enter life as blank slates. We teach them what to believe. And if we do a good job, it sticks.”

“What I can’t figure out,” Jay said, “is how the husband finds out. Obviously the child didn’t tell him. Did a neighbor or friend see them go into a church and snitch?”

“The wife confesses,” Sid enlightened him. “She feels guilty and needs to confess. Confession is part of the Catholic shtick.”

“That’s brilliant,” Jay said.

“So make sure she converts,” Sid urged.

“I gave her a diamond but I made it clear: no conversion, no wedding.”

“Good luck,” Sid told him.

*

       Jay met Marie in a philosophy seminar during his Senior year of college, when she was a freshman. Neither of them was interested in philosophy, but they both needed three credits that fit into their schedule. They dated through Jay’s four years of medical school and his first year of internship.

“It’s time to get married,” Marie finally told him. “I want to have a family, and I don’t want to wait much longer.”

Jay might have pointed out that she was only twenty-three, but he knew that was just an excuse. He hated to admit it, but it bothered him that she was Catholic. He wasn’t religious, but he was brought up a certain way and it wasn’t her way. At the same time, he loved her. So he presented his requirement: she had to convert.

“It’s not like we’re going to observe everything,” he assured her. “Just the major holidays. And a Jewish wedding. And the kids will be brought up Jewish.”

Marie Gandolfi never thought to ask what that meant, to be “brought up Jewish.” All the years she’d known Jay, he hadn’t observed anything. She saw him every Friday night and Saturday and he never went to a synagogue. In fact, he’d never done anything she could recognize as Jewish. Just like she didn’t do anything that could be seen as Catholic. She supposed it wouldn’t be a big deal, so she agreed.

When she told her parents she was going to convert, they were upset at first, but came around. Jay would be a good provider, and Marie was just a high school teacher. Anyway, she was not going to renounce her Catholic faith, lapsed as it was. Twice each week she met with Rabbi Solomon, learning the ways of Jewish life: observation of the Sabbath, the High Holy days, how to keep a kosher home. Not that Jay expected her to do these things. He brought Chinese take-out, pork fried rice and shrimp chow fun, to his apartment, and he drove his car on Saturday. She didn’t tell Rabbi Solomon about this. Finally there was the ritual bath and the blessing. Then Marie Gandolfi was a Jew. Her Jewish name was Malka.

She didn’t feel any different afterwards. It was like the first time she’d had sex. She’d thought she would feel different when she wasn’t a virgin any more, but she was the same Marie.

*

       “That dress makes you look like a wedding cake,” Mrs. Gandolfi observed, looking at her daughter’s image in the mirror.

They were in the dressing room at the Mark Ingram Bridal Salon. A selection of bridal gowns hung from a rack. The dress Marie was modeling had tiers of lace from just below the bust to the hem.

“I kind of like it,” Marie said.

She twirled around in front of the mirror. She stopped mid-twirl, a wave of nausea creeping up. She’d thrown up her breakfast that morning. At first she’d brushed it off as nerves. Then she decided she had a virus. Then her denial collapsed and she admitted what she knew. She was pregnant.

Not that it mattered, she and Jay were getting married anyway. And Jay had given her the ring three months ago, before the pregnancy. She hadn’t told him yet, but she would have to break the news soon. There were people who would say she got pregnant deliberately, to make sure Jay would marry her. They would say that he had doubts, even after she converted. As if he somehow knew that in her heart she would always be a Catholic. How could she not be? It was embedded in her childhood and she couldn’t just erase it.

She twirled again, looking at the dress. It would camouflage a small baby bump. Of course, when the baby came and people thought back to the wedding and counted the months, they would know. But by then she and Jay would be married.

“I’m going to take this one,” Marie announced.

“Suit yourself,” Mrs. Gandolfi said with a shrug.

*

       “I have doubts,” Jay told Sid.

They sat in a neighborhood coffee shop eating bacon cheeseburgers and drinking cherry cokes.

“Doubts about what?” Sid asked.

“I don’t know. Marie. The wedding.” He paused. “Marie’s pregnant.”

Sid slurped his coke through a straw.

“Well, you were going to marry her anyway,” he finally said, “but I see what you mean.”

“She said it was an accident,” Jay went on, “but now I don’t know if I can trust her.”

Sid popped a french fry into his mouth.

“Maybe she had doubts about you,” he suggested.

“I never thought of that,” Jay admitted.

“Do you love her?” Sid asked.

Jay nodded.

“Then the person you have to trust is yourself,” Sid told him.

*

       The baby was a boy, whom they named Jonathan. Jay insisted on the Jewish ritual circumcision. The immediate family gathered at the baby’s apartment, along with the mohel who would perform the task, as well as Rabbi Solomon.

“You’re doing what to the baby?” Mrs. Gandolfi asked Marie, incredulous. “Don’t they do that in the hospital? Under anesthesia?”

“It’s very important in the Jewish religion,” Marie explained. She tried to recall something from her religious training that would impress her mother with the significance of the ritual, but she couldn’t think of anything.

“Well, I think it’s barbaric,” Mrs. Gandolfi declared. “They should come up with something sensible, like baptism.”

“Oh, they have that—a naming ceremony. At the synagogue,” Marie said.

But she had to admit it could not compare with a baptism. The little white dress, the priest in black robe, the holy water, the heavy cross hanging around the priest’s neck—it was magical. She remembered the statue of Mary and Jesus in St. Joseph’s church, the church she had gone to as a child. The mother and son had looked so peaceful.

Now Jay’s sister Rachel, Jonathan’s godmother, was holding the baby who was strapped to a board. Marie couldn’t bring herself to look so she stared down at the carpet. The baby screamed and Marie began to cry. Her mother made tsking sounds, luckily drowned out by the baby. Finally, the wailing stopped. Jonathan was returned to his crib and the family sat down to refreshments, which Jay had brought in from a kosher deli.

“You were a trouper,” Jay told Marie the morning after the bris.

Marie just smiled.

*

       “We should think about joining a synagogue,” Jay told Marie one evening.

“What for?” Marie asked.

“For Jonathan,” Jay said. “I want him to be bar mitzvah’d and have religious training. Just like I did,” he added.

“But Jonathan’s just three months old,” Marie protested. “It will be years before he’s ready for that.”

“True,” Jay said, “but kids are aware of everything around them. You can’t expect them to willingly go along with religion if you don’t set an example early on.”

“Well, I think it’s a little early, but whatever you say.” Marie’s tone was reluctant.

“I’ll just look into it,” Jay said. “We don’t have to join right away.”

Jay hadn’t thought about going to the synagogue in years. He’d always gone with his parents on the high holy days. But that ended when he went to college. He’d never expected to have any interest in religion later on, but becoming a parent had brought something out. He didn’t want to be one of those super-observant Jews but neither did he want to be a hypocrite. He would have to find middle ground.

*

       Marie hadn’t thought about her childhood in years, but the conversation about their son’t future brought up memories. She’d gone to St. Joseph elementary school. Her uniform was a blue and white blouse, and a blue skirt that reached just below her knees. Her favorite teacher was sister Mary Josephine. The atmosphere at St. Joseph’s was strict but protective, and she assumed the present-day Catholic schools still had that ambiance. As opposed to public schools where there were gangs and not much discipline. Obviously, her son wouldn’t attend a Catholic school. She wished she’d thought of this before she and Jay married, before she’d agreed to convert. Jay had been so non-religious that she felt as if he’d gone through a personality change.

But what really bothered her was the circumcision. It seemed so brutal. What did it say about a religion that did this to a baby? She thought of the baby Jesus, adored and cherished. She knew in her heart she was still a Catholic and her son, by inheritance, was a Catholic too.

*

       “Let’s order in Chinese food,” Marie suggested one night. She’d had a hectic day with the baby and couldn’t face cooking.

Jay hesitated.

“Okay,” he agreed, “but we’ll use paper plates.”

“Oh?” Marie was surprised. “We’ve got a dishwasher.”

“I don’t expect to have a kosher home,” Jay explained, “but I think we have to differentiate between traditional food and what comes from the outside.”

“What’s traditional food?” Marie asked.

“What you cook,” Jay said. “Chicken, fish, meat. No pork or shellfish.”

Jay had never said no pork in the house. Marie’s meatloaf was made from a mix of beef, veal and pork. Jay had never asked what was in it.

“Okay,” Marie said.

“So no pork fried rice or shrimp,” Jay instructed.

“But if we use paper plates…” Marie began. “Why don’t you just order,” she told Jay. “I’ll put Jonathan to bed.”

After the meal, Marie gathered up the food containers, plates and chopsticks and put them in the trash. They’d had to finish all the food because Jay didn’t want the leftovers in their refrigerator.

“I don’t understand,” Marie said. “You don’t think it’s necessary for me to buy kosher meat, so why can’t we put the beef from the Chinese take-out in our refrigerator?”

“It’s like this,” Jay explained. “Even though the Chinese food didn’t have pork or shrimp, it’s essentially not kosher cuisine. Something might have accidentally gotten in.”

“But according to Rabbi Solomon, you’re either kosher or you’re not,” Marie pointed out.

“That’s the orthodox position. But lots of modern Jews do it their own way,” Jay said. “It’s an adaptation to modern life. When the Bible was written, there was no Chinese take-out.”

“Sounds like you make up your own rules,” Marie commented.

“Not really,” Jay responded. “We just bend them a bit.”

The Catholic religion was so much easier, Marie thought. You just ate everything.

*

       Marie didn’t know what to do about the meatloaf. She always made two and put one in the freezer, and she had one there now. Made with pork. But until the other day, Jay hadn’t told her about pork. She supposed she could throw it away, but she hated to waste food. She decided she would have to tell him.

“Honey, I have a confession,” Marie said that night as they finished dinner.

“What?” Jay said sharply, instantly remembering what Sid had told him about Catholic women confessing they’d had their Jewish child baptized.

“It’s about the pork,” Marie began.

“What pork?” Jay asked, flooded with relief.

“I’ve been using pork in my meatloaf. You never told me not to have it in the house until the other day. I’ve still got one in the freezer. What should I do?”

For a moment Jay was stymied. Then he sighed.

“Look, it’s not your fault,” he admitted. “We’ll eat the meatloaf, but after that, no pork, okay?”

Marie nodded.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“No need to be,” Jay told her. “Jews are reasonable people.”

Suddenly Marie thought of the circumcision.

“Jonathan’s circumcision was terrible,” she said. “Torturing children isn’t reasonable.”

“That was a religious rite,” Jay said evenly, “and the baby won’t remember it.”

“The Jews crucified Jesus,” Marie blurted out.

Jay looked at her, stunned.

“No they didn’t, that was the Romans,” he finally retorted.

They stared at each other.

Marie got up and cleared the table.

“I’m beat,” she told Jay. “I’m going to bed.”

*

       The next morning Jay got up early and made the coffee.

So they’d had their first fight, he thought as he put the beans in the grinder. And of course it had to be about religion. He was sure Marie’s Jewish training had covered the bris, but  reading about something and experiencing it live were not the same. Didn’t he know it, having studied his medical textbooks and before confronting his first corpse. But the business of Jesus had come out of left field and it made him consider: was Marie more Catholic than he’d realized? She had never spoken about religion as long as he’d known her.

Marie came into the kitchen and took eggs from the refrigerator.

“How do you want your eggs?” she asked.

“Fried, over easy, thanks,” Jay said. “Coffee’s ready. Should I pour for you?”

“Yes, thanks.”

They sat down to breakfast. Jay decided to leave the argument alone. It would pass.

*

       Jay didn’t mention that exchange again and neither did Marie, but the Jesus thing bothered him. He called Sid.

“Let’s meet. I need to talk,” he said.

They met in the local coffee shop.

“I have doubts,” Jay said, and he told Sid about the argument.

“That’s serious,” Sid agreed.

“I think she’s more Catholic than I realized. It’s like it was dormant and the bris brought it to the surface.”

“Didn’t you discuss the religious business before you got married? Like what you expected?” Sid asked.

“Not really,” Jay admitted sheepishly. “I just said our children had to be brought up Jewish. I figured kids were somewhere in the future. Then Marie got pregnant.”

“What does that mean, exactly, brought up Jewish?” Sid asked.

Jay was silent.

“I don’t know what I meant. I assumed I would play it by ear,” he finally said. “The real problem is that now I feel she went through the motions but her heart’s not in it.”

“Not in what?” Sid asked. “Look, all the time you dated, Marie saw you weren’t observant. If you had been, she probably wouldn’t even have dated you. So you shouldn’t get all devout on the poor woman. On the other hand, she married you for better or worse, observant or not. So now she’s stuck with you. You can be as religious as you want.”

“I don’t want to be that religious, at least not right now,” Jay said. “But I have to start somewhere, for my son.”

“You know, it’s really you who’s converted,” Sid pointed out. “You went from nothing to….” He waited while Jay let this sink in. “My advice is to wait  a while, until this passes. Then, maybe when a holiday comes around, you can do a little something.”

“Good idea,” Jay said.

*

       “I don’t understand,” Marie told her mother. “All the time I was dating Jay, he never did anything Jewish. But he had to have that ceremony.”

Jay had long hours at the hospital and Marie had taken Jonathan to her parents’ house. The baby was sleeping peacefully in a makeshift crib the Gandolfis had put together. The aroma of Mrs. Gandolfi’s meatballs and gravy, suffused with pork neck bones, filled the kitchen.

Mrs. Gandolfi sat at the table, across from Marie.

“Here’s the thing about marriage,” she told her daughter. “There are going to be a lot of things that don’t make sense. You just have to play along.”

“You mean I should play at being Jewish?”

“I don’t mean any disrespect to Jay, but if he’s not really practicing his religion, why should you?” Mrs. Gandolfi said. “You agreed to bring up the baby Jewish, but we know you’re still a Catholic, even though you converted. You were baptized and received your first communion.”

Marie nodded.

“Don’t worry about it,” Mrs. Gandolfi advised her.

*

       When Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year arrived, they went to Jay’s parents for a holiday dinner and the visit passed without incident. Jay hadn’t observed Yom Kippur since high school, but this year the holy day fell on one of his days off, and he bought a ticket to attend services. He didn’t ask Marie to accompany him.

“Let’s do break fast here,” Jay told Marie.

She looked puzzled.

“What’s break fast?” she asked. She didn’t remember Rabbi Solomon mentioning it.

“At sundown, after Yom Kippur is over, everyone who’s fasted gets to eat again,” Jay explained. “Usually a light meal—bagels, lox, egg salad. Some cake. It’s easy—you buy everything at the deli,” he added.

“How many people?” Marie asked.

Jay counted his immediate relatives.

“About eight,” he told her. “Your parents are welcome, too.”

Marie remembered her mother’s behavior at Jonathan’s circumcision and decided not to mention the break fast. She made a list with approximate amounts: two pounds of lox, a pound of cream cheese. Then she decided to just ask the deli man how much of everything to buy.

The morning of Yom Kippur, Jay left for the synagogue. Marie set up the dining table with paper plates, napkins and plastic cutlery. She checked the refrigerator. She’d forgotten to buy butter for the bagels. The weather was warm and sunny so she put Jonathan in his stroller and headed for the supermarket. Along the way she passed Our Lady of Martyrs church. She’d walked past it a thousand times, barely noticing it. Before she realized what she was doing, she wheeled Jonathan inside. The baptism took only ten minutes. The priest gave the baby the baptismal name Andrew.

Back outside, she hurried to the supermarket.

At eight o’clock, Jay and his family began to arrive. The table was ready. When the meal was over and the guests had left, Marie wrapped the leftovers and put them away. Then she sat at the table with a notebook and pen.

“What are you writing?” Jay asked.

“The Yom Kippur results,” Marie answered.

“The what?”

“You know, how many pounds of lox I bought, how many people came, how much was left over. So next year I’ll have a better idea of how much to get,” she explained.

“That’s brilliant,” Jay told her.

He leaned over and kissed her. Things were going to work out.

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