July 14, 2005
Two years ago, my wife and I proudly stood on the bimah as our son, Benjamin, became a bar mitzvah.
He had worked so hard for this day and he looked as handsome as could be in his dark suit draped with a striking new tallit. All four grandparents were shepping nachas from this joyous event.
But when I was Benjamin's age, I never imagined that I'd witness such a remarkable ceremony. Sure, I figured that I'd marry and have children. And I figured that I'd probably have a son. However, I also assumed that my wife would be Roman Catholic and very likely of Mexican descent. But there I stood two years ago, a Chicano and a Jew-by-choice, as Benjamin read from the Torah.
If one were to do a survey of people who convert to Judaism, I suspect that most do so because he or she had fallen in love with someone Jewish. I am no exception. I grew up in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles and attended 12 years of Catholic school before going off to Stanford University. Thus, prior to college, most of my friends were Catholic and almost all were Latino. University life was a bit of a culture shock as I became friends with Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. Although I had learned of the world's religions while attending a Jesuit high school, I had never really had the opportunity to socialize with people from those religions. And the idea of marrying a non-Catholic, frankly, did not register.
Then came law school. When we began at UCLA School of Law, my future wife and I were assigned to the same section. This meant that, for the first year, we had the identical class schedule. Sue and I became friends right away as we discussed politics, the law and life in general. We shared a similar worldview even though I was this Chicano boy from a working-class neighborhood who was active with La Raza Law Students Association and she was a Jewish girl from the Valley who had interests in bioethics and women's rights. But it happened: we fell in love. And then life became complicated.
Two weeks into dating, Sue said to me: "If we get married and have children, they must be raised in the Jewish religion."
She explained that a large part of her family had not survived the Holocaust and that it was her duty to make certain that her offspring could help offset this loss.
"And they couldn't have died for nothing," she added.
I said: "I love you and respect you, and you're Jewish so why should I have a problem with that?"
I also asserted that I had no intention of converting but that I didn't want to be a father who stood by the sidelines without anything to add to his children's religious upbringing. So, we joined Hillel and Sue opened up her rather extensive Jewish library to me. In addition to the programs offered by Hillel, I read the Torah and books by Alfred J. Kolatch, Elie Wiesel, Abraham Joshua Heschel and others as my informal Jewish education began.
About five years after Sue and I met, we were married in a Reform synagogue; although I had not yet converted. My informal Jewish studies continued and, two years later, I decided to convert. My wife was delighted but she had never pushed me on this point. She respected me too much to tell me to change my religion for her. And I suspect she knew that I would not have reacted well to such a request.
After additional study with the rabbi who married us, I went through my conversion ceremony on July 8, 1988, the birthday of my late grandmother, Isabel Ruez Velasco, the only grandparent I'd ever known and our last, direct connection to Mexico. She'd lived long enough to meet Sue but had died several years before we married. Though my grandmother knew Sue was Jewish, her judgment possessed no bigotry or malice. She simply smiled, patted my hand and said through a thick accent: "She's a very pretty girl."
When we're young, we can't imagine where life is going to take us. But in our youth, we think we can plan it all right down to the type of person we're going to fall in love with and what kind of family we're going to build. At least, that's how I thought. But when I look at my wife and son, I have to laugh at myself. I knew so little when I was young -- not that I'm so much wiser now. But I do know one thing: I'm a very lucky man. It's that simple.
Daniel A. Olivas (www.danielolivas.com) is an attorney with the California Department of Justice. He is also the author of four books including "Devil Talk: Stories" (Bilingual Press), and a children's picture book, "Benjamin and the Word" (Pi?ata Books). He and his family make their home in West Hills.