I had been dating my girlfriend for a month when I told her that my parents were coming to town for their yearly visit from the East Coast.
"Do your parents know I'm a shiksa?" Laura asked, smirking sincerely.
"Not yet," I said. "I haven't told them about you yet. But don't worry, they'll be cool with you not being Jewish."
I said this, unsure if that last statement was completely true.
That night I sat on my couch, grinding my feet into the rug, my palm gripping my cellular.
"So where is she from?" my mom asked.
"Uh, Utah," I replied, then proceeded with caution. "Actually, she was raised Mormon, but she isn't Mormon anymore ... I mean, she's nothing. I mean, she's not with any religion."
I was uncomfortable saying these things to my mother, and the silence that ensued was worse, even if only for a few seconds.
"Oh," my mom said.
"She went to Brandeis," I added in haste. "She loves Jews."
"Oh," she repeated, "that's nice."
It was then that I sensed trouble.
It sounds silly, but my girlfriend Laura does indeed love Jews. Raised Mormon in Utah, she developed a distaste for the faith's dogma at an early age and never looked back. When her parents divorced, she moved to New Mexico with her mother, to a tiny town dominated by devout Christians. When the time came to pick a college, her favorite teacher referred her to Brandeis University, from which she earned a full scholarship. She had never known a Jew, but she was anxious for the new experience.
As she describes Brandeis, she was so relieved to be in a place where people were openly religious but not trying to convert her or push their values on her. It was there that she fell in love with Jews -- Jewish men in particular. Among her favorites: her now ex-husband, the Beastie Boys and Jesus. That's right, Jesus. Laura is one of those rare people who loves Jesus and the spirit of his teachings, even decorating her home with his images, while remaining religiously unaffiliated.
"So, when you think of God, do you picture Jesus?" I once asked her.
"I'm not sure," she said.
My gut reaction was to be bothered by this. Not that I believe in the God of the Torah either, or any other religious representation of the divine, but I feel like my Jewish upbringing has led me to find the concept of Jesus inconceivable. I'm sure that Jesus was a nice guy, clearly a forward thinker, but come on.
On the ride to meet my parents, I interpreted Laura's calm demeanor as restrained stress.
"There's no reason to be nervous," I said.
"So they don't care that I'm a shiksa?"
"No ... I don't think so."
Clearly, I still wasn't certain.
My parents should be used to it by now. They had an unmarried daughter come home pregnant and a few years later, their oldest son married a Catholic woman. They were initially distraught, then disappointed, confused I'm sure. The possibility of having non-Jewish grandchildren is a difficult one for devout Jews. But it didn't take long for them to understand the situations and, more importantly, accept them.
Ironically, our parents never forced religion upon us -- aside from sending all of us to yeshiva, that is. As Conservative Jews, our household was secular compared to those of our classmates. Sure, we had Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, refrained from writing and driving on Saturdays, but religion was rarely discussed in our home. Most indicative of how my parents raised us, they gave us a choice when we reached high school whether we wanted to transfer from the yeshiva to public school. Each of us did.
I am not a religious person, but I love being Jewish. I spent the majority of my childhood in Jewish environments and at various points in my adult life, I have chosen to study and work strictly with Jews; I feel a comfort with them that's hard to describe. It feels strange to be so unaffected by the rituals and beliefs of Judaism while continuing to experience such a love for it.
My parents never forced dogma upon me, and they constantly encouraged me to think for myself and make my own decisions about my religion. I consider them symbols of the beauty of Judaism itself, a religion that pushes its people to persistently consider their own thoughts and feelings.
Laura and I joined my parents at one of the kosher restaurants on Pico Boulevard. It was truly affirming to watch my mother and father show great interest in my girlfriend's religious history. They asked her about being raised Mormon, and they listened intently to her stories. I felt an enormous feeling of elation realizing that my parents weren't judging me or my mate.
I continue to wrestle with my religion, but I am eternally grateful to my parents for teaching me to think for myself, independent of them. I am also grateful to them for welcoming a special person like Laura into our lives.
And if Laura does picture Jesus as God, it doesn't really bother me.
"At least he's Jewish," I tell her.
Ezra Werb is a behaviorist who works with autistic children. He writes fiction in his free time.