My Jewish Bookshelf — Book Review-ish: Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant

This was I think about the first book I bought when I started to seriously consider conversion to Judaism.  I chose it because it is written by a woman, and it explicitly talks about (in detail) how to talk to your family and friends about your conversion.  The book’s subtitle is “A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends.”  It’s fairly comprehensive, and deals with (inter)marriage, adoption, conversion of children, family life, dealing with fallout from your family and friends, and other matters.  It also contains a nice section of poems by converts, including a quite memorable entry by an Asian-American convert who talks about the difficulties in negotiating between Jewish and Chinese funerary customs, for instance.

This book also has the most detailed description of the actual conversion <i>rituals</i> I’ve seen in any book aimed at potential converts so far, which may have something to do with the fact that Diamant is married to a convert and probably got to see it up close and personal.  For someone who worries about everything, this was reassuring, although I’m certain that if and when the day comes, my conversion steps will be both more demanding and less ceremonial.

This book is written from a Reform perspective, which puts it on my “must recommend” list for anyone considering or undergoing a Reform conversion, but it does also mean that parts of it are not really as applicable to my circumstances as descriptions of the Orthodox process are, which is fine, and no value judgement is implied.  I still think it’s a valuable book to have.  It’s well-written, engaging, features “testimonials” from converts that are interesting without lapsing over into being cloying or ridiculous (a fine art indeed), and presents a lot of material, particularly in terms of interpersonal relationships, worth thinking about.

One issue I did have with this book is that much of the “how to talk to your family and friends” material is presented from the perspective of someone who is converting in order to marry a Jew.  Some of the advice still pertains; much of the rest is basically irrelevant.  If I were Diamant and I were interested in doing a new version of the book, I might actually consider trying to talk my publisher into doing an edition specifically for and about couples in which one partner is converting, and one edition that talks about everything else.  I don’t have to get buy-in from my future in-laws, make sure that my parents are cool with my fiance, or any of that stuff, or negotiate how our new Jewish family is going to do holidays with Grandma and Grandpa (as opposed to Saba and Savta) — at least not for a long while yet! — because I am not in that situation.  I do understand why this is probably the focus of the book, though, since it’s Diamant’s own situation, and I suspect that within the Reform context, it’s probably one of the most — if not the most — common reason for conversion.  (For what it’s worth, the married couple the rabbi is currently tutoring have a child who converted de novo to Judaism and now lives in Israel, and they decided to convert after that.)

It’s also not really intended for prospective Orthodox converts, although you can’t fault the book for that, since it says so “on the tin,” as it were.  (The rabbi at Beit Meshugge’s equivalent text on his syllabus is To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life by R. Hayim H. Donin, and I’m told Maurice Lamm’s Becoming a Jew is also an excellent guide from the Orthdox perspective.)  I still got a lot out of the book, enjoyed the poetry, enjoyed Diamant’s eminently readable style and female perspective (somewhat lacking in Orthodox texts), and keep it on hand for fragmentary re-reads.  I definitely recommend this book, particularly for prospective Reform converts, and particularly if you’re expecting to have some tough “talks” with people in your life.

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