Sunday, January 4, 2009

Draft 3


Dear Abba and Mom,

B and I have read over your last message carefully, and given it full thought. While we both very much appreciate your effort to try and find a solution that would make everyone happy, conversion is not a step we are willing to take.

Perhaps in my effort to spare your feelings and not insult your belief system, I have been a bit unclear about my beliefs. This seems to have led to some confusion on your part. So here it is: While we completely respect your decision to be orthodox jews, and would not impose our beliefs on anyone else, we ourselves do not want to be a part of any organized religion. We have both come to this decision after years of thinking about and debating different aspects of religion (independently, before we met each other). B and I are atheists, not agnostics. We are not religious, not because we are lazy or think religion is too hard, or don't think it's a big deal. We are not religious because we think organized religion is wrong, and harmful, and we do not want to be a part of it. For instance, one way in which we think religion is harmful is that it makes otherwise good people (like you and mom) place your community over an honest and open relationship with your children. Another way is that you seem to believe that if we don't join your religion then there is no way you can have a relationship with us. But from our perspective, we see no reason why you can't do both- be religious and have a relationship with us.

I'm telling you this not to insult your beliefs, but to clarify why converting would very much be a very big deal for us. Having B convert would be a larger compromise than we are willing to make. Not only to us as individuals, for we would be compromising a very important part of our identity. But also to B's family, who have always been very warm to us. Imagine if B's mom insisted that I undergo a sham conversion to catholicism in order to have a relationship with them; wouldn't you be very hurt by such a sham, even though you know I don't believe in it? B's mother has very strong religious convictions, and has already been hurt by the knowledge that B will never be religious, just as you have been hurt by the knowledge that I will never be religious. The difference is that she has still maintained a close relationship with B, and has welcomed me warmly into their family, because she cares more about B as a person then about B's religion. We would not want to damage our relationship with her after she has treated us so kindly.

Even if we were willing to go through with this (which we are not), it would not magically fix the relationship between us and you. We have both been very hurt by your refusal to meet B and by the way you have handled this situation. You don't seem to realize how hurtful and insulting some of the things you have written to us have been- for instance, in my last email I wrote to you asking for a more honest and open relationship, and you replied by asking us to put on some elaborate hoax conversion in order to be accepted into the family. This makes it seem to us as if your love is conditional upon such a hoax. How would you feel if I asked you to lie to everyone and tell them you were in atheist in order to be accepted into my family? Religious beliefs are not something you can force upon other people.

And how would that further your aims? You clearly want me and my future kids to have some kind of jewish identity- but how would lying to a rabbi, tricking him into allowing B to convert, lying to all our relatives, and going through with this insincere conversion achieve that goal? B and I are not going to change our stance about religion. An insincere conversion isn't even considered a valid conversion in your religion. Our kids would be halachicly jewish either way. We will still raise our children without organized religion, and allow them to join or not join any religion they would like.

We have discussed the matter in depth, and these are the compromises we are willing to make: We will be getting married on May 17th 2009. We are having the wedding on this day, which is a Sunday after lag ba'omer, so that you can come if you choose. What we plan to do for our wedding ceremony is exchange vows that we have written ourselves, and then have our guests speak about us before we all sign the marriage license, with the guests as witnesses. We will not have an officiant, as we are getting a 'self uniting' marriage license.

I know that it is important to you that I maintain some type of Jewish identity, which is why you came up with this conversion idea. So this is what I propose: While I am not willing to have a religious jewish wedding ceremony, since I disagree with so many things about it (as you might recall from all the fights we had when I was engaged to A), I would be willing to incorporate some jewish cultural traditions into our wedding ceremony. For instance, we will be happy to exchange the vows we have written under a chuppah if you lend us one. We will get kosher food for you and/or Mom if you decide to attend.

Furthermore, in the future, if you ever decide to welcome B and me into your life (even if you decide not to come to our wedding) then I will try to forget the extremely hurtful way in which you have treated us over the past few years, and to have a relationship with you. We will be happy to dress appropriately and keep the laws of kasharut, etc, for any time we are under your roof. You can have a relationship with our future children, and we could visit for some of the more secular jewish holidays, such as channukah, so that our children have a sense of their Jewish cultural heritage. We would be happy for them to learn the history of the Jewish people, and of their own family history on my side. However we will not accept any attempts from you or anyone else to 'do kiruv' on them and to persuade them to be religious.

If you feel that inviting us both to family events would be too much strain, and that you can't accept B into the family unless he converts, then that is your choice, and we will have to go our separate ways. How the other members of our extended family decides to treat us is up to them, and we will deal with them individually. I hope you understand that if you refuse to meet B I am not willing to go behind his back and allow you to have a relationship with our future children.

I hope you will consider what I have said, as this is as far a I am willing to go. While I would love to have a relationship with you, this is much higher of a price than I am willing to pay for one, as it would compromise my and B's very strong beliefs. I hope you will be willing to think about ways in which we can have a relationship with each other, without either of us trying to impose our beliefs on each other. In fact, I think the best possible way for us to have a relationship may be if neither of us ever discusses religion at all, as it seems that every time we do it causes too many hurt feelings on both sides.

Let me know what you think, and feel free to take as much time as you need to think about it. Even if you decide you still can't have a relationship with B now, if at any point in the future you change your mind, we will be happy to welcome you into our family.

With Love,
Abandoning Eden


  1. AE - I feel for your predicament with your parents. They just don't get it and I would venture to guess that they never will.

    I suspect that if you have any hope of having any type of an ongoing relationship with them, albeit a distant one, you should probably go through the letter and excise the blanket critiques of religion which will certainly be offputting to a religious person and somewhat beside the point. It's going to be hard to get them to respect your beliefs, if you don't respect theirs.

    I think the point that you want to impress upon them is that while the two of you have done soul searching and come to the conclusion that you are atheists, you do not presume that your stance is right for everyone. Just you. And that even as atheists, you would relish the opportunity to continue to have a relationship with your family.

    For example, rather than saying that you believe that organized religion is wrong and harmful, you might want to say that since you are both non-believers it would be hypocritical for you to practice something that you don't believe.

    Unless you acknowledge that religion is an important part of your parents lives that obviously gives their lives shape and meaning, you risk offending them and creating a deeper rift.

    Strategically, you might want to lead them on just a bit so that you can arrange a meeting between B and them. This way, B will be an actual person to them rather than an abstraction. Rather than sending a letter rejecting your father's idea, you might say to your Dad that conversion is a serious matter that should be discussed in person rather than writing and suggest that the four of you meet. It will be harder for them to be in denial if they see the two of you in person.

  2. I would leave out the chuppa bit. That's not a way of "keeping jewish identity".
    I'd rather go back to "minor holydays"...

  3. I've read through all your drafts. I am not sure why you keep going on about your future children. They are just that - in the future. When you actually have children - you can lay down the law then and thus there is no need to point out what your children will and will not be allowed to do.

  4. and in general, i agree that the strategy esther suggests would be good.

  5. I disagree with Esther. You don't want to lie to your parents, when you claim you are trying to have an open, honest relationship. I like this draft. The only thing I would change is to leave out part of this line:

    Furthermore, in the future, if you ever decide to welcome B and me into your life (even if you decide not to come to our wedding) then I will try to forget the extremely hurtful way in which you have treated us over the past few years, and to have a relationship with you.

    You're playing the victim a bit too much in the second half of this line. Your parents probably feel just as victimized as you do, so I would drop that bit.

  6. Well, I think that in any case there will be less of a relationship then in the past: there will be estrangement between them, I think that there is no way back to overcome the estrangement completely.

    AE is indeed writing in a very sincere and honest way. I get the impression that it is still very important to her to make her parents aknowledge her way of life. And I do not really think that this will happen, realistically speaking.

    So I think it would be better to aknowledge the basic estrangement and to be less honest. Because being honest can hurt (yourself) very badly.

  7. Dear AE
    Ive been following your blog with great interest for quite some time. As a practicing Orthodox Jew I am quite confused by your father's behavior. I am even more concerned because I'm afraid that his method of dealing with the issue represents in some ways the "party line" within Orthodoxy. If Judaism is so important to him that he is willing to sacrifice his own relationship with his daughter for it then why is he willing to make a mockery of it with a conversion that would not be respected by Orthodox Judaism itself?

    I think Orthodox leaders need to revisit the way in which they advise people to deal with such a sensitive issue. Obviously there must be some middle road between encouragement/legitimization and ostracization. I'm sorry that the Judaism that you were exposed to was of this sort. I hope that whatever Jewish tradition you and B decide to pass to your children will be the Judaism that I was taught-Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. Teaching children cynicism and sharing your justified bitterness with them is harmful regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof.

  8. I can't believe this has gotten to Draft 3, although I suppose this is the most important letter you'll ever write to your father.
    I think you need to define to them: a)athiest - a person who does not believe there is a God; b)agnostic - person who questions whether there is a God; and c) 'people who don't believe in organized religion' better. Which ones are you and B? I would guess that you are either athiests or persons who don't believe in organized religion. But, you need to get this straightened out with your parents. I can now see this going to 4 or more drafts.
    I'm so sorry for the mental anguish you and B are going through.

  9. Hey AE,

    I also really like this draft. I would agree with Julia's suggested change.

    I also agree with Shoshi that you might want to take out the chuppah bit. At the very least, delete the information in parentheses about about wanting to use the one your mother made etc, as either your dad will respond to your letter in a consilatory way and you can discuss it with him later, or he will find your attempts to incorporate jewish traditions to be really insulting and tokenistic, in which case this will only make it worse.

    Cheers, Kat

  10. This is clear, comprehensive, and forceful without being obnoxious. The content is excellent (I espcially liked your "eye for an eye" threat of cutting them off from their grandchildren if they don't accept B), with the possible exception of the religion-bashing in the second paragraph. I do agree with esther that that will not make your parents more receptive to your beliefs. I also support her suggestion of having your parents meet with B, though if you need to "lead them on a bit" in order to do so, it's probably not worth it.

    You may wish to cut down on the explicit and implicit insults to your parents. For example: "For instance, one way in which we think religion is harmful is that it makes otherwise good people (like you and mom) place your community over an honest and open relationship with your children." Also, "The difference is that she has still maintained a close relationship with B, and has welcomed me warmly into their family, because she cares more about B as a person then about B's religion."

    However, if you feel that they're just not getting it, which seems to be clear from what you wrote in the letter itself, your bluntness may be warranted. But it's risky - people who feel affronted are rarely receptive to the affronter's point of view.

    Some minor writing quibbles - try to cut parenthesetical statements, especially in the wedding paragraph, where their frequency plays havoc with the flow of the idea. The important ideas between parentheses should obviously be restated in bodies of sentences.

    I would also comment on the two phrases "B and I are not suddenly going to realize how awesome judaism is" and "especially if it's that awesome one mom made for me, I would actually really like to use that if she would be willing to lend it to us, even if you guys don't attend," which strike me as far less formal and more jocular than the rest of the letter.

    One point I wanted to make about the content. Regarding how a conversion would further their aims - it's pretty simple, actually. One reason is that such a conversion would lead to the cessation of the uncomfortable feelings of theirs with regard to you and B's match, arising (of course) from their fundamentalist ethnocentrism and bigotry. Another reason, perhaps a bit less selfish on the surface but ultimately just as harmful, is that they want to prevent you and B from "living in sin" (from their perspective) every day you're together. Of course, they definitely won't admit to the first reason and probably not to the second either.

  11. anonymous- this letter was in response to a letter he sent me when I told him that me and B are planning on having children in a little over a year. So the issue of children will be important in the very near future. Additionally, I want my parents to understand that one of the long term consequences of refusing to accept B into their family is that we will not accept them into our family.

  12. AE: While not relevant to your draft, I am confused by your statement that you are atheists and don't like any organized religion because you found one organized religion to be hurtful to you and B. Also, it appears that you decided you were an atheist before the events of the past few years with your parents. As someone who is an academic heading toward a PhD, I suspect your reasoning is far deeper than this. Surely you wouldn't conclude that there is no possibility of a deity and that all religion is bad based on your personal experience with one organized religion. Would you condone one of your students drawing a conclusion about a large group of people from a sample size of one?
    Your family might respect your beliefs more if the rational was explained better. The only argument you have made is against those religions that require adherents to always value communal well being (as defined by the group)and conformity over individualism. That says nothing about the existence of god or the potential for other religions to do things differently. I'd love to hear more about your reasons for being an atheist. Your family might better understand a different reason too - i.e. the impossibility of reconciling an all powerful, all knowing, all good deity with all of the suffering in the world, etc.

  13. Sounds like you sent this already & that you were determined to keep in the part about religion being "wrong & harmful", despite the fact that it won't help your petition in any way.

  14. AE,

    One way in which you've changed in the past year, at least as presented on this blog, is that you've gone from saying that you will give some sort of secular Jewish identity to your future kids, to now declaring forcefully that you don't want them to have any part of any Jewish identity. This has only become fully clear in the drafts of the letter to your parents in the past few days.

    As you know, I've been supportive of you in my comments on this blog, and I still feel that you have the right to make your own choices.

    But I'm not sure what your blog has to do with Judaism anymore. The only tenuous connection is your half-hearted desire for some sort of relationship with your folks.

    As such, I doubt that input from what is mostly a Jewish-oriented (albeit open-minded) readership is going to help you. You seem to be determined to excise the last vestige of Judaism from your life, and advice from the Jewish blogosphere is therefore irrelevant.

    Personally, I think it's sad to see someone deny their Jewish identity. Abandoning Jewish religion is one thing. Religion is not for everyone. But you've now made a much bigger break - you are abandoning your ethnic Jewish identity. This has nothing to do with religion. This is about feeling some cultural and ethnic affinity to the ancient history of your ancestry. Again, it's your choice. But I think that without some awareness of where one comes from, ones identity is much poorer for it.

    Anyway, good luck. I probably won't be commenting as often here since my life experience is not really relevant to your situation anymore. Much happiness to you & B with all your plans.

  15. DYS- I don't think I've said that my kids won't have any jewish identity. As I wrote in this letter, I would be happy for them to learn more about jewish culture and jewish history, etc.

    This blog was never about judaism at was always about dealing with the fallout of leaving judaism. yes, there's been a post here or there about judaism itself, but the reason I started it, and the majority of the posts, are about the consequences of leaving the religion, which I did years before I even started this blog. Sorry if you thought otherwise.

  16. AE,

    Even your journey away from Judaism made your blog seem relevant to those of us who had varying levels of discomfort with organized Judaism. But it felt like you were writing as a secular Jew who was trying to deal with her religious parents condemnation of her lifestyle.

    But now, you say organized religion is "wrong and harmful", which makes it seem like you don't respect anyone who has made compromises but still welcomes some level of that religion into their lives. And the only level of Jewish identity you seem to be willing to accept into your life at all is as a grudging compromise with your parents about their grandchildren.

    A year ago, you were still posting articles about intermarriage, which means you were arguing as a Jew that intermarriage should not be an issue in Judaism.

    Now you seem to have left even that identity behind and seem more like a non-Jew whose only connection is the strained relationship with your parents.

    As I said, it's your choice. All I'm saying is that as a blogger and commenter, I don't think that I have anything to add anymore.

  17. DYS,

    Respectfully, I think you may have read into AE's blog a little of what you wanted it to be, rather than what it is.

  18. Jewish Sceptic,

    I've been reading it for a long time. This declaration of rejection of any religious identity does represent a sea change from her earlier writings.

    Nonetheless, AE, upon rereading what I wrote, I may have come across too condescending & judgmental. Having an off day.

    I do see it as a much bigger leap to reject Jewish identity entirely than just rejecting the religious aspect. Call me old fashioned, but less than 65 years after the Shoah, I think it's important for every Jew to stand up and be proud of their identity, no matter what their religious beliefs & practice may be.

    So that's what I was reacting to. Sorry if I came across too strong.

  19. DYS: I don't know what the hell you want from the poor girl.

  20. I think the letter is clear and truthfull and beautiful and very very brave. So There


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