Linda Saslow is a 2013 graduate of the USC Master of Professional Writing Program where she focused on Creative Nonfiction. Linda works as an art teacher and freelance writer in Fullerton, California. Her essays have been published in The Cleveland Jewish News, Lost Coast Review, The Fullertonian, Shaker Life Magazine, and The Fullerton Observer. She is currently working on a screenplay on the fast-paced sport of Women’s Skeleton at the 2002 Winter Olympics titled “Speedsuits.”
The Shiksa Sisterhood
“So he’s bringing home his girlfriend tomorrow. Another shiksa,” Joan said, my raven-haired, born and bred Jewish friend who came into my life sometime in college, so long ago. “It’s always the blondes with him.”
“I have to object to the slur,” I said. “I’m a shiksa too.”
She stared blankly at her wine glass, unable to take back the insult. When I took the plunge into the ritual bath of a mikveh at age twenty-five and started calling myself a Jew, I innocently dreamed the religious and secular world would accept me unconditionally as a Jewish woman, wife, and especially as a mother. Now nearly two decades later, I’m reassessing what that all really means.
The definition of shiksa is: “A Gentile girl or woman, especially one who has attracted a Jewish man. The term derives from the Hebrew word “sheketz,” meaning the flesh of an animal deemed taboo by the Torah. Since a Jewish man marrying a non-Jewish woman is taboo, this word applies to her too.” (Urban Dictionary)
As Joan offered me a second glass of wine, she said, “People can’t actually ask you if you’ve converted. It’s forbidden to ask. How do they know?”
“You must live in a world where no one is rude. I don’t live in that world.”
It is easy to guess I’ve not been born and bred in a Jewish household. Among other tells, each and every year I forget tradition and light the Hanukkah menorah from left to right instead of right to left, mimicking the way the Hebrew language is read. And, I look positively Irish, red hair and freckles, sigh.
On a warm California spring day in 1995, I, nude as the day I was born, took a prayerful plunge into the Los Angeles University of Judaism’s mikvah, an indoor ritual bath with cobalt-blue tiled steps that descended into warm chest-high spring water. Emerging back into the Earth’s atmosphere, I’d become Jewish. Like Charlotte in “Sex in the City,” I dunked in the mikvah to spiritually cleanse myself before marrying the man I love. The reality that my conversion only mattered to a small group of Jews in the Western world beyond the ritual bath’s walls was an insignificant detail to me at the instant I clicked the spiritual reset button.
My high dive off the religious plank of American Christianity was not only for love. I wanted to swim far away from the hypocritical Protestant family that raised me. My people espouse Christ’s forgiveness while finding themselves unable to turn the other cheek in their day-to-day lives. Also, they are betting on the rapture to see the divine, and I’m not so patient.
A few weeks before the mikvah, I had to face a beit din – or, rather, an evening quiz show of three jovial rabbis assembled in one of their living rooms drinking diet pop. I had to prove I had learned something in the University of Judaism’s semester-long class.
I answered the obvious question right: I would raise my children as Jews. As for the rest, I wavered. Regarding the kosher law against mixing meat and dairy, I defended turkey and Swiss, contending that poultry doesn’t lactate. They asked about my feelings about Israel, and I started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the stars and stripes. Still, I was good to go.
What I did was not unique. Many Americans have entered into marriages and cultures not of their birth in recent years. According to the landmark October 2013 Survey of Jewish Americans, interfaith marriages make up fully 50 percent of unions among Reform Jews. As for millennial Jewish offspring, 48 percent of their parents are engaged in mixed marriages.
In the twentieth century, the snag that sent many shiksa fiancées, like me, off to a semester of conversion class followed by a dip in the spring water mikvah was the fact that a rabbi required a bride’s conversion to officiate on her wedding day. Back then, rabbis wanted to avoid an interfaith ceremony.
This mandate appears to be relaxing as the ethos of the new century emerges. Chelsea Clinton’s still a Methodist and the rumble from the Reform pulpit was overwhelmingly positive when she married Marc Mezvinsky under a chuppah canopy. Neither lightning bolts nor thunder ensued. I remember the day well; my youngest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was also on July 31, 2010. Chelsea’s ketubah, a written Jewish wedding contract, was celebrated, not cursed.
Likewise, Ashley Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden, married Jewish surgeon Howard Krein in a Roman Catholic Church on June 2, 2012, but the ceremony incorporated Jewish traditions. A rabbi officiated along with a priest. Marking the end of a wedding ceremony by the groom breaking a glass with his foot might just become more and more common, even under a crucifix, as Jewish intermarriage surges this century.
Every temple I have joined in the past two decades has what is called a “Sisterhood,” a women’s group that comes together for socializing, entertainment, and nominal community service projects. In those same temples and Jewish parent groups across North America there’s another, unofficial “Shiksa Sisterhood” hovering below the radar. We shiksas understand each other’s sincerity, in spite of our faux pas. Each of us wants to raise our children with a Jewish identity. We wholeheartedly want our kids to be included in the Jewish club that their fathers hold dear, no questions asked. Having the kids learn a bit of Hebrew to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a good idea. A teen’s free trip to Israel can be the prize at the end of the carpools. (Spoiler: Your daughter might come home with an Israel Defense Forces sweatshirt.)
Whether in my native Southern California or back in Ohio, no matter what reform temple my family joins, in my experience, the shiksas manage to find each other. At my neighborhood shul in north Orange County, we shiksas could literally fill the temple’s social hall with a sorority as diverse as the chirping doll choir in Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” musical boat ride. Today, I’m friendly with many women and men who have opted not to take the plunge, but still drop their kids off every week to learn a bit of Torah.
Shiksas today are not just the cookie-cutter blonde, buxom Scandinavian starlets paraded on stage of pop culture and in the Jewish mother’s mind as a romantic threat to her hunky sons. (Think “Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom” in “The Producers.”) The big news in the new millennium is that a growing number of shiksas are not Caucasian, let alone blonde and buxom. At my most recent congregation, the shiksas are Asian, Native American, Latino, and there is one solitary African-American lesbian. For me, this diversity is very good news.
A temple potluck that includes Malaysian eggplant, potato curry, and Argentinian flan appeals far more to me than the perennial kugel cook-off in Middle America’s synagogues. No one feels compelled to ask these ladies of color if they were born Jewish, so all those supposedly forbidden questions are out the window. I bet life is easier without the charade. Recently, I had to bolt the social hall when faced with an ear-piercing Texan chanteuse singing a gospel spoof satirically titled “Amazing Schmaltz.” Please. Really? “Amazing Grace” is a powerful and cherished spiritual hymn. I sang that song in Protestant Sunday school as a child, and it was no joke.
Yet a shiksa aims to please. I cook my matzo balls to the exact specifications that my mother-in-law learned from her mother-in-law. My Latina shiksa friend Ann Marie performs this culinary magic too, even though she’s never converted. Far be it from her to stop making her own family’s pork tamales for Christmas Eve. Why would she? They are some of the most delicious creations I have ever tasted.
I worship the Passover main dish recipe from the Cleveland Heights kosher butcher, aptly named Mr. Brisket. My vegetarian tsimmes is divine. And, I’ve learned to make gefilte fish loaf so perfectly that it rivals a four-star French restaurant’s fish terrine. Never mind that my in-laws sit around lamenting that they like the jarred fish balls in jellied broth from the Kosher section of the supermarket equally well. I have no fond memories of hockey pucks in fishy slime served cold with beet-red horseradish, so I prefer something that tastes fresh and that my kids will consent to eat.
What brings us shiksas together? What bonds us? Simply, at a basic level, we love a Jewish man or woman and most of us have married that person. Some, like myself, have converted. Others haven’t bothered to study up and are still dropping the kids off every Saturday. Even if our understanding is very rudimentary, we love the faith and the powerful family structure that Judaism promotes. The American Jewish world provides a great sense of pride and a warm nest of support for our children.
I don’t doubt that many brides’ conversions are of a spiritual nature rather than simply a way to check a box to assure the in-laws that Christmas trees and Santa Claus are off the December agenda. I’m a person who embraces the spiritual unknown, so my own conversion was not a simple dunk in the water to let me join a club.
I wanted my personal spirituality to be relevant. Judaism gave my husband’s family a foundation for living in the here and now. The Saslows aren’t waiting for salvation from a poorly lived life.
The deity I envision is amorphous and genderless. The Earth mother or Gaia, perhaps, but with powers reaching far beyond our own planet’s atmosphere, defying the physics of space and time. My new religious path offered me the liberty to shake the patriarchal Protestant shackle learned in Lutheran and Presbyterian Sunday school classes. Sure, Orthodox Judaism is still a male-dominated game, but Reform Judaism in North America, for the most part, is not chauvinistic these days. Female Rabbis and Cantors are everywhere you look in the Reform Jewish world. The Fullerton temple uses a gender-neutral prayer book and I wholeheartedly embrace this modern invention.
There are Jewish traditions that I find spiritually meaningful. I like to fast on Yom Kippur and do believe this small personal sacrifice helps me at least be mindful that I have erred in the past year. On Rosh Hashanah, I like to mark the Jewish New Year by performing tashlikh, a ritual where a prayer of repentance is recited while one casts one’s sins, symbolized by breadcrumbs, into a living body of water. I do a considerable amount of hands-on volunteer work as well as driving my children to get their own hands dirty for the benefit of others. I consider my unpaid toil to be my family’s own personal tikkun olam, or obligation to repair what is unjust the world. I may be new to the game, but I’m not half-assed about it. The majority of shiksas I know share a similar devotion.
This is not a resignation; it is simply a rumination that a shiksa’s cultural DNA is not as easy to drop as her drawers before a ritual bath. While what my friend Joan had said stung, her sentiment reflected a deep insecurity on her own part, and her words didn’t matter when I gazed back at my own big picture. I had gladly crossed my name off the wait list for the rapture, but Judaism hasn’t swallowed me whole in return. The comfort of the spiritually off-center “Shiksa Sisterhood” will always draw me back. The shiksas get it when the other sisters don’t. We’re in on the joke together.