Susannah Dainow

The War Made My Husband, a Jew by Choice, Even More Jewish

In Judaism, it is forbidden to remind converts that they’ve converted; once they’ve been to the Beit Din (the multi-rabbi body that makes decisions about conversions and other matters of halacha) and the mikveh, they are as Jewish as those of us who were born into the people. Yet differences in orientation remain, and a dunk in the mikveh will not dissolve them. In my marriage, the ongoing, shared lived experience of the Iron Swords War has bridged gaps between my convert husband and my born-Jewish background.

My husband converted to Judaism last June through a Reform process, after a year of study and living as a Jew, celebrating holidays and getting to know the Toronto community. Even before he began the conversion process, we celebrated Shabbat together, and he came with me to study sessions and celebrations as a non-Jewish plus one. I had not anticipated his conversion, but through gradual exposure, he found the culture spoke to him with its messages of ethical intellectual inquiry and community commitment. Around the time we got engaged in the winter of 2022, he decided to adopt and become adopted by Jewish civilization as well.

That he has chosen to take on Judaism and Jewishness has been a joy for me and a boon to our relationship. Together, we say Shabbat blessings and have a festive meal every Friday night and spend Saturdays reading, walking, and talking. We belong to a shul and attend holiday events both there and with other organizations. We are enrolled in our shul’s Beit Midrash where we meet with fellow explorers weekly to discuss Jewish texts and ideas. We are engaged and, we hope, engaging. Together, we share a common cultural, and counter-cultural, language.

However, there have been limits to that language. As a couple comprised of one partner who is ethnically Jewish, and one partner who is a Jew by Choice, there are areas where we diverge in knowledge, in attachment, and in attitude. Some of these divergences are small and can be bridged with experience, like the fact that he sometimes stumbles on certain prayers or his difficulty in pronouncing the infamous guttural chet sound in “l’chaim” or “challah.” Other differences evince a more significant gap between our backgrounds, mine as a lifelong but largely self-taught Jew, and his as a recently welcomed member of the tribe, who did not know any Jews growing up in small-town Wisconsin.


In the early spring before his conversion, we took the streetcar on our way to a secular lecture, an event that brought us closer to each other even as we discussed things that keep us apart. We boarded the vehicle and sat down, huddled close on seats with bristly red upholstery.

“When I’m thinking about being a Jew or doing Jewish things, I feel something connect in me,” I said, holding his hand. “It’s in my blood and bones, and I know I come from this, that I am made by this history, forged by these words and these concepts and this people. I don’t think you can feel the same way. You’re not of it in the same way. It’s not of you. You can love it and hold it and participate in it, and you do, but it’s not the stuff of you. It didn’t make you in the same way.”

“No.” He was staring out the window at the pink sky and I knew he wasn’t hurt, that he understood and wanted to pursue the conversation, and the Jewishness, regardless.

“You’re not coming from the same place, and you’re not vulnerable in the same way. It hurts not to share that.” It hurt for me to admit it, too.

“It’s hard, the separation,” he sighed. “I want to be with you in all things.”

I kissed our intertwined fingers. Then I look up into his eyes again.

“There’s a story I heard once. There was a famous rabbi, I forget his name, and after the Holocaust he went searching for Jewish orphans in the crushed villages of Europe. A lot of the kids were too young to say if they were Jewish or not. So what he did was, at bedtime, he walked up and down the dormitories singing the Shema. And the Jewish children recognized the prayer and ran to him. And he was able to save them.” I wiped a tear from my eye – that story always gets me, so I don’t tell it often. “You don’t have that in you. That’s the difference.” My husband kissed the top of my head and we rode in silence for awhile, out of our neighbourhood and into the cooler one next door, where bars and dispensaries and curious shops run the length of Dundas West.

I felt as if I had said the unsayable, yet they were words that had been building in me ever since he decided to convert. But it won’t be the same. The charge that so many in the Jewish community levy against those who want to join our people by choice, despite the prohibition on reminding converts of their former status. The running undercurrent that if you’re not born Jewish, you can’t possibly become so, can’t possibly understand. You’re a wannabe, a hanger-on, an interloper. I had always bucked this sometimes-not-so-quiet attitude, and now here I was subjecting my own beloved husband to the same blood-based scrutiny. Suspicion and clannism run deep among the humans. Jews, in this instance, are no exception (however we may try to be, or think that we are).

And yet, there he was, staring out the streetcar window with me, quite literally on the journey with me. Ruth to my Naomi, trying to make sense of it all. Or perhaps accepting that it doesn’t fully make sense. His date at the Beit Din was a month away. He would pass with flying colors; I had had no doubt.


That night on the streetcar, October 7 was six months away. We could not predict, we could not imagine.

In the ensuing days after the attacks, antisemitic rhetoric would crash down around us and all over the world. Violent pro-Gaza protests would erupt both in the Arab world and in the West, featuring posters screaming slogans such as “Clean up the world,” picturing a crude figure dumping a Magen David into an even cruder wastebasket. Artists we admired and organizations we had trusted would sign petitions declaring October 7 to be valid resistance to Israeli “apartheid” and “genocide.” We would watch as posters of the hostages were ripped down off of telephone poles in our neighbourhood to make way for signs accusing Israel of war crimes. The Jewish Community Centre we frequent for classes and events, and which I have been attending since I was a child, was graffitied with anti-Israel propaganda. There are periods when I do not feel safe in my own city, and move through it with a sense of both anxiety and denial. I, like so many of the world’s Jews, have felt under siege, looking over my shoulder for those who would harm me, afraid to speak my own identity.

My husband took in the wrath of the globe, and he did not run. He did not hide in anti-Israel rhetoric or shy away from his new identity. Just a few months into his life as a Jew, he reacted to the war with solidarity, support, and a surprising curiosity. He goes to shul with me to pray for the hostages and for peace. He wears a button declaring “I denounce antisemitism.” He wraps the black maple outside our house in blue ribbon to show support for Israel and the hostages. He began listening to Jewish podcasts like Pardes and Jew Oughta Know to gain a working knowledge of Israeli history and the conflict. He identifies even when to do so poses a multitude of risks. He never lets me feel alone.

He has experienced, if you’ll pardon the expression, a baptism by fire of what it can mean to be a Jew in an antisemitic world. Just after committing to being a member of the tribe, he has seen some of the worst of what the world has to offer his people. And he is not scared, he is not backtracking, he is not regretting. If anything, he is more committed than ever. The war has shown him that sometimes being a Jew means being unpopular; as a result, we are Jewishly closer than ever. I no longer feel the same divide between our lived experiences as I felt that night on the streetcar; he has seen the depths of the world’s antisemitism as an insider now, and he still stands tall, stands by me and stands with the people of which we are a part. It is, in fact, a very Jewish reaction, to double down on identifying when the world around us is against us.

I am no longer worried about our different experiences growing up; I know that when disaster befalls our people, he will be right in the thick of it with me, fully identifying, fully supportive. The proof is in his actions and attitudes every day of this war; he is more completely a Jew than I ever dreamed of. The mikveh was only the beginning of his commitment to a Jewish identity.

About the Author
Susannah Dainow is a writer and recovering lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. She writes fiction, essays, and poetry, often with a Jewish lens. Currently, she is at work on Aliyah, an intergenerational Jewish family story that explores Israel-Diaspora relations.
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