Finding their way home to Judaism: three same-sex couples share their conversion stories

“My parents were old hippies,” said Felicia Park-Rogers, who grew up in the Bay Area. “They were very suspicious of organized religion and anything else smacking of authority.”

When Park-Rogers, 35, met Rachel Timoner, her partner-to-be, in San Francisco in the early 1990s, she was thrilled to be falling in love but suspicious of her new lover’s involvement with Judaism.

Timoner was raised in a Reform community in Miami. Although the lavish bar and bat mitzvahs at her parents’ shul had turned her off, she still felt drawn to Jewish spiritual life. When she found a Renewal synagogue in San Francisco, the seed of her faith began to take root.
“And she began to drag me to holiday services,” Park-Rogers said.

The couple’s once-in-a-blue-moon joint appearances at shul evolved into a weekly return engagement at Shabbat. Then, about a decade ago, Timoner was out of town during the High Holidays, and Park-Rogers found herself with a decision to make.

“I went to Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services on my own,” Park-Rogers recalled. “After that experience, I said, ‘I have my own relationship to this.'”

Park-Rogers finished her conversion about four and a half years ago, just before she gave birth to Benjamin, her first son. She and Timoner now have a second son, Eitan, who just celebrated his first birthday.

Same-sex couples confront the same choices that are issues for most straight couples. To live together or not to live together? To marry — or at least to formalize a partnership — or not to marry? To have kids or to have a second house in Palm Springs?

Spiritual decision-making is also frequently a factor in the calculus of gay life. In fact, finding a religious tradition that affirms gay experience and offers the support of a vibrant community can be one of the most important aspects of self-realization for gay men and lesbians — especially for people who see being in a committed relationship as a natural extension of their spiritual lives.

That kind of deep introspection led Ron Paler, a 40-year-old pathologist, to convert to Judaism five years ago. Mike Loya, Paler’s partner for more than a decade, will finish his own conversion in the next couple of months.

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David Fyffe, left, and Arlan Wareham show off piece of a Katyusha rocket that landed near their Tsfat home in August.

Will She Marry Him?

In my last Singles column, “Change of Heart,” I left off with one important question for my girlfriend, Carrie: “Will you marry me?”

Did she say yes?

Well, let me back up a bit.

A few days before the column came out, I drove over to Carrie’s parents to ask for their blessing. Carol and Roy were watching “24” when I got there, so I waited until the commercial break — odd priorities, but I suppose it’s more riveting watching Kiefer Sutherland trying to stop the explosion of a nuclear warhead than watching me trying to stop the nervous trembling in my right leg.

Roy stood. Carol took a seat. I dove right in.

“You guys know I love Carrie very much, and I’m going to ask her to marry me. I’d like to get your blessing.”

They both seemed to gasp slightly, but then Carol gave me a hug and began repeating the phrase, “Oh my God!” Roy stiffened his body and seemed to freeze slightly. He didn’t give me a hug. Luckily, I did see some blinking. Carol teared up a little, and I answered all her rapid-fire questions about the ring, and how I was going to propose.

And then suddenly, she admonished me for coming in the middle of her favorite TV show: “You better save it on your TIVO for me.”

Roy relaxed a little, “It’s too bad you couldn’t come on a Friday, when there’s nothing on TV.”

I laughed, although I’m not sure he was joking. Carol hugged me again, and they quickly ran back to catch the last 10 minutes of their show.

The next day, Roy called me to meet him for lunch. I got a little nervous as I drove over to meet him. I get along well with Roy, but wondered what kind of warnings would he have for me before I married his daughter. Although he’s a peaceful man, I imagined him chasing me through the house, swinging his belt if ever I hurt his baby girl.

It turned out he just wanted me to know that he was happy for us. “I don’t show a lot of emotion,” he confessed. “Do you believe how Carol was acting?” he asked me, referring to her “overemotional” display of teary eyes and a hug. I nodded knowingly. I mean, this is my future father-in law. As we left, I thanked him for lunch. Then, just before getting into my car, I grabbed the guy and gave him a big, fat hug.

The morning that the column came out, I drove over to The Jewish Journal office to get a fresh copy of the newspaper. Jumping back into my car, with a new parking ticket flapping on my windshield (so maybe I don’t always read the signs), I drove over to the Farmers Market to pick up some food.

I really wanted to take Carrie on a picnic, but it was still drizzling outside. I stayed optimistic and went to Loteria, our favorite Mexican place to get two of their finest burritos (considering the cost of the ring, I contemplated buying one burrito and splitting it in half).

I picked up Carrie from work and, amazingly, as she walked out the door, the rain suddenly stopped. I quietly thanked God. We drove to a nearby park and spread out the picnic.

“Oh, before you eat, guess what?” I said nonchalantly as we sat down. “I wrote another column in The Jewish Journal,” and gave it to her. Of course, given my last columns, she didn’t know what was coming — especially with this one titled, “Change of Heart.”

She took one look at the title and said, “Uh oh.” I hovered nervously behind her, waiting to pop out the ring. As she read, she occasionally looked up to laugh or nod her approval. And then I saw her body stiffen as she got to the last line. She froze, just like her dad.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, just like her mother.

I grabbed the ring, got on one knee and asked, “Will you marry me?” She cried and answered, “Yes.”

We kissed. Two pot smokers nearby clapped. I waved back to them.

Then Carrie went through a rainbow of emotions, the likes of which I have never seen. She laughed, she argued, she protested, she cried, she smiled, she didn’t know what to do with herself.

Suddenly she stammered, “Ar … re you sure about this? We’ve been arguing lately.”

We had been arguing, but mostly because I was sneaking around trying to deal with the engagement preparations. We’ve never really had secrets before, and the months I was planning all of this were hard for me. It’s strange to not be able to discuss one of the biggest decisions of your life with the woman you love. But Carrie had always wanted to be surprised.

Carrie started to cry. “I love you so much. Of course I want to marry you,” she said.

“Then why are you crying?”

“I guess I don’t really like surprises,” she said. Speaking of which — she hadn’t even looked at the ring on her finger.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Is this real or is this cubic zirconia?”

Was she kidding me? “Cubic zirconia? I sure wish I had the option….”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

The Rebbetzin Will Keep Her Name

One of the great debates after I became engaged to a rabbi was how I would be addressed by my husband’s congregation. I did not plan on changing either my first or my last names after my wedding, but this would be an unintelligible decision to the parishioners.

The world seemed to be divided between those who could not imagine why half of a couple would change half of her name upon entering into the holy bond of matrimony, and those who could not imagine not doing so. The members of my husband’s congregation fell into the latter category, and so, after I agreed to wed both my husband and his position, we debated how I should introduce myself without unduly violating their delicate sense of propriety.

“Viva Hammer, the Rebbetzin Weiss,” was one brilliant suggestion. It was in the fashion of the British royalty, a la, Sophie, the duchess of Wessex. This was somewhat of a mouthful, though, and eventually it became, “Hello, this is Viva, ahh, err, the rabbi’s wife.” There was always a slight hesitation after the “Viva,” as if I had to remember to delete my last name, in deference to cultural sensibilities of the congregation.

The members of the community, in their consummate wisdom, renamed me Mrs. Weiss. This particularly annoyed my husband, Aaron. “If you’re here at all,” he said, “it is purely in the capacity as my rebbetzin. You certainly would not have chosen this uplifting crowd as your community if you had been untitled!”

I never corrected anybody, though, whatever they chose to call me. Keeping my name is not part of a moral crusade for me. My name has always been Viva Hammer and I could not see any good reason to change it. To provoke an argument over my personal philosophy every time I introduced myself seemed futile. You either understood the concept or you didn’t.

My in-laws were somewhat in disbelief that they had acquired themselves a daughter who would not take on their name. My mother-in-law had written a well-publicized article a decade before denouncing the practice of keeping two names in a family. She argued that it detracted from the wholeness of the marital unity, and cited the verse: Mishpachotam l’vet avotam (Their families according to the houses of their fathers.) After Aaron and I read the article together, I got worried, thinking Aaron might start getting cold feet about my decision. He laughed. “This is my guide: is it written in the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law]? If there was some Jewish legal prohibition or strong custom, of course I couldn’t be an accomplice to your doing this. But family names are a gentile addendum to our own naming system, in which a person is the child of its parents from birth to death. I’m not going to forbid your keeping your last name based on some questionable extralegal mumbo-jumbo.”

What a relief! I thought to myself that there are certain benefits of marrying a man who was a strict interpreter of the law.

Still, my husband’s family always addressed me in person and in writing as Mrs. Weiss, and again I did not correct them. In fact, letters that were addressed to us as Rabbi Weiss and Viva Hammer were so rare, that I used to cut them out and keep them in a special file: the Hammer-Weiss album.

Things became more complicated when I found out I was pregnant. I had never made the children’s names a deal-breaker issue between us. Following my original philosophy, I was concerned to preserve the name I had used since birth, but did not feel strongly about how one acquired the birth name, since it was such an arbitrary process anyway. So offspring Weiss was fine with me. But my husband felt differently. He had always wanted us both to hyphenate our names, but knew that this would make him a laughingstock with his congregation and the rest of the religious world. Aaron felt that if the children only had his name, it would belittle the enormous physical and emotional sacrifice I had made to have them. He wanted our partnership in their lives to be manifest wherever they went. Besides, if the children started off double-barreled, they and the world would be used to the concept by the time the children became spiritual leaders of congregations, or whatever other profession they pursued. I was so proud and grateful to have married a man who thought this way.

So we navigated the bumpy territory between Aaron’s world and mine, and sometimes I found myself Mrs. Weiss and sometimes Viva Hammer, and sometimes Viva Hammer-Weiss. At my work, I was the master of my title, and no one had to know about the naming choices I had made. I had started my career as Viva Hammer and had never changed. It turned out, however, that in my white-shoe law firm, they were just as prejudiced as in my husband’s congregation. One day, an invitation arrived for a holiday party, addressed by hand in florid calligraphy.

“Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Hammer,” it read in bold letters.

“What’s this about?” Aaron asked, outraged at the error.

“Darling, now you know what it’s like to be retitled in honor of one’s spouse’s employer’s sensibilities. I think it’s quite a good compromise, don’t you? And G-d created Adam, man and woman he created them. A single, indivisible unit with your first name and my last. …”

And I cut out the lovely lettering and added it to the Hammer-Weiss file.

White Wedding

The Riemer family is something of a rarity in the Jewish world of post-Communist Central Europe.

Not only are Daniel Riemer and his wife Magda both Jewish, but both of their 20-something daughters, Zuzana and Sandra, have found Jewish men to marry.

This is no easy feat in a part of the world where intermarriage is the norm and where tiny, far-flung Jewish communities still suffer the effects of the Holocaust and Communist-era repression.

Zuzana Riemer’s wedding on Aug. 5 made local Jewish history. It was the first full-scale, traditional Jewish wedding for a member of Kosice’s Jewish community in 60 years.

"The message is that they’ve broken the ice," said Rabbi Hershel Gluck, a London-based Chasidic rabbi who officiated at the wedding. "In a place where for decades people have been battered — by the Holocaust, by communism, by internal squabbling and other difficulties of the post-Communist period — it says that positive and constructive things can happen here, too."

But the family’s nachas is bittersweet.

Both daughters are marrying foreign Jews and will be moving, or already have, to places far from Kosice, a city of 250,000 in the far eastern tip of Slovakia. Zuzana Riemer is moving to Los Angeles; Sandra Riemer made aliyah five years ago.

Not only are they leaving family and friends behind, but they also are moving away from a Jewish community struggling for survival.

"The most important thing is that they’re happy," their father says with a shrug.

The quest for a Jewish spouse is a universal preoccupation among Jews wherever they live.

But the challenge is particularly great in parts of Europe, where individual Jewish communities — such as Kosice’s — may be only a few hundred or even a few dozen individuals. There are only about 3,000 Jews, most of them middle-aged or older, in all of Slovakia.

"It’s not easy for young Jews to meet and marry in Europe," says Gadi Gronich, program director for Yachad, which is affiliated with the European Council of Jewish Communities and is described as Europe’s largest Jewish singles network.

With more than 3,000 Jewish singles in more than two dozen countries on its mailing list, Yachad organizes singles weekends, parties, trips and other events that generally attract 75 to 100 people from across Europe. Gronich says the events have resulted in at least 50 marriages.

Other communal and private organizations also aim to help Jewish singles meet and match.

"Except for the United Kingdom and France, we are speaking in Europe about small- and medium-size communities, so the chance to meet new people is very low," Gronich says.

Shawn Landres, a 29-year-old Los Angeles-born scholar of anthropology and religious studies, has a particularly incisive take on the issue.

He is working on a doctorate in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writing about "intimacy and memory among Generation X Jews in Los Angeles" — that is, an analysis of the L.A. Jewish singles scene.

He is also the new husband of Zuzana Riemer.

The couple met in 1998 at a winter sports gathering in the Tatra mountains, organized by the Union of Jewish Students for young Jews from several central European countries. At the time, Landres — who also is a research student in anthropology at Oxford University — was doing fieldwork in Slovakia, and actively looking for a bride.

"To me, marrying a Jew was a given. There was no question about it," he says. "The problem came in finding someone whose values and world view were even remotely similar to mine — and I did not meet anyone like this in the United States."

The couple’s Orthodox wedding was the first traditional Jewish wedding held in Kosice since the Holocaust. The pair had a civil wedding in Los Angeles last fall, but decided it was important to have a religious ceremony in Kosice to make a statement, even though neither is strictly observant.

"I don’t know if we inspired anyone to greater observance by doing the wedding this way, but we felt that it was important to show people the beauty of the ceremony and of Judaism," Landres said.

Both wearing white, the couple stood under a red, blue and gold velvet chupah in the Jewish community courtyard, flanked by the looming wall of a partially ruined synagogue.

Zuzana wore a floor-length gown in honor of her grandmother, who had not had the chance to wear a wedding dress. Her grandparents wed in haste during World War II, just one day before a mass deportation of unmarried women from Kosice.

The wedding was officiated by Gluck, who for more than 20 years has traveled widely in Europe to promote Jewish revival in small, far-flung communities.

He was aided by scholar Jonathan Webber, Landres’ doctoral adviser at Oxford, who carefully explained each step of the ceremony to guests, many of whom had little knowledge of traditional Jewish rites.

"We are celebrating a marriage in the way marriages were celebrated in this part of the world for hundreds of years," Gluck said. "Thank God we are here again, celebrating a marriage like this in Slovakia."

Still, Zuzana Riemer’s move to the United States means that the critical mass needed for Jewish survival in Kosice and Slovakia as a whole will be that much harder to achieve.

Landres doesn’t see it quite that way.

"I don’t feel as if I’m stealing Zuzana from the Slovak Jewish community, because I maintain close ties here and we plan to visit a lot," he says.

Satan in the Shtetl

“Great-grandma was a naughty girl,” says British filmmaker Ben Hopkins, whose feature debut, “Simon Magus,” is the tale of a Polish shtetl in peril.

The iconoclastic director’s single Jewish ancestor was the Eastern European mistress of an English gentleman in Vienna; in the 1910s, she moved to England to live with him and bear him (and other men) children. Her convent-educated daughter did not learn she was Jewish until she planned to marry. “Great-grandma told her she couldn’t wed in church, because she was Jewish,” says the Oxford graduate, who was raised as an atheist.

Nevertheless, around 1990, Hopkins says, “the Jews sitting around the samovar in our collective DNA came to life.” Grandmother began referring to herself as a Jew; father, an ancient historian, immersed himself in studies about first- and second-century Judaism; and Hopkins made an unexpected entry in his journal: “Make ‘Simon Magus’ a Jewish story.” “It was obviously written when I was drunk, as it is very scribbly,”confides the irreverent, award-winning filmmaker.

“Simon Magus,” the tale of a visionary outcast (Noah Taylor) who becomes a pawn in an anti-Semitic plot against his Jewish community, has an eerie, magical atmosphere reminiscent of the works of Yiddish author I.B. Singer. The movie, which stars Rutger Hauer and Embeth Davidtz (“Schindler’s List”) was inspired by the early Christian legend of Simon Magus, the Samaritan magician who attempted to buy himself a place among Christ’s disciples after Judas’s death. Hopkins, the struggling director, identified with the failed magician: “It quite accurately described my life at the time,” he says.

A coup for the director was casting prominent British thespian Ian Holm as Satan, a part that was relatively simple to write, Hopkins says.

“The devil is a fantastic character,” he explains. “God is a bit boring.”

“Stuart Magus” opens today at the Nuart in Los Angeles.