Just shy of two years ago I met a boy in my hometown of Perth. He was witty, smart, and could keep up with me in conversations. Although on the surface this boy, let’s call him Bob, seemed like any other boy I might have met at a party, I would later come to find out that he was anything but.
Bob was Jewish and I am Persian. While I had spent my entire childhood and adult life moving from country to country (on a count of my parents and my own inner gypsy) Bob was born and raised deep in the Jewish belly of Melbourne. He had only ever attended Jewish school (with the exception of university); had only ever ‘seriously’ dated Jewish girls; and most of his friends and his friend’s friends/girlfriends were Jewish (and those who weren’t had either converted or were in the process of converting).
I didn’t know all of this when we first met, but just like every other girl in the world, I had watched Sex and the City and knew that Harry couldn’t marry Charlotte until she converted because Charlotte wasn’t Jewish. She wasn’t Jewish and neither was I, but unlike Charlotte, I had no intention of ever converting. So when Bob asked me out on our very first date, I gave him the spill about Harry and Charlotte and told him that I wasn’t interested in starting something with him if in the end all he was going to do was tell me that he had to (or wanted to) marry someone Jewish.
Bob laughed at me as though I was crazy and assured me that his family were very open minded and that in fact his brother had married a non-Jewish girl. Perfect! What could be better proof than that, I thought.
The first 12 months of our relationship were beautiful and being so far away meant that we had very little to do with Melbourne, the Jewish community, his family, and an entirely different world of which I knew nothing about. How different could it be, I thought. Bob wasn’t a religious person at all. In fact he drank, partied, didn’t keep kosher and ate pork like it was going out of fashion. During this time the topic of Judaism, conversion and having Jewish children rarely came up. Bob did make some things very clear though. For example, he wanted to continue to live close to the Jewish community when we eventually moved to Melbourne. He also spoke about how important it was for him to observe traditional Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, all of which I assured him I was entirely supportive of. On my end, I confirmed that I did not have any plans to convert but that if we ever had children that I would do everything I could to make sure they were connected to their Jewish heritage, just as they were to their Persian heritage. So far so good- we were both on the same page.
Eight months into our relationship, Bob and I went to visit my family. I remember before we got there he kept asking me, “Have you told them?” “Told them what?” I asked. “About the Jewish thing! That I’m Jewish!” I remember thinking, what an odd question to ask. “Umm… I think I told them, but only because they asked where you were from. No one cares. Why would they even care?” I guess I should have taken that as a serious alarm bell that if he was convinced my family would freak out that he was Jewish it could only be because his family were freaking out that I wasn’t. Again, I pushed it to the very back of my mind. No one cares, I kept telling myself. This isn’t the 1800s! When he finally met my family and realised that actually no one did care, he eased up. My family adored Bob and welcomed him with open arms. I was sure his would do the same.
Four months later, we moved to Melbourne. The change in our relationship was almost instantaneous. To start with, we lived in the apartment down the road from his parents. We spent every Friday night with them, which was fine, expect that I noticed more and more that no one in his family, except for his dad, really ever spoke with me at these dinners. I was scared of his mum, as Bob had let it spill that she wasn’t particularly fond of the fact that he had brought home a girl who wasn’t Jewish, so in all honesty I avoided her. I was new to Melbourne and didn’t know a single soul in the city. I was sure his family, or at least some of his friends would reach out. It never happened. Almost 3 months of going to Bob’s family home for dinner every Friday night, and at least another night during the week (there was always something on- a birthday, a Jewish high-holiday or just a get-together) I noticed that his siblings could barely bring themselves to speak a sentence with me. I blamed myself. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. I tried harder. No luck. The most I got out of them was a hello, how are you, and goodbye. Sometimes not even that.
On top of that, Bob had started to speak with me about converting to Judaism almost on a daily basis. He started to talk about this as a major set-back for us moving forward with our relationship. I kept my ground. I would not convert. Not for him, not for anyone. I resented him for asking me, especially since he had promised from day one that this would never happen. I told him that we should end our relationship if this is how he felt. However, as soon as I ever said anything about ending the relationship, he would reverted and promise me that my not being Jewish wold never come up as an issue again. But, increasingly I could see that he was starting to crack. I had given up everything to move to Melbourne with him. I loved him with all my heart and more importantly, I saw myself as an amazing person with so many beautiful qualities- so what if I wasn’t Jewish! He was Jewish and he didn’t even practice any of the teachings of his religion! I had so many qualities people typically looked for in a life partner and now all of a sudden I was being doubted as the right choice for a wife or a mother purely on the basis of a social and man-made construct? Because I wasn’t a certain ethnicity? Was this actually happening in 2016?
In an attempt to get it all in the open, I called his mother. It was a long conversation, but in a nutshell, she was honest about her disappointed that Bob was with someone who was not Jewish. In fact I will use her own words, as they will forever be burnt in my heart: “Do you know that when Bob told me that he had chosen someone who was not Jewish that it was like a bullet to my head!” I froze. “A bullet to the head.” THAT was what I had just been reduced to. A bullet. To the head. I’m not sure why she felt the need to deliver her disappointment in such a venomous manner, but any rationale would not have stopped it from hurting any less. How do you look someone in the eye after they equate you to a bullet to the head? How do you sit across the dinner table from them every week? How do you smile and hug them hello? I don’t know, but somehow I did. She assured me that she was “supportive” of our relationship because she was supportive of her son. But she didn’t fail to inform me that even some of her friends had taunted her about Bob and I, asking her- “how could you ever allow this to happen?” Friends who had never even met me. Disgusted by me, simply because of my race. Because I wasn’t Jewish. Disgusted. By me. By the idea that he could ever be with me.
I felt subhuman. Like a dirty and uninvited roach that had crawled its way into their home and into their lives. I felt small, invisible and despised. I felt there was something wrong with me by virtue of my blood. Simply put, I had come out of the wrong vagina (Judaism is said to be carried through the mother’s blood-line). I imagined how my life would have been so different had I just come out of a different vagina. This ideology seemed incomprehensible, but that didn’t stop it from cutting me any less. Every time I recalled these words, which was pretty much every day, I felt a little more of my heart die. A little more of my identity lost. I could have been all sorts of wonderful, but non of that mattered. I wasn’t Jewish.
Our relationship became a nightmare. I told Bob what his mother had said and his response was that she was “only being a mother”. He once expressed his disappointment in the family and his community to his mother, comparing them to an “exclusive club” as opposed to a religion. This criticism was not taken lightly by her and she shut it down in a way that only she could. He was never to challenge her again. Her response: “Why should I roll out the red carpet when the only reason you selected her was because of the circumstances you put yourself in.” I can only assume that the “circumstances” to which she referred was the fact that he had dared move away from his community for 12 months to work interstate, where we met. It was obvious she couldn’t fathom that he could love me for all the reasons he did. She couldn’t fathom he was able to love anyone who wasn’t Jewish.
But it wasn’t just his mother. It was also the broader community. Most of his friends were warm and welcoming, but some were not and some were simply just ignorant. One of the very first friends to which he had introduced me said, “Oh you are Persian- are you anti-Semitic?” I was horrified, but Bob just laughed and blamed it on his mate having one too many drinks. The funny thing is that if things like these were isolated incidents, I would have been more than happy to just laugh it off. But how many things was I expected to laugh off? When even you start to hate yourself and doubt your worth, simply because of your race, you feel the prejudice and distain permeate, even through your own skin.
The Ironic thing was that if my father had ever equated Bob to a bullet to his head, on a count of his Judaism (which he never did), there is no doubt that he would have been labelled a racist. Or if upon meeting Bob for the first time, my drunk friend had asked Bob if he was tight with money because he was Jewish, I don’t think we would have all laughed and blamed that last bottle of beer. What was it about this community that granted them the get out of jail free card every time something racist was hurled my way?
Throughout this nightmare, there were many occasions upon which I told Bob I no longer wanted to be with him. I was tired. I was tired of being excluded, of being told I wasn’t enough because my blood was the “wrong” kind. But mostly, I was tired of him never standing up for me or protecting me from something I had no control over. I was born the way I was born and my parents had worked hard to raise me to be the woman i had become. Someone I had once been so proud of being- but now every time I looked in the mirror, all I felt was shame and and a sense of loss in my identity.
I felt like an animal. Unworthy of basic respect and love. I wanted to leave because I knew I was worthy of being celebrated. If for nothing other than the fact that I was brave enough to leave everything behind for love; for finding my feet so independently in a city where I knew no one; for never once ceasing to be loving, kind and giving to him and his family, despite the hell I had experienced. I wanted to be celebrated and I wanted to be loved with open arms, for ALL that I was. Not for something that I wasn’t.
Despite this, I never left. Because every time I went to leave, Bob would tell me all the ways he understood me, all the ways he loved me, all the ways he was committed to me, and all the ways it wasn’t important to him that I wasn’t Jewish.
He promised me forever and I believed him. Soon after, Bob proposed. Of course, I said yes. When I saw myself as an old lady, there was no one else I could have ever imagine by beside me. It was him and only him. I loved him with every cell in my body. When we got engaged, things with his family seemed to improve. Maybe now they knew I was really not going anywhere. Even his mom seemed on-board. His parents hosted a beautiful engagement party for us, but I guess it wasn’t everything that Bob had hoped it would be. The day after our party he looked devastated. When I asked him what was wrong he responded that he didn’t feel as though his friends were truly happy for him. Not like they were for other couples. Jewish couples. All of Bob’s friends were either married or dating someone from the community. I was the very definition of an outsider. And while I am certain that they would tell you until they were blue in the face that my not being Jewish had nothing to do with the fact that I was never exactly “in” with them, my experience (the most valid evidence of all) would say otherwise. I once tried to explain this to one of his friends by comparing it to white privilege. Because just like white privilege, “Jewish privilege” was hard to see for those who were born into it. It was also not something that people did on purpose. It was almost innate and it navigated the way in which they related (or failed to related) to those who were not from their world. The only world that most of them had ever known. How could something so normal be so wrong when it was the norm and all they had ever known?
Besides that, prejudice and privilege were incredibly difficult subjects to address and admit because (for the most part) the Jewish community still see themselves as a minority group that is more often than not discriminated against. As such, how can the discriminated ever discriminate? His friend’s response summed this up perfectly: “What the fuck does white privilege have anything to do with any of this.” Case. In. Point. He just didn’t get it. How could he? But sometimes we don’t get things not because we don’t see, but because it is too painful to see. It is too heartbreaking to admit that something you hold so dear might actually be so flawed.
I imagined my life and how every time we hit a milestone that I was happy about, Bob would feel only sadness, because his friends couldn’t be happy for him; because his rabbi wouldn’t come to our wedding to officiate; because his faith and his synagogue would never accept his children as Jews; because he was being left behind by his friends who got to have Jewish weddings and Jewish kids; because his mother would always be just that little bit disappointed; and so on and on and on.
Three days after I sent out our wedding invitations to my friends and family, Bob looked me in the eyes and said, “When I told you that it didn’t matter to me that you weren’t Jewish, I lied to you. I lied to you and I lied to myself.” He left.
Four weeks before that he had told that he felt like he was “losing his identity” because of me. I was crushed. Again, I felt like an untouchable. He told me that his parent’s home remained his Jewish home and that that’s what he wanted. A “Jewish home” that I could apparently never give him. He told me that he had gone to speak with a rabbi and that the rabbi had told him that “interfaith relationships never worked.” What else did he expect to hear from the rabbi? A blessing? Again, I told him I wanted out. Again, he begged me to stay and told me how much he loved me. But in the end, no amount of love was enough.
While this has been the most painful and devastating experience of my life, the one thing that remains even more devastating is the fact that the overt racist abuse I endured would never be admitted or spoken of by neither him, his family or anyone in his community. That is the most hurtful part of this entire experience. I imagine it’s similar to when a perpetrator of abuse denies ever having inflicted his victim any pain at all.
Nu is a Persian Australian global citizen, writer and human rights activist. She will forever remain committed to a life that is not tainted by social constructs. Her only religion is love.