12.01.09

Will Chelsea Convert?

Chelsea Clinton is Methodist. Her new fiancé is Jewish. From Ivanka Trump to Ed Koch, Jewish Americans talk to The Daily Beast’s Samuel P. Jacobs about the question every mother-in-law wants answered.

“The great thing about America is everyone wants to marry a Jewish boy.”
—Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth Wisse

All summer long, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky were dogged by rumors of an engagement. A Martha’s Vineyard wedding was in the works—and then it wasn’t. Over Thanksgiving, the couple at last made it official. So now that the former first daughter has finally announced her plans to marry a nice Jewish boy, round two of the nuptial guessing game begins: Will Chelsea head to the mikvah?

“As a rabbi, I would be delighted to see Chelsea convert. That would be my dream scenario,” says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Wolpe once worked for Mezvinsky’s father when he was the former congressman’s advance man. Young Marc, now working at a hedge fund, “was a wonderful, thoughtful, and very vibrant sort of kid,” Wolpe adds.

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The young couple should not wait in figuring out how they want to live their lives together, spiritually or otherwise, says Rabbi Jennifer Krause, the High Holidays rabbi at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

“Start the conversation now. Don’t start them after the wedding, and certainly not after having kids,” Krause says. “The conversation… should run deeper, for instance, than whether Marc considers pastrami on white with mayo an abomination before the Lord.”

Clinton, 29, and Mezvinsky, 31, met when they were growing up in Washington, D.C, where Mezvinsky’s parents both served in Congress. Marc’s mother, Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, was bounced from office after casting a fateful vote for President Bill Clinton’s budget in 1993.

But though the Arkansas Clintons and Iowa/Pennsylvania Mezvinskys are on the same political page, they read from different hymnals—Chelsea grew up Methodist; the Mezvinskys are Jewish. (She accompanied Marc to Yom Kippur services in New York this September.) But an unscientific survey of prominent Jewish politicians, rabbis, and mothers by The Daily Beast suggests the American Jewish community would eagerly welcome Chelsea into the fold.

Ivanka Trump certainly saw the allure of marrying a Jewish man. The daughter of New York real-estate mogul Donald Trump decided to convert to Judaism before marrying fellow real-estate scion and New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner. “I wish her a life filled with love and happiness,” Ivanka Trump says.

Of course, Jewish mothers worry endlessly about their sons falling prey to the seductive powers of the shiksa. Intermarriage can be seen as a betrayal of a tribe that isn’t very big to begin with. But the fear is matched by a strong sense of cultural pride that their sons are universally admired.

Says Harvard’s Wisse, whose Jewish son is married to Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s daughter: “One woman once stopped me on the street and said, ‘Of all my sons-in-law, my favorite is my Jewish son-in-law.’ That’s when it occurred to me that marrying a Jewish boy seems to suggest a kind of security, even if it doesn’t always provide it.”

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch—a man who has said his future tombstone will read: “he was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith”—suggests that Chelsea learn a few Chinese dishes or at least have takeout menus at the ready. “I never met a Jewish kid whether half or full who didn’t like Chinese food,” says Koch. “I have the feeling that she’s been in New York so long that she knows and loves Chinese food.”

But he ultimately shrugs off the importance of Mezvinsky’s faith: “I’m hopeful that she is marrying a good guy. Jewish or not Jewish, it makes no difference.” If anything, Koch adds, Chelsea might be prized for a Gentile manner around the home. “My mother burned everything she ever made,” Koch notes.

Clinton might be forgiven for fearing her future mother-in-law—if she’s ever read a novel by Philip Roth or seen a Woody Allen movie, both of whom have painted vivid portraits of overbearing Jewish relatives. But Brandeis University professor Joyce Antler, author of You Never Call! You Never Write! A History the Jewish Mother, says the bride-to-be has nothing to fear.

“I think she has a terrific Jewish mother-in-law who’s been active and very interested in nurturing young women….I think Chelsea can be inspired by this mother-in-law,” Antler says.

For her part, Rabbi Krause says everyone should not be so quick to assume that Clinton will soon be keeping kosher. Who knows, maybe this one will go to the Methodists?

“Why doesn’t anyone want to know if Marc should convert?” Krause asks. “Why should the Jewish community get first dibs at hanging out the ‘now hiring’ sign?”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for the Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.