How’s this for an unlikely story? A non-Jewish Korean professor of Jewish history at Brandeis does anthropological research that debunks cherished Jewish-American myths about shtetl life in 19th-century eastern Europe.

In The Forward, Gabriel Sanders profiles ChaeRan Freeze, who showed in her first book, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (2001), that Jewish divorce rates in 19th-century Russia were much higher than the rest of the population. Her next book looks at sexual norms in the shtetl.

ChaeRan Freeze isn’t part of an interfaith family per se, but nor would it be appropriate to say she lives outside Judaism. She tells Sanders how she was drawn to Judaism by the novels of Chaim Potok and Leon Uris as a child. Then, as an undergrad at University of California, Irvine, she felt more at home with the campus’ Jews and international students than with the Asian-American culture. As a grad student at Brandeis, she says, “I had a higher bar to reach, and my adviser, Jehuda Reinharz, was very strict. … I had to work hard to show that I could be a Jewish historian.”

Now she’s married to a fellow professor at Brandeis, who is also not Jewish. But she and her husband are raising their children “domestically Jewish,” observing Shabbat and studying some Torah each week–which is a lot more Jewish than what most Jews do. Even though she has a class on conversion three times, she still feels unready to convert:

The more I study it, the more daunting it is for me. I’m on a journey. I hope that at the end of this journey, I’d be worthy of conversion.

One thought on “Unclassifiable”

  • Um….this doesn’t surprise me, since it was extremely difficult to obtain a divorce in the tsarist state. This means that non-Jewish Russians were under the marriage laws of the Orthodox Church, which is anti-divorce.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *