Is Raising a Mensch Possible?

I was set to write a post about how Baby Boy is turning 2 in just a couple months, and how that meant Hubby and I needed to revisit the discussion of a possible conversion for him. But something happened at work this week that has taken over my thoughts. I won’t go into details out of professional courtesy, but suffice it to say that at the root of the situation is intolerance. Intolerance, possibly bigotry thinly veiled as religious sensibilities. And of course, there’s the sting of this all happening with people I’ve known and worked with for nearly 11 years. Now, to be clear, this situation wasn’t aimed at me or my interfaith family. This situation actually doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism. So why blog about it here?

Because I’m so disheartened. Selfishly, I wonder how the people in question would react if they realized that I am raising a Jewish son. On a larger scale, I wonder how I’m supposed to raise caring, tolerant, inclusive boys when it feels like intolerance surrounds us.

I want my boys to have their own convictions and identities – religious and non-religious – but I don’t want them to feel the need to force those convictions onto anyone they deem as less than them. Scratch that – I don’t want them to see anyone as “less than” them. I want them to have a voice, and to use it when they need to, but I don’t want them to use it to silence other voices.

But how do you teach those values when it feels like home is one of the few places that behavior is modeled? How do you teach those values when we’re daily bombarded with stories of the loud, radical or extremely intolerant voices drowning out the reasonable, more tolerant voices? How do you teach the right balance of taking the high road whenever possible, but not just always “taking it”? Is it possible?

I want to raise Mensches. I do. And right now I think we’re on the right track with that. But the influences on the boys are increasingly wider than just what Dad and I (and other family) show them at home. And right now, I feel so beaten down by those influences that I’m not sure it’s possible to overcome them. Please, if you’ve struggled with this, I’d love suggestions on ways to do it right. It’s about so much more than just me or my family; doesn’t this really affect us all, as humans?

Have a Little Faith

Sometimes I think what will be written on my headstone when I die is She had a lot of faith. As Roman Catholic raising Jewish children, I spend a lot of my time in houses of worship—three hours in the synagogue on Saturdays and an hour at Mass on Sundays—preparing for and celebrating holidays, and talking about God and religion with my friends and family.

The truth is I love it. I love being Catholic and I love that my family is Jewish. I am by no means a religious expert or theologian. I have studied Judaism for the past twelve years since I met my husband and as much as I have learned, I do feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Once when I was talking with a (Jewish) friend, trying to understand the differences between the Jewish denominations, he finally said the different denominations are about five minutes old in the span of Judaism, and I should not worry about the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reconstructionist Jew. He told me to study the Jewish holidays, interpret them for my family, and all will be well.

I am sure some would take exception to that advice, but it has worked for me all these years. I cannot expound on all facets of Jewish religion, tradition, and customs, but I have found my way living a Jewish life with my family. I am grateful for all of my teachers along the way, my children’s preschool, their Jewish summer camp, our synagogue, great friends, and resources on Interfaithfamily.com. And I cannot forget the secretary at my church who recommended the mohel we used for my son’s brit milah (circumcision).

My son is eight years old and my daughter is six. I am happy to share that they are thriving in all aspects of their humanity, they are healthy, they are socially agreeable, and self-identify as Jews. They know I am not Jewish and love me anyway. Last year when William was seven and Sarah was five, we took them to our local mikveh to be officially converted. Of course some lines of Judaism recognize patrilineal descent, but it was important to us to have them officially converted for their Jewish legitimacy to be recognized by most modern denominations.

On the appointed day, William and Sarah went through the ritual immersion for Jewish conversion at the Community Mikveh in Wilmette, Illinois. One at a time, they entered the small holy pool and immersed their whole bodies under the water three times. After each immersion, a prayer was said by the beit din (rabbinic court officiating the ritual) blessing them into the Jewish religion.

William and Sarah loved the experience. My husband and I prepared them for it in advance. The mikveh is a special place. The water is the most special water you will ever feel on your skin. You will be sealed with God’s grace in a very special way. Enjoy it; savor it because it will be a long time before you can go into a mikveh again.

Enjoy it they did. Sarah went first and made us promise she can come back again one day. William dunked himself at least six times. He treaded water. He swam around. He stayed in as long as he could.
The following day was Friday. At our Shabbat dinner, we all made toasts to how wonderful it is to be Jewish and what a remarkable week it had been. Our Shabbat Shaloms , l’chaims and special Shabbat blessings felt extra special and authentic. It was then when I realized that I really am the only non-Jew in our house. I also realized my work to raise Jewish children was not over. It had just begun.

Merging the Jewish with the Non

I was discussing my son’s Brit Milah (Bris, circumcusion) with my spiritual advisor/mentor.  I was recalling my best friend asking about whether my in-laws, my son’s non-Jewish grandfather, aunts and uncles, would be coming to the ceremony.  She asked whether they understood the importance of the ceremony.  The answers to both questions were “no.” 

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if I wanted them to come.  I didn’t think they would understand.  I wondered if they considered it mutilation.  I wondered if it would start an argument. 

My husband was changing our son’s diaper one morning when my father-in-law came to visit.  It was probably the first time my father in-law saw a circumcised boy.  He asked in his Italian accent, “Are you sure they didn’t take off too much?” 

The question seems funny enough, but already it seems obvious: my son doesn’t look normal in his eyes. 

My husband, who isn’t circumcised, defended our son valiantly.  “No Dad, he’s perfect and the circumcision was done properly.” 

Modeh Ani


Image from http://pathways.aish.com/pathways/graph … eh-ani.gif

The first prayer of each and every day is a statement of gratitude.  Thank G-d I am still alive.  It is a little bit an answer to “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the L-rd my soul to keep…”

The blessing is so simple, and in fact written quite eloquently, without the mention of G-d’s name.  Why?  So that you can recite as soon as you open your eyes before you do even get out of bed.

When I pick up my son from his crib, as he gazes up at me with his beautiful bright eyes, I sing to him, Modeh Ani.  I am grateful, not only for my soul, but also for his.  I am grateful that G-d has granted me another day of parenting, of trying to figure it out. 

I could have had a rough night, my son could have woken up every hour, but in the light of the new day, I still sing to him Modeh Ani. 

The Saturday Dilemma

Shabbat meals are ready.  The house is far from clean.  I have pretty much given up on preparing the whole house for Shabbat now that we have a baby.  Once a month, we have budgeted in for a cleaning lady.  I will have to wait one more week until the entire house will feel sparking and beautiful for the Shabbat Queen. 

My husband has learned to enjoy the holiness of Shabbat.  He comes home from work, and the Shabbat candles are lit, there is a beautiful meal ready to be served, and his wife seems a bit more relaxed than other days. 

In recent years I have increased my level of Shabbat observance.  I don’t drive, I don’t answer the phone or use electricity.  I want the same thing for my son.  My husband, who is not Jewish, isn’t required to keep the laws of Shabbat.  I know he isn’t really interested in fully observing anyway.  I worry sometimes, though, how that will affect my son. 

Before I go on, I want to say my husband is 100% supportive of my Jewish spirituality.  There are just certain things he can’t or won’t do himself though.  I get it. 

I know my husband likes his Saturdays for his man-cave time.  He tinkers on whatever needs to be worked on.  For him, Saturday is catch up day.  Or a day to run off with the boys for a mountain bike ride or a ski.

I have discussed with him on many occasions that right now, while our son is still young and mostly unaware, he can do what he wants.  But soon, probably way too soon, our son will be more in tune with what is going on in his house.  No doubt, he will want to be with Daddy, do what Daddy does.  Why would he want to stay home with Mommy and go to shul if Daddy is running off doing something fun like biking? 

I think about these kinds of things a lot.  I want my son to appreciate and enjoy his Jewish spirituality.  I wonder how to balance all of this.  Let my husband keep his cave time while educating our son. 

What do you think?