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By Lindsey Goldstein
Before my husband and I got married, we discussed how we would raise any potential children. These children were very theoretical. something I wasnâ€™t sure I wanted. But I began to consider it, since he finally seemed to be the right person to procreate with.
My husband was raised Catholic but hasnâ€™t practiced any religion since he left his parentsâ€™ home and I was raised Jewish albeit not entirely religious. I strongly identify myself as Jewish.
Yet despite those differences, our discussions about raising our kids werenâ€™t profound. They went something like this:
Me: â€śHow will we raise our kids with respect to religion?â€ť
Him: â€śWell, youâ€™re Jewish, so arenâ€™t they Jewish by default?â€ť
Of course, he referred to the fact that any child that springs forth from the loins of a Jewish woman is automatically Jewish.
Thatâ€™s fine and good, but Iâ€™ve found that kids these days, unless presented with a religious upbringing will often default to being â€śnothing.â€ť Or as my brotherâ€™s kids say, they are â€śhalf Jewish.â€ť What does that even mean? Are they sliced down the middle through the navel, one side claiming to be Jewish and the other not? It means nothing. Literally.
Ultimately, my husband and I decided our kids would be educated on Judaism by me and my husband would answer any questions about Catholicism should they arise. He acknowledged that the brunt of our kidsâ€™ formal religious exposure would most likely be Judaism because my parents live 35 minutes away, so we spend the Jewish holidays with themâ€”and unlike him, I practice my religion.
Yet this wasnâ€™t a concrete plan. Essentially, we decided any kids we had could figure out for themselves how invested they wanted to be in their religious upbringing and we would simply facilitate their decision. In other words, our decision about how to raise them was pretty wishy-washy.
When my daughter reached school age, we decided to send her to a Jewish school, where she would stay there through kindergarten and then switch to an excellent local public school, one of the draws of our neighborhood.
As I haveÂ previously written, I am so proud that she became extremely interested in her Jewishness to the extent that she taught me things Iâ€™d long forgotten from my Jewish upbringing. In June, she â€śgraduatedâ€ť from that school and will, as planned, move to a public school.
The struggle confronting me now is how will her Jewishness persevere outside of her current school? I asked her if she would like to have aÂ bat mitzvahÂ and she said yes. I explained to her sheâ€™d have to attend Hebrew school on Sundays to make her goal happen.
Hereâ€™s the thing: When my daughter and I discuss Hebrew school, she forgets about it minutes later. I donâ€™t force the issue because I reflect on the fact that I wouldnâ€™t have wanted to spend every Sunday in Hebrew school when I was 6. I hear my husband and understand his religion was forced on him thereby destroying any religious intentions in him. I know he feels strongly that we donâ€™t do that to our kids. But I remind him that being Jewish isnâ€™t an easy path to choose.
Now that we have real children instead of theoretical ones, I realize our decision to not make any decisions for them was misguided. Kids will never choose to study religion if they donâ€™t have to.
The path of least resistance is being anything but Jewish. I resented being Jewish for most of my teenage years because I was raised among mostly Christians and I hated being â€śdifferent.â€ť When I was 18, I lived in a predominantly Catholic country as an exchange student. For that year, I decided to assimilate and not celebrate Jewish holidays or acknowledge my Jewishness. I had a fulfilling year, yet I felt adrift. Even though Iâ€™ve never been terribly religious, it turned out I was out of place in a religious context that wasnâ€™t my own, and I craved the companionship of people who â€śget me.â€ť
No matter how religious or not a Jew is, I think there is a foundation of similarity that allows us to relate to another Jew easily. There is a parallel upbringing or set of parents or values that bonds us together.
And I realize now: I want that for my kids. I donâ€™t want them to float around in this world incapable of identifying themselves with a community.Â Selfishly, I want that community to be a Jewish one.
Clearly, my husband and I still have some discussion before usâ€”and it wonâ€™t be easy to iron out now that our kids are growing up. We should have made concrete decisions about religious upbringing before.
Thatâ€™s why when other interfaith couples say theyâ€™re going to â€świng it,â€ť I vehemently tell them not toâ€”but rather to hammer those details out before they get married, to seek counsel from an outside source if they need an objective perspective.
In the meantime, my daughter will still have a connection to her Jewish school since her brother will matriculate in a month. I am hopeful she will choose to follow through with her desire to have a bat mitzvah and continue to feel at home in the Jewish community as she has for the last several years.
I hope she is ultimately persuaded by my example since she enjoys going to synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays with me. Of course, I am not upset with my husband for his view on religious upbringingâ€”especially in light of how he was raised. But, I should have been absolutely forthright with him that my ultimate goal for my kids is as follows: when someone asks them what they are they respond without hesitation, â€śJewish.â€ť
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary. Â I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. Iâ€™ve never really talked to anyone about their Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, to find out if other people walk around reflecting on their day when it rolls around each year. There would be something religiously poetic about talking about this coming from a sense of my anniversary being some kind of a spiritual birthday, that I take time on March 25 to re-read my Torah portion, or to go to minyan. But thatâ€™s not really why I feel so light. It’s about a lot of other things; things about family and friends and a shift in how I perceived myself as an individual, Jewish or not.
I may be wrong, but Iâ€™d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” Itâ€™s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in todayâ€™s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and Dâ€™var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you werenâ€™t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
The other day I felt good about how I handled Sammy’s challenging political questions about the Sochi games. We discussed Jonathan Pollard when Edward Snowden came up again in conversation. We talked about the parallels between Russia’s anti-gay policies and Hitler’s ideas of racial supremacy during a discussion about the price paid at an auction last year for Jesse Owenâ€™s gold medal. In fact, I was feeling so good about having managed the Winter Gamesâ€™ teachable moments that I began to think that it was time for some parental high-fives.
Then three tanned and topless females wearing only thong bikini bottoms and big smiles appeared in my mailbox. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue had arrived. I knew that many men anticipated the arrival of this once-a-year celebration of women frolicking in the sand and surf, but as the mother of a 9-and-a-half-year-old boy, I was neither filled with anticipation for what was inside this magazine nor was I celebrating it.
But the arrival of these women on my doorstep was my fault. I was the one who during Sammyâ€™s school magazine fundraiser said it was okay for him to get the “regular” edition of Sports Illustrated (S.I.), in addition to S.I. for Kids. I thought reading about sports would be better than surfing the Internet for sports news. I forgot that the swimsuit issue was part of the subscription package.
I cancelled my subscription to S.I. 26 years ago, before heading to college. See, I too was a sports-crazy kid. I would read my weekly sports bible lying on my bedroom floor. I studied the swimsuit issue with a mix of amazement (women really looked like that!) and curiosity (was it possible to visit the exotic locations in the pictures?). I had a good idea what was inside the 50th anniversary edition.
But on this day, I did not look at the magazine with amazement or curiosity. I looked at it with a motherâ€™s eye, a Jewish motherâ€™s eye, and thought, thereâ€™s no way my kid is looking at this. I try not to be a helicopter parent, and I work to embrace the blessing of the skinned knee, but Iâ€™m still a mom that wants to shelter her son from some things for as long as possible â€“ like barely clothed women with long legs and big breasts.
At the risk of sounding like my parents, kids grow-up so fast. I want to preserve Sammyâ€™s innocence for as long as possible. Iâ€™m glad he still thinks kissing in movies is gross â€“ he covers his eyes when Aragorn smooches Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and like that he has â€śgirls who are friendsâ€ť instead of girlfriends.
With this in mind and because Sammy was at school and had not yet seen that S.I. arrived, I hid the magazine in my office under legal pads and file folders and anything else I could find. Iâ€™m not proud that I took his mail or that I wasn’t truthful when Sammy said, “I wonder why I didn’t get Sports Illustrated this week.” As a Jewish parent, I know I should be working a little harder than I am to model walking in God’s ways.
But, come on, I think a little wiggle room should be granted on the eighth and ninth commandments for moms and dads who need to bend the rules in the name of responsible parenting. I mean sometimes a mom has to do what a mom has to do.
I fudged the commandments to protect my child, and to prevent him from breaking the tenth commandment â€“ thou shall not covet. I knew the photos in the magazine might lead to lots of coveting of swimsuit beauties, including Israeli model Bar Refaeli who was featured in the former cover girl section. As I looked at the picture of her, I imagined Sammy using the line, â€śBut sheâ€™s Jewish,â€ť to convince me to let him hang her poster in his room. As if somehow being Jewish would negate the fact that she wasnâ€™t wearing much clothing.
The arrival of this magazine really sent me into a tizzy in a way that questions about Putin, terrorism and gay rights in Russia did not. Why? Iâ€™m not naĂŻve. I know that some day soon Sammy will be thinking and looking at girls as more than just friends. I know that, in a few years, he will be a teenager with raging hormones.
I was reminded of all these things that as a parent, I wished to put off, when the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Date Assignment Request Form arrived in the mail. Realizing that the teen years and all the developmental changes that they bring were not as far off as I liked to think triggered my mama bear response to the magazine. Taken together, the two items made me realize that, in three, years, my little boy would not be so little anymore.
At the same time that Sammy is called to the Torah to accept his obligation to fulfill Jewish laws and be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), he will be becoming more interested in bodies and sexuality – things that I find more difficult to discuss than politics. But I canâ€™t stop the turning towards adulthood. It is coming, in many ways and sooner than I want.
I know this, but I still want to prolong Sammyâ€™s innocence as long as I can. Which is why, I deposited the magazine in the recycling bin. Iâ€™m not yet ready to address the challenging topics raised by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But I know I need to do it. I just need some additional time to think about what to say.
I get weekly emails from my synagogue, and, a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a little paragraph tucked in between notices from the Sisterhood and requests for coat donations.Â A bar/bat mitzvah meeting for parents of kids fourth thru sixth grade. It took me a minute, but I realized quickly that it meant me. Â My daughter is in fourth grade. Â It’s that time already? Â Really? Â Wasn’t it a week ago that I was pregnant with her and couldn’t fathom how she’d be able to have any kind of clear religious identity with a Jewish father and me? Â Â Wasn’t it just the other day that I realized that while she was self identifying as Jewish the way she considered herself Irish but because I hadn’t converted, according to our synagogue, technically, she wasn’t Jewish? I didn’t think she’d really remember the mikveh, she was only five or six, but I remember it so vividly. Â And suddenly – we’re there already. Â A bat mitzvah.
And the more I thought about it, the more emotional I got. Â Which isn’t surprising, I cry at pretty much every milestone. Â Dance recitals, preschool graduations, her first real report card. Â But a bat mitzvah seems like it’s so important. Â Not only because she’s the first in my husband’s family, of her generation, to read from the Torah. Â Not only because my family will come, of course they’ll come, but won’t have the foggiest idea what we’ll be doing. Â But also because the bat mitzvah has so much meaning attached to it. Â It’s coming right when I’m starting to realize that this baby girl, this tiny little baby of mine isn’t always going to be mine. Â She’s her own person – and that’s terrifying and wonderful and, yeah, I’m welling up with tears as I’m writing. Â I’m going to be in so much trouble with this…
That’s what the bat mitzvah is – it’s a public acknowledgement that we’re Jewish, and that Jessica is Jewish. Â That she’s responsible for herself now, that she’s going to take ownership of her own religious identity in a way that I’ve been worrying about since before she was born. Â What will her religious identity be? Â She’s Jewish, yes, but not only Jewish. Â She’s inherited a rich family tradition dating back thousands of years. Â She’s also the product of my side of the family, a family filled with people who have no strong tie to any organized religion but a very strong and heartfelt connection to God.
She’s all intellectual questioning rules and ritual on the one hand, and on the other, she’s got a sincere and absolute relationship with God that, as far as I can see, she’s never doubted. Â She blends both of us, the Jewish side from her father, and the spiritual intensity from me. Â She’s got an extra dash of drama and wonder and intensity that’s all her own. Â And it makes me cry. Â I’m not sure if I’m crying because I’m grieving the loss of the little girl who’s growing up so fast, or if I’m crying because I’m so incredibly proud of the woman she’ll be.
When she was born, my husband picked out her Hebrew name. Â It means “beautiful celebration.” Â That’s what she’s always been for us, a celebration of love and life and so much joy. Â And on her bat mitzvah, she’ll stand in front of our friends and family, and she’ll read from the Torah. Â She’ll be exactly who she is. Â And that’s amazing to me.
As I pulled into the parking lot at the temple, I was amused by the fact that my van, which is being held together by duct tape, string, paper clips and prayer, was parked next to a new Porsche. The juxtaposition of the two vehicles seemed to represent how I felt about going into my sonâ€™s Bar Mitzvah meeting. I was a little nervous and didn’t feel like I fit in.
I walked in, saw familiar faces, said some hellos, got my folder, sat down and whipped out my knitting. I knit when I am nervous. The meeting started right on time (odd, I know). The Rabbi asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a story about our experience with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. I have no story. The only story I have is the one I am telling you all right now. Knit, knit, knit. I messed up the introduction. Knit, knit, knit.
The Rabbi begins to go over everything. He talks about how each ceremony is structured to fit the needs of each child and their family. I am still knitting, but it is slowing. I am starting to feel calmer, or maybe the magnitude of the whole event is just so overwhelming that I am in shock, hard to tell. More talking. Eventually, there is a need for some paper shuffling and I put my knitting away. I am starting to think this is doable. Planning is something I am good at.
Just as the calm is beginning to settle in, the dates are handed out. I am not sure what I expected, but what was printed on that green index card was a shocker for me. I think I expected that the Bar Mitzvah date would be within a few weeks of my sonâ€™s birthday, not almost three months later. I am sure that the fact that an actual date makes all of this real also contributed. I was shell-shocked by the information on the card.
I could have requested a date. I didnâ€™t do that. I just figured they would give us the right date. It is two years from now, so really, I donâ€™t have anything scheduled. When I got the date, all the days that would have been bad flooded my mind. The anniversary of my fatherâ€™s death is in the same month as Macâ€™s bar mitzvah, but it never occurred to me to request it to not be on that date, it was so far away from Macâ€™s birthday.
While driving home I called a friend and freaked out a bit. She listened to me go on, and then calmly reminded me that this is G-dâ€™s party and that what will be will be. The people that are important will be there. That this is about more than just dates and the potential for blizzards to cause havoc with travel plans. That in the end, it will be ok, Mac will do great, and everyone who needs to be there will be there. The people that love him will come.
I asked her to remind me of this over the next two years when I am having some sort of cosmic meltdown. I also am laying in a goodly supply of yarn, just in case.