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By Tara Worthey Segal
I formally converted to Judaism one month after I lost my father and two weeks before getting married.
I hadn’t been raised with much religion. I was baptized Lutheran, but always joked that my parents did that more out of superstition than dogma. They didn’t do much to disabuse me of this notion—we attended services at the local Lutheran church on Christmas Eve, but beyond that and spending a week or so at an Episcopal church camp for a few summers, I didn’t have much of a religious identity.
My parents said they didn’t want to force religion on us. Other kids in that situation might never have gravitated toward organized religion at all, but my sister and I both wound up finding our own. She became a Mormon, drawn to it by the community she found in her Idaho college town and by the man who would become her husband. Mine also came through the man I’d eventually marry. Matt was raised in a conservative Jewish household, and though he wasn’t hugely religious himself, it was important to him that he marry a Jew.
As I began to study for my conversion, I was relieved that no one told me what to think and instead discussed with me how we see and live life through a Jewish lens. I was invited to take part in conversations rather than evaluated on obedience. Always uncomfortable with the idea of pledging allegiance to a transcribed set of beliefs, I was drawn to the idea that I could keep my curiosity, that it was OK to question leaders and make sense of the world myself, using the values of Judaism as a guide.
One reservation I did have was my father. He didn’t object to me marrying a Jewish man; to the contrary, he loved Matt and was incredibly proud of his achievements. As for his own daughter becoming Jewish… I’m not sure he understood the necessity. We didn’t speak about my conversion process much, as he was sick and I was planning a wedding. And then, before we had the chance to really discuss it, he was gone.
I wanted him to know that my conversion wasn’t a rejection of him and my mother, or of our upbringing. In fact, it was because of the way I was raised that becoming Jewish came to make sense to me. People often talk about their finding their spiritual homes, but for me, arriving at Judaism was less of a homecoming and more of a recognition of something that was always there. An emphasis on family. Intellectual curiosity. Passing on a shared history and traditions to the next generations.
The things that eventually drew me to Judaism were my father’s values, as well. From him, I learned that knowledge is liberating. He didn’t have much formal education but he shared with me his love for reading (he gave me his tattered copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank” when I was 8), and said attending college was a non-negotiable.
From him, I learned the value of being able to stand up for my own views. He played devil’s advocate every time we talked politics, driving me to distraction at times (though in the end he voted for Obama).
From him, I learned never to be passive or complacent. He may not have recognized the term tikkun olam (repairing the world), but I also never saw him turn away from somebody who he had the ability to help in any capacity. And he felt guilty when he didn’t have spare change for someone asking on the street.
These are all things that, as far as I can tell, embody Jewishness.
After he died, I found comfort in that oft-repeated phrase “may his memory be a blessing.” It doesn’t promise that I will see him again or that he is in a better place. It doesn’t force me to place hope in something that I’m not sure exists. It allows me, simply, to find joy in the fact that I had him for 27 years—and I have as many years’ worth of memories to hold close, when I can no longer pick up the phone to call him and argue about Hillary Clinton.
My husband and I had a traditional Jewish wedding, with the chuppah and the ketubah (marriage contract) and the hora and even—because both of our siblings had married before us—a double mezinke (a dance for parents whose last child is marrying). And as I watched the endless line of wedding guests dance around my husband’s mother and father and my own mother, and as I saw the mix of grief, pleasure, and bewilderment on my mom’s face, I wondered what my father would have thought of it all.
He knew that he would be leaving me before his time, and he never spoke about concrete ideas of heaven or hell, redemption, or eternal kingdoms. I think, though, that he would be at peace knowing that Judaism gave me a way to grieve him without clinging to a narrative that wouldn’t feel genuine to either of us.
It’s been three years now since I lost him. Every winter, both his birthday and the anniversary of his death pass in the same week. Every year, the anniversary of my conversion and the anniversary of my marriage follow close behind. The later dates are inextricably tied to the earlier ones. I light a candle and stand to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish—for a man who was not Jewish and who likely did not know what a yahrzeit was.
But my father deserves to be honored, and his Jewish daughter intends to do so.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
By Robyn Bacon
Like his other mother, my 4-month old son Sam is Jewish. I am not. I was born and raised Catholic. My mother and her sister converted to Catholicism while attending the Catholic schools that offered a better education to black families than the separate but equal public schools in the segregated South. My mother went to mass every day and, after she died, the congregation at her local church planted a tree in her honor outside the front door. My aunt (her sister) regularly serves communion at Sunday mass. My father’s family has been Catholic for generations—his cousin was Mother Superior of a convent of black nuns in New Orleans. My Catholic background was such a point of pride for me that, even after agreeing that our son would be Jewish, I still wanted to name him Ignatius Xavier in honor of the founders of the Jesuits.
With this history, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I told my family that Sam was going to be Jewish. I was especially concerned about my father. Dad’s family is Louisiana Creole. For him, being Catholic is not just about religion. It’s a core part of his identity, as integral to his sense of self as being black and from Texas. Sam was already biracial and a native Californian. I was afraid that when Dad learned that Sam was going to be Jewish, he might decide Sam was too different to be his grandson.
To my surprise, my father was not only accepting, he was also enthusiastic. And full of questions. Why was Sam going to be Jewish? How could my baby be Jewish if I’m not? Was he going to be baptized Jewish? What were the Jewish holidays? It was a bit overwhelming. Figuring that it would be better to let him find his own answers, I asked IFF/LA’s Rabbi Keara Stein for book recommendations.
Dad came to visit Sam for the first time a week ago. When he called before the visit, he mentioned that he had read the books. Judaism had made a strong impression on him and he was “excited” that it was going to be a part of Sam’s life. He liked the Jewish sense of community and the rituals, but most of all he liked how, as he described it, Judaism emphasized study over knowledge. “I feel like that really resonates with me,” he said.
I suggested that he join us for Shabbat dinner while he was in town. (His text message response was “I’m down w/‘Shabbat’ after I look up what it is.”) We also invited my cousin, who just moved to LA, and my mother’s brother, who happened to be in town. So my father experienced his first Shabbat with his grandson, surrounded by family. It was the first time he had ever shared a family meal at my house. It was also the first time he ate challah, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
At his suggestion, he and I took Sam to services on Saturday morning, where, after seeing me navigate the prayer book, he asked if I knew Hebrew. (“Not really,” I answered. “But it’s OK to just la la la if you don’t know the words.” He laughed.) Driving home, we talked about what to expect at Sam’s bar mitzvah. And he finally asked an easy question. Dad wanted to know why Sam didn’t have my last name. “Easy,” I said. “Our name is Bacon. That’s just not very Jewish.”
Before he left, my father told me how much he enjoyed his trip, even the two hours we spent at services. Looking back, it might have been the best visit we’ve had as adults. Talking about Judaism made for some of the longest and most personal conversations we’ve ever had. And his curiosity gave me a chance to think more deeply about what it means to raise our son in our Jewish community. Dad’s parting words were a request that I let him know when holidays were coming so he could be prepared. Perhaps I’ll give him a call for Shavuot.
It started as most modern romances do these days. Girl logs on to a website. Spies a boy. Sends notes back and forth. But it was 2000 when I met Dave, long before dating websites—a time when chat rooms and websites catering to different hobbies and interests were just starting to bring people together.
We corresponded via Internet and phone calls before we ever met in person. I was living in Brooklyn and needed to be in Boston for a work event in May 2001. We thought we should have dinner. Dinner turned into a weekend, which turned into weekend trips between New York City and Boston for quite some time.
Aside from the travel, it all seemed so simple.
And it was, mostly. There came a point in the relationship where we knew we were going to move forward, as in, it looked like I was going to leave New York City and move to Boston to be with Dave. We felt like we needed to tell our parents we had met someone special. That we were serious.
I was nervous.
You see, I was raised Jewish. My mom, my dad, my Orthodox Russian Rabbi great grandfathers, and family as far back as I know of, are all Jewish. And Dave was raised in a different religion.
I know the stories, I’ve seen The Way We Were, Fiddler on the Roof, and Annie Hall. People get disowned, troubles arise … lineages are broken, chaos ensues! I love my dad. I am his first born and I have always wanted to please him. I also knew I loved Dave. And that my Dad loved me.
So I prepared myself mentally and I picked up the phone.
Please answer so I can get this over with.
We start off like any other normal conversation; we laugh a little and check in. Then I let him know that I have something important I want to talk to him about.
“So I know I told you I’ve met someone… but I wanted to let you know that we are… um… moving forward with our relationship.”
“Well I’m sure you must know that I have one big question for you about this man that I need to ask.”
“OK.” Still holding breath, about to pass out.
At this point I’m trying to prepare to help my father understand that, to me, just because Dave isn’t Jewish, that fact doesn’t make me less Jewish or even less likely to raise Jewish children. I’ve always loved the holidays and the culture and the food and I want to make sure that those traditions are carried on. I’m ready to have this conversation with my father.
“OK, Dad…ask it.”
“Well, is he a Red Sox fan? Because that might be a deal breaker for me.”
And with tears in my eyes, I laughed. I laughed and told my father that no, the man I knew I was destined to marry was not a Red Sox fan.
I knew that my father chose love. He chose his love for me because he knew that love is the most important choice. He understood that we make choices in our lives every day and those choices should be made with love.
In my head, I made this conversation much more difficult because the “If you’re a Jew, you marry a Jew” mantra whispered throughout my upbringing. The truth is, by embracing my interfaith relationship, my father actually made me want to keep Judaism in my life more—to carry on the traditions and the culture in my own family. And while I wouldn’t realize it until long after this conversation, he made me want to fight to keep Judaism in my children’s lives no matter how many times we were made to feel unwelcome.
“I thought you were going to ask a different question.”
It has been over five years since my father died. I see him in my children. My Jewish children. When they laugh, when they’re defiant and when they participate in Passover and light the Shabbat candles, and certainly on the day they eventually become Bar Mitzvah. Judaism is strong in my family, because at a critical moment, my father chose love.
To learn more about InterfaithFamily’s #ChooseLove campaign and to tell us how you #ChooseLove, visit interfaithfamily.com/chooselove.
To see how we #ChooseLove, watch this video.