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The phone rang and I heard my dadâ€™s apprehensive voice. â€śHi Sarah. I have a bit of a strange question for you. We are thinking ahead about Easter and we would like to have everyone over for brunch and an Easter egg hunt. We would of course love to have you there, but we know youâ€™re raising Shira Jewish and we donâ€™t want to offend you by extending the invitation.â€ť
I cut him off before he could even muster up the right words for the question that would follow. I was ready for this moment and said, â€śWe will be there. Iâ€™m glad you brought this up, since we havenâ€™t had a conversation about it yet. Yes, we are raising her Jewish, but we want her to understand that her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins celebrate other holidays. We wonâ€™t observe them in any religious capacity, but whenever invited, we want her to participate in those holidays to appreciate what her loved ones celebrate.â€ť
He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and weâ€™re now on our third round of celebrating Easter. We just got through her third Christmas as well. I found the timing of the conversation to be funny because we made it this far without having a need for it.
Then I remembered that earlier in the day, my dad had been over at our house and Shira was sharing leftover challah with him. I told him that making and eating the challah is her favorite part of our weekly Shabbat routine. He could see the challah cover, kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks proudly standing on our kitchen table. I understand now that up until that moment, he didnâ€™t realize that we practiced Jewish traditions together as a family on such a regular basis. He knew we had done the Simchat Bat ceremony and we observe Passover and Hanukkah, but other than the celebrations and holidays weâ€™ve included him in, our Jewishness is mostly kept rather quiet and simple within our own home.
It must have struck him that we were indeed raising her Jewish in the everyday, not just on the seemingly big holidays. He may have been surprised to come to that realization because it was in stark contrast to how I was raised.
Like my daughter, I was born into an interfaith family. My mother, now deceased, was Jewish, and my father is Protestant. Growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, but that was the extent of the religiously affiliated holidays we celebrated as a family. None of our holiday observances felt religious in nature. Our celebrations were much more about culture and family traditions. As a young child, I didnâ€™t feel any strong religious identity.
After my mom passed, my dad remarried someone who was Catholic. With this change in our household religious dynamic, any element of Judaism that I once had some connection to had to continue on my own will. My dad and stepmom were both supportive of me lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to Friday night Shabbat services with friends and joining a local Jewish youth group to explore my roots. They always joined in and happily participated whenever my momâ€™s family invited us to a Passover seder.
At the same time, I joined them in their celebrations of Christmas and Easter. I had celebrated them when my mom was around, so it felt normal to continue celebrating those occasions with my family. For this reason, I couldnâ€™t see raising my own family without Christmas and Easter. These holidays have always been a part of my upbringing. While my husband and I are raising our family Jewishly, in a more religious and observant way than how I was raised, we both grew up celebrating these Christian holidays and we want our daughter as well as any future children to understand that these holidays are an important piece of our family fabric.
We hadnâ€™t been intentionally avoiding the subject with our families, but we knew that with Shira being so young, her understanding of differing religions, rituals and celebrations is still very limited. My husband and I knew we would need to address it with her, and our respective families, once she reached an age of more awareness. We were preparing for the topic to come up eventually, and this challah-snacking Shabbat day just happened to present the perfect opportunity.
By Jared David Berezin
Sometimes it’s nice to have others make minor decisions for me. Iâ€™m happy when my wife decides what weâ€™re cooking for dinner. Itâ€™s more convenient when a friend suggests a specific date to get together. If I look in my closet and see only one pair of pants (the others being in the laundry), no problem, it makes deciding what to wear very easy.
Sometimes though it can be difficult to avoid others trying to make decisions for me. From political commentators telling me who â€śwonâ€ť a debate, to companies telling me what product will make me happy, to programmers at Netflix creating algorithms that tell me what movies to watch, Iâ€™m bombarded with recommendations from people Iâ€™ve never met.
For important lifecycle eventsâ€”baby naming ceremonies, bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and funeralsâ€”affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike tend to rely heavily on others, most often experienced and knowledgeable rabbis. For unaffiliated Jews and interfaith couples who do not belong to a synagogue, however, rabbis are often strangers whom we donâ€™t know and who donâ€™t know us.
Stepping away from the cast of strangers
The day my grandfather died, my mother said aloud what we were all thinking, â€śArrangements need to be made.â€ť I immediately pictured the typical funeral service with a rabbi we didnâ€™t know talking to us about a man he didnâ€™t know. Something inside me cried out, â€śNo more strangers!â€ť
Since my grandfather suffered from dementia, the nurses, doctors and staff at the assisted living facility were always strangers. As my grandfatherâ€™s dementia progressed, the cast of strangers in his life expanded to include even us, his own family. I was extremely grateful for the care he received, and yet I wondered, â€śWhy must we rely on someone we donâ€™t know to care for Papa even after heâ€™s dead? Do we really need a stranger to show us how to say goodbye to the man we loved so much?â€ť
Rabbis, like all individuals, can be wonderful people, but I was hesitant to have a rabbi who did not know my grandfather lead us through such an emotional experience. Although a rabbi would help ensure that Jewish rituals were met with accuracy, this had never been a priority for my grandfather. He loved to poke holes in theology and remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. I wanted a service that was as loving and authentic as my grandfather; an experience that was both Jewish and completely tailored for the man I admired.
I asked my mother and auntâ€”my grandfatherâ€™s daughtersâ€”if I could lead the funeral service. Initially, they said theyâ€™d think about it. In our next conversation I learned that their hesitation stemmed only out of concern for me. â€śWould you be OK?â€ť they asked. â€śWould it be too difficult, since you and Papa were so close?â€ť Truth is, I was scared to get what I asked for. Even thinking about attending a funeral makes me nervous.
Interfaith marriage as a confidence-booster
The determination to create and lead my grandfatherâ€™s funeral service grew in large part from my experiences in an interfaith marriageâ€”I was raised a Reform Jew and my wife was raised Christian, though she has since developed an aversion to all organized religion. To build rituals and Jewish holiday celebrations that are meaningful for both of us (and our friends who are Jewish and of other faiths), we experiment with ideas from within and outside Judaism. Together, weâ€™ve learned that we can try anythingâ€”if a ritual works we can do it again; if it doesnâ€™t we can try something new.
Developing a practice of spiritual self-reliance and interfaith experimentation gave me the strength to take responsibility for my grandfatherâ€™s funeral, to help lead rather than be led and to do so without the pressure of trying to be exactly perfect.
The Jewish ritual at the end of a burial service is to place dirt atop the casket. This voluntary ritual gives loved ones an opportunity to participate in the burial process. Creating and officiating my grandfatherâ€™s funeral service felt like an extension of this dirt ritual, a way for me to get my hands dirty, to get involved and to get uncomfortable for the sake of love and gratitude.
Preparing the funeral service also helped me appreciate all of the work done by strangers of all faiths whom we rely on to help us say goodbye, particularly the gravediggers. I prepared the words; they prepared the land. After they carefully lowered the patriarch of my family into the earth, I thanked the cemetery workers for their work. A couple of the men nodded in recognition as they walked away wordlessly to their next task.
â€śI am officiating this funeral service as a grandson mourning the loss of my grandfather, my Papa,â€ť I said at the start of the service to the group of family and friends gathered in front of me. Minutes later as my wife and I were performing the song â€śLechi Lachâ€ť on flute and guitarâ€”a duet my Papa always treasuredâ€”a gust of wind sent my yarmulke flying. As a family friend chased after the yarmulke and plopped it back on my head, I cherished the intimacy of the imperfect graveside service.