By Erica Noonan
Want to get a funny look at parties? Tell people you have a child named Dennis McCormick enrolled at the Sunday School for Jewish Studies.
First people make the most reasonable assumption: I must be a Jew who married an Irishman.
“What's your maiden name?” they ask.
“Noonan,” I say.
That doesn't clear anything up, so they peer at me a little more closely, searching for a reassuring Semitic look around the eyes and nose. It is there, so they start peppering me with questions.
So, ARE you Jewish? Which synagogue do you go to? What is the SS4JS?
At this point, I usually start babbling defensively. “Well, my dad is Catholic but my mom is half-Jewish, and a bunch of my relatives are Jewish, but I was baptized and had First Communion in the Episcopal Church, but a Unitarian did our wedding... And uh, David is an atheist, but he kind of likes the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but he put me in charge of the kids religious education because he likes to sleep late on Sunday, but I think atheism is too cynical of a view to press on children...”
The person now looks truly horrified, yet my mouth won’t stop moving.
“...um,so, anyhow, I am identifying more as an adult with Judaism, but we celebrate Christmas because the grandparents would kill us if we didn't, and we are part Christian. Uh, sort of...."
By now the person has backed away, suddenly remembering an urgent appointment to talk to someone else -- anyone else -- except me.
Oddly, traditionally raised Jewish people are often the least tolerant. There is the “you aren't Jewish enough to count” camp or the “your kids can't be Jewish!” delivered with a dismissive shake of the head. Or sometimes the discussion turns into a rather intimate genetic search-and-destroy mission capped off with, “so, WHAT was your mother’s mother?” Sometimes people sneer. Or say dismissively, "that interfaith stuff never works out."
It took years, but I have finally come to regard these folks as a gang of judgemental creeps. Because of decisions made three generation ago my kids don't get access to this thread of their heritage? Their bloodline is too muddied? Who gets the right to say that I am not “enough” of something to “count?”
My children’s grandparents passed down many excellent things -- but a well-defined relationship with God and a parochial attachment to ethnicity -- were not among them.
As children of the 1960s, my parents and in-laws thought they were doing us a gigantic favor by not imposing religious dogma or an airtight lifestyle choice. As an adult, I appreciate that.
I hope my kids are as equally grateful for the religious structure I am imposing on their generation. I want to give them access to Judaism, with its rich spiritual and intellectual heritage and its proud tradition of moral leadership and social justice. I want them to become compassionate and funny adults who love life.
So, every Sunday morning they go to SS4JS -- a place that manages to be welcoming, tolerant, yet intellectually rigorous enough so that Dennis, age 8, recently out "Alef Bet-ed" a kid belonging to one those those “real” Jewish people. (Who's sneering now, I ask you?)
Whenever I take them to Sunday School, I feel like I am making up for lost time. The kids know they can choose at age 13 what they want to be -- Jewish, Christian, atheist, or something else entirely.
I see the Sunday School, as one politician put it the context of immigration, as a path to citizenship. By then they will have earned a Jewish identity fair and square. It will be up to them to embrace it for life.