When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?Go To Parenting
From the time she was a little girl, my daughter Elizabeth's Judaism has been important to me. Perhaps I would have felt the same with any first-born child, but I can't help but think that Elizabeth's adoption has influenced my feelings. Converted as an infant, my daughter was neither born into Judaism, nor did she become a Jew-by-choice. Instead, her father and I chose to make her Jewish, and for me, this decision brought with it feelings of responsibility, privilege, pleasure and challenge. I wanted Elizabeth to grow up feeling connected to faith and proud of her Jewish heritage.
My efforts to make Elizabeth Jewish began with weekly trips to buy hallah and continued with having her help me prepare gefilte fish. Since I had been raised in a High Holy Days Only family, it felt special to begin these new traditions with my daughter. Along the same lines, I chose a religious school that offered an adult class at the same time as the children's class, enabling me to learn more about the Judaism that I was offering my daughter.
Elizabeth went on to become a bat mitzvah and to be confirmed. At each event, she did a magnificent job and I kvelled big time. Again, this may simply be what a mom does when her first daughter becomes a bat mitzvah, but I think that my pleasure was heightened because of my ongoing sense that Elizabeth's Judaism was a gift, not a given. There was also a certain perceived fragility about her religious identity--her initial protests about becoming a bat mitzvah, although not unusual, had made me somewhat fearful that Elizabeth might not embrace Judaism in the ways that I hoped she would.
When Elizabeth was in high school, she had neither Jewish friends nor boyfriends. I reacted to this with such Jewish mom comments as "I hope you will marry someone Jewish," to which she replied, "It's not important to me. I'll marry the person I love." As time went on, this response morphed into, "Religion is not important to me." Looking back, I do not believe that Elizabeth was rejecting Judaism, but at the time I was afraid that that was what was happening. From various things, such as a little contraband Christmas tree that I found in her bedroom, I perceived her indifference to all religions as an attraction to Christianity.
Fast forward several years to Elizabeth's wedding. On October 14, 2006, Elizabeth married a lovely young man who is Catholic. Their wedding ceremony and reception included no religion whatsoever--no huppah, no breaking of the glass, no priest, no rabbi, no hora (Jewish circle dance). When I asked her my "Jewish mom" questions in advance, including "Can't you just break the glass?" or "Can't we have just one little hora?" Elizabeth politely but firmly responded, "No. There will be no religion at our wedding. No Christianity. No Judaism. No religion." She rested her case.
Elizabeth's wedding turned out to be an occasion that did not need to include religion in order to feel traditional, personal and connecting. After celebrating with her and with Josh, her husband, I felt I had made peace with their inter-non-faith marriage. But as a mother, I should have known that nothing remains the same for long?
Elizabeth has always wanted a Christmas tree and so it came as no surprise to me that having and decorating a tree would be important to her. I was grateful when she assured me that she did not see Christmas as a religious holiday. Even when she invited our family and Josh's for Christmas dinner, I did not have the sense that it was a religious holiday. Hence, it came as a real surprise to me to arrive at her home and see a large menorah in the window. In addition, I noted a felt menorah on the Christmas tree and an ornament in the shape of a Star of David.
At the end of a lovely Christmas dinner, Josh's sister said, "This was great. Can we come for another holiday?" To this, the newly rejuvenated Jewish mom in me piped in, "How about Passover. Elizabeth, why don't you have a seder?" Instead of clobbering me, she said, "Yes."
Over the course of the three months between Christmas and Pesach, I anxiously approached Elizabeth several times asking her if she still planned to do the seder. Each time she said a calm yes, and let me know that no further discussion was welcome or needed. Even a few days before Pesach, she responded with her calm "yes." And to my offers to make haroset or kugel, she simply said, "I want to do it myself."
And so my daughter, who seemed so indifferent to Judaism, made a seder. She invited my husband and me and her dad (my ex-husband). A few others were invited but couldn't be there. Elizabeth made matzah balls, soup, haroset, chicken and brownies and apple cake. Josh made kugel. I brought them a set of family hagaddahs that were filled with playful pictures for children. Elizabeth said the hagaddahs were cool and the pictures made it easier for Josh to understand the seder plate and other rituals. Together we read the four questions, the four sons, made Hillel sandwiches and sang Dayenu. It was "seder lite," but it was seder. To say that I kvelled big time is an understatement. To say that the night was different from all other nights is equally an understatement. At the end of the seder, we substituted "Next year at Liz and Josh's" for "Next year in Jerusalem." Elizabeth smiled and said, "Yes."
I am sure that if I asked Elizabeth if Judaism matters in her life, she would say no. I doubt that she will ever attend synagogue unless it is for a bar mitzvah or a wedding or a funeral. To my surprise, neither of these things matters to me anymore. By making a seder, Elizabeth affirmed her connection to a history and a people and a tradition. Looking back, I realized that this is more than I ever hoped for.