Martha Little is a psychotherapist practicing in Moab, Utah, where she hobnobs with Mormons, native Americans, and peoples of all denominations.
Attending My Niece's Bat Mitzvah: A Non-Jewish Perspective
I am part of an interfaith family.
Writing this is strange, because it makes me define my own spiritual life and label a tradition that is by nature interfaith. I practice Buddhist meditation at a Catholic altar, and celebrate Passover with friends each year. Yet in writing this essay, I became aware that I don't know the distinctly Jewish language surrounding the Bar Mitzvah. I wondered what the verb is: is it "to be mitzvahed?" Is the place of the ceremony called a chapel or a synagogue? I feel a kind of closet shame that I don't know more about my relatives' religion. It is a shame that makes me not ask simple yet obvious questions. A shame that prevents me from knowing more about my closest relations.
I feel the double bind of being in an interfaith family--that those I love deeply have another life, another language as foreign to me as Chinese, beliefs and ceremonies that have never been explained to me. The shame of not understanding keeps me isolated and silent.
Going to my niece's Bat Mitzvah was an unknown to me. Growing up with a splattering of Presbyterianism and Catholicism, I associated organized religious ceremonies with dread and loathing--having to wear poorly fitting clothes, having to sit still for inordinate amounts of time, having to listen to boring and pedantic "preaching." I associated such ceremonies with hearing only "blah blah blah" and waiting for the rush to the door at the end.
As I entered the small chapel that would host my niece's Bat Mitzvah, I felt the familiar dread of religious scrutiny. Am I doing the right thing, wearing the right outfit, saying the right words, showing the right degree of sacred deference? My self-conscious scrutiny melted away as I looked up to see the radiant face of my woman/child niece. It was then I realized she was no longer a child. This person I had cradled as a baby, taken through woods as a toddler, swum rivers with, was now standing in front of a host of people with the grace of an exceptional adult. I felt a torrent of feelings--outrage that her childhood had gotten away from me, sad that I had missed so much of her growing up, proud that she had become such a charmed individual.
As I settled back into the stiff bench of the pews, I started to actually listen to the "blah blah blah" of the rabbi, and as the words came into focus I realized that he was celebrating this very thing. He was putting words of honor to this blossoming orchid and offering condolences to those of us who felt so sharply the loss of her childhood.
Her parents stood up with tears in their eyes and voiced their loving permission for her to grow up and blossom. At that moment I felt a solidarity of family that I had never before felt quite so acutely. As I looked around to my Catholic father, Presbyterian mother, atheist brother, agnostic sisters, Jewish sister-in-law and nephew, I felt a unity of spirit. We were honoring one of our own in a passage that both frightened and thrilled us. The pomp and circumstance of the ceremony both mattered and didn't--without it we would not have gathered from all over the country. The very nature of celebration lends itself to worship. The nature of faith lends itself to understanding diversity in the context of love. I did not feel that there was more than one kind of faith in that room at that moment.
As I left the chapel, I didn't rush for the exit with a sense of claustrophobic urgency. In fact, I wanted to linger, and take from that ceremony something back to my life. I left with the exhilarating knowledge that I had been part of a ceremony celebrating the difficult journey into adulthood, and that I was not alone in my conflicted feelings about my niece growing up. The shared sense of beliefs far outweighed any feelings of separation. The very word "interfaith" connotes a dialectic of belief that I didn't experience on this day. I held my niece in an embrace, feeling for the first time resolved to let her grow into the person she had become, with all her fresh multifaceted faith in this world as a hopeful place to be.