Elyssa Mosbacher is a staff writer with The Atlanta Jewish Times.
Growing Up Jewish ... with Christian Parents
Reprinted with permission of the Atlanta Jewish Times.
Bill and June Price are both Christians: she was raised a Lutheran, he was raised a Christian Scientist. They celebrate Easter and Christmas — decorating the tree has always been one of June's favorite holiday traditions. But they also celebrate Passover and Chanukah. And they spent tens of thousands of dollars sending their three adopted children to Jewish day schools.
When the Prices adopted Doug, Liz and Connie in 1969, there was no question about raising them as Jews. June explains that they didn't want to deny children their heritage. "We had a vision of responsibility," says Bill. "We didn't really even discuss it."
Their daughter, Liz Price, is now 40. She is a partner at Alston & Bird, Atlanta's largest law firm, a newlywed and a first-time mother. Her son, Daniel, is a smiling 5-month-old with bright blue eyes. She and her husband, Rick Blumen, also a partner at Alston & Bird, are intent on creating a Jewish home for their son, and they are in the process of looking for a synagogue to join.
But Liz Price insists the way her life turned out, and her commitment to raising her son Jewish, has very little to do with her. It has everything to do with the couple she's called Mom and Dad for 30 years.
In the late 1960s, Liz Price, her brothers Jeff and Doug, her sister Connie and their natural parents, George and Charlotte Goldat, were living in Dallas. George Goldat was a professor, and Charlotte was a social worker with an adoption agency. They were Jewish in name only; Liz remembers Christmas presents and getting candy on Easter.
But in 1968, their world turned upside down. George, 39, died from a cerebral hemorrhage. A year later, Charlotte, 40, succumbed to breast cancer. Jeff was 18; Doug was 11; Liz was 9; Connie was 5. No one in the family could take care of them. Jeff, no longer a minor, took off for New York City. Doug was sent to a boys' farm in Texas, and Liz and Connie were placed in a foster home. An already wounded family was, literally, broken into pieces. Liz remembers arriving at the first of two foster homes to which she and Connie were sent. She just sat on the sofa, reading her favorite Nancy Drew books. That was it. "I wouldn't eat," she recalls, her voice steady. "I wanted our grandmother in New York to come get us, and I thought if I went on sort of a hunger strike, she'd come."
After several days, Liz finally spoke to her grandmother, Ethel Goldat, on the telephone. "I can't come get you," her grandmother said. Finally resigned to the reality of the situation, Liz hung up the phone and turned to her foster parents. "I'm hungry," she said. There were 13 children in that first foster home, and Liz remembers sharing bath — and everything else. Even though tragedy broke up their family, it couldn't stop the sisters from sticking together. "We were baking cookies, and I wanted to let Connie lick the bowl, but we had to share. So I hid Connie under the sink," she says with a grin, "and gave her the bowl to lick while I was doing the dishes." Later Liz and Connie moved to a second foster home, and Doug went to live across the street, with his best friend's family. And, after only a few months, fortune finally smiled on them. Liz and Connie's second set of foster parents had been friends of their natural parents. They told the story of the orphaned Goldat kids to a friend, who in turn told her neighbor — June Price.
After nearly a decade and a half of marriage and unable to have children, the Prices had decided to adopt. They were already on a waiting list for an infant, and had started the process several times before with no success.
When June heard the Goldat family's story from her neighbor, she went home and told Bill. June insists there was no discussion. "We had been married 14 years, and knew we wanted to adopt," she says. "And there was such a need." On Oct. 12, they called the adoption agency. The agency handling the children's case was the same one Charlotte Goldat had worked for, and they had promised Charlotte they would keep the kids together. The woman who answered the phone the day June Price called had been a close friend of Charlotte's. "You don't know us, but we want to adopt the Goldat kids," June told her. The woman on the other end of the phone burst into tears.
On Dec. 20, 1969, the three children moved in with the Prices. They were back together, though far from whole. But the adoption didn't just reunite three orphaned children. Listening to Bill and June Price relate the details of the story in their matter-of-fact way, one gets the feeling they don't see what they did as anything heroic: they just did what needed to be done. But the adoption profoundly changed their lives.
June, at 34, suddenly found herself a mother of three devastated youngsters. Liz remembers those initial months as "a brief period of very intense sadness." She and her siblings had lots of questions — about death, and about why this had happened to them. June used to tell them they should think of their parents "as if they're in another room. They're right next door, but you can't go in," June would say, which Liz found comforting. June used to read them the poem "Solitude," by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. She hoped to help them learn to deal with the course their lives had taken.
Bill, an insurance agent with Northwestern Mutual Life, suddenly found himself the father of three Jewish kids. His co-workers, he says, were anything but supportive. "I got all these comments at work," he remembers, "about the kids being Jewish." He will not elaborate; the memory is clearly unpleasant, the comments still painful.
Bill and June both remembered a college classmate of Bill's who was driven to suicide by anti-Semitism. And Bill remembers the 1947 movie Gentleman's Agreement. In the film, Gregory Peck plays a reporter who pretends to be Jewish to write an article about anti-Semitism. Peck's character in the movie finds the experience overwhelming, but a Jewish friend explains that the reporter is cramming a lifetime's worth of experiences into a few months. That was how Bill Price felt. But both Bill and June were determined to maintain their children's Jewish heritage.
Then one day, a co-worker remarked that he and his wife had hoped to send their children to the best private school in Dallas, but that you had to be Jewish to get in. The school was Akiba Academy, an Orthodox Jewish day school. Curious, Bill went to check it out. The principal, Rabbi Shlomo Jakobovits, was skeptical. He tried to discourage Bill, explaining that as the children learned more and more about Judaism and Jewish practice, it would split the family. But Bill was persistent. The rabbi insisted on having the children tested by a psychologist. She told the Prices that Akiba was exactly what they needed, and not to worry — she would get them in.
Liz, a sixth-grader at the time, really wanted to go to Akiba. She can't explain why, she says now, but she wanted to go so badly that she deliberately failed an entrance test for another private school. While Bill and June weren't considering converting to Judaism, they found the Akiba community supportive. Christmas and Easter were replaced in the family's yearly cycle by Chanukah and Pesach, and they began to celebrate all the Jewish holidays. Liz's favorite holiday was Sukkot, because "we got to build the sukkah off the back deck, and we ate all our meals under it." Pesach, she says, was a close second: "The kids led the seder, but everyone took turns reading parts."
Of her time at Akiba, Liz says: "I ate it up." The school challenged her academically, but it also gave her a lasting connection to the State of Israel. There is no one left at Akiba Academy who worked there when the Prices attended, but former development director Reena Greenberg remembers getting a letter several years ago from Bill Price. "It was the most wonderful letter," she says. "He wanted to let us know how much the school had done for his kids."
As the kids grew, secondary school became a concern. There was no Jewish high school in Dallas. They wanted to continue the kids' Jewish education, so Bill and June began to look outside the city. They found that the closest Jewish high school was Yeshiva Atlanta. So in 1973, Bill arranged a transfer to Northwest Mutual Life's Atlanta office and moved the family to Atlanta. Doug and Liz enrolled in Yeshiva, and Connie started at Greenfield Hebrew Academy. The children began attending Shabbat services regularly at Congregation Beth Jacob."[My parents'] attempt to imbue us with a sense of Jewish heritage and pride followed us from Dallas to Atlanta," says Liz. The only member of Goldat family still in touch with the children at this point was their grandmother, Ethel Goldat, still living in New York. She became ill and needed care, so the Prices brought her to Atlanta to live with them. Liz eventually transferred to a public high school, because she wanted "a broader range of activities" than Yeshiva could offer at the time. "It's nice to go to football games sometimes," she says with a smile. But she, Doug and Connie still attended Beth Jacob every Saturday, and her connection to Judaism stayed strong.
After graduating from high school, Liz joined the Army. She was offered the chance to attend the Army's prestigious language school, Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, Calif. With visions of someday being involved with the Middle East peace process, she chose to study Arabic.
Liz left the Army in 1981, and in 1983, she graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern Studies. By this time, she realized that her childhood dream of "becoming the prime minister of Israel" was not a realistic possibility, so she went to law school. She stayed at George Washington University, earning her law degree in 1986, and promptly found a job with her current firm. But before starting work, she decided to fulfill another lifelong dream and traveled to Israel for two weeks. "I was pretty surprised at the strength and depth of emotion I felt once I got there," she says. " I just hadn't been prepared for what it would feel like to step out of the plane and be struck by such a sense of belonging." She called the law firm and told them she'd be late, and arranged to stay another week.
While Liz was beginning a successful career as an attorney, there was still something missing in her life. Around the time Liz, Doug and Connie enrolled at Akiba Academy, their older brother, Jeff, had come to town for a short visit. He returned to New York and disappeared; that visit was the last anyone would hear from him for 15 years. Engaged to be married in 1988, Liz told her fiance, a police officer, that there was just one thing she wanted for the wedding — to find Jeff. She recalls vividly the day she returned to her office to find a pink telephone message slip on her desk. "Your brother (Jeff) called," it said, with a telephone number. She sat, stunned, then called him back. They spoke for an hour and, she remembers, "had a great conversation." Jeff then called Connie, still in Atlanta, and Doug, in south Florida, and eventually visited everyone. The four siblings are now all back in touch, and speak regularly.
Liz divorced in 1998, and recently remarried. Now parents, she and Rick are actively looking for a synagogue to join. Liz realizes the profound effect Judaism had on her life: "Having seen the impact of religion on a child, we really want to start early."
Becoming a parent, she says, has given her "a greater appreciation for the sacrifices my parents made — the energy, the love you have to have." It has given Liz and Rick "a desire to refocus on our Jewishness."
Asked if she considers herself "religious," she takes a moment, then answers firmly: "I'm religious in the sense that I believe in God. I believe kindness and compassion are two of the greatest virtues a person can have."
And she knows what she's talking about, because Liz Price's life might have been profoundly different if not for the kindness and compassion of strangers. "It has nothing to do with me, really," she says. "It has to do with the choices and actions my parents made."
But Bill says he's been thinking about it all, and has come to the conclusion that it's not really about him, either. "I've come to think that this was my purpose in life," he says, "to bring up these kids. I have to think this was all part of God's plan."
Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.