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Joining Traditions

February 12, 2010

My brother and I were raised by two Jewish parents. Ours was a liberal Jewish home: mezuzahs on the doorways, Shabbat dinner every Friday, holidays observed and celebrated. I grew up believing that my parents were both equally committed to our family's level of observance. In recent years, long after my parents' divorce, and as my father has formed a new family, I've learned that my outlook was perhaps naive.

"And when I wanted to start laying tefillin, he was more than happy to give me his set, which had been stashed in the back of his closet since before I was born." This is a pair of tefillin--they contain parchment with the words of the Shema inside. Traditional Jews wear them on the head and the arm during weekday morning services, to enact the verses of Deuteronomy 6:8.

My father believed that raising the kids with Judaism was the right thing to do. He went along with it. But while our family observed Passover, eschewed bread and other leavened products for the eight days, he would go to the deli by his office for lunch and privately enjoy a sandwich. Once I was old enough to go to synagogue on my own, he no longer went to Shabbat services. And when I wanted to start laying tefillin, he was more than happy to give me his set, which had been stashed in the back of his closet since before I was born.

As an observant Jew, I was taken aback by his deception. In hindsight, I understand, and appreciate, the decisions he made for our family. I was left wondering what type of religious life he would have, especially as he ages and talks about his will and funeral plans. But while I was wondering what his funeral might look like, balancing my future mourning needs with his probable want for a not overtly religious burial, another life-cycle event brought his religious views to the forefront.

My father started dating, moved in with, and became engaged to the woman who is now my stepmother. This raised a whole other round of questions for me. As far as I knew, he had only ever dated Jewish women. My stepmother is not Jewish. I didn't have much opportunity to spend time with her before they were married; we lived on opposite coasts. My questions went mostly unanswered, and mostly unasked.

I knew that my stepmother had purchased The Idiot's Guide to Judaism as a way to start learning, and that she would email me with questions and asked me to recommend other books. I knew that she accompanied my father to Passover seders and even to synagogue for Shabbat and High Holy Day services. I knew that they were excited to have my brother and me visit them for our family's first Christmas--which fell on the second night of Hanukkah and became a web of different traditions and celebrations. And I knew that, when the relationship became serious, my father gave her a necklace of her name in Hebrew. And that, in exchange, she gave him a silver ring created by a Métis artist, of the raven.

It was obvious that they were a good match. I came to understand that my father saw himself as spiritual, though not religiously observant. I learned that my stepmother shared a similar identity. Her father was Métis-Cree, and her mother was a Lutheran from Iceland. Her father had strong Native spiritualist beliefs, which informed her own spiritual views. She has a deep love of the earth, animals, and a great respect for all living things. Growing up in rural Manitoba, she was not exposed to many religions; learning about each other's religions and cultures was an early bond for my father and stepmother.

My stepmother recently told me that they "share a common understanding and experience of hatred and prejudice. At some point in history, someone has tried to kill our respective ancestors. Your father has told me about his experiences and I have shared mine. I think that made us comfortable with each other from the very beginning." As she learns more about Judaism, and accompanies my father to holiday celebrations and services, she has come to appreciate and love the prayers and rituals, even though she does not understand all of the content. My stepmother appreciates the beauty and ritual in the religions she has experienced; in most ceremonies or services she immediately feels connected to her spiritual source, her understanding and experience of God.

My father has also grown. He is more involved in the Jewish community now, which was not something I anticipated when he married outside the tribe. But, from my stepmother, he seems to have found a grounding that has centered him spiritually. "The biggest lesson we have learned is that we both had misconceptions about each other's heritage and religions; through conversations and curiosity we now have a better understanding of what they are. It also helps that we are both very tolerant and respectful of each other and we try to learn from each other rather than make assumptions."

When it came time for them to get married, they weighed their different religious and spiritual backgrounds, and asked my opinion as the family's resident halakhic "expert." They checked out synagogues in their region, sitting through services as they wondered if this rabbi would be the right fit for their wedding. In the end, they decided to use a justice of the peace. Though they decided to have a civil wedding in their home, they both chose to incorporate Jewish traditions and symbols into the service.

They asked me to design and make a huppah for them to stand under. As their home overlooked the Pacific Ocean, and knowing how my stepmother's spirituality connects her to the Earth, I found some beautiful silk dyed with blues and greens, in an Indian shop (it was intended for a sari). At their request, I adorned the silk with the phrase "ani l'dodi v'dodi li," in Hebrew (I am my beloved and my beloved is mine), from Song of Songs 6:3. The day before the wedding, my brother and I made a trip to a local home improvement store to buy dowels. With silver spray paint we covered them, and used them to hold up the four corners of the huppah.

My brother, two friends of my stepmother's and I held the huppah. After they exchanged their vows, my father stepped down and broke a glass. We turned on music, danced around in the living room and then all went out for a lovely dinner. For a civil marriage, it was decidedly Jewish. And, because they were married on December 27th, the huppah was set up next to the tall Christmas tree, shining with tiny white lights.

"Sharing your father's life, his culture and religion, has made my life richer and I am very grateful to be able to live both of our traditions. Bottom line? While we realised that the holidays were celebrated differently, the intent was the same: be with people you love, eat good food, and have a belief in a spiritual presence." My stepmother's words ring true: finding the common ground amongst the differences can bring us all closer together.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. 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 "hear," the first word and name of the central Jewish prayer and statement of faith.
Benjamin A. Maron

Benjamin A. Maron was the Director of Content and Educational Resources (formerly, the Managing Editor) here at InterfaithFamily.

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