We’d put it off as long as we could. Our oldest son had turned 10 and had no formal religious training. If he was going to become Bar Mitzvah, the time was now. Either we were going to join a congregation and enroll him in Hebrew school, or it would be too late. My husband, Ken Berger, wasn’t convinced that would be such a bad thing, but I felt like we’d been shirking one of our parental duties. We’d nurtured both of our sons’ minds and bodies, why not their spirituality as well?
I, the lapsed Catholic, had been tentatively broaching the subject on and off for ten years with my husband, the lapsed Jew. He has some common complaints about his religious education: it was irrelevant and excruciatingly tedious. I’m a product of twelve years of Catholic schools, the underpinnings of which I’d never questioned until I went away to college. When I started dating Ken, I’d already begun drifting. His mother and my parents were accepting of our relationship, and a justice of the peace married us on the deck of our house with family, friends, and autumn leaves all around, but no religion in sight.
We rarely practiced religious rituals and then only for major life-cycle events: in my family, a wedding or baptism. Christmas was limited to its secular elements--a brightly decorated tree, lots of home-baked cookies, and a frenzy of gift-giving among my five siblings and all their children. In Ken’s family, the get-togethers were usually funerals--his mother, her sister, two uncles, a beloved cousin. He’d lost his father before we’d met.
I ached to have our sons feel connected to those relatives, to that past, and it seemed like a formal Jewish education was an integral part of a path that had to be taken. It started at home with Hanukkah: glowing candles on a winter night, transliterated prayers, potato pancakes, presents. It was a holiday I could understand with the help of the book To Be a Jew by Hayim Donin. When they got older, twice I took them to a children’s High Holiday service while Ken went off to work. But I felt like an interloper. I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know anyone, so we didn’t go anymore.
Over the years, through books, movies, Jewish comedians, and story upon story about family members now gone, we managed to raise our sons to feel connected culturally. Before we joined our congregation, if you had asked either of them what they “were,” they’d have said, “Jewish.” But they had no sense of what that meant religiously or historically. Neither did I, and my husband’s recollections were scanty at best. Perhaps because I, as a young person, had taken comfort in a religious community, the imperative for a religious education--even one that was different from my own--pressed more on me than on Ken. But our conversations on the subject always came to the same conclusion: we were not “joiners.”
We found our congregation quite by accident. Eric, a fellow writer who lived locally, had posted to an e-mail list at our alma mater a description of his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, and one sentence indicated that his wife was not Jewish. I wrote him, asking if he would share a little about their experiences. He told me about String of Pearls, a Reconstructionist congregation whose ads I’d seen in the paper and previously dismissed as too unconventional. And he gave me the following pearl of wisdom, “The mother is the backbone of the family.” Suddenly I had the courage to follow through. He put me in touch with his wife, Diane, who, upon hearing of my desire to give our sons a Jewish education, said, “Oh, she sounds like one of us.” I guess that’s what I was hoping would fall from the sky all those years--someone to say, “You’re welcome. You can be one of us.” And Ken, too, liked the sound of it all.
Our oldest son will be Bar Mitzvah within the year. He really likes his friends from Hebrew school and enjoys the ethics discussions they have. He’s anxious about his Torah portion, while we keep emphasizing a related community service project, hopeful that the experience will be relevant for him. And maybe also hopeful that he appreciates carrying on a tradition that his father, uncles, grandfathers and great-grandfathers have taken part in… at least on one side of the family. Meanwhile, my father is pestering me about what prayers he should be memorizing. I suppose it’s time to sit down with him and my mother, prayer book in hand, and explain, as best I can, the concept of an aliyah (when one is called to give a blessing over the Torah). There will be more than one of us crossing a threshold that day.