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"And, Mom, you're a little bit Jewish too, right?" For years when my daughter was young, every conversation about religion ended that way. As the years went by, it got to be a sort of shorthand way of referring to our interfaith family. "There's Dad and Sophie, who are both Jewish; there's Mom, who's a little bit Jewish."
I did not come by this Jewishness by chance. My husband David and I dated for seven years before we decided to get married. Of course, I knew he was Jewish; and he knew I was Protestant. During all the early years of our relationship, religion was not an issue for us because neither of us belonged to a faith community or actively practiced any religion. Faith was a definite part of my life, but my practice of it was private. David always characterized himself as a secular or cultural Jew. Being Jewish had been a large part of his childhood, but he had never really connected with the spiritual aspect of being Jewish.
Much to my surprise, when we finally decided to get married, David was adamant about having a Jewish ceremony with a rabbi. I was open to the idea because I wanted a religious ceremony, but the nature of the religion was not as important to me. Since we were not involved in any religious community, we decided to ask a friend who happened to be a rabbi to marry us. He agreed, as long as we promised to raise any children we might have as Jewish. At that point in our lives, having children was not just theoretical. In fact, it was one of our reasons for marrying. So the commitment we made to the rabbi was a real one that occurred after mutual discussion and individual soul searching.
Three years later our commitment came to life in a new way when our daughter Sophie was born. At that point we had not joined a temple or actively pursued information about the Jewish community in the city where we lived. But as Sophie approached her first birthday, we decided to combine her birthday party with a naming celebration, presided over by the rabbi who married us. In our living room, with David's family as witnesses, Sophie was given her Hebrew name, and our journey as a Jewish family began.
During the next two years we slowly dipped our toes in the water of Jewish life. We sometimes lit Shabbat (Sabbath) candles on Friday evenings. From time to time we attended the local Reform temple, especially their Tot Shabbat services. I read books on raising children in interfaith families and bought books for Sophie on Hanukkah, Passover, and other Jewish holidays. We attended seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners held by David's family, who lived nearby.
We became serious about practicing Judaism after we moved from the West coast to the East coast when Sophie was 3 years old. After settling into our new community, one of the first things I did was call and visit local temples to find one that might fit our needs. Only one temple, a Reform congregation, welcomed us warmly after hearing my story. We attended a few services and other functions. We liked the fact that there were many other interfaith families in the congregation, so we decided to join Temple Society of Concord. In December my daughter will become a Bat Mitzvah there.
In the nine years since we joined, temple has been a fixture in our lives. We go to services usually once a month and attend many potluck dinners, picnics, Havdalahs (ceremony marking the end of Sabbath), and family programs. Our daughter has attended religious school every Sunday morning since kindergarten and Hebrew school every Wednesday evening since fourth grade. Along with my daughter I learned to say the Kiddush (blessing over wine) on Friday evenings, to light the Hanukkah candles, and to ask the four questions at Passover. I've learned to make decent matzah balls and a passable carrot kugel.
What is harder to capture is how the fabric of being Jewish has worked its way into the tapestry of our lives. Because I am an avid reader, I now seek out many books with Jewish characters or about a Jewish way of life. I find myself drawn to books about Orthodox Jews because of the similarities to the Amish people who are culturally close to my background. Since we live in a community where being Christian is the norm, I'm sensitive to signs of religious intolerance or insensitivity in others. Sometimes I notice these things and speak out even when my husband does not. On Friday evenings after a long week of work and family responsibilities, I welcome the familiar cadence of the prayers when I attend services. A kind of peace descends on me, not unlike the peace I sometimes felt as a child when I was in church. The words of the services may be different, but the feelings I have are so similar, so comforting.
Over the years I have considered conversion, never more than during this year when Sophie's Bat Mitzvah looms. Our rabbi has never pressured me to take this step, and I've never felt left out at our temple because I am not officially Jewish. Although I've gradually given up Christmas trees and Easter eggs, I cannot give up the heritage with which I was born. God knows what is in my heart.
These days when our old family joke about me being a little bit Jewish comes up, I smile. While I may not be Jewish in the eyes of someone who was born Jewish or certainly not according to Orthodox law, I know that I have, indeed, become a bit more Jewish every year, as has our family. I used to worry that my daughter would not have a strong identity as a Jewish person because only one parent was born Jewish. I don't worry about that anymore because I know that we have become a Jewish family in a way that works for us.
This year at school a boy that Sophie did not know well expressed surprise when he discovered that she was Jewish. Her response to him was, "Why wouldn't I be?"