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Conversations with My Grandchildren

My grandson Matthew, age five, is really interested in God these days. As we drive to and from pre-school, he will often open the conversation with one of these questions: "Is God following us?" "Does God have a mother? "Can you see God?"

His brother Andrew, age eight, did the same at Matthew's age, and we continue those conversations even today, although with a little more sophistication. What is perhaps unique about these conversations is that Andrew and Matthew are children of an interfaith marriage, and my responses to them reflect not only a sensitivity to their dual religious heritage, but also my own experience as someone who converted to Judaism--when I married forty-two years ago.

Our children were raised in the Jewish faith and tradition. Our son was circumcised in a religious ceremony, and our daughters were named in the traditional weekday morning service. They all became Bar and Bat Mitzvah (assumed the obligations and privileges of adult Jews) in the synagogue.

We observe family rituals and traditional holidays with our relatives and friends, both those who are Jewish and those who are Christian. But our children have taken tradition and observance many steps further, through their own creativity. Our son David wove his own tallis (prayer shawl) for his Bar Mitzvah; our daughter Sue created and performed modern dances to traditional Israeli folk tunes for her Bat Mitvah; and our daughter Elissa played Israeli folk music on the guitar at hers. They have made their own menorahs for Hanukkah; they make their own greeting cards at Rosh Hashanah; they choose their own readings for the Passover seder (ritual meal). They made their heritage meaningful to themselves in their everyday lives, and have continued to share those gifts with our family and friends.

As young adults they have each chosen a different path in religion. While David is not yet married, both of our daughters chose to marry Christian men. Their wedding ceremonies were conducted by Protestant ministers who are knowledgeable about the Jewish foundations of Christianity and who recited traditional prayers and blessings in Hebrew. Each couple composed their own wedding ceremony to include prayers, Bible readings, songs, and blessings from both faiths.

When they became parents they continued to make thoughtful decisions about their religious observance. One family chose religious circumcision for their sons; the other did not. One son-in-law is very active and committed to his church, yet with his family has recently joined a Reform Jewish congregation as well. Our other daughter's family attends the same Reconstructionist congregation as my husband and myself, and we all participate in services, celebrations, and other observances at the synagogue. But both daughters' families will tell you that they haven't figured it all out yet. In fact, it was Elissa and her husband who found the Interfaith group which led them to this website, and they shared it with me. They attend meetings of the group regularly and have made friends among the interfaith couples in their community. Both daughters and their families are working hard to find ways of living their faith that are true to their upbringing as well as to their commitment to an interfaith marriage and family. It isn't easy. Yet my daughters have managed in less than ten years of marriage to maintain their sense of themselves as Jews in a new experience of interfaith partnering and parenting.

As their parent I am proudest of the kind of caring about religion which they have shown all their lives, and which they now teach their children. What I have learned is that, regardless of how they practice their faith, it is the quality of their caring about it that comes through in the children.

For all of our grandchildren, God is a very real presence in their everyday lives. I hear that in Matthew's morning conversations. Before waiting to find out if I can, indeed, see God, he informed me that, "You can't see God, but you know He is there. He is everywhere, and He can do anything. He made the world!"

I heard the same strong sense of God's presence in the world when Andrew and I went to see Moses, Prince of Egypt a few years ago. We were both caught up in the excitement and emotion of the story of the Exodus, made even more dramatic in colorful animation. But when it came to the killing of the first-born, Andrew was deeply affected. He stared at the screen, wrinkling his forehead, and asked, almost in disbelief, "Why did God do that?"

Choking back my tears, at that moment it was hard for me to answer. Here was my first-born grandson asking how such devastation could ever happen to a child like himself. Part of my profound emotion at that point, however, was the realization that Andrew, at the age of six, knew that not only is God all powerful, but that God is good. The ten plagues were God's answer to the evil of men. God would not inflict such pain for any less reason. For Andrew to make that kind of judgment was evidence of what he had learned from his family by example and from his Young Readers' Bible.

Andrew knows that to all of us our faith is real, that it is central to our lives, and that it is evident in everything we do. I believe that however he and his brother and cousins choose to practice their faith, they will be blessed.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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." 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." 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.
Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Carolyn Lembeck

Carolyn Lembeck has lived and worked all her life in Pennsylvania. She is unusually fortunate in living close to two of her grandsons, who keep her laughing, questioning and growing.

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