Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor and voice student living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Faiths Diverge, Seek the Ties That Bind
Janet Silver Ghent
On a Passover afternoon, I sat on my front porch helping my granddaughter, then 7, with a sewing project. Since we were about to have an abbreviated seder, I wondered if she knew the story behind the holiday. She mentioned something about Jesus performing a miracle.
"Well, not exactly," I said, launching into a mini-recap of the Exodus: A long time ago, the Jews were slaves under an evil man called Pharaoh, and they fled Egypt. Passover is a celebration of their escape into freedom, including the freedom to worship as we choose.
She looked at me with big blue eyes and said, "But you have to be the same religion as your parents!"
"That's true," I replied. "But your parents are free to worship as they choose."
Then I got an e-mail from my daughter suggesting that I may have crossed the line. In the future, she asked me to avoid talking to her children about religious topics. She also pointed out that there are lots of things her daughters like to share with me, from music to crafts to gardening to cooking. Given that, avoiding religious discussions shouldn't be too difficult.
I responded that as a Jew, I value shalom bayit, peace in the home. Christianity, I wrote, is your family's foundation, just as Judaism is mine. I do not wish to undermine that foundation. She seemed to be satisfied with my response.
But curious children have a way of asking questions, and they crop up unexpectedly. In the middle of reading my granddaughters a bedtime story, the younger one, age 6, asked, "Are you Jewish?" When my husband and I answered in the affirmative, she asked why. I said we were born Jewish. She didn't think that was a good reason. "Christian is better," she said. I just smiled and hugged her.
A couple of years ago when her older sister was playing with Fisher-Price Little People, she lined them up and said, "Okay, we're going to church." Then she pulled a couple out of the lineup and said, "You two can't go. You're Jewish." Now she knows that Jews can go to a church, particularly for a celebration, but that's not where we worship.
These days, after a blended marriage at midlife--the first Jewish one for both my husband and me--we're the only Jewish grandparents to four young children who are not being raised Jewish. Because of the compromises that often occur in interfaith marriages, my husband and I did not raise our own children as Jews. In my own case, although I was born Jewish, I had no religious upbringing. When we moved to California in 1974 and my daughter wanted to go to Sunday school, I joined the Unitarian Church.
Later my daughter became an evangelical Christian, and that's how she and her husband are raising their children. They're happy to spin the dreidel at Hanukkah and search for the afikomen (hidden matzah) at Passover, but we don't worship together. The situation is different with my husband's daughter, a single mother who lives nearby. While her two children are not technically Jewish, she is happy to have us take them to services and share our celebrations.
But to both sets of grandkids--and perhaps their parents--we're the odd couple. Ours is the house with the ramshackle sukkah in the fall. Instead of Santa Claus, we get a visit from the Hanukkah cow (my husband loves to dress up). Instead of the Easter bunny, we welcome Elijah, who puts a rag mop cover on his head and re-enters the house at the end of the Passover seder.
We say "Ah-men"; my daughter's children say "Ay-men." We say Adonai; they say Jesus. We chant in a foreign language and light Shabbat (Sabbath) candles; they want to blow them out. When all else fails, a sense of humor saves the day.
Not that there weren't tears along the way. Particularly when my daughter was baptized as a Christian during her first year of college, just as my first marriage was ending.
Years later, when I discussed my daughter's conversion and my Unitarian past with a Jewish official, she responded, "If you don't mind me saying so, you didn't create a very good example."
I did mind her saying so. It was not guilt or shame that brought me to Judaism. It was rediscovery and enlightenment. And it's not guilt or shame that's going to bring other Jews back. As long as Jews in interfaith marriages are given the message that they transgressed, they're going to be lost to the Jewish community just as I was, and so will their children.
These days what we try to share with all our grandchildren are the ties that bind us--respect for the planet, good music, and good food prepared with love. Although we don't label them "Jewish," we also share our values, particularly the Golden Rule. Helping kids to become good people is not such a bad goal.