June 19, 2009
As Father's Day approaches, I think of my beloved dad. Saying Kaddish on the anniversary of my father' s death this year had special significance for me since it was the first time I recited the prayer as a Jew.
I was the product of an interfaith marriage. My father, Arthur Rosenberg, was raised in a traditional Jewish home in the Bronx. He was given the name "Sender Mayor" at his bris. His grandfather once beat him for eating hot-cross buns during Passover. He spent his childhood summers at camp in the Catskills. My mother, Marie, was raised in rural Pennsylvania in a Hungarian household. She was taught by nuns, and since her father passed away when she was a child, the parish priest escorted her to the father/daughter dance.
Years later they both ended up in Cleveland. Despite their difference in religions, and the fact that my father had 19 years and 14 inches on my mother, they married. My father was a larger-than-life man who wore size 13 shoes and a scraggly gray beard that my mother made him shave off after their wedding. I grew up thinking my father had the best one-liners. Years later, I realized he was simply quoting his favorite Mel Brooks movies.
My mother insisted that my younger sister and I be raised in her church. Since in Judaism the female passed on the religion, my father did not object. Still, he shared traditions he loved with me. I was the only kid in my class who celebrated Hanukkah. My dad insisted that lox, bagels, latkes and smoked whitefish were dietary staples in our home. In first grade we had "Dress Up as Your Favorite Literary Character Day." I didn't understand why it seemed so funny to everyone that I wore my Queen Esther costume from Purim. I never did fit in with my Irish classmates.
When I was in fifth grade, my father died of heart disease, and the practice of Jewish traditions in our house disappeared with him. By the time I graduated high school, my faith had lapsed. I seemed to question everything. I felt spiritually starved.
I moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., for college and met an incredible group of friends. The majority of them were Christian. They all seemed so happy. I thought if they could believe, so could I. I tried attending mass, participating in retreats and taking theology classes. My comrades trusted every dogma they were taught. I didn't understand why I couldn't. The familiar pang of spiritual hunger hit me again.
Approaching my mid-20s, I felt lost. The absence of my father seemed to sting more. His parents had died long before my birth and I had no relatives to fill in the gaps of my background. I started reading about Judaism. Conversion never entered my mind. This just seemed to be a way to learn more about the dad I missed.
The more I read, the more I realized that the beliefs I held in my heart were closest to my father's Reform Judaism. I was drawn to the concept of tikkun olam and could identify with God being one as opposed to a trinity. It was freeing to know that women could be rabbis. In graduate school, I attended Shabbat and High Holiday services with a Hillel group. When I moved to New York, I started taking classes at B'Nai Jeshurun and decided to formally become a Jew.
The only problem was how to tell my mother, who could spout off every major saint day and never missed a Sunday mass. Once she admitted that she had wanted to enter the convent after high school but was forbidden to by my Grandmother Agnes. How could I tell her that I planned to practice a different religion?
I flew back to Ohio for a surprise weekend visit to tell her face to face. To my amazement, my mother didn't cry or yell when I told her. Instead she revealed something about my father I had never known. When my mom told him she wanted to raise their children in her religion, he agreed, but with one stipulation: My father made her promise that if either my sister or I ever expressed a desire to convert to Judaism, she would give her blessing. While I know my choice was hard for my mother, she kept her word and the pact she had long ago made with my dad.
For the first time in my life, I feel truly at home. I am surrounded by Jews who understand my addiction to smoked fish. I have reconnected with Rosenberg relatives on my father's side of the family. We have celebrated holidays together, and this has brought a little bit of my father back to life for me. Choosing a Hebrew name that I identified with brought everything full circle. I think of him each time I get to say, "Yehudit, daughter of Sender Mayor."