Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
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Reprinted from Reform Judaism Winter, 2007.
Whenever people I know are asked about a circumstance of their childhood that others consider unusual ("What was it like growing up as a twin? With gay parents? On a kibbutz?"), they are always a bit confused: with no other childhood to compare it to, theirs seemed no more notable than anyone else's. So when people ask me what it was like growing up with a non-Jewish father and what it meant when, twenty years after I met him, he converted, I can only say that it felt exactly like I imagined childhood should be.
When my mom met my dad, the ex-Jesuit son of an apricot farmer, I was four years old and much more concerned with our preschool's hamster than with my mom's romantic life. John gave me rides on his shoulders and his sister had a swimming pool, so as far as I was concerned, he was perfect. He married my mom and, five years later, I joined them at the courthouse, where a judge asked me if I understood that the man who married my mother wanted to adopt me. I said yes, and just like that he was my dad.
By the time he met us, my dad's life included very few remnants of his rigorous Catholic past. He still had a great love for early liturgical music, a deep understanding of theology and philosophy (which would later guide his path toward conversion), and a handful of lingering habits. Hearing him say grace at a family Christmas meal, I once declared that he was "praying to the wrong God!" Still, I never felt my dad gave anything up for us. He had left Catholicism several years before he met my mom and has seldom, if ever, looked back.
His family may never quite accept my dad's departure from Catholicism, but they are curious about his new Jewish life and make thoughtful, if sometimes misguided, gestures toward my mom and me. His mother, who is now 102, sends me very religious Christmas cards but scratches out "Merry Christmas" and writes instead, "Happy Chanukah." I don't have the heart to tell her that they print Chanukah cards and, truthfully, I like hers better.
In his search for a new spiritual and theological direction, my dad approached Judaism as he does all other endeavors, from scuba diving to HAM radio operation—methodically and passionately. He read everything he could get his hands on, taught himself biblical Hebrew (at one point even tried his hand at Rashi script!), and kept up a rigorous correspondence with several rabbis. As he learned, so did I—not just about the subject matter he was poring over, but also about this man who had become my father.
Not having grown up in a Jewish environment, however, my dad also had a lot to learn about Judaism as a way of life. Had my mom been any less committed to her faith, he would have been content with Judaism as an intellectual pursuit, and I would have grown up counting down the days until I didn't have to go to Sunday school anymore. Instead, she involved us both in the practices of Judaism she thought most important. We all had our pre-Shabbat tasks, rituals in their own right (hers: cooking, mine: polishing the candlesticks, my dad's: gathering together our photocopied prayer sheets). Her Pesach seders took days to prepare and our guests lounged around the floor-level seder table on piles of cushions and pillows. My mom's own relationship to Judaism is private and mysterious, even to me—but she has a deep and spiritual commitment to her faith and it is undoubtedly because of her that both my father and I are Jewish today.
They say that it takes a village, and my own Jewish identity was nurtured by many people outside our nuclear family. I spent the best summers of my young life at Camp Swig and will forevermore advocate Jewish camping as a critical piece of bringing young people to Judaism. Once every summer, we would wake up before sunrise and hike up to a nearby plateau to watch the sun coming up over the trees. This was how I learned the Shehecheyanu, and it's the image I have in mind every time I've said it since.
Later, I became a leader (eventually on the regional level) in the North American Federation for Temple Youth, and at Washington University in St. Louis. Looking back, almost every major landmark of my youth—from my first kiss to the funeral of a young friend—took place in a Jewish context.
As I learned more about Judaism at camp, in high school, and during my Confirmation trip to Israel, I enthusiastically shared my knowledge and enthusiasm with my parents. And so it was that my strong Jewish identity also informed theirs. Seeing how important Jewish life was to me, my parents became more involved at our synagogue: taking classes, going on retreats, and volunteering at the synagogue-operated food pantry.
By the time my dad finally converted almost five years ago, most people who knew him considered his conversion a mere formality. To me, however, his becoming a Jew affected in an admittedly unexpected way. Standing with my mom outside the mikveh, listening as he bobbed up and down while my childhood rabbi recited the blessings, I was proud not only of my dad, but also of my religion and my congregation for welcoming him so warmly. Most unexpectedly, I was proud of myself; of playing a part in my dad's journey to Judaism and, in so doing, enriching not only his life, but also my family and the Jewish community.
Being the child of what people call a "Jew by choice" has taught me that Judaism isn't simply something that is thrust upon you, but something that you work toward. We who embrace Judaism are all Jews by choice.
I am now twenty-five and living in Washington, D.C.—3,000 miles from home. These days my Jewish involvement is sporadic and informal, but still meaningful. I go to services at a few synagogues around town, mostly when there is a specific occasion—a holiday or yahrtzeit—and attend events with the "young professional" groups run by the bigger synagogues. Like nearly all my Jewish friends, I date mostly Jewish men and have become good at explaining to non-Jewish prospects why a Jewish partner is important to me. I tell them (and myself) that the most fundamental things about who I am come from the experiences I had growing up in the Jewish community—at home, at camp, in Israel, even at Sunday school. I can't possibly make a life with someone to whom these things are foreign. But I often wonder how much of this "policy" is just what I think I should be doing, and I am haunted by the question: What if my mom had dated only Jewish men?
My mom likes to say that the best Jews aren't always the ones you find; sometimes they're the ones that you make. Still, it takes a pretty remarkable person to do what my dad has done for himself and for our family. Perhaps the question is not whether or not someone has grown up Jewish—plenty of people who did aren't interested in living Jewish lives—or whether or not he or she would be willing to convert. More important, as my dad has taught me, is the question of whether or not someone can understand and appreciate the essence of Judaism, and its importance in my life.
As my father prepared to join the Jewish faith, he recited these last lines of the Ve'ahavtah, God's instructions to the wandering tribe of Hebrews as they prepared to enter the land of Israel and, in so doing, become the Jewish people: "Take to heart these instructions with which I command you this day, and teach them to your children" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). My dad has honored this commandment above all others, taking Judaism into his heart and teaching me that being Jewish is both a challenge and a blessing, neither to be taken lightly. My humble prayer is that I can someday bless my own children in the same way.