InterfaithFamily.com welcomes interfaith families to the Jewish community. From time to time we publish articles about members of interfaith families who have struggled with the issue of religious identity and have made different choices--decisions which of course are sometimes made and which we respect. We think that this article is helpful in raising issues of religious faith that may arise in interfaith families when a parent dies.
When I was growing up, my friends would ask me what my religion was and I would tell them, "I'm half-Jewish, half-Christian, Hallmark and Old World." I explained that my mother was Jewish, but turned from God when she was in her twenties, after both of her parents died. We celebrated Hanukkah and Passover, but no other Jewish holidays. My father was a Protestant who had turned away from God before he met my mother. The Hallmark part referred to a Hallmark store that my parents owned: we celebrated all of the other card- and gift-giving holidays, without attaching any religious meaning to them. The Old World part came from the celebrations at the Steiner school that I attended. At that school, we learned about and celebrated the summer and winter solstices; the fall and spring equinoxes; St. Michael's Day; May Day (when we danced around the May Pole); and St. Nicholas Day.
My parents sent me for short spurts to Saturday and Sunday schools in both church and synagogue at different times in my childhood. They explained to my brother and me that they wanted us to choose our own religious identities and find our own paths to God.
After my parents divorced I started spending every other Friday night in church with my father, going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. It was in those meetings that I learned The Lord's Prayer and the Serenity Prayer. I didn't know the names for these prayers, but since my mother also knew them, I assumed that they were both Jewish and Christian prayers. I also thought that "Thank you God for bringing me here," which people say at AA meetings after reciting the prayers, was the last line to both of these prayers--in much the same way that many people think the last line to our national anthem, which is sung at baseball games, is "Play Ball."
AA meetings were a strange place for a ten-year-old girl to learn about God's love, strength, and the hope that He gives others, but it was at these meetings that a religious "seed" was planted in me.
When my father was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, I came face to face with religious questions. I knew that God did not give my father the cancer. Rather, he got it because of the alcohol and drugs that he had ingested over the years. But I had unanswered questions about where my father would go after he died. Would he go to heaven, hell, purgatory, or nowhere? My mother and her fiance, now my step-father, tried to help me come to terms with my questions. But when you are nine or ten and want the truth to be clear cut, it is frustrating to hear "some people believe...," rather than a definitive answer.
My father's funeral was small, and because the priest did not know my father that well, it was impersonal. My questions about where my father was remained unanswered.
About a year after my father died my mother and stepfather got married by a rabbi, and together they turned back to God and their Jewish beliefs. They joined a synagogue and started taking me to services on Saturday mornings. I enjoyed the traditions and took comfort in knowing that millions of Jews around the world were reading from the same passages of the Torah on that day, following the same services, and singing the same songs with the same melodies as in years past. It made me feel connected to millions of other Jews throughout the world. And as a teenager growing up in a small town with only a handful of Jews, often being the only Jew in my class, the services made me feel as if I belonged somewhere and was not alone.
During the Torah study following the Shabbat services I learned about God, the commandments and God's word. I was encouraged to ask questions and shown how to find the answers for myself. I learned about God in a different way, but I still did not feel God's presence in my life. Nevertheless, I loved the traditions, the holidays and the structure of the ancient and timeless words and acts.
When my mother became a Bat Mitzvah (assumed the privileges and responsibilities of an adult member of the Jewish community) in her forties, she wanted to give me a Jewish name. To me this felt as if all of a sudden I was supposed to commit to Judaism, which I still did not feel ready for, and declare publicly that I had done so.
I ranted and raved to all of my fifteen-year-old friends about not needing another name. Then my mother and stepfather told me that I could choose a name, so that got me involved a little more. My mother always wanted me to be named Sarah after her mother, while my stepfather David had always wanted a daughter named Katherine. Since I wanted to have a nickname of Cat, my favorite animal, I took that name. I don't think that God knows me any differently because of the name, and I don't know God any differently, but it made my parents happy, and I like it now.
At college I took a theology course and spent many nights talking to my friends about their religions and their relationships with God, as I attempted to find my own path. During this time I met a man named Chris, the son of a Southern Baptist minister, who later became my husband. It was through this relationship that I learned about Jesus and found comfort and understanding along with faith.
I started to go to Chris' father's church and went to Bible studies there. For the first time in my life I found God in my soul and the answers to my questions--which I learned could not be answered until I first had faith in God. I learned and now believe that my father is in heaven because he had believed in God and Christ when he was younger. I don't mean to say that only those who believe in Christ can go to heaven. But my father did believe at one time in his life, and as the Bible says, once you are in the hands of God, no one or no thing can snatch you out.
I believe that my father has to answer for the unforgiven sins that he committed during his life, but that he is nevertheless in heaven, and that one day, when I die, I will see him again. I find a lot of comfort in that.