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My Religion, My Choice

Once my mother confided, "When I married your father we agreed to send you to Jewish Sunday school. I wanted you to have an ethical and moral education and I didn't have a preference which church it came from. But honestly, I never really thought I'd have Jewish kids."

Sunday school and major holidays were the only religious element in my childhood. I remember sticking out in Sunday school. I was uncomfortable, dressed in my "Sunday best," despite my pleas and attempts to explain to Mom that Jewish kids wore t-shirts and tennis shoes to Sunday school and frilly dresses to Shabbat, Sabbath, services.

Unfortunately the first Shabbat service my parents went to, the sermon stressed the importance of pure Jewish marriages. After that, our family only went to services for special occasions. Even then Mom always felt more like a babysitter than a participator. Dad's lack of religious education made him unable to explain the significance of many of the customs.

Holidays are expected to be a time that brings a family together. For my family they brought to the surface our differences. We spent Jewish holidays at my Jewish godparents' and Christmas Eve at my other grandparents'. After years of pleading and my grandfather's death, my father allowed a Christmas tree in "his Jewish home." Mom had dreamed of someday lavishly trimming her own tree. Yet the reality of doing it alone as her Jewish husband and children watched TV, uninterested in tinsel, was a disappointment. The irony of the situation was best expressed by my godmother. Having visited to admire Mom's decorations, she approached my father and asked, "So, do you feel like pharaoh finally granting religious freedom to your people?"

As a child I don't believe I understood this fundamental conflict in our family. To me celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas meant fitting in. I was saved the uneasy feeling many Jewish children experience as their playmates discuss the Christmas season. I dyed eggs and hunted candy on Easter Sunday but never went to church. Mother never tried to bring Jesus or Christian theology into our house, only the fun memories she had of her childhood.

Although it was harder then she anticipated, Mom stood behind her decision to raise Jewish kids. She drove Hebrew school carpools, and told us as we practiced our Torah portion that it sounded beautiful to her. Dad, too, doesn't know much Hebrew or Jewish theology. To him Judaism had been a culture he grew up in. Since he couldn't answer all of my "whys," he stressed the importance of my formal Jewish education.

As I studied the religious customs, the beliefs behind them, and the history behind the religion, I soaked it up like a sponge. Judaism was not something I accepted as what my parents dictated, but something I learned, analyzed, and eventually embraced, based on my own conclusions.

I participated in religious diversity groups and had dialogues with other teens explaining the Jewish outlook on current issues. I also spoke at area schools answering common questions and myths about Judaism. I compared and contrasted the religion with several others, and always I found Judaism to be the most in alignment with my own spirituality. I worked at the Sunday school, joined the Jewish youth group, dated Jewish boys, and became president of the Hillel at college. I embraced the pillars of the religion, its rich history, and the kinship of the community.

My awareness of my parents' struggle led me to search for my own beliefs. I have a strong desire to raise Jewish children. Why? Because I feel that the religion provides a good moral background, and also that the individuality and affinity that comes with Judaism is something I would want to pass on to my children. I want them to know what it is like to be different and to be comfortable with diversity.

At twenty, I asked my rabbi to convert me to Judaism. Having taught me in religious school and seen me already a leader in the Jewish community, he became puzzled and asked, "Why? You know that although your mother is not Jewish, most Jews in today's society wouldn't deny that you are a Jew."

I explained that that was just it. I didn't want to be classified as a Jew simply due to my lineage. I'd made a journey of discovery throughout my adolescence and had found a strong identity as a Jew. This role was one I'd chosen for myself: it was not forced upon me by family or society.

For me, going through the rituals of the mikvah, a ritual bath used during the conversion ceremony, was an affirmation of this. At my conversion my mother watched from the front pew, glowing to know she'd raised a self-assured and introspective young women.

Although my parents never expected my secular upbringing to result in such a devoted Jew, they're both proud of me.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. 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 Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Tracy Feinstein is a 20-four year old who recently graduated from the University of Oklahoma. She currently works for Ernst & Young, LLP, in her hometown of Tulsa, OKlahoma. This article was an entry in the Network's Essay Contest, "We're Interfaith Families...Connecting with Jewish Life."

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