I was introduced to Judaism at a young age. Not because my family was Jewish--we were Catholics--but because of my brother-in-law Mark. Every Easter we always had to make sure we had two things for him: matzah and kosher-for-Passover chocolate brownies. I never gave him being Jewish a second thought, questioned the differences between Judaism and Catholicism or thought it was odd that we had to have those two things for him at our holiday celebration. Plus he always shared his brownies with me.
Mark's Judaism became slightly more interesting for me when he and my sister Paula had my beautiful niece, Erica. Becoming an aunt was the coolest thing that could happen to a 13-year-old. I knew they were going to bring her up in the Jewish faith, but I had no earth-shattering questions. All I knew was that my big sister was a mom, and that I had an adorable niece to spoil rotten!
In every family shake-ups occur. In ours it was when my sister announced that she was converting to Judaism. My parents reacted as if the world had split in two. I saw nothing wrong with it. Being as close as I was to my sister and niece I spent summers swimming at the JCC pool with them. I got to see firsthand how happy this community and group of people made my sister. They welcomed me when I came with her and treated us like family.
My sister was happy. She was content and had found the peace you should have about your faith. I didn't see any doubts in her, no second guessing, no downcast eyes showing embarrassment for renouncing what she was brought up to believe. She was happy, and more than that she was happy that she was going to be able to spend the time with her daughter learning and growing in their faith together.
Over the years, because my sister and her family are Jewish I have been able to share in many beautiful and special events, including my niece's bat mitzvah, my sister and her husband renewing their marriage under the huppah and my first Passover seder. I looked at these celebrations in awe not only because of the differences, but because they were celebrations that I was able to attend and be included in.
I'm proud of my sister, I admire her and we have a close relationship. She's my big sister. She's open and honest and listens. She and Mark have raised a wonderfully intelligent and beautiful daughter who I am proud to say is a role model for my own daughter. Our families are connected. My brother-in-law helped me with my math homework, I got to watch him help my niece with hers, and now he helps my daughter with hers. I can call my sister at the drop of a hat and have a good cry, a good laugh, or just babble about what books we've read this week. We can also speak about anti-Semitism in the news media and conflicts in the Middle East.
Though my sister's conversion to Judaism opened doors for me, it also created some obstacles that we have had to navigate. When my daughter Esperanza was born, Paula and I had to seek special permission for Paula to be her godmother. Normally godparents in the Catholic faith must both be Catholic. It puts a Jew in an awkward position to take on Catholic religious obligations by being a godparent to a Catholic child.
Our mom died shortly before I had my daughter. Paula and I shared our grief with each other, taking turns being the supporter and the supported. It was logical that the person I wanted to be godmother to my daughter was Paula. We both had to go to our respective religious leaders and seek guidance. Under the circumstances both our priest and rabbi agreed that Paula should be godmother to my daughter. She has risen to that task and has been more than supportive in my daughter learning and experiencing her faith.
Raising a child in today's world is difficult. Our children are bombarded with negative messages about people who are different from them. These stereotypes make it hard to bring up a child to be open-minded. One wonderful aspect of having this close relationship with my sister is that my daughter experiences different faiths. Esperanza knows it's OK to ask questions and not to judge people based upon a religion or race.
At Jewish holidays I try to always remember a card for my sister. Every Hanukkah I help add to her dreidel collection. Acknowledging my sister's Jewishness helps me to remember how blessed I am to have her in my life and my family's life. Our two families are fortunate, not just because of being family, but because of the doors they have helped to open for us and the positive example they provide of finding peace in their faith.