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Starting Out in the South with Two Religions, Then Choosing One

For as long as I can remember, church and synagogue were always both part of my life growing up in Baton Rouge, La. My paternal grandparents would take me to evening services at Synagogue B'Nai Israel, a Reform temple, and then on Sunday I would go to morning Mass at St. Jude Catholic Church.

When we started talking about religious holidays in school, I realized that in my kindergarten class I was the only child who celebrated Hanukkah. So my grandmother came to school and demonstrated how to play dreidel and light the menorah. From then on, I was known as the "girl with the grandmother who brought us candy." But I also realized that I was the only child who celebrated both faiths--both Christmas and Hanukkah, Pesach and Easter.

My mother was raised in a family of four children in New Orleans, and her father died when she was fifteen. Her family and she were very religious, attending parochial schools and church each week. Her family said grace before every meal and her mother's favorite saying was, "'Your body is a temple of God.'"

On the other hand, my father's family's religious life was more centered around social activities than actual religious ones. His parents and grandparents were very active in the Jewish community in New Orleans, joining the sisterhoods and Sunday school organizations, and his grandmother founded a daycare for Jewish children. Neither he nor his two brothers were bar mitzvahed, yet they were active in their local youth group, and volunteered at Sunday School. "They wanted us to be more involved in social causes than religious ones," said my father, explaining his parents' point of view on Judaism.

When my parents were married, they had both a priest and a rabbi at their wedding (at a nondenominational chapel), and there were guests of both religions. The service was not strictly Jewish or Christian, although it had parts of both.

My parents were married in 1979, and the next year they moved to Springfield, Mass., where my father completed his medical education. I was born there in 1981, and my brother arrived in 1984. We lived in Springfield until 1985, when we moved to Boston, and then back south to Baton Rouge in 1986. While my family was in Massachusetts, we were not observant at all, but when my maternal grandmother came to visit, she and my mother always went to church.

The way I was brought up was that religion was good for presents and holidays off of school, but I never attached much significance to dressing up for Purim or decorating a Christmas tree (one year we even got dreidel lights to put on the tree). My parents enrolled me in Sunday school at a Reform temple in Baton Rouge. We learned a few Hebrew letters, which I thought was cool, learned about a few holidays and other assorted religious goodies. Then one Sunday, instead of going to school at B'Nai, I accepted a friend's invitation to go to church with her. That was my first Southern Baptist experience...

After attending the church, I was very eager to return to familiar surroundings and a place where people sang without flailing their hands wildly and jumping around the room. But a few days a month, my mother and I started going to Mass at St. Jude Catholic Church, and I found that pretty interesting. Eventually, I was enrolled at catechism class at St. Jude's, and given a card with a copy of the Lord's Prayer on it that I taped to my bathroom mirror. I practiced saying that prayer every morning before I brushed my teeth.

But when we started talking about the Trinity, and three beings who are actually one, but who do and know different things, I became disenchanted. I had thought religion was supposed to be a serious, thoughtful business, not some science fiction novel. So I stopped going to class at the church, and had to make up pitiful excuses to tell the nuns why I had decided not to become Catholic, after all. Judaism just made more sense. It seemed more natural, and the Hebrew came in a peaceful flow, the spoken words sounding like music to my ears.

I continued going to B'Nai Israel--up through grade seven, where I became a Bat Mitzvah, and up through ninth grade, at which point I stopped being a student and started working (I never knew that a job working as the snack girl's assistant could be so demanding). I continued my Judaism in other ways--attending synagogue; going to a Reform Jewish camp in Mississippi; becoming active in the Baton Rouge Federation of Temple Youth, my local NFTY group; and finally, going to the Genesis program at Brandeis University for Jewish high school students interested in journalism this past summer.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I had chosen to be Catholic instead of Jewish. Certainly my life would be easier in some ways. At the Episcopalian school I attend, I wouldn't be one of the only people to remain silent while the rest of the student body recited the Lord's Prayer or sang hymns. People wouldn't stare at the Star of David around my neck, or laugh at me when I had to miss a sporting event or a party to go to services on Friday night. But I do not consider these things sacrifices or even inconveniences. I treasure them, just as I treasure every aspect of my religion. There is so much that I want to learn, so many complexities, stories, rituals that I want to be a part of. But there is no hurry. This wonderful religion that has broadened my life will stay a part of me until the end.

Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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. Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) 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 "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. 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. North American Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group of Judaism's Reform movement in North America. It offers local and regional youth groups, summer programs and post-high school programs.

Jenny Schwartzberg grew up in an interfaith family, where she was exposed to both Catholicism and Judaism. She has chosen to be Jewish.

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