Natalie Portman's Directorial Debut & Paper Towns' Nat WolffBy Gerri Miller
See how Portman is making her big splash in Israel and don't miss Paper Towns with Nat WolffGo To Pop Culture
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.