Rena Mello lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband Eric and their one-year-old son Evan. She has worked in the field of education for over ten years and is currently an international admissions officer at a local university.
Creating Our Own Religious Traditions and Helping Our Parents Adjust
When Eric and I were first dating, we did not feel the need for a formal religious component in our lives. As our relationship became more serious, however, we realized that we would want a cultural and spiritual home for our children. We agreed before we were married that providing one religious community for a child to identify with is important. We had both had this while growing up--Eric in a Conservative Jewish community and I in a Maronite Catholic one--and felt that it had been a stable, comforting aspect of our lives and our identity formation. Through many discussions, we decided to raise our future children Jewish. How to include my non-Jewish family members in the significant lifecycle events in our future as parents was not as clear to me at the time.
Now, after three years of marriage and two years of parenthood, we have had one major occasion that forced us to think about how to help my parents, as non-Jews, feel involved in and comfortable with our decision to raise our son Jewish. Also, it has been equally important to be sensitive to Eric's parents' ideas about Judaism and their expectations for their Jewish grandchildren. The way we decided to welcome our son into the Jewish faith did not resemble how it had been done for generations in their families. We therefore find ourselves working to make both sets of grandparents feel at ease with and joyful about our choices. This requires being sensitive to their expectations and their comfort levels with new experiences. At the same time, we make sure that our choices are uniquely ours and are not influenced by parental pressures.
When our son was born, we opted not to have a traditional bris (ritual circumcision) because it was not a familiar, common idea for my family or me. The idea of a hospital circumcision and a baby-naming ceremony appealed to us. The ceremony was held at our home and began with our passing our newborn son through the arms of his grandparents, thus welcoming him through the generations into both families. He ended up in our arms, and the rabbi began by reciting a traditional blessing welcoming him into both families and into the Jewish community. She then gave thanks to God for giving us the gift of creating human beings.
Eric and I then talked about the gifts we hoped to pass down to our son: "the gift of tradition: a heritage of strength and scholarship, of humor and quiet heroism, of love of Torah and love of humanity, and the gift of unending, unconditional love from us." We had our parents speak about the relatives we chose to name our son after. This was a particularly emotional point in the ceremony, as they reminisced about their deceased mothers. As they spoke of the selflessness, the humor, and the warmth of our grandmothers, we all felt a sense of history and humanity in the room.
We ended with the rabbi singing blessings in Hebrew (we provided English transliterations for my family) to confirm our son's naming and our commitment to his religious education. Her voice was so melodious and captivating that my family's unfamiliarity with the Hebrew language was not a barrier. The ceremony was a unique experience for all involved, and with open hearts, our parents found that they were touched and moved by the event. We cannot deny that initially each may have preferred another scenario, most resembling their respective religious experiences, but in the end they were accepting of our decision.
This experience of working to create harmony among family at an important lifecycle event was not an isolated one. Eric and I find it an ongoing challenge to navigate through the major Christian holidays (Easter and Christmas) and to establish our own identity in celebrating the Jewish ones. Since we have been so busy just keeping up with raising a toddler in the early years of our marriage, we have not yet begun to tackle the challenging questions that lie ahead of us as interfaith parents of a Jewish child.
We often ask ourselves: as our son gets older, how much should we expose him to the major Christian holidays that my family celebrates? For example, should we ask my mother to not make him an Easter basket? Is this worth the pain it may cause her, or will it benefit her as a grandmother to understand her grandson's religion even better? If we celebrate Christmas with my family in their homes, will our son feel a part of it, or like an outside observer? Should we begin a new tradition of inviting them to our home for latkes and lighting the Hanukkah candles? And, conversely, how do we continue to actively form our own identity as a Jewish family when we find ourselves still going to Eric's parents for most major holidays? Will we find the time to learn about Judaism anew, together, so that we can both take an equal and active part in our son's Jewish education and upbringing?
These are only a few of the issues and questions that will challenge us in the years to come. We realize that we will need to deal with them as creatively and sensitively as we did with our son's birth ceremony. This will require keeping in mind our parents' needs and expectations, but most importantly doing what feels right to us as parents and as a family living in a different world than that of our ancestors.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."