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Divorced, Not Jewish, but My Kids Are

I'm divorced, and my kids are Jewish. That's not so exceptional, I suppose, though it's the outcome of a long itinerary. So let me explain.

We married in 1976. I was raised Presbyterian in the midwest, but developed a slightly ironic distance from what I saw as a lot of hypocrisy in the church membership around me as an adolescent. I became non-practicing, so I wasn't much inclined towards religious experience in my life or those of the people I cared about. Mine was a very secular, rational, pragmatic approach to life.

My former wife was raised as a suburban Jew, maybe sharing some of the distaste for hypocrisy that she saw around her in her own religious community. She, too, had a very limited level of religiosity and was probably somewhat alienated from the affluent, socially conscious slice of the Jewish world of northern New Jersey.

When we married and chose to have children, we each felt that we would prefer for our children to have a greater sense of spiritual or religious place in the world than we had experienced. And we each preferred that their religious identities should be Jewish. Not, perhaps, a highly religious version of Judaism, but a sense of the moral commitments, the interpersonal empathy, the concern for others and a sympathy for the oppressed, which I attribute to the most admirable form of Jewish religious and cultural life.

As a parenthesis, it is sometimes interesting to me to wonder why it is that I find myself most comfortable with Jewish people. Not, of course, universally, but often enough to be predictive.

So we joined an informal Reconstructionist group in our town in the Boston area. It was a group created ten years earlier by couples of mixed religious backgrounds, Christian and Jewish, who wanted a Jewish identity for their children and a welcoming place for both parents. We joined, in some part, for the occasional services and the sense of an adult and caring community; but in greater part, we joined in order to provide a context in which our children could have a Sunday school experience and move toward Bar and Bat Mitzvah. They learned a little bit of Hebrew and got a bit more acquaintance with Jewish traditions and biblical stories. And, imperceptibly, they developed a sense of Jewishness that greatly pleased me.

I overheard an interesting snippet of conversation between our son and my mother, as he was explaining his upcoming Reconstructionist Bar Mitzvah service. I had explained to my mother that our service would be a "counter-cultural extreme of contemporary Judaism." Our son then interjected, "My mom's form of Judaism may be counter cultural, but I'm a little more traditional." I am happy that our children have somehow developed a more spiritual worldview than I have, and I am moved that they seem to have a strong sense of their place in a community of caring people.

Our son's Bar Mitzvah was in 1991, and our daughter had her Bat Mitzvah in 1995. They were both highly moving occasions for me and for our families. As was the custom in our Jewish Sunday School, the services were designed by our family, and the poetry, stories, readings, and prayers had a personal resonance for me that no Presbyterian service in my adolescence ever had. A few snippets of prayer and poetry that still resonate for me:

     We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
     For we know You made the world in a way
     That we must find our own paths to peace
      Within ourselves and with our neighbors …

And another…

     May you grow up to be righteous
     May you grow up to be true
     May you always know the truth
     And see the lights surrounding you

The Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were signal, important events in the history of our family. They were occasions that all our sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers remember and savor.

So let's bring the story forward. A few days before our daughter's Bat Mitzvah, my former wife and I stood before a judge in Massachusetts. In our own ways we still loved and respected one another, but we had decided that there were reasons enough to dissolve our marriage. And so we divorced, only a few days before Rebecca's journey into the quiet, peaceful chapel at Brandeis.

Our family has endured, in its own way. My former wife and I still communicate easily and caringly. My daughter, son and I have retained the strongest possible family relationship. I don't think we could be closer under any alternative fork in the road. I speak to my daughter daily (as I did with my son before he went to college). We see each other frequently--every other week in my daughter's case, and as often as the college calendar permits, in my son's case. We camp and hike in the summers, and love being "on the road again, going places we've never been," as soon as we hit the Denver airport each August. I love being a father, and feel that my children know this. And they know that they have two full-time parents who love and support them.

They also know, however, that they are part of a larger world. And I think, though you'd have to ask them, that the spiritual and moral resources that they have gained from their Jewish identities, and the sense of connectedness with others that this identity gives them, is an important part of their strength as a young man and woman. So I am delighted that being Jewish is a part of their identity, and I will do everything possible to nourish it.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." 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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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.
Daniel Little

Daniel Little is vice president for Academic Affairs at a university.

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