Originally published October, 2005. Republished October 10, 2012.
My mother-in-law doesn't surf the net, but if she did, this is not a site she'd ever look up. In the more than 20 years that I (an assimilated Jew) have been married to her son, Helen (a devout Catholic) has never once uttered the words "interfaith" or "intermarriage." Religious differences don't interest her; in fact, she barely seems to recognize them. For Helen, a plainspoken immigrant from southern Italy, there is one God and one way to lead a moral life. People may call themselves Jews or Christians or Muslims she once told me, but there are really only good people and bad people.
You would think that my mother-in-law's unique open-mindedness would have been all the encouragement my husband and I (neither of us particularly religious) needed to set up a cheerfully secular home crammed with Easter eggs, dreidels and ethically cultured kids. But it didn't work out that way. We have made a Jewish home and raised Jewish children — influenced, in no small part, by my Catholic mother-in-law.
|Helen presented me with a necklace from which my grandfather's tie tack had been refashioned. (Not an actual photo of the necklace.)
Helen's gentle role in the derailment of our family life off a strictly secular track began with our wedding. We had planned a tastefully neutral affair in a restaurant with a justice of the peace presiding. Though never openly critical of our wedding plans, Helen still let it be known that she felt clergy should be present. She knew that we would not feel comfortable being married by a priest, so she suggested that we have a rabbi perform a Jewish ceremony. We did, and the chuppah, ketubah and Hebrew chanting were more meaningful and moving to me than I could have anticipated. In the years since, I have often joked that Helen simply wanted God — anyone's God — to be listening when we were married.
But, like many oft-repeated family stories, this isn't really accurate. I have come to see that Helen wanted us to be married by a rabbi not to fulfill her need but to fulfill ours and, more specifically, mine. Though I had a non-observant upbringing and hadn't set foot in synagogue for years when I first met her in my twenties, Helen intuited that my Jewish heritage was more important to me than I realized. In those early years she tried, in various subtle ways of which I am certain she was unconscious, to lead me to a figurative mirror and see the Jewish person reflected there. She labored over an unfamiliar cookbook to make latkes one year when Hanukkah coincided with Christmas, bought chopped liver from her grocery store's deli counter when I visited and, upon returning from church on Sunday would often say to me "Hey, they were reading your book today! You know, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob? Your people?"
And then there was the necklace.
My paternal grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, had worn a gold tie tack with Moses holding the Ten Commandments on one side and a Star of David on the other. It was a handsome, old-fashioned piece of jewelry and I didn't have the faintest idea what to do with it once I inherited it. I happened to show it to Helen and, mysteriously, she asked to keep it for a while. A few weeks later she presented me with a necklace from which the tie tack, refashioned as a medallion, now hung. I balked at wearing this overtly religious object. Helen shrugged and took it back from me. She wore the medallion for years on her own necklace, alongside her crucifix. Then, when my first baby began grabbing for my hair, my earrings, things I knew she would indelibly associate with me, I asked for the medallion back and I have worn it every day in the seventeen years since.
I cannot say that Helen alone influenced my desire to send my children to Hebrew school and Jewish summer camp; to become active in my synagogue and take Jewish adult education courses; to light Sabbath candles. My deepening attraction to Judaism over the years has been fueled by deep cravings for both continuity and community: a need to forge a link between my parents and my children and a link between myself and my neighbors. These are common cravings shared by many, especially in middle age, and satisfied in any number of ways. I do think, though, that I would be less likely to see Judaism as such a central and unifying force in my life if Helen had not so insistently reminded me of the fact of my Jewish identity when I was a young adult. Furthermore, the love and generosity with which her own faith led her to help me embrace mine made religion — Helen's brand, anyway — seem like a positive thing and assuaged some of the youthful ambivalence I felt about religion as potentially divisive.
Helen is in her 80s now and her health and memory are failing. I would like to find some way to thank her for helping me find Judaism. I think this suffices: When people trade mother-in-law stories, I tell them about the necklace.