Jemi Kostiner Mansfield is a native of the Pacific Northwest, born in Seattle and raised in Portland. Since 1992, she has worked at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon, currently serving as education and life cycle administrator. With sons Alex and Ben, Jemi and her husband Greg live in Beaverton, less than two miles in either direction from their parents and childhood homes.
I Was a Teenage Not-So-Nice Jewish Girl
This is an entry in the InterfaithFamily.com Essay Contest.
I suppose it's some sort of poetic justice that I ended up working at a synagogue, specifically in the Education Department. The day after my Bat Mitzvah, while my grandparents were still plotzing, I made the announcement that my first act as an "adult" was to renounce kashrut, which my family had always practiced. I spent the rest of my 7th grade year seeing how many times I could sneak off the Day School campus to buy turkey and Swiss sandwiches at the deli down the street. By high school I tortured my mother (a UJA employee and Federation mucky-muck) by resolutely refusing to participate at services, even sitting through the Amidah; and my college years were comprised of Yom Kippurs spent at Disneyland. I worked very hard at proving all those studies wrong: years of day school, Jewish summer camps, a strong sense of identity at home and even a year-long sabbatical in Israel could STILL produce non-interest and non-affiliation in today's youth.
Given my defiant attitude, it's no wonder that I chose to cast my nets outside Jewish waters when dating. But I am one of those lucky few who met the right person early on; very early on--10th grade, as a matter of fact. Greg and I started dating when I was 14 and he was 17. What better way to drive my parents crazy then with a non-Jewish, older boyfriend?! And it worked. I was the wild child, the cause of every grey hair, the heartache in my parents' lives. I left for college in California (where Greg was also at school) as soon as I could. And I rejoiced in living far away from my family.
But strange things happen when you leave home. You start to realize that, for all the craziness and bickering and interfering that goes along with a close-knit family, there is always a support system. There is always a cheering section. There is always an analyst's couch. And they are there for you when you need them. So after the glitter of California wore off, Greg and I looked at each other and realized it was home we wanted--to raise our family where we'd been raised and with the rest of the family around us. For you see, it was never a question of whether we would get married and have a family, just when... and how.
The when was right out of college. The how was a little bit trickier. Greg's family had embraced me from the get-go; I was the daughter they'd never had and the daughter-in-law they wanted. They had no religious convictions in any direction, being your basic Christians who didn't bother with beliefs or church. Their main celebration was (and still is) a Christmas smorgasbord, harkening back to their Danish and Swedish roots. To them, the importance of the holiday was the food and the family; not so very different from any Jewish celebration. But my mother said up front, "If it's not under a huppah and with a rabbi, I'm not going to be there." The rabbi we found asked Greg if he'd convert, and Greg said he would if it was important to me, which it wasn't. Becoming Jewish wouldn't change who Greg was and wouldn't change what we believed. Respecting Greg's choice, the rabbi married us in a beautiful Jewish ceremony. And my mother was there.
Fast forward: through nepotism and good luck, I started temping at the Reform synagogue. My Judaic background and natural savvy helped parlay that temp job into a career in non-profit administration, now in its 11th year and encompassing two departments: Life Cycles/Congregational Affairs and Education. My mother, whom I couldn't stand to look at or listen to 15 years ago, is one of my closest friends, the person I speak to on the phone most often and a woman I greatly admire. She is also one of Greg's greatest fans; and this from the person who once told me that I was obviously the stronger one in the relationship and was Greg really all that intelligent.
And she's Bubbe to our two sons, Alex and Ben. They are Jewish. This was never even a question. Greg and I discussed this long and hard years before we were married. Our children would be Jewish halachically, and the only religious instruction they would receive would be in Judaism. And--wonder of wonders!--Alex is finishing first grade at the Day School. Yes, Portland Jewish Academy, egalitarian, all-encompassing and unrecognizable now from the Lubavitcher-run Hillel that I knew, is where we chose to send our children... with my parents' help. It was a hard decision. At one point I even vehemently declared that my children would never go to PJA. Guess what? Things change as we grow.