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It has been 10 years… 10 wonderful, exciting, joyous years. Ten years ago, I fell in love with my husband Steve, and I began a journey with him that has taken me through many emotions and experiences that I never would have imagined. At the time, I was a single professional woman, raised Catholic, and completely disillusioned with the teachings of the Church. Steve was a true gentleman, was established in his career, treated me with respect, and I fell head over heels for him. He was also in the middle of a nasty divorce, and had a 3-and-a-half-year-old son who was stuck in the middle of the divorce turmoil. He had a strong identity as a Jew. What was I getting into?
We romanced. We spent time sharing our dreams. We also spent a lot of time discussing the differences in our religious upbringings. When we were sure the relationship was heading towards marriage, I met Steve's son Josh. He was such a sweet child, but you could see sadness in his eyes. He was living primarily with his mother, who was also Jewish, and he missed his father. Josh and I began to bond. As my relationship with Steve strengthened, Josh really seemed happy for his dad. Finally, the divorce and most of the custody issues were resolved. When Steve and I married in 1999, Josh was our handsome ringbearer. He was 5-and-a-half years old.
Steve and I had agreed that if we were ever to have children of our own, they would be raised Jewish. We also agreed that I could introduce some of the secular Christian activities that I had loved growing up, like coloring Easter eggs, decorating a Christmas tree, and having Santa Claus come visit. We felt as long as the children's identity was that of being Jewish, these things from my childhood would be harmless.
Since I was now in Josh's life, we began to incorporate some of these beloved secular traditions into the holidays as they came up. Steve felt that we were not undermining Josh's religious upbringing, but rather providing him a unique opportunity to enjoy the traditions of our family (the family he had with me as his stepmother, and his father). Josh's first Easter egg hunt (I described the game as looking for the afikomen, but instead of matzah, it's plastic eggs), carving pumpkins, leaving cookies out for Santa (I believe it was after we lit the menorah for Hanukkah)… all of these wonderful memories we were beginning to form and share. The magic in his eyes the first time he awoke and saw the decorated Christmas tree, lit and stocked with presents underneath! Josh would excitedly phone and tell his mother about the goings on at our home.
Josh knew he was a Jew. He was enrolled in a Jewish day school, and we gathered with Steve's parents every Friday evening for the beginning of Shabbat. We lit the candles, said the blessings over the wine and bread. As a family, we lit candles on the menorah at Hanukkah, and Steve, and Josh as he got older, kept kosher for Passover, and fasted for Yom Kippur.
As Josh grew older and his communication skills improved, we began to hear some sad reports about discussions Josh's mother was having with him. She was not too pleased that Steve had chosen a non-Jew to marry, and was not happy that I was sharing my "non-Jewishness" with her son. She resented that we had a tree in our house at Christmas more than anything. Josh said he would defend us to his mother, but she would not listen. After a while he would just tune her out. He did not and still does not understand her hostility. Steve had not discussed with his ex-wife how we were going to be sharing some of the secular traditions of my childhood with Josh. The divorce had been bitter, and the child custody issues were, and continue to be, somewhat hostile. Therefore, communication between my husband and his ex is at a minimum, and most issues are now handled third party through Josh.
Steve and I were subsequently blessed with two girls of our own. We are raising them Jewish. Each had a baby-naming ceremony in our home, officiated by a rabbi. And as young as my girls are, they understand just like my son does that these are traditions I bring into our home for all of our children to share and enjoy.
Josh did not learn that Santa was a myth from me or my husband, or from his friends, as children normally do. He learned from his mother, who needed to point out that Santa did not exist in Josh's life until I came around. Same for the Easter Bunny. I don't know how Josh handled this information, because he did not tell us until several years after the fact. I was angry and disappointed at Josh's mother for Josh. Why couldn't she just have let him have a good time over here and enjoy the fun that happens in this family? To this day, he remains a good sport and plays up the secular activities for the sake of our daughters, which I am grateful for.
The extent of Josh's mother's problem with me became very evident as we had to participate in two custody trials. I have been grilled on the witness stand by her attorney about being raised Catholic, raising my children Jewish, whether they really are Jewish, my understanding of Jewish traditions, and other things that truly were offensive to me and not relevant to how good of a step-mother I was/am and what is truly best in Josh's interest.
Josh is now almost 14 years old. Last September, he became a Bar Mitzvah. He had me participate in the ceremony, which meant so much to me. He has told me many times that he enjoys the differences that I bring to our family, and how we all can laugh about them.
At this point in my religious journey, I am studying to convert to Judaism. I feel complete and accepted for who I am in the Jewish community, and have been very excited since I made this decision. I wonder how Josh's mother will feel when the shiksa converts, but there's still a tree in the living room at Christmastime! I know our family will enjoy more laughs over the dichotomy. It's just sad that his mother cannot enjoy the same laugh with us.
For outreach professional Dawn Kepler's perspective, read The Child's Dilemma.