"When you're in love, the whole world is Jewish." The first time I heard my father say this was in the summer of 1952 when my second cousin Donnie married a non-Jewish girl.
In those long-ago days last century, this was cause for real alarm. Religious families sat shiva for children who made such egregious errors. But I didn't really know what my father's expression meant until I myself was in love in the late 1960s--with a man who was not Jewish. It didn't matter at all to me. At least I didn't think so. Not until the time came when we discussed how we would raise our children.
I was so crazy in love with my intended, that despite years and years of religious training and Hebrew language education, I would probably have agreed to raise our children as devout Zen Buddhists, if that was what my beloved wished.
|Jo Anne and Robert at their son's wedding
Fortunately, that was not what he wished. He was a man with a philosophical turn of mind, a Ph.D. from Harvard in history and 8 1/2 years in the merchant service--the first three of which were during World War II. There were things he knew that I did not.
He knew for example that any children he had with me, "whether I like it or not," as he phrased it, "will be considered Jewish." He paused significantly. "I think that is something they need to learn to be proud of, rather than ashamed of."
In due course we married and had the children who were to be raised knowing that being Jewish was something to be proud of. One late Friday afternoon, the sun was setting in the kitchen window. The table was set with the good silver flatware, and a freshly baked hallah lay under the cloth laboriously worked by our 7-year-old son in Sunday school. But I was frustrated and upset. Where was the book with the transliterations of all the Hebrew blessings for Friday night for my husband? I couldn't find it anywhere.
I had already lit candles, but we still had to make the kiddush and the motzi. It was after my third circuit around the kitchen, dining room, and living room, that my husband lifted his head from his book, removed his reading glasses, and said:
"What's the matter? I know my part, don't you know yours?"
He recited the kiddush that night flawlessly, in perfect Hebrew, and went on to lift the hallah cover from the braided loaf of bread, bless it, once again in flawless Hebrew, and portion out pieces of the freshly baked loaf to each of the children and to me.
In years to come I would discover that my husband who grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, in a not-every-Sunday Congregationalist family, had committed to memory numerous pieces of Hebrew text. He could recite not only the kiddush and the motzi but the blessings over the candles, the Shehecheyanu prayer, much of the aleinu, the mourner's kaddish, and several others. On the first night of Hanukkah, after reciting all three of the blessings in Hebrew, he cheerfully and lustily sang Maoz Tsur.
It was not just that he had a good memory, or was trying to show off. He wanted to participate in these rituals and celebrations as part of the bargain that he had struck: His children would grow up knowing that being Jewish was something to be proud of, rather than ashamed of. And there was even more to it than that. He was a hands-on, participatory father. And he knew how important it was for the children to see that both of their parents not only practiced the Jewish rituals but enjoyed them.
When our daughter, the younger of our two children, left for college, my husband and I were alone in the house--except for our little dog, Merlyn. Robert stated that he thought it was time to be done with making kiddush on Friday nights. He opined that I could go ahead and light the candles, and do whatever I wished with the hallah and the wine, but he no longer chose to do so. I knew better than to argue with him.
I continued with my candle lighting halfheartedly, but gave up on baking hallah. After a couple of weeks, I came home from my office of a Friday afternoon and thought I smelled fresh hallah. When I walked into the dining room, I discovered that the table was laid as if for guests, complete with a freshly baked hallah (courtesy of Kineret--Robert had troubled to glaze the frozen loaf with an egg wash and had sprinkled it with both sesame and poppy seeds).
"What's this?" I asked. "I thought we weren't making kiddush anymore."
"Merlyn missed his piece of hallah," my husband explained.
Years before this, long before they went off to college, our son became a bar mitzvah and our daughter a bat mitzvah. The rabbi saw no reason why my husband could not have an aliyah at our daughter's bat mitzvah. "I have no problem with that," said the rabbi.
"But, I do," said Robert.
"It won't be hard," said the rabbi, "we can get transliterations for you."
"I know the blessings before and after the Torah reading by heart," said Robert. "That's not the problem. The problem is that I'm not Jewish, and a non-Jew cannot be called to the Torah," he explained matter-of-factly.
I suspect that my experience is not that unusual: The non-Jewish member of the interfaith family has perhaps the larger stake in maintaining the integrity of the Jewish religion. My husband died nearly four years ago, and though he never wanted to convert to Judaism, he was my true partner in making a Jewish home and in raising a Jewish family. My memory of him tells me that he cannot possibly mind that I light a yahrzeit candle for him every year.