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January 18, 2010
About eight years ago, I became involved in a business partnership with an African-American woman that developed into a close friendship. My business partner and I moved into a shared household, and her daughter and granddaughter lived with us. Later, my partner moved in with a woman she later married; her daughter and granddaughter stayed with me.
Due to the family situation, we eventually asked her daughter to leave the household. My friend was unable to take custody of her granddaughter herself and asked if I would be willing to take the responsibility. I was happy to do it because her granddaughter T. and I had gotten so close. I have had legal custody for almost three years and, although her grandmother and mother are still involved, the day to day decision-making and responsibilities for raising T. are mine. In this way, I joined their family.
One of the things that we talked about when I first agreed to take custody is that both my partner and her daughter are Christian and wanted me to raise T. as a Christian. I am Jewish and identify strongly as a Jew in all ways. My partner still doesn't understand fully my culture or belief system but she accepts me. It's funny, because T. will correct her grandmother when she refers to me as "that white lady" and say, "no, she's Jewish." On my part, I have had to become more familiar with cultural differences in the way that African American children are raised and their definition of family.
Religious beliefs are sometimes the most difficult to navigate in our household. In the past, my partner has asked me to take T. to their church and she doesn't understand that although some Jews are comfortable going to a church, I'm not. I take T. but I sit in a quiet area away from the service or outside the building and read. Sometimes, I will use this time to read and meditate on the Torah or other Jewish literature. Sometimes I just use it as a quiet time for reflection.
T. and I have talked about some of the differences between her family's beliefs and mine; I have explained to her that one of the most important differences is that Christians accept Jesus as the messiah and I, as a Jew, don't. I also tell her that there are more similarities than differences between our beliefs; both groups teach that the most important thing is that you are kind to others and that you do not deliberately set out to hurt someone else either physically, emotionally or financially.
The holidays are interesting in our household. Out of respect to T. and her family, I put up a Christmas tree. Her family likes to do this early in December and I will go along with it and even do the decorating myself. The majority of the household is taken up with secular decorations because I am more comfortable with those but if they want me to put up something religious I will. I have gotten used to wishing her friends and family Merry Christmas and am comfortable when people wish me a Merry Christmas. I draw the line at my bedroom, though, and that room is decorated for Hanukkah.
T. and I light the candles each evening of Hanukkah and say the blessings. She likes candles and is happy to light Shabbat candles with me on Friday night and memorial candles for relatives and friends who have died on the anniversaries of their deaths. We also celebrate Kwanzaa and I have learned the meanings of the different symbols, foods and the belief or ideal that should be taught for each of the days as we light the candles.
T. has been to temple with me. She likes the social occasions but doesn't like the services because she says the songs and words sound strange. I still bring her periodically. Because we are involved with Jewish Children and Family Services, she has other Jewish friends from different groups and she has been to their house for the Sabbath.
She became annoyed when the father of one of her friends told her that she shouldn't sing along with Jewish prayers when she tried to participate. I told her that it was OK for her to do it at home, even if she mispronounces a lot of the words, and that most of the people that I know would welcome her attempts to participate. She does not identify as Jewish, though she tells her family and friends that she's half Jewish because of me. We know there are some more conservative Jews who believe that it is wrong for non-Jews to participate in Jewish religious services and I have taught her that she needs to respect their beliefs.
Sometimes her family is a little taken back when she uses the name of a Jewish food and she has to explain to them what it is. They think it is kind of funny, but my partner and I have talked about how good it is for T.: it helps her to be more open to other people's beliefs and cultural practices. I have become more open as well, as I have learned more about what Christianity is so that I can answer her questions when she asks them.
I frequently have to cook a separate meal for T. since there are some foods that she likes and that are accepted by her family that I don't eat myself--for example, pork. When I cook her breakfast, I will make eggs, sausage or bacon, and bagels. I will make my eggs in a separate pan and just have the bagel. I can respect the practices of my religion without asking her to conform to my practices.
Another practice that I have had to get used to is Christmas carols. When I was teaching, I refused to teach my students Christmas carols and then would only participate if another teacher was willing to work with them and then I would take their students who couldn't participate either because of their religious beliefs or behavior. Now, that I am raising a Christian child, I allow her to sing carols. I still won't sing them myself but I will listen to them if she wants me to. Likewise, I will watch a Christmas movie if she asks me to watch with her.
Sometimes it's hard because I think I make more of an attempt to recognize their holidays and beliefs because of T. than her relatives make for my holidays. For example, T. and I celebrated the Jewish New Year but no one else in her family called to wish me a Happy New Year or even acknowledge that they knew it was occurring. There will be clashes in our beliefs at times in a two faith household, and it's OK to not mention it when these differences hurt my feelings. The feeling passes quickly anyway because our ties are too strong to let differences divide us.
T. likes being part of a two faith household because it gives her so many more times to have friends over and celebrate. I like to see her happy, so I am willing to celebrate anything that she wants to celebrate. I think it is helping T. to be more open to different beliefs and to different people and hopefully more sensitive to everyone.
I wouldn't change the last few years for anything and I will continue to explore different beliefs and cultures with T. We will remain a household where our beliefs blend at times and at others remain very distinct. I'm looking forward to what happens as she gets older and we continue to find a way to practice both of our faiths.