Christina Pertus Hendelman lives in Mountain View, Calif., with her husband Aaron and their Texan-French-Norwegian children, Tess and Noah.
Intermarried and Pregnant: Thoughts about Our Child's Religious Future
Six months ago, my husband Aaron and I discovered that I was pregnant. Along with pure joy and excitement, mixed with the common apprehension of the road ahead, came another feeling: the fear of opening old wounds. The carpet under which we had swept all religious issues and potential sources of conflicts during the past two-and-a-half years was about to be lifted.
Aaron and I met in England five years ago, where we were both studying. There started the unlikely love story of a Texan Jewish guy and a French Catholic girl. Admittedly, religion was not a primary topic of discussion during our first months dating, but it became so when we began to contemplate the possibility of a future together. Were we to marry and have children, Aaron wanted me to convert. Given my limited exposure to Judaism--primarily through movies and Jewish delis--I didn't understand the need for me to convert, feeling that we could accommodate two religions in our lives. However, I admired his strong beliefs and envied his sense of belonging. I myself had grown up as a Catholic, but my religion was only that, a religion. Aaron's transcended this concept: it was his childhood, his identity, his culture. I eventually told Aaron that I could not convert right away, but that in time, I would be able to consider his request seriously.
I followed Aaron back to his native Texas and began the search for my Jewish holy grail. Through months of study, reading and discussion, I found in Judaism many beautiful traditions that I would eagerly pass on to my children. However, if Judaism was love and family, it was also often intolerance and rigidity. To convert, I needed a true call, deep enough to fully embrace Judaism, deep enough to turn me away from my own roots. The enormity of what was asked from me was suddenly obvious. I could not convert for Aaron's sake only. Having already made Aaron the solemn promise to help him build a Jewish household, I believed that converting could not add to my Jewish commitment. Although disappointed, Aaron understood. We were married a year later, exchanging our vows through a civil ceremony in France and a Jewish ceremony in Texas. Both ceremonies preached tolerance and harmony; the prayers and symbols we chose reflected our spirituality and thoughtfulness.
The truth was, however, we had approached every possible issue only hypothetically. Whether it be Christmas trees or Hebrew school and gefilte fish, we had not been able to commit to one single decision. We nonetheless naively thought we were sufficiently prepared for the day when a child would come.
Well, we were not. During our first two years of marriage, Aaron and I were so spiritually exhausted that we unconsciously decided to avoid any potential conflict, entering a long religious hibernation.
Expecting a baby re-awakened in Aaron the thought that our child would not grow up the way he did, fully immersed in a Jewish household. The burden of providing a Jewish education weighed mainly on his shoulders: as a man far from his family, where would he begin? Most importantly, the news resurrected certain feelings that he had managed to repress: the guilt of having agreed to marry a non Jew, as well as the fear of not being able to trust me after what he perceivced as a broken promise to convert.
I, in turn, was suddenly confronted with another solemn promise: my promise to raise our children as Jews. The month was December, Christmas was around the corner; I was looking sadly at my belly, remembering the joy this season had always brought me, already blaming Aaron for depriving this child of a beautiful tradition.
Also, despite my desire not to know the sex of the baby, I realized with sorrow that I would have to find out, in order to prepare for the possibility of having a boy and, therefore, a brit, or circumcision ceremony. Panic struck when I envisioned 400 people in my house witnessing the mutilation of my child in front of my horrified parents.
Although a brit will apparently not be necessary this time, the prospect of a naming ceremony has already created tension. Aaron's wish to hold the ceremony back in Texas with his grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, led him to talk to his mother first, before even mentioning it to me. Needless to say, I was upset, feeling helpless and betrayed. Aaron apologized, admitting he only wanted her to inquire whether their Conservative synagogue would allow the naming there, as I had not converted.
The road towards religious harmony and balance in our life is long, filled with misunderstandings and anger. We were not prepared for the day a child would come; we still are not. With parenthood, Aaron and I will undoubtedly have to grow up. This pregnancy is for real, a baby is on her way, forcing us to face the crucial differences that divide us as a couple but also giving us the opportunity to leave our stage of purely intellectual dilemmas to make concrete and correct decisions for her, for us. We will need to reach out for support and wisdom; we will also have to learn to trust each other through our journey.
The bottom line is, our child deserves a peaceful environment where confusion and frustration play no part, and so do we. Bonded by a love that transcends our differences, Aaron and I are deeply committed to this task.
Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."