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My Daughter?s Religious Questions Drew Us to Synagogue

Reprinted with permission of j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Visit

A year ago, my religiously confused interfaith child, then a kindergartner, asked, “Can we have a St. Patrick's Day party and you can hide the oxen and I can find it?”

I had the same look on my face as you must have now--no idea what she was talking about. After some lengthy but gentle interrogation I realized she was actually asking about Passover and hiding the afikomen. It was now quite obvious to me that the time had come for us to find a Jewish community, a place where she might not only hear but understand what words like afikomen really meant. Obviously, we weren't doing such a good job on our own.

I had been tentatively looking at congregations in the East Bay ever since my daughter started asking religious questions. When the inquiries were at the preschool level--“Can matzah balls bounce?”--it was easy, but I knew it would soon go beyond my comfort level.

My husband, who is not Jewish, was supportive of my decision to raise a Jewish child, but I didn't feel “Jewish enough” to do so on my own. We weren't connected to many other Jewish families, and my parents and relatives didn't have the large Passover seders of the past anymore. We were on our own. Serving matzah at Easter brunch didn't seem enough to me. I wanted a Jewish community, so rather than move to Manhattan, I set out to find a congregation.

Reform would be perfect for us, I had originally thought. My husband would feel more comfortable and my daughter liked that one of the rabbis wore a pretty dress. I liked the ethnic diversity of the crowd, the inclusion of same-sex couples. “This is my synagogue,” I'd tell myself as I tried it out. “These are my people,” I'd think as I sat at the Hanukkah dinner, watching the puppet show with my daughter, later eating latkes at a round table with people we did not know. Strangely, no one at our table knew each other either, and I realized the limitations of a large congregation. My daughter and I are introverted by nature, easily lost and quickly overwhelmed. Maybe a smaller place would be a better fit for us?

I don't think I would have even looked at a Conservative synagogue if it hadn't been for our friends, also an interfaith couple. We were reassured knowing that there was at least one other couple mumbling along to “L'cha Dodi” because we didn't know the words. We'd visited a few times for rock 'n' roll Shabbat; yes, imagine, if you will, the rabbi on electric guitar, with trombonist, keyboards and percussion and backup singers. Certainly not the synagogue of my childhood.

The praises of the kindergarten school teacher at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland had been sung loudly by many. “Your daughter can't miss Dawn's class,” they said. I had to meet her.

So, after my daughter's St. Patrick's Day/Passover oxen/afikomen confusion, I took it as an omen and arranged for a trial run in the afternoon kindergarten Hebrew class at Temple Beth Abraham. The rabbi played his acoustic guitar and sang and joked with the kids and he obviously loved these children. Back in the classroom they made art, with real paint that stained. My daughter was immediately riveted. She wanted to stay. And for me to leave.

Plus, she was the second tallest in the class! Miss Petite will never be the second tallest in anything else, so I signed on the dotted line, wrote out a check and, in the “Why I wish to join the temple” box, wrote that I hoped to “explore my Jewish roots and be a part of a Jewish community.” I did add that their rock 'n' roll Shabbat truly rocks.

We were members in time for Purim and the rabbi was Rabbi M&M (strikingly resembling rapper Eminem). That last “m” was a Hebrew “m”--a mem? Whatever it was, it looked nothing like an “m,” more like a backflipped “q.” (See how I knew nothing? I needed to be sitting there in the tiny chairs in Hebrew class doing art with paint that stains.)

The rapping rabbi cannot only carry a tune, but he infuses fun and excitement into what I remember as being an experience of terminal boredom.

My daughter has learned a lot in a year, and I have, too. Which is good, because Passover's next, oxen and all.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story.
Joanne Catz Hartman

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at

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