Before my husband Dan and I married, we agreed to raise the children we hoped to have as Jews. I was proud that as an interfaith couple we were tackling the matter head on, and while our discussions were not always easy, I felt that I was getting a preview of our ability to work together to handle difficult issues.
It was not a simple thing to decide to raise children in a faith tradition other than my own, but once the decision was made, I felt confident of the seriousness of my commitment. Having grown up in a single-parent family after my father died when I was five, I took pleasure in anticipating that my children would have the benefit of two parents supporting them in what I considered a very important part of life.
In some ways, it was easy. Dan's gift for hands-on Judaism was a good match for my own approach to family life, and as soon as Elena and Leah were old enough they were grating potatoes for Hanukkah latkes (fried potato pancakes), dipping apples in honey for Rosh Hashanah, and starring as Moses or Miriam in living room Passover pageants. The backyard party we held each year to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, was an event our friends and family looked forward to sharing with us. When Dan took a job as administrator at Boston's Temple Israel, that community welcomed us with open arms, and the preschool and family education programs provided our growing family with wonderful learning opportunities.
There was, of course, a wrinkle in all this: I wasn't Jewish. I loved celebrating Jewish holidays and found Jewish worship services deeply meaningful, yet a part of me needed to stay connected to my Irish Catholic self. While that had been a given when we discussed starting a family, we hadn't (and couldn't possibly have) predicted exactly what that might mean. With an extended family that included both Catholics and Protestants, we'd assumed that our children would have a fair amount of exposure to Christianity. We just hadn't figured out exactly how much exposure ought to come directly from their mother.
It seemed to polarize us. I felt that fatherhood had turned Dan into a gatekeeper, more intent than he had been on keeping Christianity at bay. He felt less comfortable about Christmas trees and holiday church services. While he never refused to participate, we found ourselves having to re-negotiate certain things year after year. Seasonal holiday nostalgia, as well as the sight of families worshipping together whenever I went to church, led me to brood over the sacrifice I was making. I looked to Dan to "make it up to me" in ways he couldn't guess at, and I couldn't clearly explain.
Then, for me, there was maternal guilt. As I tried to figure out whether there could be a place for me in my own tradition, I found myself thinking, is this a bad thing? Is it selfish of me, given my history as an erratic practitioner of Catholicism, to continue to explore my spiritual needs outside of the tradition I have chosen for my children? I knew that conversion was not an option for me, and Dan had never expected it, but could Jewish worship perhaps suffice as a spiritual practice?
It had seemed natural, given the circumstances, to have Dan take the lead in our children's religious life. It took a while to give myself permission to take the lead in my own. I knew that I had to continue to explore what it meant to me to be a person of faith, and that in doing so I could not totally abandon the worldview that had shaped me. I anticipated that this exploration would create some discomfort on Dan's part, some guilt on my part, some tough questions from the kids, and some judgment from folks who didn't approve. I decided that was not the end of the world.
One day I realized what I needed, from myself and from Dan. I knew that I was committed, in good conscience and in good faith, to help raise children who would identify as Jews. I needed us to agree that any requests I made for family support in accommodating my Christian heritage should be regarded as minimum essentials that would enable me to participate in our predominantly Jewish family life and should be granted, period. I needed us both to trust me to do my best.
My "manifesto" seemed to mark a turning point in our marriage. Dan soon seemed less concerned about gate-keeping and more involved than ever in maintaining a vibrant Jewish home life. I was less preoccupied about the sacrifice I had made by choosing Judaism for my children, and better able to focus on the rightness of this choice for my family.
Since Dan's work keeps him at Temple Israel on Friday evenings, when Jewish families traditionally welcome the Sabbath at home, we have always celebrated Shabbat on Saturday morning. One bright Saturday, as we awaited the arrival of friends to celebrate with us, Dan was called away by an emergency at the temple. Suddenly, the anticipation I had felt about a relaxed, friendly gathering vanished as I contemplated my inability to serve as a Jewish parent at the Shabbat table. Should I ask my friend Judi to light the candles and say the blessing in the traditional way? How would that feel to Elena, my almost-five-year-old, who was used to something a bit different? I still didn't have an answer as we gathered at the table.
As I nervously tried to figure out how to begin, Elena jumped in. "Here is how we do Shabbat in our family," she said eagerly. "A grown-up lights the candles, then we all hold hands to say the blessing, and we say it together. We do it on Saturday morning because that's when we're all home. Well, usually." She took her friend Leah's hand. I relaxed and smiled. Who needed to worry about a Shabbat leader when my confident and capable Jewish daughter was clearly prepared to do the honors?
Dan wasn't with us, so he and I couldn't make eye contact across the table, but it was a wonderful moment in my married life--a moment that let me know that I could be who I needed to be without compromising our hopes for our daughters, and for our family.