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When I became pregnant with Ariel, my first-born child, I said, "She is a gift from God." Little did I know she would give me the gift of God in the form of a new-found love for and practice of Judaism.
During the first few years of my interfaith marriage, I was anything but a practicing or observant Jew. Although my husband Ron was raised as a Southern Baptist, he had long ago become a non-practicing generic Christian raising his children from a previous marriage in the same manner. They celebrated Christmas and Easter but never attended church. I introduced Ron and his children to the celebration of Hanukkah, and he accompanied me to the first evening service celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance. During that period, Ron and I were more focused on spirituality than on religion, and our religious observance consisted of occasional attendance at an inspirational (not religious) Sunday morning service held at a "new age-y," non-denominational Unity church.
Our focus, however, changed when Ariel was born, and we began thinking about how we wanted to raise our children. We knew we wanted her to have some religious education that, at the least, included study of the Old Testament. We wanted our children to grow up with a belief in God, a sense of the sacred and the spiritual and the ability to answer the question, "What religion are you?"
Ron was not interested in the fire and brimstone of his religion of birth, nor was he interested in Christianity in general. He liked the non-denominational Unity Church, but we both agreed that we wanted the kids to be affiliated with a major religion. He liked the fact that Judaism stressed being a good person, a mensch, more than anything else. I felt most comfortable with Judaism, and through my studies of mystical traditions in general, had discovered that Judaism encompassed some of the broader spiritual concepts I had come to believe. So, we decided to bring our children up as Jews.
That decision made, Ron and I had to agree on what bringing them up Jewish entailed. As a child, Ron had attended church a minimum of three times each week. He didn't understand how a Jew could say he or she was Jewish but never go to Sabbath services. Raised as a Reform Jew, I didn't have any problem with this idea. I couldn't remember attending a Shabbat (Sabbath) service as a child. I was willing to compromise, and we joined a synagogue and began attending Shabbat services on a regular basis.
The Reform temple we joined was renting space twice a month in a church. Thus, we attended Friday night Shabbat services on those weeks, and I began "making shabbos (Yiddish word for Sabbath) every Friday. I would make this dinner the nicest of the week and also bake challah (a fluffy bread traditionally used when celebrating the Sabbath). We would light candles and recite the blessings before eating.
My stepchildren, who were then teenagers and lived with us full time, didn't often join us in our Shabbat celebrations. My stepdaughter had become a practicing Presbyterian and was having some difficulty reconciling our religious affiliation with her Christian belief system. My stepson still felt like a Christian, but was not as involved religiously. Although they didn't avoid being home on Friday nights, they often were busy with friends and activities. When they were home, however, their presence at the Shabbat table sometimes made our observance feel a bit uncomfortable.
At age four we enrolled Ariel in religious school and the three of us--my husband, our daughter, and myself--began as a family to learn about the Jewish holidays. Ron and I also enrolled in a "Hebrew in a week" class and attended any adult education classes the rabbi offered.
That year, Ron decided he no longer wanted to have a Christmas tree in our home. We had always purchased and decorated the tree several weeks before Christmas so my stepchildren could enjoy it before they went to their mother's house for the actual holiday. Since we put up the tree mostly for them, and they weren't home for more than a week to enjoy it, we decided to make Christmas a holiday celebrated with my non-Jewish in-laws. From that year onward, we traveled to their home for Christmas celebrations, and my stepchildren continued celebrating with their mother. That same year, we stopped doing an Easter egg hunt at our home as well.
Two years later, we moved to a new city, joined another temple, and enrolled both Ariel and Julian, our three-year-old son, in religious school. Ron and I continued to go to adult education classes and enrolled in an Anshai Torah (People of the Torah) class. This class taught us enough Hebrew to read Torah, as well as teaching us to daven (pray) and to understand and follow Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night Shabbat), Shacharit (Saturday morning Shabbat) and Mincha (Saturday afternoon Shabbat) services. We attended Friday night services an average of three times a month.
Although my stepdaughter was in college, she asked for a Jewish star to wear on the same chain upon which hung her cross. She also asked for a small menorah to light during Hanukkah. My stepson, now a high-school student, joined us occasionally for Shabbat dinner--mostly because the menu was better than during the week. He also participated in our first night of Hanukkah celebration.
During this time, our observance as a family grew. We put mezuzot (plural of mezuzah, a vessel containing the handwritten text of the Shema prayer) on our doors, increased our High Holy Day observance to include all of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and learned the correct way to light the Hanukkah candles and chant the blessings. We built a sukkah (wooden hut built to celebrate Sukkot), decorated it and ate in it. We hosted a Tu Bishvat and a Passover seder. We attended services for Shavuot, Purim, Sukkot, and Yom Hashoah. When home for Shabbat, we discussed that week's Torah portion with the children. The children enjoyed attending services (both adult and family) on Friday night, and my son would even complain some weeks when we decided to observe at home rather than at the synagogue.
Today, not only can my biological children answer the question, "What religion are you," but my stepchildren also feel a close tie to Judaism. After conducting himself as a practicing Reform Jew for approximately five years, Ron converted. As for me, when I reply, "I am Jewish," I don't just mean that I was born into a Jewish family. I am Jewish in practice, but I might not have been had I not been given the gift of motherhood.