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An Overnight Interfaith Home

April 24, 2009

A week before Christmas, I was standing outside my front door in the dark and the cold, swearing and struggling with a small oblong object I was trying to nail to my doorpost: my first mezuzah. I now had an official mikveh date and a journey that had begun 12 years ago was finally going to culminate in my conversion to Judaism at the end of January. Now that I was going to be "official," I needed a mezuzuah--something to proclaim publicly, to me and to everyone else, that this was, finally, going to be a Jewish home.

Sort of. Because it was also going to be a Christian home, a space shared with my Orthodox Christian husband and my more-or-less Catholic kids. We five were about to become an interfaith family, overnight.

DuPree Cuties
Mimi DuPree and her three children. Photo: Don DuPree.

In my head, interfaith families were things that happened by accident, or because there was no other choice: two people so in love that their passion swept all obstacles aside, determined to overcome all. I had only ever thought of being an interfaith family as some kind of disability that one learned to live with, to make the best of; it never occurred to me that it could be something you wanted to be, much less something that you chose and embraced. "Interfaith family" made me think of wide-eyed kids sitting in the priest's office, holding hands and smiling, while he patiently tried to explain the way the world--and faith--worked. Except now, three kids, five degrees and two careers later, we were those kids.

My journey began when I first learned Hebrew. I am a linguist by training and profession and mastering Hebrew felt like adding another notch to my belt, a linguistic trophy to add to my Latin, my classical Greek and my Old Church Slavonic. Another lovely liturgical language, Hebrew would assist me in the study of theology, surely, and that would only be another layer of scholarly legitimacy for me. I began studying with a rabbi of our acquaintance and absorbing it easily, as I tend to do with languages.

On a whim, I attended synagogue one Friday evening. I was unprepared for what happened to me. Even now I flinch at describing it, for fear that it come off as shallow or pat, or worse, reduce spiritual complexity to one emotionally moving moment. But the first time I heard Hebrew chanted I had one of the most powerful physical reactions I think I have ever had--like an electric shock in my body. The wind got knocked clean out of me and I know that (embarrassingly) I cried.

I threw myself into Torah study with my rabbi, reading and arguing Torah in her kitchen, poring over her siddurim, breathing the air of a Jewish world, but with a kind of far-off longing. Why didn't I take the plunge--literally--those long years ago? I don't have an easy answer, but fear is probably close enough. I was about to be a mother, and what sort of half-breed world would I be raising my children in? I was raised in the South, and I can still remember the first time I saw an interracial family. I must have been 7 or 8, and I remember staring and my mother's firm hand on my head, turning me in the other direction so I wouldn't be rude and stare. "Those poor children," I remember her saying softly, to herself.

I was relieved when, after the birth of our child, my husband and I moved to a different city, so I could try to free myself of the seductive pull of Judaism. I tried to wedge my love of Judaism into a box, and keep it in a place where it wouldn't threaten my safe, comfortable life or its assumptions. I told myself it was an academic interest, really. Every volume of Jewish history, every Tanakh, every siddur I bought was for research purposes. I pursued a master's in Jewish Studies. I led the prayer life of a Jew. I was involved with Jewish support groups and ministries for students at my school. I loved my absorption in all things Jewish, and it tormented me, for the better part of a decade.

"Sometimes I wish I had had the courage to convert, all those years ago," I lamented to my husband.

"Are you going to say the same thing 10 years from now?" he asked.

I looked at him, a bit stunned. "Well … "

"Call a rabbi," he said, and walked away, rolling his eyes at the truth that was obvious to everyone but me.

Which left me, some months later, struggling with the goddamned mezuzah. One, two, three careful blows of the hammer. Word to the wise: when puchasing and affixing one's first mezuzah, avoid the crystal ones, no matter how pretty they look in the Judaica shop. The fourth clumsy blow knocked a crack in the thing three inches long, and bits of my mezuzah went skipping merrily across the porch. I swore even more lustily.

"Oh for God's sake," my husband said, sticking his head out the door.

"So, um, could you … "

"Here," he sighed, taking the hammer from my inept and freezing fingers.

"Whatcha doing?" My daughter, now 11, stuck her head out the door, drawn with the preteen's unerring accuracy to the sound of adult swearing. Then her younger siblings drifted out, and they all watched as their father somehow (and with the help of some superglue) got the mezuzah in place.

"Cool," my daughter offered.

"Damn it! We forgot the blessing," I said, and hastily mumbled it. We went back inside, and I looked at the crèche sitting on the hall table. My husband hadn't had time to set it up; Mary and Joseph and various other Bethlehemites were still living in ziploc bags, and the crèche itself was sadly crooked and abandoned. So I set to and went to work, while my husband finished up dinner for the kids. I set up Mary and Joseph and the shepherds (but not baby Jesus yet!) and the little hens and donkeys and cows, and stuffed the manger with blessed straw left over from last year's Christmas Eve Mass. Lastly, I screwed in the little light bulb that suffused everything with a warm Christmas-y glow. My husband may be the Christian in the house, but I'm the one who's aces at decorating the crèche--and the tree too, for that matter.

My husband and my kids and I are still feeling our way in all this, and we're no kind of model for anyone else; we're too messy and atypical and just plain weird. But I will say that every step we take seems to be met with another answer, and I'm no longer afraid of the questions. My skin sits easier on my body since my immersion in the mikveh, and my breathing feels more honest. Being a better and more honest person makes me a better and more honest wife and mother, I hope. And a wife and mother who is still, when all is said and done, best at the holiday decorating.

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." Plural form of "siddur," Hebrew for "prayer book." Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. 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.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew acronym standing for "Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im (Prophets), Ketuvim (Writings)," a name used in Judaism for the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Mimi DuPree

Mimi DuPree lives and works in Atlanta, Ga., where she teaches Latin at The Westminster Schools and raises her three children. She is a member of Temple Sinai, where her children will be attending Sunday school in the fall.

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