Andi Rosenthal is a convert to Judaism, marketing director and freelance writer living in Larchmont, N.Y. She is a URJ Schindler Outreach Fellow and frequently lectures and teaches about issues relating to interfaith life. She also recently completed her first novel, The Bookseller's Sonnets.
Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life: Sisters, Set in Stone
"Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life" is Andi Rosenthal's column about "the continuing journey of a Jew-by-choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage."
If you were to see us walking down the street together, you'd never think for a moment that we were sisters. Laura is dark-eyed and brunette, and I am green-eyed and fair. She is as petite at five-foot-two as I am tall at five-foot-ten, and she is married and a mother of two adorable little boys, while I remain single and consumed by my career.
Several years ago, when we worked for the same company, we fooled many of our colleagues into thinking that we weren't related. It was easy since we are seven years apart in age, we don't look anything alike, and we don't share a last name. Once people saw us in one another's company, however, certain things would become clear. We may not share much in terms of looks, or even life goals, but we do share a similar laugh, a way of finishing one another's sentences, and a way of looking out at the world from the happy family life we shared growing up.
But even more than our looks, there is another difference between me and my sister. Having grown up with the same parents, the same education, the same opinions about everything from home décor to music, and, yes--the same religious upbringing--it's a core difference that makes itself felt in just about all of our choices. And that's because Laura is Catholic, and I'm Jewish.
In our family, religion wasn't--and still isn't, to some degree--a subject that is easily or readily discussed. Even though our parents, technically, were in an interfaith marriage, the notion of being a dual-religion family wasn't a reality for us. And even though our last name was Rosenthal, there was no Judaism, or even Jewish cultural tradition, expressed in our family. It was only when Laura and I were aged seven and fourteen, respectively, when we went to the Bar Mitzvah of a distant cousin that we learned we had relatives who were Jewish.
Like me, Laura spent her childhood in Catholic school. But, unlike me, she also spent her freshman year of high school in a parochial school, but then went to public school for the last three. From there, she went on to a small, prestigious Jesuit college, where she met her husband. Most of the students at Holy Cross attended Mass every Sunday, and Catholicism was an important part of the culture of both her academic and her social life, since all of her friends were Catholic.
And also unlike me, Laura seemed much more comfortable with the beliefs and doctrine of our Christian heritage, and so didn't express any curiosity about our family's "other" faith tradition. I, on the other hand, couldn't have stopped myself from exploring Judaism if I had tried.
I don't think that Laura was all that surprised when I told her that I planned to convert. Having observed my interest in Judaism from my college days all the way up to my professional life, it couldn't have come as a shock to her.
Yet, when I told her, I remember that there was one part of our conversation that seemed to trouble her. We were driving along Interstate 84 on a late autumn day, on our way back to her house from the Danbury Mall. My nephew Connor, her first child, had been born just a few months before. I told her that I had been having regular meetings with a rabbi, and that it was likely that within the year I would finally fulfill my dream of becoming Jewish.
"So are you saying," she asked, choosing her words carefully, "that you don't believe in Jesus?"
I nodded my head. And then, I watched as she glanced nervously upwards at the open sunroof, almost as if she expected a lightning bolt to hit me.
I knew that it was hard for her to accept that everything that we had been taught to believe and revere was now, for me, nonexistent. And I didn't expect her to understand.
"What about Connor?" she asked me, after another moment. "You're his godmother."
I could hear the hurt in her voice, and I was afraid that she felt that I had betrayed not only our family, but her baby. I had been so honored that she and her husband had chosen me to be Connor's spiritual guardian, and I didn't want to do or say anything that would make her think that my conversion was meant to invalidate that privilege.
"I know," I told her, choosing my words carefully. "But the fact that I'm really engaged in studying religion is something that I hope will make me an even better godmother than I would have been, if I had just stayed in a religion that I don't believe in. We've both been educated really well in terms of Catholicism. Maybe this will give Connor a perspective that we never had, that maybe we should have had."
She nodded. We had talked on a number of occasions about the fact that we didn't know why our parents never discussed our Jewish heritage, never arriving at any sort of answer that satisfied us. As we drove on in silence, I felt that she was still struggling with my decision, and at the same time, wondering what it was--as I have so often wondered--what made us so different in terms of our spiritual beliefs. But as time went on, and our conversations about what we both believe deepened, and my conversion drew nearer, I knew in my heart that I had no greater supporter than my sister.
Four years later, I realize that our dialogue has shaped my Jewish identity in a way that I never expected. With the backdrop of her family's Catholicism--or perhaps because of it--we, as an extended family, appreciate the other's celebrations and traditions in a way that we never did growing up. If it means that I am eating matzah at Easter dinner, or that her family is at my house celebrating the New Year in October instead of January, we participate in each other's celebrations and cherish the other's spiritual perspective.
And in some way, I think my conversion has, in all likelihood, helped us both to articulate the place that Judaism occupies in both our lives. As the children of a dual-faith family, we both have a sense that something in each one of us, having chosen our different spiritual paths, still has a sense of respect for the road that was left untraveled.
This was never more clearly felt by me than on a day this past October, right before Rosh Hashanah, when I went to the cemetery for the first time, to visit the place where my father had been buried. Lost in a sea of headstones, and overwhelmed by grief and sadness, I was unsure of where to look for his grave. All at once, I spied one single headstone that had a small rock placed on top.
I went around to look at the name on the stone, and even before I saw it, I knew without a doubt that I was in the right place. In the Catholic cemetery where our Jewish father had been buried, my Catholic sister had left a stone to show that she had been there.
As I laid my stone next to the one that Laura had left, I saw that hers was round and dark, and mine was flat and almost white. I smiled as I observed the two stones together sitting on top of the black marble. It didn't matter that they looked nothing alike, I thought. They still came from the same place.