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Jewish Spirituality from an Unlikely Source

When I told my mother I was going to marry a man whose family was devoutly Catholic and had lived in Germany until 1951, she said "Hallelujah!"

"But Mom," I said, "don't you care? Some Jewish families would disown their daughter!"

"Honey, you're getting married, right?"

"Yeah."

"Well, that's good enough for me."

Okay, so I would be thirty on my next birthday; was that reason enough to be so overjoyed? Part of me was disappointed that marrying out of my religion meant so little to either of us.

Guntram's family was equally joyous. He had been married previously, to a young Catholic woman who hadn't "fit into the family," which at that time I could not understand. After all, she was Catholic, like them. I only found out what "fitting in" means as my life with Guntram expanded to include our daughter, Ariadne. Once she was born, I knew a searing desire to get involved with something beyond ourselves. But what? And how?

I grew up with a shallow attachment to Judaism. We celebrated Passover as a family gathering rather than with a meaningful learning of the Passover story. My brother became a bar mitzvah (assumed the privileges and responsibilities of an adult member of the Jewish community), but not my sister or I.

Nevertheless, I had always had a strong belief in a universal power that binds us all--animal, plant, human--in the dance of life and death. I trace that back to a talk with my father one night as he sat on the side of my bed. I was seven or eight and asked him if there really is a God. He said, "Yes, there is. God is in the flowers and the trees, the air we breathe. God is all around us." That's the basis of my belief today.

After my father had his first heart attack, when he was thirty-eight, he'd ask every Friday night: "Anyone want to go to temple with me?" There was never a "yes," so he never went. His connection to Judaism had no foundation, no way in, no path for him to follow, and so he never found the comfort he was seeking.

I was more fortunate. I had my German Catholic mother-in-law Grete as a role model. Between us, there is no talk about religion or God or God's place in our lives, just action. She goes to church every Sunday wherever she is and sometimes talks afterwards about the musical quality or the noisiness, never about the reading or prayers. She served meals-on-wheels every Wednesday for as long as I've known her, until she turned eighty. She invites priests to important family events, or even just to a Sunday dinner. I've had more casual conversations with them than with rabbis. When I said I'd go to Christmas Mass with the family on our first holiday together, she looked at me with bewilderment, saying "Why?" To her, Christmas is celebrated with great solemnity as the birth of Christ her savior. Why would a Jew want to celebrate that? And when I considered naming our child Christian, she said, "Of all names, why particularly that one?" I couldn't answer her then, and I still can't, although I think it might have something to do with wanting to fit into this Christian country, where people like my no-nonsense mother-in-law walk their paths with God sure-footedly beside them. I wanted that companion for my daughter and so was ready to join the Catholic Church and my husband's family for their holidays.

One of the reasons I married Guntrum was for the familial devotion, which I was sure came from the family's religious commitment. My fondest memory is my first family dinner with them. Everyone sat around the living room of his mother's house and one person spoke at a time, each one listening to the other. Before dinner, we bowed our heads and offered a prayer of thanks for the food and for being together. It was the most amazing experience, given that growing up in my house only the loudest voice was heard, and it never said thank you. I wanted "in" to this world!

I was ready to join. My husband, however, had had enough of Catholicism. He had gone to church every Sunday, was even an altar boy, had believed in God, heaven and hell. But, by the time we married he had rejected Catholicism and refused to raise our daughter as a Catholic. So, I was left with Judaism.

I began my search for connection (though I would never have called it that at the time!) by taking a course at Hebrew College called "Instilling Jewish Roots in Your Children." I learned that it's enough to get started by merely lighting Shabbat (Sabbath) candles. So I bought fancy silver candlesticks which I hoped would become heirlooms, and we started making Friday nights a thoughtful, family time. I think of my mother-in-law at those sacred moments, and when, before every dinner, we all stop and look at each other, acknowledging the presence of each of us, then say a prayer of thanks. As my daughter learned more in religious school at the synagogue I had joined, we incorporated holiday celebrations and brought Hanukkah with us when we went to my in-laws for Christmas. They'd lead us in Christmas carols; we'd teach them Hanukkah songs. Over time, I wanted to learn more, took courses at Hebrew College and my temple, began attending weekly Shabbat services and Torah study.

In all of this I saw myself as an echo of Grete, for Judaism can be a no-nonsense religion. Though I've sought transcendental moments of revelation, I've discovered in these last ten years of Jewish study and writing liturgy, of teaching fourth grade and the adult B'nai Mitzvah class at Temple Israel in Boston, of temple meetings that now begin with a d'var Torah (interpretation of the weekly Torah portion), of doing so many things that connect me to people in a strong loving way, that my life is permeated with a Divine Presence that brings me a deep sense of peace and joy. And I've discovered that it is this spiritual life that unites me with my husband's family. I feel a kinship with my mother-in-law that is never spoken about. It may be only in my imagination, but sometimes when we look at each other I feel the same recognition as I do when I am at temple talking Torah (the first five books of the Bible).

Growing up I was the middle-child misfit, constantly fighting with my mother. Now we talk on the phone nearly every day, and she tells me how much I've changed, how much nicer I am, more peaceful, since I've been involved with Judaism. She even joins me for Friday night services when she's here, and if my daughter is in town, she joins us, also. Ariadne has been through Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation; she has a deep love of Judaism, and knows enough about the religion to help keep it alive. For that gift, we have to thank many sources, including my German Catholic mother-in-law, Grete.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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." 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.
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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Edie Mueller

Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.

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