Christina Pertus Hendelman lives in Mountain View, Calif., with her husband Aaron and their Texan-French-Norwegian children, Tess and Noah.
When Children Raise Jewish Parents
Originally published June 2004. Republished May 11, 2012.
Three years ago, while pregnant with my first child, I wrote an essay for InterfaithFamily.com describing my feelings concerning this child's religious prospects (Intermarried and Pregnant: Thoughts about Our Child's Religious Future). The future seemed gloomy. If we had managed to skillfully maneuver around any potential religious conflict through our childless, French-Catholic-Texan-Jewish marriage, the arrival of this baby was about to expose several issues. For Aaron it was my broken promise to convert prior to our marriage. It was also my now-suspicious pledge to raise our children as Jews. What if I broke this promise, too? For me, the thought of doing just that became dominant when I convinced myself that I was allowed to change my mind. How on earth could I deprive my child of Christmas, my beloved childhood celebration? Why should I be denied the right to expose my child to my faith, my roots? The truth was Aaron had no idea how to start paving the way for a Jewish household and I, in turn, didn't want to help him, feeling that, despite classes and many holidays spent with his family at his Conservative synagogue, Judaism was still foreign and, let's be honest, unappealing to me. This is what happened next:
Tess's birth triggered our worst episode. Her naming took place in Aaron's synagogue back in Texas and, because I, her mother, was not Jewish, Tess needed to be converted. I felt deeply hurt, convinced that I was being punished for not having converted myself. Furthermore, why do this when the Reform movement allows a father to pass his religion to his child? Angry and totally ill prepared by a rabbi who had no interest in my emotional well-being, I took my daughter to the mikvah, the ritual bath used for conversion ceremonies. It took Aaron four attempts, while mother and child screamed hysterically, to immerse our six-week-old baby in the water to the satisfaction of the rabbi.
Two years later, during which our religious life amounted to very little, I became pregnant again, this time with a boy. With this news, we were heading towards the second-most-difficult episode of our intermarriage. While my stand against circumcision had always been very firm, needless to say, Aaron felt differently. No matter how much I would try to reason with him on the subject, I was met with a silence. What he could not express, what I initially could not comprehend, was the depth of emotions behind circumcision. It is the hallmark of Jewish men, no matter how barbaric or irrational the procedure seems to me. We compromised; Noah's bris happened at the hospital. He was not converted.
Our religious future seemed gloomy indeed. Both Aaron and I were tired and disappointed, stuck in a theoretical tug of war with no end in sight. It was Tess who provided the way out of our religious paralysis. She was in need of a preschool. The JCC offered a spot. Reluctantly I said yes. After a slow adaptation, it became clear that this was going to be a transforming experience for daughter and . . . mother. Along with Tess, I became a three year old again and began my real apprenticeship in Judaism. I learned more about Judaism in Tess's classroom than in any other classes or service. I took notes and borrowed creative ideas about Jewish holidays, each duly celebrated as the year went by. I learned beautiful Jewish songs and began to understand and appreciate the meaning of common prayers and blessings. Each week the celebration of Shabbat, Sabbath, with our toddlers was a moving and spiritual experience that I had so missed all these years. This was a Judaism that finally appealed to me, accessible, warm and real. And then it struck me; I was slowly becoming part of a welcoming Jewish community.
This experience has been a blessing for our family in many ways. First, it has given us a much-needed template to start our own traditions. Each Friday, led by Tess, we celebrate Shabbat and light candles, covering our eyes and inviting a dinosaur to have Shabbat with us. What a joy to see little Noah beaming when we start singing "Bim Bam." Aaron, delighted to see such change in his household without much effort on his end, had to dust off and reinvent the Judaism of his childhood, and he loves it! As for me, there is a certain relief to know that I have finally found a Judaism that I feel comfortable embracing. The way towards religious harmony in our life is still long. I have not given up on convincing Aaron to celebrate Christmas in our home, and should we have another boy, I will, again, state my piece against circumcision. But in some profound way the experience has allowed me to feel whole with my husband, maybe for the first time in our married life.