Albert Einstein and Lasagna: Our Daughter’s Jewish-Italian Bat Mitzvah

By Deborah Freeman


My daughter’s Bat Mitzvah (when someone assumes the privileges and obligations of an adult member of the Jewish community) was approaching. I am Jewish, my husband is Catholic. We had chosen to raise our daughter as a member of one religion, Judaism, as we feared that she would have no religion if we tried to do both. But for this important life-cycle ceremony, we did not want my husband and his family to feel or to be excluded.

The reality of our life is that we are not a Jewish family. We’re a family with some Jewish members and some Catholics. Our daughter has a dual heritage. We were lucky to have found a congregation, The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York, that offers an individualized Bar/Bat Mitzvah program to enable each child to come to terms with her specific situation. In addition, our congregation enables non-Jewish family members to participate in ways that most other congregations would not allow.

Like all students in our congregation, our daughter Irene did a lot of work to prepare for her Bat Mitzvah. She attended B’nai Mitzvah classes, she chose and researched a major topic to present at her ceremony–why Albert Einstein never became Bar Mitzvah–and she prepared essays about Jewish values, heroes and social action programs. In addition, she had an assignment designed just for her–to write about the similarities and differences between Judaism and Catholicism.

I had always glossed over differences in holidays and services by saying that Catholics do things differently than we do. This explanation was adequate for a child, but not for a young adult being welcomed as a member of the Jewish community. As Irene began doing research, I realized that her need to learn more about Catholicism could also be an opportunity to include non-Jewish family members in the Bat Mitzvah preparation.

Irene and I met with my husband’s son Joseph, who was raised, like his mother, as a Catholic. Joseph had received a wonderful Jesuit education and is a recent graduate of Fordham University. He and I explained to Irene that although Jews and Catholics share the early books of the Bible, these same books are interpreted very differently. For example, Catholics believe that people need Christ in their lives because everyone is born in sin, and that this original sin started with Adam and Eve. Humanistic Jews understand the story of Adam and Eve as our creation myth, analogous to other cultural myths. We see it as an example of our fundamental belief that each person has free will and individual responsibility. Other branches of Judaism interpret this somewhat differently.

By discussing differing interpretations of the same story, including a Catholic one, Irene gained insight into Judaism. We compared Joseph’s Confirmation ceremony and how it differed in purpose and intent from Irene’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Through our conversations Joseph began to feel part of his sister’s religious education in a meaningful way, consistent with his beliefs. If they hadn’t been required, these conversations would never have taken place and our family would have missed an opportunity to really understand and respect each other’s beliefs and backgrounds.

My husband gave a lot of thought to his role in this process. He acknowledged that there are few opportunities for a parent to publicly articulate his feelings about his child, and he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to speak at her service. Besides expressing pride in his daughter, he thanked the congregation for including him. He closed his speech by saying: “I was raised a Catholic, and I don’t expect to ever change. However, this hasn’t stopped me from accepting what The City Congregation has offered–a way to embrace the spirituality and sense of community, without the theology. Maybe this gift is the best part of all religion.”

My husband’s parents chose to participate by preparing enough of their very delicious lasagna to serve to the entire congregation after Irene’s ceremony. They were able to share their Italian heritage in a way that everyone enjoyed!

In case you’re wondering, Einstein started studying physics when he was thirteen years old and decided on his own not to become a Bar Mitzvah because it made no sense to him. According to his biographers, his parents were secular Jews who raised no real objection to his decision. Although he did not become a Bar Mitzvah, Einstein always took pride in being a Jew and gave generously to many Jewish causes throughout his life.


About Deborah Freeman

Deborah Freeman is on the board of directors of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughter.