A Spiritual Home

By Cynthia Schwan


I am a gentile, 61 years old, married for 31 years to what I would call a serious and observant Jew, and have 28-year-old twin daughters who consider themselves to be Jewish. I was raised in a fundamental Baptist church in the midwest. I cannot remember anything but respect being taught in our church about Jews in general. I’m sure there were shades of anti-Semitism floating around individuals, but from the pulpit, Jews were special–after all, Jesus “Our Savior” was a Jew.

As an older teenager I read Exodus (Leon Uris, not the Biblical one) and then I read a book the title of which escapes me now, about a woman who converts to Judaism with a thorough explanation of her conversion process. I became interested in the idea of conversion while I was in the process of distancing myself from the church I had been raised in. But I did not do it, because it never felt right.

Shabbat table, photo by Gila Brand.

When Larry and I were first married, in New York, his Judaism wasn’t a part of his everyday life. A few years later, we moved to Chicago, where it wasn’t as easy and organic to be a Jew as it was in New York. Larry’s response to this was to study Yiddish. I totally supported the idea of his creating a Jewish identity through language. Then we moved to Wellesley, Mass., so that Larry could teach at Wellesley College, and there was no easily accessible Jewish life for him there, even academically. Three years later, when our kids were 3, Larry began going to services Saturday morning in Cambridge. But it still seemed like something he was doing for himself, and it didn’t affect our family life.

There is a wonderful dynamic that has always been a part of our marriage: when one of us wants to do something that is important, individually, the other person is tremendously supportive and encouraging. I was watching Larry and I knew that going to services was not casual for him. So I encouraged him to attend. But then things changed, and got trickier when he announced, hesitantly one Saturday afternoon, that he would like to light candles on Friday nights, and recite a few blessings. My encouragement turned into fear–for myself. I felt I would be excluded in my own home. And my kids would be included and that made me feel even more excluded. And there would be no representation of my spiritual life in our family. That felt like a void. Conversations between us got pretty tense.

Fortunately there is another key dynamic in our marriage which is sometimes not so pleasant, but I deeply believe continues to hold us together and that is, we talk. And talk. And don’t stop until something is thoroughly understood. Larry was patient with me, and I needed him to be just that about this small but very significant change in our family life. And he was wise enough to understand that this was an important parenting decision for our young daughters. And he knew me–I wanted representation! So one day he mentioned that he had found out that there was a Quaker meeting right here in Wellesley, Mass., and he thought it might appeal to me as a spiritual community. I started attending the Friends meeting. He was right. It became my spiritual home.

Through the years I have joined Larry wholeheartedly in developing the traditions of our family’s Jewish life. It was crucial to me that my children know that they were Jewish, and for them to absorb the traditions we were doing at home that were theirs to take with them when they left. And Larry was always considerate of me, never excluding me, in fact including me in the decision-making. Holidays were easy for me to learn about because they were centered around food! When Larry became uptight about doing something with our kids and not knowing how to create the situation at home, without the support of a community, it was always easier for me to step in and give him advice. The creative solutions were sometimes bizarre, but they worked–like Torah study with chicken shishkabobs at Loui’s luncheonette!

Our Friday nights became a wonderful and highly individualized occasion. By the time our kids were in grade school, Friday had evolved into a day of shopping, cooking and baking for me. The kids dressed up, the dinner was special, we had a ritual comic reading of “A Woman of Valor” and… there was always dessert! The regularity of Friday became so ingrained in our life as a family that when Larry would go out of town, there was no question as to whether or not the three of us would celebrate Shabbat. In fact, when Larry goes out of town now, and I am here alone I rarely go out on Friday, and usually maintain the specialness of the night with a nice meal, and light candles myself.

There was one night when our girls actually asked me why I didn’t convert. The question was made more complicated by the fact that in our neighbors’ family, a family with whom we shared Jewish holidays, the mother had not been born Jewish, and had converted. My answer to our girls was simple on the surface, but deeply profound for me: it’s just not who I am. I can see that it is absolutely who my husband is, and my daughters too. And while it is not at my very core, it is also a part of me. It is a gift that I have been given by the three Jews of my family.

Read Cynthia’s husband Larry’s story about these decisions, Spirituality and Shishkabobs: A Jewish Journey Through Dialogue.

About Cynthia Schwan

Cynthia Schwan has been a professional musician all her adult life, and a professional pianist and teacher of piano since 1972; recently she has been focusing on ragtime, with a special interest in the works of Max Morath. In 1993 she injured her hand; after much arduous body and technical work she returned to the concert stage in 2003. She wrote a memoir of her injury and recovery, called Cynthia's Handbook. She is a member of Wellesley Friends Meeting and an active attender of the Friends Meeting at Norfolk Correctional Institution.