Finding My Way after Growing Up Christian with a Jewish Mother

By Allison Harper


I grew up in what I’ll call “a religion default mode.” Neither my father nor mother exhibited any sort of passionate pull to either of their faiths, Christianity and Judaism respectively. This apparent apathy translated into a Christian upbringing for me and my brother. The only explanation I can think of for this choice is that my father’s Episcopalian family lived in the same neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, that I then grew up in, and that my paternal grandparents, closer and therefore more influential in daily life than my maternal grandparents who resided in Ohio, had a stronger say in which religious path our family would take.

Thus, I became Christian, beginning with a baptism before I could speak.

My parents’ goal must have been to introduce me to organized religion, and they did that–nothing more, nothing less. From their introduction, which consisted of dropping me off and picking me up in front of the Church of the Redeemer in Roland Park, for Sunday school, the rest was up to me.

I enjoyed church and continued to return voluntarily. In high school, I found a mature quietness and independence at church that I found nowhere else. While the rest of my youthful hours were occupied by intense, ambitious fun, loud and crazy academics, sports and other activities, the church provided me with a new and different experience. I was silently anonymous and myself, answering to nobody except a private, spiritual friend that the church called God, but really to an extension of myself. I offered thanks for my strengths and admitted my weaknesses, beginning a healthy exploration of myself and how I could become the person I wanted to be.

Today, when I consider religion, three words come to mind–spiritual, confused, and ignorant. First, I’m spiritual but not necessarily affiliated with any specific religion. I still enjoy the quiet and independence I feel in my self-exploratory relationship with this spiritual higher being. However, I hesitate to cling to a specific religion because I do not understand, or, furthermore, feel inclined towards, any one religion well enough to incorporate it as my spiritual belief system to the exclusion of others. At the same time, I feel satisfied enough with my own belief system to not need to seek out a specific religion as a guide to spirituality.

Although satisfied with this approach, I remain confused about religion. Why is one person identified with one religion and not another? While some seem to take the time to study multiple religions and then choose the most fitting, the average person simply adopts and accepts what he or she was born into. Perhaps at some point, people question their religion, probably as a part of a childhood rebellion that has little to do with religion anyway. However, that questioning seems to most often occur within the religion itself, as opposed to in a comparative manner with other religions. Without understanding the variety of the spectrum of different religions, how can one decide what religion he or she is? If the assignment of religion is so arbitrary as to be based on to whom one is born, then what does it matter what religion everyone is? Are different religions really that different? Why are there different religions? Can’t we all just be generally spiritual together? At the very least, can’t we all tolerate each other’s religions? Herein lies just the beginning of my confusion.

The question becomes how to solve this type of confusion, and the answer lies in speaking with people of different religions to learn why they are the religion they are and to begin to understand the differences between different religions. Perhaps people’s choice of a religion is better thought out than it appears to me. Perhaps not, and perhaps that’s not what matters. Perhaps religions are more different than they appear to be. Perhaps individuals have strong, passionate reasons for why they are one religion and not another. From the answers to these questions, the dam breaks. Then I can begin to question religion from all angles, especially its power to do both good and evil, to love and to kill.

Lastly, I am ignorant about different faiths, and this has shameful costs. For example, as one who was not brought up Jewish, upon reflection I see that I have considered the Jewish faith only in a narrow, negative framework. When I think of the Jewish faith and what I have learned about it, here is what comes to mind: the Holocaust, a persecuted minority, victims of anti-Semitism, foreign in their language and Orthodox ritual and dress…all images portraying Jews as outsiders, foreigners, minorities, and victims demanding sympathy. While these images are valuable in their historical and modern day significance, I find myself feeling sorry for this population rather than praising its strengths and triumphs or the culture and the religion itself. The focus on Jews is always on their suffering first, and the strength and beauty of the tools of their religion and culture second, if at all. Where is the beauty?

Again, the question becomes how to dissolve this ignorance, and again the answer lies in educating oneself on the religion and culture itself, not the one-sided, narrow telling of the history of suffering of the Jews.

I have a unique opportunity to learn from the families of two religions. I have begun to explore the Christian faith and have found strengths and weaknesses, enough to leave me “spiritual” as opposed to “Christian.” But perhaps this does not have to be so–perhaps there is a religion that fits better. Either way, only a deeper understanding of the different religions will fuel my own spiritual growth as well as my understanding of others’ spiritual choices. My mother’s family and its faith are an untapped resource that can help me learn answers to these fundamental personal and global questions.


About Allison Harper

Allison Harper graduated from Harvard in 2001, with a Cum Laude degree in Government. She is currently the Stowe-Harvard fellow on a one-year teaching and travelling fellowship, based in England.