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New Beginning

My parents were people of faith, devout Catholics, while Larry’s parents, though nonobservant, were proudly Jewish. But what identity were we giving our children?

 

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arry and I were the classic interfaith couple.

He had been bar mitzvah’ed and was proud of his Jewish identity, but had grown up eating pork and shrimp and had no problem marrying a non-Jewish girl. I had been raised Roman Catholic, attending Mass every Sunday, until, as a teenager, I found it difficult to accept the story of the Christian savior’s birth.

Larry and I married in 1981 in a secular ceremony and opted to live with no religion. We settled in a mostly Italian neighborhood on Long Island’s South Shore and had three children, whom we raised in a no-faith environment. This worked just fine — at least in the beginning.

One Saturday in 1997, we drove out from Long Island to New Jersey to attend the bar mitzvah of a son of one of Larry’s employees. We attended the kiddush and luncheon, and then got in the car to drive back home. As we were pulling away, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy waved us down and asked us if we had room in the car for another guest, a woman who had traveled from Manhattan by bus.

“Sure,” we said, as we motioned to the kids to move over to make room for another passenger.

When the woman got into the car, our oldest daughter, Jessica, then 11, turned to her and asked, “What religion are you?”

“I’m Jewish,” she replied. Then, to be polite, she asked Jessica, “And what religion are you?”

“I’m nothing,” Jessica declared, a huge pout on her face.

Hearing her say this brought tears to my eyes. If our daughter can say she’s nothing, we must be doing something very wrong, I thought. We’re failing our kids.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Larry noticed that I was upset. And I knew he felt the same way.

Although neither of us was religiously observant, we had both been guided and shaped by the respective traditions we had grown up with. My parents were people of faith, devout Catholics, while Larry’s parents, though nonobservant, were proudly Jewish. But what identity were we giving our children?

To be a good Catholic, I had to accept the church’s dogma unquestioningly, and since I wasn’t willing to do that, Catholicism was not an option. That left Larry’s religion, Judaism.

As it happened, our kids attended a Jewish summer camp — not because it was Jewish, but because it was the best camp in the neighborhood and it happened to be close to our home. Although the camp was not religious, the kids did pick up Jewish songs and some Jewish observances there.

The next step, I decided, was to enroll them in Hebrew school in order to give them a religious foundation. When I noticed an ad in a neighborhood circular announcing a Friday night open house at a local Reform temple, I told Larry I wanted to go.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

At the temple, we were greeted enthusiastically, and our kids, who recognized their friends from camp, had a blast.

Shortly after the open house, we became members of the temple, after which the temple’s sisterhood delivered a welcome basket to our door containing two candles, a small bottle of grape juice, two challah rolls, and a printed card with the Shabbat blessings. When Larry came home from work, I showed him the basket.

“What should we do with this?” he asked.

“Uh, light the candles, make Kiddush, eat the rolls, and go to services?”

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 764)

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