A Catholic Mom, Her Jewish Son and His Coming of Age

You came into the world on your own schedule and terms. Dad and I had waited 2 years, 41 weeks and a lengthy induction for you to arrive. So as you might imagine, when the doctor finally announced “It’s a boy!” we cried tears of joy.

But you laid silent. In protest, I think. As if you knew life on the other side of womb service would prove to be far too inconvenient.

I watched the nurses pass you from the edge of my bed onto a table, where they fussed over your lanky, naked, ruddy body until you gave up the goods. It was only after a hearty cry the professionals felt ready to place you on my chest. They let us visit long enough for a feeding, then whisked you away to the intensive care nursery.

Hours passed before we were together again. Each time a nurse showed up in the recovery room, I’d ask, “Where’s my baby?” And each time I got the same line, “We’re monitoring him. I don’t know when he’ll be ready to leave the NICU.” A brand new, wiped out and hesitant mom, I didn’t know I was allowed to go to you.

In time, I found my way down the hall. The NICU wasn’t a traditional nursery where babies lined up on display behind a viewing window. This nursery had a holding room. And protective gear hanging from hooks. There was a window, but the newborns were camouflaged by incubators, IV bags and monitors. I scanned the room and spotted you resting under lights. Oxygen affixed to your nostrils, plastic lines jammed in a foot.

A nurse instructed me to put on a yellow, paper robe and pointed toward a rocking chair on the other side of the door. I sat until she returned with a swaddled bundle. My arms maneuvered around the tubes tugging at your limbs. Once we were settled, the nurse disappeared. It only took a few seconds; you looked in my eyes, raised a fist and ripped the oxygen straight out as if to say, “What took you so long? Get me out of here!”

I called for help. No one came. We were on our own. So I took a calming breath and did what mothers do; shoved the tubes back in your nose and sang the only song I could muster up, “You are My Sunshine.” The protest ceased. A nurse looked over and smiled. “Now that’s what I like to see.”

This was the moment you became My Sunshine. My Bubbe. My son. I’ve been singing a version of the song to you every night, ever since. As we rocked, I felt like nothing could break our bond.

Until 10 days later.

Before you were born, Dad and I had decided to raise you in his Jewish tradition. I was raised in a Catholic one. Just after your bris, controversy ensued as to whether or not the bris was valid. Talk of dipping you in a ritual bath to legitimize your Judaism began to swirl about our home. The focus on commandments and religious law caused me to question whether you’d really feel like my child if your faith identity and experiences were different from my own. I was scared that as you grew up, this Catholic mom would feel alienated from your Jewish life.

Desperate for professional advice, Dad and I went to our former rabbi. She explained what we already knew about Reform Judaism; one parent being Jewish was enough to make the child Jewish. Still, she suggested we take you to the mikveh to play it safe. “Think of it as a rebirth,” she said.

I thought of the long induction, NICU visits, your protests and our rocking chair and told Dad there was nothing wrong with your original birth. There would be no ritual bath.

He agreed.

Life went on. Daily routines quickly usurped my interfaith anxiety. Between dirty diapers, bedtime stories, early morning feedings and playground outings, Dad and I found a way to integrate Jewish customs, share my holidays and create new traditions. And I figured out being Jewish didn’t make you any less my son.

I was all in. From nudging the Temple preschool director until she confirmed your enrollment and accepting a teaching job from said director a few years later, thus allowing me to learn more about Judaism, to you starting Hebrew school in Kindergarten and attending a sleep away camp which embodied Jewish values, I made sure you were surrounded by people able to give you the Jewish education I could not.

Alongside the other mommies, I schlepped you to class, conferenced with teachers, filled out mountains of forms and helped with homework. Dad stepped up whenever the religious school curriculum turned toward Hebrew, Israel or Jewish history.

For 12 years, I’ve watched your connection to Judaism blossom and become a source of pride.

Now you’ve reached the stage Dad and I have speculated about since you were a little guy clapping along to “Shabbat Shalom” during the children’s service. In less than a year, you will become a Bar Mitzvah, an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community responsible for carrying out God’s commandments. You’ll stand on the bimah alongside the rabbi and cantor and do what Jewish teens have done for close to a thousand years; read the Hebrew blessings and prayers shared at a Saturday morning service, carry the Torah scroll around the sanctuary for congregants to see and chant a passage in ancient Hebrew from one of the first 5 books of the Bible.

Bar Mitzvah prep is way out of my league. At our first orientation meeting with the rabbi to discuss how it all works, I was happy to relinquish the keys to you and Dad and listen in silent support.

My silence was quickly broken when the rabbi asked each attendee to stand up, one by one and share details about when he or she became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I was the first person in the room to explain that I had never become one of these. As I sat back down, I dropped my head. It felt as if the NICU nurse had again whisked you away.

I thumbed through your red B’nei Mitzvah binder filled with instructions, timelines, Torah portions and Hebrew blessings. Inside was a blank family tree. Part of your homework was to write down which relatives were Jewish and not to help Temple staff plan the ceremony.

You’ll have to label me as “Not Jewish.” This means, when I stand beside you on the bimah, there will be certain prayers I’m not permitted to say even though I can recite them by heart. I also won’t be allowed to hold up the Torah scroll despite my strength or dress it in ceremonial garb even though I learned the tradition as a Temple preschool teacher. That’s just how our synagogue interprets Jewish law.

While I respect the rules and appreciate how your coming of age is a spiritual connection to over 5,000 years of culture and community, as a mom, it stings not to be able to fully share in my son’s experience.

But not converting to Judaism was a choice I made. One I stand by. And so, I closed the binder and turned my attention back to its rightful place – you.

The rabbi addressed the room. “The B’nei Mitzvah is one thing Judaism really does right.”

He told us becoming a Bar Mitzvah is not only an opportunity for a 13 year old going through a period of self-consciousness, insecurity and significant physical and emotional change to learn how to take on a large task, break it down into manageable parts and present in front of an audience, but also a chance for him to experience the sense of accomplishment, empowerment and confidence realized when one goes out of his comfort zone and tackles a scary task.

When the rabbi said these words, something clicked. I’ve done those things. I know those emotions. During these coming months, I will connect with you through your journey, the process and the idea that you can do anything you put your mind to.

Today, the red binder lays open on your desk. You sit over it chanting prayers in Hebrew, stopping every few lines so Dad may offer guidance. From down the hall, I stop what I’m doing to listen to you sing. The afternoon sun streams through a nearby window. Its beams warm the tears caked upon my cheeks as My Sunshine’s sweet, determined voice warms his mother’s heart.

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Turn Jew and I’ll Marry You

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Mac and I struck our deal over Sicilian pie.

“Turn Jew and I’ll marry you.”
I shook my head.  “You’re crazy.”
“Then raise the kids Jewish.”

Bringing up nonexistent children in a faith other than my own seemed easier to digest than lukewarm mozzarella.

“Okay,” I shrugged.

One civil ceremony, two children, and fifteen years later, Mac and I have put some mileage on our interfaith marriage bus since that momentous meal.

Turns out, there are many of us traversing a similar highway.

Hoping our collective experience might offer insight to couples merging toward the on ramp, I reached out to a handful of drivers in my lane.  Together we created a travel guide we wished someone had stashed in our glove compartment.

1.  Know your baseline

A clear belief system is the anchor for future decision making.

Leah, a Jewish woman whose spouse identifies as agnostic found questioning and self-talk freed her of dogma that didn’t sit well.

Flushing out what spiritually, culturally, and religiously, if anything was important to me:

not extended family,
not community,
but me

before I was in a committed relationship would have saved me years of agita.

2.  Face Fears

Fear is at the root of all issues interfaith.

Jill, a spiritual woman who is married to a Jewish man, raised Jewish children, and is active in her church and synagogue believes,

“If you are strong in who you are, then there is nothing to fear.  Notice when you feel threatened and investigate within yourself.”

My decision not to convert to Judaism is partially driven by fear.  While I’m proud of and dedicated to fostering Bubbe and Skootch’s religious and cultural identity, I am convinced that keeping a foot firmly planted in each camp will protect my sons’ from stereotype, anti-Semitism, and feeling left out.

Fear continues to outweigh rational thought and so, I have more investigating to do.

3.  You are you

My ideas, values, and traditions were not lost when I married someone from a different faith.

Individual identities are often clarified and strengthened when one is in an interfaith relationship as its nature requires each party to listen, reflect, and respond regularly.

I still hear Mac say, “Marrying outside my faith made me a better Jew.  It puts me in a position to think about what really matters.”

4.  Your children will always be yours

About a minute after Bubbe’s bris an outsider remarked, “He should go to the mikvah.  It’s part of the deal.”

Emotions muddled by post partum hormones, I felt torn between the conviction to do right by Mac’s Conservative Jewish upbringing and dread that Bubbe’s formal conversion would jeopardize our mother-son bond.

In search of guidance, I went to see a Reform Jewish rabbi.  She explained the difference between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox interpretations regarding matrilineal descent and ultimately offered,

“Think of bringing your baby to the ritual bath as a beautiful rebirth.”

Screw that, I thought.  What was wrong with his first one?

Bubbe never made it to the mikvah.

From dirty diapers and first words to stomach flues and first good-byes, believe you me, the kid is all mine.  And when it comes time for him to stand on the bimah as a Bar Mitzvah, this Catholic mom will beam with pride.

5.  Make a plan

The interfaith jury has spoken.  Whether it’s before the nuptials or on the second date, but definitely before babies make an appearance;

Decide.

How will you raise the children?

Will your family stick hard and fast to one religion, formally teach two, or like Laurie who is one-half of an interfaith and intercultural couple, celebrate and observe all holidays and life cycle events with a focus on spirituality, values, tradition, and gratitude?

Discuss religion even if one party isn’t religious.  Make your position known. Be aware of choices and stay open to compromise.  Do your relationship a long term favor; don’t rush this conversation to avoid cold pizza.

Invest the time.

The original plan will likely change, but a shared vision will minimize confusion, create the structure and identity children crave, and help all parties feel safe.

6.  Show up

Stacey, a proud Italian who was raised Catholic and her husband, a conservative Jew decided to raise their children in the Jewish tradition.  He was responsible for schul shopping and schleps the kids to Hebrew School.  She holds court during the holidays and planned each child’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations with care.

Laurie and her spouse deem it the responsibility of the parent whose tradition is being celebrated to teach the children about it in a meaningful way.

Regardless of approach, each person takes a turn behind the wheel.

7.  Resentment happens

Humans err, life is messy, and resentment happens regardless of how hard we interfaith folk plan.

When a wife is stuck writing out the family’s Happy Holiday cards all alone when she wanted them to say Merry Christmas in the first place or a husband plans a Passover Seder solo because his non religious partner won’t budge, bitterness ensues.

When the bus gets wedged in a ditch, Mac and I talk honestly about needs and feelings; then come up with a strategy to dig our way out.

8.  Find a friendly rest stop

Sometimes I feel banished to purgatory, belonging to neither side.

When my children were young, I was fortunate to find a local interfaith group.  During our regular “Coffee Talk” meet ups, we kicked around ideas, vented, listened, sought validation and understanding, and offered guidance.  These women and men were my leaning post and sounding board.

Every now and again, a new driver pulled in and shared her story.  Within a few sentences, she cried.  It never failed.  As the group watched the newbie let the air out of her tire, we recalled the struggle and welled up too.

The Coffee Talkers always left our friendly respite a little more relieved and a little less alone on the journey.

9.  Holidays and life cycle events are rough

The ride gets bumpy during holidays and life cycle events.  Isolation, frustration, sadness, and anxiety gurgle to the surface causing the bus to overheat.

When I find myself reaching for Tums, I make connections between Christian and Jewish traditions and then, build my own bridge.

10.  Build your own bridges

After agonizing through years of Hebrew laden High Holiday services and prayer heavy meals with extended family, I cracked.

“This is not my holiday. I don’t get it.  It’s too much and I’m not going anymore.”

My outburst and subsequent conversation with Mac gave us permission to create a Rosh Hashanah tradition where we each felt included and able to derive meaning from the environment.  We started with a relatable rabbi, the children’s service at our Temple, and a meal with friends and have since graduated to grown up services and food with Mac’s family.

I don’t touch Yom Kippur.  These things take time.

11.  Celebrate your spouse’s traditions

Mac, who was raised in a moderately observant home void of Christian symbols, had a post decorating nightmare after he participated in my mother’s Christmas tree trimming party for the first time.

But he kept it up out of respect for me and to model for Bubbe and Skootch the importance of honoring their mother’s tradition.

When we decided to put up our own Christmas tree a few years ago, I brought home a modest bush worried a grand statement might make him squeamish.  Mac gave our five footer the once over, examined the nine foot ceilings and announced,

“This tree doesn’t do the room justice.  Next year it has to be much bigger!”

Last Christmas, Mac drove the family to the Methodist church’s seasonal tree sale and picked one out himself.

12.  Give extended family a chance

Let extended family on the bus.  Offer to take a ride with them.  Prepare a kosher meal.  Attend a mass.  Kindness, sensitivity, and respect breed growth and mutual acceptance.

Those in our family who wondered about the idea of a non-converting Christian raising Jewish children now remark, “I forget she’s not Jewish.”

13.  Be honest with children

From brises and baptism to heaven, holidays and Jesus, at a minimum, Mac and I talk to Bubbe and Skootch about our family’s belief systems.

Any time our boys make an observation or inquire about Mom’s Christianity or their Jewish heritage we keep the response simple and direct.

“The Jewish people believe…”
“Mom grew up believing…”

So far, so good.

14.  Embrace the gift

Jill feels being part of an interfaith family is

“An opportunity for you and your children to learn and understand not just one but two cultures and religions on a very deep and intimate level so learn and embrace as much as you possibly can.”

What a special gift.

15.  Be open to the journey

The scenery doesn’t look quite the same as when Mac and I shared our Sicilian pie.  Our collective and individual spiritual perspectives have and will continue to evolve.  Interfaith marriage is a journey.  And we are a work in progress.

Interfaith.  Intercultural.  Interracial.  Intergenerational.  We are magnificently growing society of

Inter-Somethings.

While we need to map the course which best suits our family, honoring each other along the way will make the ride more enjoyable and all the difference.

A Pleasant Passover

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Born into a Catholic family with a Jewish surname, I should have expected that I would one day find myself leading a Passover Seder.

To date, Mac and I have hosted eight Seders, seven of which I’ve had the honor to lead. This role was bestowed upon me after my Jewish husband concluded that in light of my organized, creative, teacher-like nature, I was the right person for the job. The trade off was food prep, which he happily agreed to tackle. Not one who enjoys cooking, I acquiesced. Besides, the man makes a mean brisket.

I love a good Passover Seder.

The parallels to the Easter story coupled with the springtime symbolism and my personal affection for The Ten Commandments movie make Passover a welcomed and relatable holiday.

The Seder service creates a setting where both the newcomer and the experienced guest feel connected.

It’s a forum to discuss physical and emotional freedom, think about the responsibility one has to repair the world, question injustice, and reflect on values and relationships. The Story of Exodus and the blessings translate into modern life and are meaningful for young and old, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Lastly, the traditions are designed to keep children engaged, which make it easy to add elements of fun.

I didn’t always love a Seder.

In the beginning, I found it a tough ceremony to swallow. I felt like the token Christian; the stranger in the wrong outfit eating the matza out of order. The structure of the service confused me and the intensity associated with staying on task gave me the perfect excuse to keep quiet. I felt excluded by the deluge of Hebrew spoken by those in the know and in general, lost; drowned in a Red Sea of rigidity, pomp, and circumstance. For years, I couldn’t wait to suck down that fourth cup of wine and hightail it home.

Determined to do right by my Catholic self and our Jewish children, I set out on a mission to create an outreach friendly Seder.

I compiled a Hagaddah chock full of catchy ditties, kid friendly verses, and hands on plagues. I switched up the order of the service, made the blessings accessible in English and Hebrew, added passages about civil rights and the human condition, and offered readings that would appeal to different belief systems.

It took a few years to earn our Seder hosting chops, but eventually Mac and I found something that worked for us.

Fast forward to Passover 2014.

Walking by a local church the morning of Passover I noticed a passage carved into the steeple.

How wonderful it is

How pleasant for God’s people

To live together in harmony

Psalm 133

I thought about our Seder guests. That evening, sixteen people; Jews, Catholics, Muslims, a son of Methodist missionaries, family, old friends, and new faces would gather around our table in Pleasantville like a bona fide interfaith, intergenerational jamboree.

As suspected, it turned out to be just that.

We waited to kickoff the festivities so my Muslim neighbor could run home to say her afternoon prayers.

My father, a good ole boy and the son of Methodist missionaries who has a mezuzah affixed to his doorpost out of respect for our Jewish ancestors, joined us for his first Seder and my first holiday with him since I was a baby.

Adults and young people alike wore sunglasses to symbolize darkness, the ninth plague and enjoyed an enthusiastic food fight of marshmallow hail.

Twenty somethings and teenagers were just as jazzed as the under ten population to hunt for the Afikomen.

The widow and sister of a dear friend, a devout Irish Catholic who always attended our Seders but passed away a few years ago, recited the concluding poem together, a job historically reserved for him.

And when the Seder ended that sister, a retired high school special education teacher, mother of four and grandmother who attends daily mass, and a Passover newcomer stood up and addressed the group. She shared,

We are a society of self-absorbed immediacy. It seems that all anyone cares about today are the latest trends, the hottest stars, and themselves. It is important to pass on traditions, talk about ancestry, tell stories, and make connections to the past. Doing this creates a necessary foundation for our children. For me, the Seder represents hope and a renewed determination to keep ALL the traditions we have alive and fun.

Then she took our Hagaddah home to use as a teaching aid in her Catechism class.

Three days later, a gust of anti-Semitism blew through the dining room and knocked me off the kumbaya cloud as I read about yet another account of worldwide religious intolerance and persecution.

This time it was an article about Jewish residents in the Ukraine who were stopped outside the synagogue after Passover services by masked men, and handed a leaflet citing that anyone over the age of sixteen was required to register themselves and personal property as Jewish or face deportation.

I was not raised Jewish. I did not convert to Judaism. But as a person raising Jewish children, the institutional nature of the attempt made me sick. It made me angry. It hit home for this Mama Bear.

So to the bigots who ordered, printed, and distributed the leaflets; raspberries and middle fingers to you.

And to all those who continue to hurt others because of or in the name of religion, I invite you to climb down from your bully pulpit.

Take off the mask, put down your weapon

Grab the marshmallows, slip on the sunglasses

And join my family for a Pleasant Passover; there are sixteen people who value freedom, tradition, inclusivity, harmony, and humanity that we’d like you to meet.

Please check out “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” online in Mamalode parenting magazine!

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I am proud to share my 2nd essay feature in Mamalode parenting magazine.

I wrote, “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” about a dear friend in my community.  It was published today.

Even if you have already read the piece on Red said what?, please take a few minutes to:

  1. Click this link to Mamalode: A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend
  2. Like and/or comment at the bottom of the article
  3. Then please SHARE, TWEET, and PIN!

The more “unique views” of the essay on Mamalode’s site during the next 30 days, the more Mama-love I receive from them.

Thank you for your continued support, especially during this busy season!  Happy Holidays!

All the best,

Red