I’m half-Christian and half-Jewish.
I’d laugh when I overheard my children describing their heritage that way to their elementary-school friends. I was raised Baptist, in a fairly homogeneous community where interfaith marriages were rare and generally frowned upon.
After I grew up, I rebelled and married a Jewish man, albeit a nonpracticing one who shunned organized religion.
My parents were silent. “Your father and I didn’t want to lose you,” my mother told me 20 years later, after my husband and I split. She and my father thought that if they objected, I might cut them out of my life altogether. They knew I was wildly in love and wouldn’t have listened to them anyway; she was right.
My husband and I waited several years to have children. And I ultimately converted to Episcopalianism and Buddhism several years before our divorce. I took the children to church regularly, but only after my youngest insisted on going to this “Sunday school” she’d heard about from her friend Danielle. Before that, we’d always celebrated Christmas, Easter and Hanukkah. During Hanukkah, my children clamored to hold the shamas and repeated the Hebrew blessings over the lights, in unison with their father. I learned the blessings, too. Periodically, we attended Passover Seders, as well as other Jewish celebrations. Yiddish phrases became part of our everyday household lingo, too — mensch, bubbeleh, shiksa (that was me) and more.
When my husband and I were in the midst of splitting, the four of us went to a funeral for my husband’s uncle and stood graveside, watching as men took turns spooning earth into the ground with the reverse side of a shovel. Suddenly my 7-year-old let go of my husband’s hand, ran up to the rabbi, took hold of the large spade, and placed three measures of earth into the ground by herself. K’vurah, as it’s called, is considered a special form of mitzvah or good deed because such great kindness can never be repaid. My husband and I stood there and cried.
I recollect the ease with which my children first announced their dichotomous identifies. Occasionally I’d hear one of their friends reply “me, too,” then watch the children seamlessly continue playing.
By the time my youngest entered kindergarten, about half the children in her class were from Jewish-Christian families. That spring my daughter’s teacher asked for a parent to prepare a seder plate and explain it to the children during Passover. I wasn’t Jewish, so I said nothing. But when no one else volunteered, the teacher cornered me in the school hallway one morning.
“You’ll do fine,” she said, joking that I was a lawyer for goodness’ sake.
From the various seders I’d gone to, I remembered the part about the bitter herbs, the maror that signified the slavery of the Israelites, as well as the term haroset for the sweet mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and red wine, representing the mortar with which the pyramids were built. I’d heard the story of Moses and Pharaoh many times in my own Sunday school classes as a child. And my husband often bragged that I could pronounce the first of the four questions on Passover better than anyone he knew.
Still, I was hardly an expert. What if I made a mistake? I’d been asked to instruct more than two dozen children on a culture other than my own, so I took the task seriously. I was nervous.
Over the next week, I spent many hours on the Internet and at the Brooklyn library across from my house, making index cards and practicing Hebrew.
Even after my husband left, I continued to light candles, read from our favorite Hanukkah book called “Melly’s Menorah” and host latke parties. As my daughters grew into their teens, our list of bar and bat mitzvah appearances far outstripped the number of baptisms or confirmations we attended. Gradually, however, the nods to the other half of my children’s heritage grew more infrequent in our home as my husband and his girlfriend celebrated the Jewish traditions in theirs.
I was a single mom, too, and constantly in motion. There was only so much time with me working and doing the household chores my husband once attended to. Eventually my daughters left for college.
Still, it felt odd whenever the major Jewish holidays approached, and I was no longer even a small part of holiday celebrations. Perhaps that’s why I felt particularly at home when my new friend Adele invited me for a Hanukkah dinner this past December. As she explained to guests unfamiliar with the holiday the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days, I was grateful for the comfort of this link with my past.
Is it because my children are “half-Jewish” that I have this lingering attraction to a legacy not my own? Is it due in part to the birthday I share with my ex’s aunt, who observes the Jewish holidays, and still treats me like close family after all these years?
I have learned over the years that investigation of different faiths and customs not only complements, but enriches my own. Ultimately, however, it’s thoughts of family that continue to draw me in. Right now my daughters aren’t religious. But who knows what the future may bring or who they might marry? I want to be the kind of mother and grandmother that will embrace all decisions lovingly.
My divorce was unfortunately filled with bitter herbs. There were many times I thought my suffering would never end.
Early on in my divorce, in a moment of frustration, I remember telling my lawyer’s assistant that I wish I’d never gotten married. “Don’t ever say that again,” she said, reminding me that my children wouldn’t have been born. It was some of the best advice I ever received.
So when I saw the upcoming dates for Passover listed on my April calendar, I recalled that maror and haroset are eaten together. And that even in the midst of my marital difficulties, my children have always been there as symbols of the sweetness of life.