Although I never identified all that strongly with my Jewishness as I was growing up, when I met a handsome, erudite, sophisticated guy during college orientation who was active in the Jewish community on campus, I decided to drop in on a bagels-and-lox brunch and hear a rabbi give a talk about practical, contemporary Judaism. Maybe this was my chance to find religion.
I was feeling extremely open-minded until I arrived and saw that the “bagels and lox” were actually Lenders and tuna salad. The fact that this Jewish guy, for all his apparent worldliness, didn’t understand the sanctity of good deli closed the door on any future for us then and there.
Well, that and he never called me back.
After the Lenders debacle, I dated a Lutheran. We shared some intense conversations about religion. I visited temple a few times. But aside from that, I didn’t give my position on Judaism a whole lot more thought until eight years later when I met my husband, M. As we dated, I discovered that M., while not being what I would call religious, finds it comforting to recite the prayers and sing the songs in synagogue. Jewish faith is important to him in a style and degree that I don’t necessarily share, but that I respect.
He wanted to be sure that his three young children from his previous marriage continued to grow up familiar with their Jewish identity. Since their mother’s new husband wasn’t Jewish, M realized he would likely bear the bulk of the responsibility for passing along Jewish traditions to the children. He would share this responsibility with his new fiancée, yours truly. And since the custody schedule had the kids at our house on Friday nights, I suddenly found myself, a nice Jew-ish girl, preparing for a Shabbat dinner.
When we were all assembled and as quiet as it gets with a 3-year-old girl and 6- and 8- year-old-boys, they all looked at me. Tradition dictates that the matriarch lights the candles and leads the prayers. They were waiting for me to take the lead. This was daunting, as I was even newer to the idea of step-motherhood than I was to Shabbat dinner.
Technically, I was neither matriarch nor stepmother at this point, since M. and I were living together and engaged, but not married yet. I managed to light the candles and recite the first few words “Baruch ata Adonai…” before standing helplessly until the 8-year-old gave an exasperated sigh and coached me through the rest.
I am about as prepared for parenting as I am for being a good Jew.
Luckily, my stepchildren don’t actually need me to “step” in and be their mother because they have a mother who loves them and is dedicated to raising them. Since we can put aside any sort of confusion about that, I get to be what the family therapist lady at the temple referred to as a “bonus parent.”
In my short time as a bonus parent, it’s been enlightening to see kids’ need for ritual in action. My little girl needed to have Goodnight Moon read to her multiple times every night for a long time. She and I had our own bedtime ritual for a while, talking about how much we love our friends and look forward to seeing them tomorrow at nursery school (or at the theater, in my case). M and I encourage them all to read before bed, but that didn’t need to be suggested twice to my oldest guy. I’ve never known him to go to sleep without flipping through a few pages of something. My middle guy has always woken up on the early side, but isn’t ready to consider breakfast until he’s watched a bit of Sports Center.
I began to better understand the importance of the repetition and reliability of Friday night Shabbat together. No matter how the family bond began, be it genetic or through a second marriage, furthering it with a ritual for bringing kids and parents together is a keeper.