Ty (age 7): “Mom, am I a Joe?”
Me: “Nope, silly-pants, you are a Ty.”
Ty: “No, Mom, my friend at school asked if I am a Joe, but I wasn’t sure. Are we Joes?”
Me: “What does that mean?”
Ty: “Remember that bad guy was trying to kill Queen Esther and her family because they were Joes?”
Me: “Oh, you mean Jews.”
Ty: “Ahhhh close. Anyway, my friend wants to know, are we Jews?”
Sigh. That is a question I don’t have an easy answer for. We cannot, either by birth, heritage, or conversion, claim to be Jews, and yet as a family we are certainly becoming more Jewish every day.
Two years ago, after my journey through cancer which killed my marriage and rearranged our world, my son and I invited a new man into our lives. This new marriage has been a major do-over for us all. Creating our new family has been a chance to evaluate the details of our lives and make long-desired changes.
My husband wanted to be a parent, so he scaled back work and jumped into daddy duties. My son missed having a man around, so he expressed, loudly and often, the ways that he wanted to include–or have privacy from–this new dad in his life. After years of struggle for survival, I wanted to explore sidelined interests, ask myself hard questions, and have a chance to make some serious changes.
Through the lens of this new family, I saw a want of depth and meaning in our life: Our daily activities were mostly automatic and superficial; our holiday traditions lacked spiritual significance. Our family trees had stewed so long in the generic American melting pot that any flavor or uniqueness had long boiled away. I saw blandness, a lack of compelling ways to nurture values.
Replicating my own childhood or copying my neighbors wouldn’t create the change that I desired. I needed to recklessly abandon my comfort zone, to search and ponder this wide world ahead of my son, and myself. Not to edit out its darkness, but to find and focus its light.
My two men were amazingly on board. The idea of weaving culture became my passion, and Judaism became my loom.
As I described for Kveller in the “Rosh Hashanah Resolutions” series, Judiasm first attracted my heart years before as a silent call towards a fresh start. My son had just passed his first birthday when I was diagnosed with cancer. In the following year, I lost my health, my job, our home, and eventually our family when my husband walked away. The following September, the first anniversary of my diagnosis loomed before me. I felt torn between mourning my losses and celebrating my survival, but my faith background gave me no meaningful way to move through such an event. Then a program on the radio explained the High Holidays, and I discovered that Rosh Hashanah fell exactly on the date of my cancer diagnosis. I suddenly saw a way to both celebrate and mourn constructively, a chance to redeem my lost year. (To read the rest of my Rosh Hashanah story, click here.)
Judaism’s ancient wisdom and layers of rich tradition has given our family a pattern. Shabbat and holidays have changed the rhythms of our life and created deeply meaningful experiences that are sinking in. I recently overheard my son spontaneously raise a bottle of chocolate syrup over his milk and as he began to pour, he said reverently, “This chocolate is to remind us of the sweetness of life, for the slaves were once in Egypt but then God set them free.”
Judaism is weaving color, softness, and strength into our days. We are learning a new language, listening to new music, discussing history, and finding meaning in small, often-overlooked details of life. Yet, I know this doesn’t automatically make us Jews–just as practicing yoga, cooking a mean curry, and enjoying Bollywood wouldn’t make me a Hindu. Yet, the Jewishness is there. I feel it.
We visited a local synagogue once, and we hosted a Hanukkah party for friends who were interested in the holiday, but for the most part we have reveled in growing and practicing this faith within our own little family bubble. It’s our own exploration that, until the kid at school piped up, was blissfully undefined.
I remember the age kids started asking, “I’m Catholic/Baptist/etc. What are you?” As a child, I never had a solid answer, and it disturbed me. As a backlash to a childhood without a clear faith identity, in early adulthood I strove to create one. I invested myself in a faith community, and frankly, it was a disaster. I got burned repeatedly. Some of the worst hurts of my life came from “church family.” Lately, I’ve kept my faith ties loose and distant. As a person who has needed to divorce herself from people and past, I find commitment, community, and identity to be uncomfortable concepts. Yet in the fabric of culture, these threads are important.
If my child might need faith during his life, then I must raise him in a culture that will allow him to seek it, but labeling him with an identity doesn’t seem to be the same thing.
Every family has to struggle with issues of identity. Parents choose which traditions and beliefs to pass on or to protect against. I guess we are just an average American melting pot family trying to weave our culture with no real idea what the pattern will be in the end. So, maybe my son had it right the first time. For now, we are just Joes.