During a recent parent-teacher conference, I learned that my 8-year-old daughter Sophia was asked by a classmate at her Jewish day school, “So your dad is Jewish and your mom isn’t?” Sophia responded, “Yes.” The other child said, “You know if your mom’s not Jewish, then you aren’t either.” According to a teacher who overheard this conversation, Sophia responded, “It’s complicated,” and walked away.
When the teacher told me this story, my first reaction was anger at the other child and my second reaction was regret that Sophia hadn’t dished out a firm retort: “Yes I AM Jewish, I was converted by an Orthodox rabbi when I was a baby, and, by the way, it’s none of your business anyway!”
I could go on. But it would go south fast, as in, “And you go tell whatever parent or rabbi who taught you it was ok to question someone else’s religious identity to shove…”
OK, I admit it. I’m a little defensive…actually, more than a little. For years I have battled the notion, rampant among certain Jewish communities, that it is impossible to raise a Jewish kid as a Christian mother. So I had a point to make. I did everything I could possibly do, short of converting, to ensure my children’s Jewish identities: converting the kids, sending them to Jewish day school, involving our family in synagogue life, preparing and hosting Shabbat dinners, and on and on…I am the poster child of the “non-convert” raising Jewish children. So I was squirming in my chair when I heard that Sophia’s response was nothing more than “It’s complicated.” I felt that MY effectiveness as a Christian parent of a Jewish child was being questioned. I might lose poster-child status. Maybe “they” were right, all those people who questioned whether we could do this.
Because of my need to prove “them” wrong and me “right,” I have been guilty of suppressing my own religious heritage. I have kept Christianity “on the sidelines.” It is something I do by myself, out of view, for the most part, of my Jewish family. God forbid my Christianity taint their Jewish identities, right? Wrong. Sophia’s comment brought me face to face with one of the things I have feared most–failing on the Jewish front–and, ironically enough, it began a process of setting me free from that fear. Because the fact is, it IS complicated. Even if both parents are from the same religious tradition, it’s complicated business to pass on one’s heritage and identity to children. But I am more determined than ever not to let the fears of some of the Jewish community–Pew study notwithstanding–dictate how I will raise my children. The real question for me, now that I am off of my high horse, is “Can I let go of my own need to ‘prove myself right’–surrender all of the oughts and shoulds and worry about what other people think–and do what is right for my family, for Sophia, for me?”
And as far as the Jewish identity piece is concerned, I refuse to believe that they will ever be a loss to the Jewish community–however they “turn out” religiously–unless the Jewish community itself shoots itself in the foot by rejecting them. They will be able to build bridges between religions like no one else, and they may also become living examples of what our rabbi calls “deep ecumenism”: Jews who know that the core of their being good Jews depends upon others being good Christians, and vice versa. That it depends upon their mother, in fact, being a good Christian. And in our case that might mean (I can just hear some of my Jewish community uttering “God forbid!”) occasionally blurring the lines between the two traditions by learning about and participating in each other’s rituals. Because when we do understand our neighbors’ faiths a little bit more, whether that neighbor is our mother, our friend, our in-law or the guy down the hall, we become better Jews, or Christians, or Muslims, or agnostics or fill-in-the-blank. And we become better human beings.
Almost as an afterthought, as we were leaving the conference, one of the teachers said, “Wait, I have to show you something!” She walked me over to a bulletin board with the words “My Heritage” written at the top. Each student had drawn a picture of something from his or her heritage and had written a word or two next to the picture. About half of them had drawn a Jewish motif, and the other half was a mixture of sports, hobbies and special places. Underneath Sophia’s name was a giant peach, and next to it the word “Georgia.” Georgia. My home state. My Israel, if you will. Sophia’s birthplace. And a few days later, she brought home a Christmas card she had made for me that she had asked everyone in her class to sign (all did, by the way, except for the kid who had told her she wasn’t really Jewish–that kid had told her, “I don’t associate myself with anything “Christmas.”) It is complicated, Sophia, but you have me thanking God for the complications that guide us, that teach us, that save us from our fear-filled selves.