My husband Neil and our 9-year old son Lucien and I walk into the small, familiar synagogue a few blocks away from our house in the middle of Maine, and take our seats. Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, who has become a friend of the family and is another transplanted suburban New Yorker in Maine, prays from the bimah.
Her wife Mel is busy handing out prayer books and aliyah cards. She carries their daughter on her hip. In the pews I see familiar faces: a neighbor, a teacher from Lucien’s school, a professor colleague of my husband’s.
Lucien slides into one of the front rows. He loves coming here. Not necessarily because of the service, which of course he finds boring at times, but for the community. Hebrew school, which happens at the local community center, is his favorite part of the week. Jewish day camp, run by another local rabbi and Mel, is a highlight each summer.
I marvel at his innocent enthusiasm. My own relationship to Judaism is much more fraught and complex. Growing up in the South Shore of Long Island, my family belonged to the Conservative synagogue in town. I went to Hebrew school three days a week, and inhaled the Jewish themed books that I checked out each week from the Hebrew School library. During services, I braided the fringes of my father’s tallis. We didn’t keep kosher at home, or keep Shabbat, but my mother said that if I married a non-Jew, she would sit shiva for me and pretend I was dead.
We were supposed to be a nice Jewish family. My mother taught in the local high school. My father had a PhD in educational psychology. My parents hardly even drank. But we had a secret; one I could never tell. My father had a terrible, out-of-control temper. When he exploded, every couple of weeks, he cursed at me. He hit me, and threw things. He hit my older brothers, too. And, on the very worst days, I saw him slam my mother against the peeling yellow of our refrigerator door.
In synagogue, and sometimes at home in bed at night, I’d pray to God to be rescued from my family, and to somehow find a way out.
By the time I got to college, I could say the words aloud. I was abused. My father hit me. But I tried to forgive and forget and move on. I tried therapy. My parents and I continued to argue and struggle and battle one another. After college, I moved to Israel, and flirted with the idea of making aliyah. There I learned about the concept of shalom bayit, the Jewish value of creating a happy and peaceful home.
Years later, when I was 28, I made the heart-wrenching decision to break from my parents permanently. In cutting off my family, I managed to save myself. I haven’t seen or spoken to my parents in over 17 years. Perhaps it would have been easier to leave my Judaism behind, too.
For a few years, I tried skipping holidays. Maybe it would be enough to be culturally Jewish: to read and watch and eat and have that be what I needed for spiritual sustenance. Maybe I could find what I craved in yoga class. Or while sitting in meditation.
And then, I had my son Lucien. When he was five years old, he begged to go to Hebrew school. He’d become fascinated by religion and philosophy and Greek mythology. He wanted to know more about being Jewish. Why couldn’t we have a Christmas tree? Why was being Jewish special? How could I say no?
Now, I choose to be here. I choose to take my family to holiday services and the occasional Shabbat at synagogue, and for Lucien to hold his Jewishness as a cherished part of his self-identity. Even when the familiar words and melodies of the old prayers make me cry with remembering, I’m grateful that I have managed to hold on to this part of my childhood–of myself–that gave me comfort. That gives me comfort.
Because as much as I might sometimes pretend I’m doing this–being Jewish, coming to synagogue–for my son, deep down I know I’m doing it for me, too. On Friday nights, at home in Maine, we bake pizza and light candles. Lucien and I sing Hebrew songs about peace. Together, we’re finding shalom bayit, and figuring out what it means for us to be a Jewish family.
Jessica Berger Gross is the author of the memoir Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home (Scribner) out July 11th.