If my family had celebrated Passover when I was growing up, I would have been the child in the Haggadah “who does not know how to ask.” In my Jewish family, we celebrated Christmas, complete with a glistening tree and equally glistening ham. Over Sunday breakfasts of bacon and bagels (the latter strictly a nod to our New York City residence), my family sounded like anti-Semites, who saw religious Judaism as sexist, primitive, and antithetical to success.
Although as a family we travelled abroad every summer, we never visited Israel until I was a teenager, and then only because my mother thought the country, several years after the Yom Kippur War, might not be around much longer. I don’t remember much about that trip, except the eye rolls my sister and I exchanged when we heard references to Biblical figures like Joshua or Abraham.
All of this makes the fact that I moved to Israel 25 years ago radical enough, albeit as a secular Jew. But the fact that I have a teenage son who became baal teshuvah (a secular Jew who becomes observant) was, to say the least, unexpected.
I have remained a “bad Jew.” I still eat treyf. I don’t fast on Yom Kippur.
But I am a good Jewish mother. Which is why my son’s religiosity has made me the strangest of all things: a secular woman who made her kitchen kosher, lights the Shabbat candles, and agreed to have her son study in a yeshiva, where most of the curriculum is religious.
As the mother of a baal teshuvah, I’ve been both pitied and criticized by close relatives, friends and strangers for not putting my maternal foot down and refusing to give in to his religious lifestyle. They’ve argued that someone so young can’t know what’s best for him. Yet even through my secular lens I could see that religion gave my son something secularism couldn’t: a framework for handling grief.
My son’s turn to religiosity was not the result of coming under the influence of some ultra-Orthodox rabbi. Rather, he caught the fire of religion when his bar mitzvah, planned to take place at an ancient synagogue in the Golan, had to be cancelled after my husband was rushed to the hospital with a medical ailment eventually diagnosed as Stage Four lung cancer.
As Daniel lived through 18 months of witnessing his beloved father lose control first over his body and then his mind, he began increasingly taking on religious practices. First, it was wearing a kippah to his public school, then it was observing Shabbat, insisting on keeping kosher, and eventually requesting to study at a religious school.
Left alone to deal with my husband’s terminal illness, I would have been hugely grateful for just about anything that would have gotten my son out of bed and enabled him to function normally each day. But this was not just anything. What allowed him to get through that period was far preferable to most other alternatives.
When his father died, Daniel took comfort in religious practices, such as the obligation for those who have lost a parent to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for 11 months. Religion can be restrictive, antiquated and sexist. But it also provides rituals for dealing with and understanding death. In this way, religion took on the role of the good father for my son. That certainly seemed worth buying a new set of plates for Passover.
It’s not that I don’t have mixed feelings about my son’s life. I’m disturbed by the quality of secular studies at his yeshiva. I worry that he’ll have trouble making a living and that he’ll want to get married too early. Some of the rhetoric to which he’s been exposed is, frankly, cringe-worthy. I would love to see his handsome face unframed by payot (sidelocks traditionally worn by ultra-Orthodox men).
My acceptance of Daniel’s lifestyle, rather than being assumed or ignored, has been explicitly appreciated, not only by him, but by the rabbis in his community. Several times, they have praised me as a “woman of valor.”
All I ever hoped for was to continue having a close relationship with my beloved son. And in that I have succeeded — even if we sometimes bicker. He calls me sloppy for mixing up the meat and milk utensils and would love to see me, just once, fast on Yom Kippur. I yelled at him when he refused to take our sick cat to the veterinarian, who would be breaking Shabbat to treat her.
But when there is underlying love, there can be acceptance and even the possibility of seeing the world differently.
Recently, Daniel told me he’d had a vision of his future in which he is a grand-patriarch presiding over a vast brood of children, grandchildren and even – “b’ezrat HaShem (with God’s help)”— great-grandchildren. In this vision, he imagines one of his offspring remarking that all these Jews came into being because, as a teenager, “Grandpa Daniel” became religious.
“That’s something worth achieving,” he said.
I can’t help but agree.