When my wife and I speak to groups about our family’s journey to Judaism, inevitably we are asked about our parents. How did Gayle’s parents, devout Christians that they were, feel about Gayle becoming an observant Jew? How did my parents feel about me leaving my Reform upbringing to embrace an Orthodox life?
The questions are hardly academic. We have heard from numerous converts about parents who didn’t understand their decision, who felt betrayed, who now worried for their souls, who sometimes even actively tried to undermine their choices. For Ba’alei Teshuva – those Jews who were not raised observant but became so as adults – the reaction of their Jewish parents often is hardly more positive.
When we are asked about how our parents reacted and if we had any difficulties, we respond honestly that we are blessed. Gayle wrote in the previous blog post about her father. His support of Israel was rock solid. He was a true Christian Zionist and “got it” far more than many Jews I know. He was not only supportive of our move to Israel, but proudly wore his Israel Defense Forces cap in the midst of the cornfields of Farmington, Illinois.
My parents, too, have been unreservedly supportive, in stark contrast to the parents of so many Ba’alei Teshuva I have met. When I started to become observant and Gayle started to explore the possibility of becoming Jewish, I secretly feared my parents’ reaction. I had heard of parents who, upon learning that their adult children now kept kosher, angrily demanded, “What do you mean you won’t eat in my house? My food’s not good enough for you anymore?” Instead, my parents called one day to tell me that they were kashering their kitchen, down to every last plate, bowl and fork. “After all,” my mother said, “my grandchildren should be able to eat in my kitchen.”
A couple of years later, my parents were standing in line at the supermarket next to a man whose son had gone to Hebrew school with me. His son also had become observant as an adult. The father was beside himself, speaking with frustration about his son’s new dietary habits and Shabbat observance. Thinking his words were falling on sympathetic ears, he turned to my parents and sighed, “Oh, where did we go wrong?” To which my mother, without dropping a beat, fired back, “No – where did we go right?”
When we wrote Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, about our unanticipated journey from intermarried couple to observant Jewish family, we were surprised to receive so many enthusiastic e-mails not only from the intermarried families for whom the book was originally intended, but from Jews across the religious spectrum as well as religious Christians. The theme in Doublelife that resonates most often, even for those on very different religious paths, is the theme of relationship.
As our journey shows, husband and wife each grow and change over time and are often not the same people years down the road as they were when they married. As husband and wife change, they can just as easily grow apart as together, largely depending on their outlook and how hard they decide to work at it.
Parents and children represent a different kind of relationship, but the same dynamics of constant change apply. There is the same tendency to grow apart or together, depending on outlook and effort. And there is the same imperative to keep the relationship strong, whatever obstacles may fall along the path.
For what we have learned above all – with each other and with our parents – is that obstacles need not remain obstacles. They can be turned into blessings.
“Ima, Aunt Angela is trying to reach you. I know it’s grandma! I want to go to her funeral!” My 13-year-old son was home manning the phone in Efrat while I was busy teaching piano to American girls at a school in Jerusalem. My mother had been ill for many years with dementia, that terrifying disease that steals the memory and dignity of its victims. Long before we had made Israel our home 3 1/2 years earlier, each day we had expected the call from Illinois telling us that her body had given up the fight. That moment had apparently arrived. Not having my sister’s U.S. number in my Israeli cell phone, I simply continued teaching my piano student.
Soon my cell phone rang. I was sure my sister was indeed calling to tell me that what my son had suspected was true. I told my student, “I’ll be right back,” knowing I could handle what I had been anticipating for years. “Dad died this morning!” I couldn’t believe my ears! No, she meant “Mom,” my head screamed! “Dad?” I yelled! “Yes, Dad.”
As people at the school heard my screaming, they gathered around me, offering tea, love and support. The memories flooded my mind – those late nights I fell asleep in the car and Dad carried me into the house; those years Dad let me keep horses on precious farmland which could have yielded thousands of dollars; the day I told Dad with trepidation that we were moving to Israel, to which he said simply, “You’re free to live wherever you want,” and then launched into a diatribe for the next 30 minutes about how the world is so cruel to Israel and doesn’t understand that she needs to defend herself! He wept when he told me he just couldn’t leave Mom to attend my son’s, his grandson’s, bar mitzvah, just two months before my sister’s phone call. Even though Mom had already been in a nursing home for four years, he would not travel, feeling she needed him and I also think fearing the inevitable would happen while he was gone.
How does a Jew mourn the loss of a parent when that parent was not Jewish? After I finished the phone call with my sister, I asked a rabbi where I teach, and my husband (who was attending an unveiling the moment I called him) asked a rabbi where he works. Both felt that, even though I would not actually sit shiva, I still needed the catharsis that sitting shiva provides. Maybe, they each suggested independently, I could announce an opportunity for friends to visit me at my home, even if just for a few hours.
We chose Friday morning, two days later. After that morning, I understood fully why Jews sit shiva. The cleansing that immersed my soul that morning was the beginning of my healing process. Over 40 people, friends and neighbors in Israel who had never met my father, came to show their support. They sat and listened intently as I told stories about my parents. They blessed me, that I should be comforted with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Some invited my family for Shabbat meals while I traveled the following week for my dad’s funeral. After they had all left, I was exhausted, but I felt renewed. I felt closer to my dad. I felt 100% certain that I had made the right decision several years earlier when I decided to become a part of the Jewish people.