At birth I was blessed with not one, not two, but four Jewish names. Tamar Avital is the name my parents gave me, and then they also bequeathed upon me a Hebrew name because apparently Tamar Avital isn’t Hebrew enough. To honor my great-great aunts I was also named P’nina Yafa. And with the last name Caspi I didn’t have a fighting chance to be anything but Jewish. People would know I was a Jew before they would meet me and for most of my life that was fine as I always identified as Jewish, an identity which was only further ingrained via the Jewish Community Center for preschool, private Jewish elementary school, Jewish sleepaway camp, temple youth group, Hillel in college and so on. My first kiss took place during my birthday party when I turned twelve, during a game of spin the bottle with the nice Jewish boy from the neighborhood who previously was my “husband” in Kindergarten at the San Diego Jewish Academy. My first real make-out session happened beneath the redwood trees of Saratoga, California at Camp Swig—with a nice Jewish boy from Northern California.
I never thought twice about having a Jewish family until midway through high school when I subconsciously and unintentionally decided that I didn’t need a Jewish husband to make that happen. None of my high school boyfriends were Jewish, nor were my college boyfriends or any of the guys I dated through my early twenties. I was planning an interfaith family in my head. I knew there were rabbis who would agree to officiate at an interfaith marriage, and I even once had a discussion with my college boyfriend about allowing future children to celebrate Christmas at his parent’s house just not in our house. Eventually, as I matured and gathered more life experience, I came to the realization that I did indeed need and want and desire a Jewish husband. As my Jewish girlfriends were getting married and starting families, I realized that having a Jewish husband who was raised similarly made these milestones all the more meaningful and that awareness changed my mindset completely. Suddenly all I saw were Yids. In fact, I would ask if a guy was Jewish before even wondering if he was single. Non-Jews were persona non-grata and I had zero attraction to those who were not members of the tribe. Not only did I want a Jewish home with a Jewish family, but I wanted a Jewish husband too—bonus points for having multiple Jewish names.
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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.