Tag Archives: interfaith

“Are You Jewish?”

invisible-cityYes. But it’s complicated.

My mother is Jewish, which, as my grandmother used to tell me, means that the Nazis would have come for me, too. My dad, on the other hand, is Christian. And not just a Christmas Christian, he is a church-going Christian; a Christian who left his career as a lawyer to be ordained when he was 55. A Christian who wears a cross around his neck. My sister and I grew up “both.”

Let me explain.

My mother is a proud Jew, from a family of Southern Jews for whom Judaism was their primary identity. My grandparents went to temple almost every Friday night of their lives. My grandmother used to tell me that that’s what their group would do as teens in the 1930s in Nashville: temple, then out for a movie. My great-grandfather was a prominent Zionist. He ate with Golda Meir and gave jobs to hundreds of European refugees at his hosiery mill during World War II.

Then, in 1972, my mom married my dad, and my great-grandfather sat shiva for her. She had grown up in his home and she never saw him again. The wedding was small; immediate family were the only ones on either side who showed up. Everyone else was too angry and anxious. Neither is converting? What will the kids be? Confused!

But guess what? We weren’t confused. The message my parents sent my sister and I was about faith in God, about love and kindness and about the power of tradition. Although the rest was important to them – my dad takes communion every week, and my mother never misses her parents’ yahrzeits – the differences, from a child’s perspective at least, were basically unimportant. Was Jesus the messiah? That was the divergence as I saw it. But why focus on that one thing when pretty much everything else seemed essentially the same? Love God, love your fellow man. Seek justice, be honest, do good.

As a child and adolescent, it was relatively easy to move between the two faiths, and I found myself taking on the role of contrarian. I never felt more Jewish than with Christian friends. When people asked me what religion I was I’d say both, although the idea was always for me to choose once I “grew up.” For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a gold necklace with two pendants on it: a Star of David and a simple cross. They said I could wear them however I wanted to and I chose to wear them together, but it didn’t sit well with people. Everyone seemed offended, or confused. I stopped wearing the necklace at all after a few months.

As the years went by, I came to understand that I didn’t need to mark myself. I went to Hebrew summer school as a child and Sunday school at my dad’s church as an adolescent. My sister had a bat mitzvah, but I did not. Sometimes we accompanied my grandparents to Friday services. The whole family celebrated the High Holy Days, Passover, Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah.

As an adult, I have always identified as Jewish. As my grandmother said, “We need more good Jews.” And, how can I say it, I feel Jewish. You can choose Christianity, but Judaism chooses you, and that means something to me.

Being a Jew, for me, now, is about claiming the joys and burdens of a tribe of people I respect. Even growing up in the 1980s, the Holocaust was very present in my home. My grandmother told me stories about her cousins, European Jews who were barely observant, who considered themselves Frenchmen or Germans, but who were forced to announce themselves as Jews and be killed for it. Would you stand up and announce yourself? was the implicit question. And the answer, for me, was always yes.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Finding My Jewishness

How to Woo a JewAt 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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

From Intermarried Couple to Observant Jewish Family

harold.bermanWhen 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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on July 18, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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