Growing up with Two Moms: When Ima Isn’t Jewish

A Protestant-raised mom helps decorate her daughter's siddur.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Mother’s Day is stressful, but I have quite a bit more to do than the average person who celebrates.

When I tell people that Mother’s Day is a big thing for me, they often ask, “How many moms do you have?”

I shrug. “A lot,” I usually respond. Enough to turn Mother’s Day into Mothers’ Day.

Legally, I have two moms: my biological mom, Ruth, and my non-biological mom, Laura. When I was 2 years old, my moms split up. Laura married her wife in 2013, and Ruth has been with her partner since 1995. Ruth and Laura shared equal custody of me when I was growing up. My biological mom is Jewish, and wanted to bring me up in the Jewish faith. Laura was raised in the Protestant tradition, but had no particular desire to raise me as such. Laura was happy to raise me as a Jew alongside Ruth. I was given the Hebrew name of לאה (Leah), after Ruth’s first cousin once removed, Leatrice. I had a naming ceremony at my grandparents’ synagogue in Illinois with both Ruth and Laura by my side.

Then came the dilemma that I imagine many same-sex parents face: What should I call each of them? Close friends had used “mom-(name) and mom-(other name)”, but they wanted a more familial term. Eventually, they decided to go back to Ruth’s heritage and use Ima, the Hebrew word for mom. Ruth wasn’t the one I would call Ima, though, despite the fact that she was the Jewish one. They decided it made more sense for me to call her mom, since she was my biological mother and physically closest to me for the first year of my life. They decided I would call Laura “Ima.” Needless to say, this always required a lot of explaining whenever I would talk about my parents with new friends.

When it came time to decide where I would go to school, Mom and Ima knew that if they weren’t careful, I could be teased for having a different family; it was nearly 2000, but there was still a lot of prejudice against same-sex parents and their children. They decided to follow their friends — another lesbian couple with two daughters — who had elected to send their children to a local private Jewish school, called Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School (now renamed Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School) in Palo Alto, CA. They found the community to be warm and welcoming, and liked the idea of their child learning the Hebrew alphabet right alongside the English one. When it came to homework, Mom was definitely more suited for helping me learn Hebrew, but Ima supported me the best she could.

In first grade at Hausner, there’s a tradition called the Siddur Ceremony in which the kids receive their very own prayer book. To achieve this, they are set up with a “siddur buddy” from an older grade who helps teach them all the blessings every Thursday at Te’fillah (prayer services). In the spring, the kids gather at the local synagogue to sing all the blessings to a crowd of proud parents and then, beaming, receive their own siddur (prayer book), decorated by their parents.

But who would decorate my siddur? Mom, the Jewish parent, did not consider herself to be “artistic” — certainly not at the level required for siddur decoration. Mom delegated the task to Ima who, while slightly more gifted in the art department, had barely any knowledge of what the siddur was, and much less knowledge about how to decorate it. The guidelines said the siddur needed to have have a secular, English side and a spiritual, Hebrew side. The secular side was easier; Ima included things like an iridescent beaded bracelet with sewn-on rocks to remind me of the river near our home. She added iron-on butterflies to symbolize my curiosity for living things.

When it came to the Hebrew side, things got more complicated. “I didn’t even know which way the letters were supposed to go,” she recalls now, almost exactly 16 years later. “I remember flipping through the book, desperately hoping I could find the right letters in there and see which way they were facing. I couldn’t even tell you now if they were upside down or not,” she laughs.

To decorate the spiritual side, Ima knew she couldn’t rely on specific aspects of Jewish culture, given that she knew little about their symbolism. Instead, she thought about spirituality as a whole, and remembered the scene in Genesis when God speaks to Abraham and tells him that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars. She thought the night sky itself invoked a sense of wonder and spirituality, so she decided to decorate that side of the cover with star-shaped gems and images of the moon and sun.

My siddur is showing its age; all but one of star gems have fallen off, the river bracelet broke off from where it was glued, and the threads holding many of the rocks broke long ago. Yet none of that matters to me. When I look at my siddur, I am reminded only of how much effort Ima invested to make sure that, even though she was likely the only non-Jewish parent undertaking this task, my siddur would be just as meaningful to me as the decorated siddurs were to all the other kids’.

At this point in my life, I am used to explaining my family situation to other people. I gently help them through the process of understanding that, not only do I have two moms, I sort of have three moms, or four, depending on whether you feel marriage is required.

“I’m Jewish,” I tell them, “like my mom.”

“Ima?” they’ll ask.

I smile. “No, that’s the other one,” I explain. “She’s not Jewish.”

That, apparently, is much harder for people to understand than the concept of same-sex parents. Times have changed, and for that I am grateful.

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