By Ilana Vine
Last Thanksgiving morning, I found my mother crying in the basement. It's not a pleasant way to start the day, especially when you're expecting to wake up to the sounds of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade blaring on the TV and the smell of pumpkin waffles wafting through the air. But here it was. She was crying in the basement. The reason? Simple: I had brought home a boyfriend who wasn't Jewish.
"I'm just heartbroken," she sobbed in true Jewish-mother style. "And what about your children? They'll lose their heritage." She erupted into another bout of tears as I went to the bathroom to get her a box of tissues.
Truth be told, I felt offended by her reaction. From her perspective, the only way to raise a Jewish family was with two Jewish parents. I have a more modern perspective on the issue. Sure, intermarriage can be difficult and complicated, but he and I would find a way to figure it out. I've never believed in shying away from something just because it was difficult.
To be fair, my mom grew up in the days of school concerts with a mandatory "Silent Night" and no dreidel song to match. She watched close relatives intermarry and convert one by one. I could understand why she was touchy on the subject, but she was making a lot of assumptions. I felt annoyed by my mother's antiquarian views, sure that I had the modern, liberated, approach.
In reality, my boyfriend didn't have a particular faith he felt pressed to instill on future generations. He was interested in all kinds of religions, and lately had even studied some Buddhist writings, so there wasn't going to be a Clash of the Titans between choosing a religion if we ended up raising a family. While he may not be Jewish himself, he had no objection to raising Jewish children.
But suddenly, something happened that even I didn't expect. In the last few months, my boyfriend has asked to start learning about Judaism. I have to admit that I was hesitant at first, worried that his interest was influenced by my family. The first few times he asked me to take him to synagogue, I made half-hearted excuses and mumbled something about not really knowing any in the area.
Yet he persisted. He'd always been interested in religions, and I began to realize his interest was genuine, not just an attempt to please me or my parents. So I, who rarely went to Saturday morning services, choosing instead the more secular approach of only celebrating the big holidays, began to research synagogues in the area. On Saturday mornings, we journeyed together to different synagogues, trying to find one we both felt comfortable with. I taught him the Hebrew alphabet and some of the basic prayers. Together, we watched one of my favorite movies, Exodus, the Paul Newman classic about the founding of the state of Israel.
We're now thinking of joining a synagogue and becoming part of a Jewish community. He wants to take Hebrew classes; I want us to take them together. Paradoxically, my (non-Jewish) relationship with him has brought me closer to my Jewish identity. Through his growing interest, I've rediscovered much of my own. I haven't told this to my mother yet because the subject is still touchy between us, but I hope it's something she realizes someday. Maybe it will change some of her old views.
There's one final twist to this story. Remember my modern, liberated, approach? Well, as it turns out, we all have our prejudices to overcome. In our search for synagogues, I'd pushed heavily for conservative ones, since that was the tradition I'd grown up with. However, we learned about a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, blocks away from where we live. Despite my assertions that I wasn't going to like it, the proximity was too tempting and we made our first visit.
As it turns out, we both loved it. Sure, the service they hold isn't like the one I grew up with. Neither is the congregation or the building (they share it with a church and a community center). Yet we found the service engaging and accessible and the community warm, welcoming, and young, a big plus for us.
We feel like this may be the synagogue we've been searching for, and that's made me accept the same lesson I hope my mother will learn: life doesn't follow a single, narrow path. Events that may seem catastrophic or difficult, such as intermarriage, can be an opportunity to deepen our core values as long as we're willing to re-examine our own biases.
Now for the next challenge: Thanksgiving 2011.