My non-Jewish father and my Jewish mother agreed that I was a Jew, but how would they raise me as one?
For parents with strong Jewish identities who understand that Jewish education is the key to Jewish continuity, the question of how to raise a Jewish child is not so difficult. But my parents, an interfaith couple, attempted to figure out the answer on their own -- with no guidance or precedent. Did raising a Jewish child in a mixed-marriage home mean nothing more than celebrating Hanukah and Christmas?
At first, sending their daughter to a Jewish school was not even on the radar.
As my mother had an excellent education in a convent in South Africa, she thought it would be worthwhile to check out the Kindergarten program at St. James United Methodist Church in Atlanta. If they were to choose any church program, it might as well be Methodist, as her husband grew up Methodist. But when she walked in the doors of the building for the first time and was greeted by a crucifix on the wall, she turned around and walked out. She knew this was something she couldn’t do.
My mother had the same reaction the first and only time my family went to church. Feeling nostalgic, my father thought it would be nice to attend a Christmas eve service. I remember sensing my mother’s tension as she sat next to me in the pews. We left early.
While my mother happily hosted Christmas dinner parties and Easter egg hunts, her neshama cried out when she crossed a red line into ritual.
My parents decided to enroll me in a Jewish community private school instead. At the same time, my parents decided to attend a Conservative synagogue. Both, they figured, were also good moves to develop social and business connections.
At the Jewish community school, I learned Hebrew and Jewish songs. My Hebrew teacher, a warm, young Israeli woman, was shocked to learn I did not have a Hebrew name, so she gave me one: Chaya. I brought challah home from school every Friday, which I ate in the back of our carpool’s station-wagon. I talked excitedly about Shabbat and lighting candles. I even received my first siddur and sat at the kitchen table singing Ashrei, making my mother cry because she recognized the melody from her childhood.
My parents noted my enthusiasm with caution. My mother was not observant in the least, and she was married to a non-Jew. She had no intention of taking on a more observant life. Neither she nor my father felt comfortable contradicting the lifestyle their daughter’s school was encouraging. They pulled me out and put me in public school.
In public school, I made friends with Jews and non-Jews alike. One holiday season, an announcement was made that the Jewish children should come to the office during lunch to collect their holiday present, as Chanukah came before Christmas that year. I remember standing with my Jewish friends on the playground during morning recess. They told me that I should wait until Christmas to get my holiday present, since my father wasn’t Jewish. I was confused. I felt that I was Jewish, but I didn’t know what to do. I was torn between two parents, and maybe my friends were right. That morning on the playground forced me to define my identity. But I had no answers.
Everything changed when my father was hospitalized with a ruptured appendix compounded by complications of bronchitis. He was in the hospital for ten days. Each visit to my father my mother feared would be the last.
In the hospital, my father realized his life needed to change. He understood that G-d had put him there and that his life was out of balance physically and spiritually. He was tasked to find a way to balance body and spirit. And when he would be discharged, he would make it his mission to bring G-d into his life daily.
When my father finally did come home, he told my mother that he was going to explore Judaism seriously and she was welcome to join him on the journey. If not, he would have to go alone.
My parents switched from the Conservative synagogue to a Reform congregation, enjoying the rabbi who happened to learn with the Atlanta Scholars Kollel. However, with no services on Saturday because, as the rabbi explained, there was no interest, my father knew he had not found his way.
My mother’s brother, an international award-winning film director who was living in Manhattan, had recently become observant, so my father reached out to talk with him about his new journey. My uncle saw how sincerely interested my father was in Judaism, so he sent him a large box filled with all the Jewish classics: an Artscroll siddur, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Pentateuch, Hayim Donin’s To Be a Jew. My father read these books and others from cover to cover. He discovered truths he had always known to be true.
At a Chabad class about the Jewish “secrets of the universe,” my father found the way to achieve what he had been tasked with at the hospital. He learned that the mitzvot are the way to balance the physical and the spiritual. He sat awe-struck in this class with the Chabad rabbi teaching these secrets to only one or two other people. “Why aren’t the world’s leaders sitting in this room??” he wondered.
A major turning point occurred in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My father was there for business and decided to find out if there was a nearby synagogue to attend Shabbat services. The hotel reception directed him to one, which happened to be Orthodox. He sat in the small shul behind a man who prayed intently, dressed in a black robe and black hat. He felt a connection to this man. When the rabbi announced that the guest rabbi was too humble to sit at the bimah and preferred to sit with the congregants, the man stood up and went to the bimah. He spoke about the nature of Yaakov and Esav, and my father recognized himself more in Esav, the man in the field, not the man in the study hall. The rabbi concluded his speech with: “Why not come in the tents of Yaakov and join the family?” Unbeknownst to the rabbi, Rabbi Manis Friedman, those words were tailor made for my father, the non-Jew in the room. Wasn’t he the only one in the synagogue who wasn’t already part of the family?
From that point on, my father was on the fast-track to Judaism.
We attended our first Orthodox wedding, that of my uncle’s daughter, at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, which made a profound impression on my father. On our trip to New York, my uncle made arrangements for us to meet the Stashover Rebbe in Williamsburg. The rebbe, in his 90s, looked at my father with piercing clear blue eyes and asked him if he respected his wife. My father was taken aback, responding that of course he loved his wife, he had been married for 20 years. The rebbe then told him it was “his duty to convert.” Then my father would would have seven blessings awaiting him. The rebbe’s words were interspersed with exclamations of, “My grandpappy’s telling me!” as he pointed to the heavens. The Stashover Rebbe is a descendant of the Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk.
From this experience my father learned of the sanctity of the Jewish woman.
My South African mother walked out of the rebbe’s office into the dreary streets of Willamsburg and announced that she had come home.
Beth Jacob Atlanta, the historic Orthodox shul founded by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman in Atlanta in the 1950s and led by Rabbi Ilan Feldman starting in the early 1990s, would soon become our family’s new home, where untold blessings would await us.
To be continued…