Mommy, When Did You Turn Jewish?

I wrote the essay below after visiting Israel in 2005. It was published in North American Review, January/February 2008.

I stared at black-and-white photographs at the Holocaust Museum in Israel the week Jewish settlers were forced to leave their homes in Gaza. I was overcome by sadness as I read how Jews felt connected to Germany, their motherland, and yet were required to leave during the Holocaust. I pictured myself in either one of these situations and felt frightened.

I thought back to a conversation I had with Mark just after we married. He was 24 at the time and asked, “So are you an American first or a Jew?” I was 18 years old and not yet prepared to answer this question of identity. Mark argued that we had to consider ourselves Jews before anything else because our future safety was precarious. I told him that he was ridiculous to think that anything like the Holocaust could ever happen again. But given my age and limited experience, I had little understanding of intolerance or my role in educating future generations.

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended Sunday School at the reformed synagogue that my family belonged to. My earliest memory takes place in my kindergarten class where we discussed our concept of God. I internalized someone large, omnipresent, and male. In my heart, I believed God listened to my prayers and could answer them. My ideas about religion and my relationship with God stemmed from love, not fear.

In sixth grade, my Sunday School teacher taught us about the Holocaust. She told us that six million Jews had perished. In order to grasp just how much that was, she asked us to make tally marks on loose-leaf paper. Each mark represented a Jewish life. The class filled sheet after sheet with tally marks and she lined the classroom walls with these papers. I think we reached about 100,000 marks, and then we were asked to stretch our imaginations to ten times that amount, and then six times that number. As far as I was concerned, nothing this horrible could ever occur again. At 12, it is difficult to understand how something that took place 30 years before, in a country as foreign and far away as Germany, could ever happen at home, in America. So, at 18, only six years later, I believed Mark was wrong. Over the years, Mark and I have had many discussions (or, more honestly, battles) over religion.

Mark and I met when my family moved from New Orleans to New York. Both of my parents had been raised in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, but after they married they moved to New Orleans for business reasons. When I was 16, they believed it was time to move back to New York because, in keeping with tradition, they wanted me to marry a Syrian Jew and be part of the Syrian community. Even though three out of four of my grandparents were from Aleppo, Syria, making them Sephardic Jews, my maternal grandmother was from Europe, making her an Ashkenazi Jew, and she had a profound influence on my life.

The transition from New Orleans to New York was difficult for me. Besides leaving behind the South, I left behind a reformed lifestyle sprinkled with Ashkenazi influence and moved into an orthodox community with Arabic roots. Passover went from being a large dinner party with a customary Sedar plate in the center of the table to a two-hour reading of the Haggadah.

Mark is a man of conviction, someone who sees the world in black and white. I, on the other hand, see shades of gray. From the beginning of our marriage, Mark and I struggled with our religious differences, trying to understand each other and create peace in our home. Mark insisted you couldn’t have a haphazard approach to being Jewish. He believed you had to act on it. You had to do things like keep Kosher and observe the Sabbath. I thought of Lynn, my best friend from New Orleans. Her family was Ashkenazi, and they were the nicest people I knew. Her mother was a caterer and an active participant in a reformed synagogue. She made a birthday party for her husband once and invited the rabbi. She served shrimp and crab. Lynn’s family believed that being a Jew had nothing to do with what you ate.

Immediately after Mark and I married, his grandmother, a traditional woman who had her reservations about me being raised in New Orleans away from the Syrian community and distant from what she considered Jewish life, pulled me to the side and sneered, “Anyone can get married, not anyone can have a baby.” I was 20 when my first son, Jack, was born.

Three out of five of my children eventually attended secular schools, but when they first entered school, they attended Yeshivah (an orthodox school of Jewish learning). While Mark was elated because he didn’t go to Yeshivah and felt strongly that his children be afforded this privilege, this was difficult for me. My sons had to wear tzitzit and a yarmulka and my daughters had to wear a skirt. Again, I found myself in a strange world, and when my children came home with questions and ideas regarding organized religion, sometimes I couldn’t relate. And so Mark and I continued to debate how to live our lives and how to best raise our children. Mark said he wanted our family to be religious, and I claimed that we were. We found ourselves discussing what it meant to be religious. I argued that Mark was substituting the word religious for observant, and that they were not the same.

One Purim, I sat at the kitchen table with my children. Hamentash (cookies traditionally eaten on Purim) baked in the oven while we made paper-bag puppets of King Ahashvarosh and Queen Esther. We designed a pictured Megillah (a scroll telling the story of Purim) and wrapped the drawings around an empty paper towel roll. We decorated toilet paper rolls and filled them with beans to make groggers (noise makers used to drown out the sound of the evil Haman’s name when the Megillah is read.) As my children worked on their projects, I got up to check the hamentash. My son Richard was around eight at the time, and he looked across the room and asked, “Mommy, when did you turn Jewish?” I was stunned and felt judged in my own home, by my own child. I wondered how I’d let things get so far. I needed Richard and the rest of my children to know, I’d always been Jewish. I wanted them to understand what I believed it meant to be a good Jew, and ultimately that meant they needed to know what it meant to be a good person.

Almost a decade later, my father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Over the nine months that followed that diagnosis, until the day he died, he was surrounded by family and friends. Community members visited and prayed. All six of his children and their spouses, his grandchildren, and his wife did what they could in the hope that he would survive this disease. His children made him fresh juices that he couldn’t even drink, helped him put on tefillin when he couldn’t do it himself, and administered medicine. His three sons, his three sons-in-law, and his older grandsons took turns giving him a coffee enema to relieve his discomfort. This was a terrific ordeal that took at least three men to carry him through the process. His bedroom became an amazing place, bustling with activity, ironically filled with life and energy, hope and prayer, and the exact opposite, his imminent death. The cohesiveness of family and community was astounding, and I felt proud to be part of it.

The last few days of his life were painful to watch. I asked my mother-in-law if she thought it was appropriate for my son Jack, who was then 18 and very much involved with what was happening, to participate in giving the enemas or to watch his grandfather deteriorate. My mother-in-law turned to me and said, “There are so few things that people can look back on in their life and feel true meaning. Let him have this.” And so I watched Jack unflinchingly link his arm through his grandfather’s as he helped carry him to the bathroom again.

As a parent, I find that sometimes there are these flashes of light, rays of sunshine. Those are the times I look around and think I’ve done something right. For years, Mark and I worried that our different approaches to life and Judaism would confuse our children. But in the end, I believe what we both honestly wanted was to raise good people; people with conscience and commitment; people with heart and soul. We wanted to give our children a safe place to learn and question, discover and share. Through the years of negotiating and compromising, with any luck at all, our children have learned to have respect and tolerance for people with different points of view, because ultimately if you can’t achieve peace in your living room, how can you expect peace on earth?

And so, after all these years, I still can’t answer Mark’s original question about identity. I don’t believe I am any one thing. I am a fair-skinned Jewish woman of Arabic descent who now eats mechshe instead of crayfish, and who now says inshullah as readily as I used to say y’all. And while I haven’t embraced every Judaic tradition, as an American I have choice, and there is nothing matter-of-fact about how I light my candles every Friday night and pray to a loving God for peace on earth and in my home.