Tuesday, July 17, 2012

But you weren't born Jewish, were you?

Some conversations on Facebook inspires me to write just a little bit more about our intents for Esther's religious upbringing.

Mostly, it was mentioned that because of the heavy emphasis on Jewish practice, it seems to readers like we're raising a Jewish daughter who has some exposure to Christian practices.

In fact, when we were discussing Jewish conversion, Jacob's main concern was that people would come to that conclusion.

Let me start by saying that the premise of our choices is that all kids find their own language in which to communicate with God.  A Modern Orthodox family that I grew up with has two children who practice Judaism to varying degrees and one child who is raising his own child completely devoid of Jewish upbringing.  For awhile, the reigning ladies' semi-professional wrestling tag-team champions were named Lane and Nevaeh.  Nevaeh was a name popular with conservative, evangelical Christians because it it Heaven spelled backwards.  I'd bet money, that's now how those religious folks thought their daughter would turn out.

Kids are given a religious line by their parents and they spend their early adult lives jumping back and forth across that line, bouncing off of it first one direction and then the next until they find a line of their own.  Sometimes it's close to their parents' line and sometimes it is very far away.  However, their explorations all start in that specific place.

The line my parents' laid down was basically mainline Protestant, with some evangelicalism thrown in because the church we attended was geographically close to Wheaton college.  They modeled a certain social liberalness that was grounded in a sense of love and respect for the situations of people down on their luck that was born of their understanding of who God is.  They also modeled certain practices, such as a love for traditional hymns, how we celebrate Christmas and what kind of  relationship to have with the pastor.  This was explicitly grounded in the orthodox beliefs that Jesus was God's son, who saved us from our sin by dying, rising from the dead and ascending into Heaven.

All four of us have ended up parallel to that line in some way or another, with varying degrees of formal participation in institutional religion, behavior towards others and belief in that theology. 

My parents did not push their line on us but did insist that if we didn't want to go to church with them, we had to find a place where we did want to go.  When I look at families that take active steps to make sure that their kids choose an exact copy of their own spiritual lives, yes, sometimes they are successful, but often those kids bounce even harder off of that hard line, with sometimes tragic and/or ironic results.

Understanding that children find their own paths regardless of parental desires, Jacob and I would like to do something a little radical and give Esther tools that will increase her chances of success in finding her path.  We are not going to tell her that she's Jewish or that she's Christian.  We are going to give her Jewish experiences and Christian experiences.  We are going to support her when she wants to experiment with wearing a cross necklace to the high holiday services or when she insists on keeping kosher as a teenager and acts disgusted in the presence of the ham on the table.  We will insist that she be respectful and engaged but we will not expect her to assume any identity other than the one that feels most authentic to her and this includes experiementation with her aunt's Catholicism, her other aunt's Hinduism or some other religion altogether.

Like all other things in parenting, we will just try to do our best.

So, with that philosophy lined out, let me talk a little more directly about our choices for Esther's Jewish practice.

As far as I can tell (and I've studied a lot), Jewish identity is a three-wheeled bicycle.  If there all three aspects are there: fabulous.  But you are included by the community is only two are present, as well.

You can be considered Jewish by your birth or your conversion, by your religious practice and by your cultural trappings.

Thus, totally secular people are still Jewish if their parents were Jewish and if exhibit certain characteristics which are hard to pin down but most people know them when they see them.  A fondness for lox, a certain sense of humor, particular cadences of speech, a story about making out with a girl for the first time at Jewish camp are all popular examples.  Remember the classic Seinfeld episode where they were horrified that the dentist had converted possibly just so he could make better jokes.

Or, if you convert to Judaism and practice religiously, you are part of the in-crowd even if you never speak a word of yiddish.

It's tougher for  culturally Jewish people who are pursuing an active spiritual practice but who don't meet parentage standards and who don't want to convert.  My friend's husband is an atheist but shares her Jewish practices with her and has promised to raise their children Jewish but their wedding was not celebrated by their synagogue as joyfully as the two kids who were both born Jews with culturally Jewish identities but who never went to shabbat services and holidays. 

So, if Esther decides that she wants to be accepted by the Jewish community, we want to make sure she has her bona fides.  The more orthodox communities will require her to jump through even more hoops, but raising her eating kosher, converting her and surrounding her with other Jewish people who consider her part of their tribe so that she develops some of the cultural markers will go a long way to making that choice easy for her, if she wants to make it.

If she decides that she wants to identify as Christian, the infrastructure is totally different.  Still, for the vast majority of churches, all she needs to do is state that she believes certain things and they have a long history of accepting her regardless of her upbringing.  My church and other churches in the emergent movement are working to make more safe spaces for people who believe lots of different things but want to follow Jesus's teachings and to draw upon the Christian tradition of spiritual practice.  At one of those churches, bona fides are considered anathema anyway.  So, we have been less concerned with making sure the groundwork for being accepted by others as a self-proclaimed Christian.  It's the dominant religion of our country and she will learn the appropriate shibboleths without much effort on our part.

Judaism, as a minority and historically persecuted community, is a little harder to feel like one belongs.  I was finally won over to the idea of converting Esther to Judaism mostly because the rabbi wanted us to. But I agreed with the choice in the end because I believe the frequenly-asked question, "But you weren't born Jewish, were you?" belies an insecurity in those who ask it. I think they are really asking, "Are you safe because you've had the same experiences as a Jew that I have?" When Esther can reply, "No, but my parents converted me when I was a baby," she opens a door to these folks to be in relationship with them because she's really saying, "From my infancy, I have been raised as a Jew and probably have some common ground with you." Since we want her to feel at home in the synagogue and the synagogue is full of people who ask that question, it was the best thing we could do for her.

No comments: