It’s Passover – the Jewish spring festival that “commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt” (www.chabad.org), and like in years past, I am taking this time to think about what this holiday means for me and my inter-faith, mixed-race family. Last night, during the first Seder – the ritual service and feast on the first two nights of Passover, Wife asked me what I was going to write about this week. My response? “Blacks and Jews in dialogue.” If you know the story of Passover (Read it here) you can see that its account of the Jews escape from slavery lends quite nicely to connections between the black and Jewish communities.
I love Passover. It’s a holiday, consisting of rituals and symbolism that makes sense to me. It’s a story that I feel is easy for everyone to connect to and echoes what I believe is ultimately true in this world – we belong to each other. So after last night’s Seder, I was inspired to write about Blacks and Jews and our connection.
Sometimes, however, we think we are writing about one thing and we end up somewhere totally different. Maybe this only happens to me, I don’t know much about writing! Anyway, I think what’s really on my mind is what it’s like to raise Jewish children as a non-Jewish mother.
It is possible that I spent my whole life preparing to be a non-Jewish mother raising Jewish children. I was born to a black woman with a Yiddish nickname – Zanana Shepherd, aka Shepsyl. My parents and siblings waited for my arrival and the completion of a home renovation while living with our chosen Jewish family, Auntie Honey and Uncle Roy, my mother’s high school friends. My first friend ever was my Jewish neighbour who I now refer to as “Life” because, that’s our friendship – for life. I mumbled along while one of my dear friends sang her Bat Mitzvah portion, because I knew it too. And when I knew I was about to receive the news that my father was dying, I asked that same friend to take me to her synagogue in the middle of a summer afternoon because I needed to pray and at that time in my life, it made sense to do it there. I bought Wife her first Menorah for her new house and we gladly jumped from under the Chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) over the broom at our wedding. I’ve been in dialogue with Jews forever. Oh, by the way, Wife thought I should mention all my Jewish ex-boyfriends, but I shot her a stern look and told her that I’m not writing about that kind of dialogue!
When Wife and I talked about having kids we knew that it was important to each of us that our kids be black and Jewish. Apparently, Wife has always known that she would raise black children! (Not funny? Not even a little? Okay, sorry!) We didn’t think that it would be easy to raise trans-racially adopted, bi-racial, Jewish children as two women, but we’re pretty awesome and we assumed that we possess the tools to at least do a mediocre job.
Please know that I could (and will) write a whole post (or five) about our experience thus far raising black and bi-racial children, but in the interest of space, I’m going to stay on religion.
So here’s how I thought it would work. I believe in God. I believe that there are many paths to God and Judaism is one of those paths. Perhaps naively, I believed that as long as I could share my belief in God with my children, I would be able to do it within the context of Judaism. I figured I knew enough about and felt comfortable with the rituals of Judaism and I was determined to learn how to create and maintain a Jewish, God-loving home. Raising Jewish kids as a non-Jewish mom has gone pretty well so far. The older children understand that they are Jewish and all of them are familiar with the more regular rituals like lighting candles and saying blessings on Friday nights to welcome Shabbat.
Regardless of our success so far, I struggle with parenting my Jewish kids. While I have always participated in Jewish religious traditions, I don’t feel Jewish. I don’t feel like I am passing on or sharing a piece of my self with my children. I was raised as a non-religious Christian, but I sang Christian songs at Sunday school and at overnight camp. I made Christian crafts for holidays and while I celebrated Jewish holidays with friends and chosen family, those celebrations weren’t in my home with my parents as “elders” sharing their traditions. I feel Christian. The God of my childhood is a Christian God.
Sometimes, being a mother, particularly the at-home mother, trying to maintain a Jewish home feels forced and unnatural. I find it hard and wonder if it will always be this way. I don’t want to convert to Judaism and right now it feels too hard to take courses to learn about Judaism and raising Jewish children (I did try a course through Mothers Circle a few years back.), but I do want our home to be a place where we know (and may believe in) God and live Jewish or at least Jewish (Oh come on. I couldn’t resist!)
What I find pretty cool and what I didn’t expect is that even though Wife was raised culturally and religiously Jewish, she too is just learning to be a Jewish mom. She is discovering what feels sacred to her from her cultural and religious heritage and what she wants to share with her family. She is learning from a parent’s perspective about the value of what she has always referred to as boring religious and Hebrew school. She is buying the beautiful things to set the table for our Seder and beaming when her son reads the Four Questions. She may be learning her role as a Jewish mother with familiarity and memory deep within her, but like me, she is learning to create a Jewish home for her Jewish children.
Our big guy cried to come home early from day care today and our middles are out of sorts and full of beans and tears this evening. I imagine like most young Jewish children today, they are recovering from a late night spent with family and friends at a joyful Seder. Passover really is a beautiful celebration. Happy Passover or Chag Sameach .