I pay for my kids’ religious upbringing in monthly installments. Every summer, I fill out a little green card that establishes the figure that will be autodrafted out of our checking account for the next twelve months. There are the synagogue’s dues, which are steep, and then the tuition for my three kids to attend religious school on Sunday mornings. A building fee—payable over five years—is leveraged on all members. It gets expensive, so there are price cuts for people under thirty-five and deeper price cuts for people under thirty. I ask the woman who works in the business office if there’s any way my husband and I might pretend we’re thirty-four for the third year in a row.
Kevin looks at our budget and reminds me that we spend more on religion than we do on our daughters’ ballet lessons, our cell phone bills, or our homeowner’s insurance. Which would be fine, he says, if either of us believed in God.
Kevin was raised Catholic. The church got whatever his parents felt comfortable putting in the collection plate on Sunday. There were no contracts, no invoices, no autodrafts. Sunday Mass was something to be endured, and Kevin will tell you the priests should have been paying him to be there.
• • •
When my parents get engaged—several years before I am born—they take a class, specifically for interfaith couples, at their local synagogue. My father, who was raised Methodist, does all the reading assignments. My mother, who is Jewish, reads the books’ jacket copy and skims the introductions. They are married by a rabbi in my grandparents’ living room, and my mother becomes the first person in her family to marry outside the faith.
• • •
When I am five years old, we move to a little island off the coast of Sardinia, Italy.
There’s an American elementary school on the island, but my mother is committed to the idea that I should become fluent in Italian. She marches me up the steep steps of the Istituto San Vincenzo, a local primary school run by nuns. She brings a pocket-sized Italian dictionary, points at me with exaggerated gestures, and tries to tell the head nun, “She’s Jewish. Can she attend?” The nun nods her head emphatically and says, “Sì, sì.” Neither woman is sure she has been properly understood.
Every afternoon when my mother picks me up from school, she peppers me with questions. She is eager to see evidence of language acquisition, and I am eager to please. She asks what I have learned, and I tell her “the parts of my body.”
Weeks pass, and she continues to ask the same questions. “Still learning the parts of my body,” I say, as we make our way across the Piazza Umberto.
It goes on. Always, I am learning the parts of my body. Finally, my mother asks me to show her, and I point to my forehead, my chest, my two shoulders. “Nel nome del Padre e del Figlio e dello Spirito Santo, amen,” I say, as I make the sign of the cross.
• • •
When I am young, it is my father who leads the Passover seder, who hides the afikomen, who tells us the story of how the Jews escaped from Egypt. My mother’s job is to check the matzo balls on the stove, make sure they’re not falling apart.
• • •
Growing up, I envy the people on my mother’s side of the family who look outwardly Jewish with their dark eyes and brown, wavy hair. I resemble the women on my father’s side of the family with my hazel eyes and thin blond hair that eventually darkens to a medium brown.
On a bus trip in ninth grade, a friend compliments me on my appearance. “You’re so pretty. Your nose doesn’t even look Jewish.”
I say nothing and stare out the bus’s tinted window, worried my friend will see that I have begun to cry. My indignation isn’t for the Jewish people, who have lived with degradations like hers for millennia. I cry because, at fourteen years old, I wish for a sense of belonging, a nose that might trumpet my place in the long history of the Jewish people.
• • •
I am sixteen and on the first real date of my life—a day at the beach with a boy I’ve had a crush on for the better part of a year. On the drive, the windows of my parents’ old station wagon rolled down, the wind in our hair, I feel like I’m in a movie.
I park the car and we walk down to the sand, wander for a while until we find a quiet spot to sit and stare out at the water. “I really like you,” the boy says, and in my head, I am trying to figure out how our first kiss will work. Should I inch closer? Crane my neck? Close my eyes? I can barely breathe. Oh my God I’m about to be kissed.
Then he says that he’s worried our eventual kids will go to hell, and it’s like I can hear the record scratching, the movie soundtrack coming to an abrupt halt.
“Hell?” I ask, confused.
“Yeah, you know. Because you’re Jewish.”
• • •
In college, I am required to enroll in two semesters of a foreign language. I don’t remember any Italian. I studied Spanish in high school. French could be useful if I decide to major in art history. Latin might help me on the LSAT, in the unlikely event I apply to law school.
I scan the course catalog.
College, I have realized, provides me with an opportunity to make up for the areas of my upbringing that have left me feeling weak, unprepared. I enroll in Modern Hebrew.
• • •
When Kevin and I start getting serious, I tell him that raising Jewish kids is nonnegotiable.
He does not try to negotiate.
• • •
When I’m twenty-one, I backpack through Europe with my younger sister, Ruthie. On a warm July evening in Florence, we cross the Arno River and make the hike from Piazzale Michelangelo to San Miniato al Monte, an eleventh-century church that sits at the top of a hill. We are there for the panoramic views of the city, so neither of us is particularly disappointed to find that services are underway and we won’t be able to explore the church’s interior. We’ve already seen a lot of churches on this trip.
We find a spot to perch on a small wall outside the church, where we can watch the sun sink low over the city. In the distance, the Duomo glows. Mass ends, and little old ladies walk, slowly, down the church’s steep steps to waiting cars on the Via delle Porte Sante. I am about to turn to ask Ruthie if she’d like to try to get inside the church, now that the service is over, when the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard begins to emanate from the building’s interior.
The monks have begun vespers, and the air fills with the sound of thousand-year-old Gregorian chants.
Listening to the recitative melody of their song as it floats over Florence’s red roofs and the Tuscan hill country beyond is the closest I’ve come to having a religious experience. I feel humbled. Tiny. And deeply connected to the people around me. To my sister and the monks and the little old ladies on the stairs. To the people who built the Duomo and to Brunelleschi for thinking up the dome that tops it. I am this one minuscule cog in a giant machine that’s been chugging for as long as monks have been praising God with their song. It’s an overwhelming feeling, and I wonder if this might be what it feels like to believe.
• • •
In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and found that when Jews marry outside the faith, they overwhelmingly marry Catholics. It’s an interesting statistic because Protestants outnumber Catholics in the US by nearly two to one.
Why Catholics? In an interview with the interfaith advocacy organization 18 Doors, sociologist Steven Cohen, formerly a professor at Hebrew Union College, says it has everything to do with geography. Jews and Catholics are both concentrated in the Northeast, and “people tend to marry people they encounter.”
I think proximity is only half of it. Both Judaism and Catholicism are rich in liturgy and tradition. Many of us get good at repeating the Amidah or the Apostles’ Creed, the Aleinu or the Anima Christi, without asking ourselves what any of it really means.
• • •
My mother’s brother is an attorney who officiates at the weddings in our family as a side gig.
Everyone loves Woody’s weddings. He’s got a sense of humor, his homilies are heartfelt, and he gets you in and out of the ceremony in seven minutes flat. Do you take this man? Do you take this woman? Before you realize what’s happened, the happy couple is lip-locked and it’s on to the reception. There is seldom, if ever, any mention of God.
Kevin and I could—probably should—invite Woody to officiate at our wedding. Instead, we go with a rent-a-rabbi we find on the internet, someone with a good-looking beard, who is willing to marry a Jew and a Catholic in a traditional Jewish ceremony. Kevin and I meet him once before the wedding, in the living room of his suburban DC home, and my parents pay him $700 for his services.
The rabbi leads us through the reading of the ketubah, the blessing of the wine, and the exchange of the rings. There are the seven wedding blessings and the breaking of the glass. Afterward, he encourages Kevin and me to take a short walk, just the two of us, in the spirit of yichud. It’s an archaic tradition, a reference to the period of time, directly after the wedding ceremony, when a man and woman would have consummated their marriage. At first, the walk feels awkward, forced. But once we are alone, I begin to appreciate what the rabbi has asked of us. He has asked us to step back, to observe the big and beautiful thing we’ve done.
• • •
We buy a house in South Carolina, and I google “How to hang a mezuzah.”
• • •
After fertility treatments fail, I arrange a meeting with our rabbi. Judaism recognizes matrilineal descent; people are considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish. It is a religion of bloodlines, and I want someone in authority to tell me that it’s 2004 and bloodlines don’t matter.
Sitting in the synagogue’s reading room, Kevin beside me, I ask the rabbi, “If we adopt, will our children be Jewish?”
“By the standards of Reform Judaism,” he tells us, “unequivocally, yes.”
• • •
I start calling around to local adoption agencies. In South Carolina, most of them are Christian. I call one and it takes the intake coordinator just seconds to ask, “And what church do you and your husband attend?”
“Tree of Life Synagogue,” I tell her.
“Oh,” she says. I can tell she is weighing her words.
I help her out. “I’m Jewish.”
“Oh, well, we only work with Christian families in our domestic programs,” she says. “You’d qualify for some of our international programs.” It’s strange how she manages to make international programs sound like a consolation prize.
I don’t know why I push it but I say, “My husband’s Catholic. Does that help?”
“Catholic?” she repeats. “Oh no, we only work with Christians.”
After I hang up, I call Kevin at his office.
“Did you know Catholics aren’t Christians?”
“Huh?” he says, only half paying attention.
It is news to me.
• • •
The baby is a boy, and we name him Gabriel. He is a month old when our Minnesota-based adoption agency sends us his referral, two months old when we fly down to Guatemala City to meet him for the first time, and five months old when I fly back to the United States with him in my arms.
Our pediatrician proclaims him perfect, and when I ask what, if anything, can be done about circumcising an infant who is long past his eighth day of life, she refers me to a Jewish urologist who is willing to allow our rabbi, freshly scrubbed, into the operating theater to act as an honorary mohel.
I wear a pantsuit to the hospital, Kevin a coat and tie. Our outfits feel all wrong, not the sort of thing a baby coming out of anesthesia can cuddle up to. But there will be prayers in pre-op and, when we return home from the hospital, a party in full swing.
At home, the rabbi rests a hand on Gabriel’s head and repeats the prayers he said in the operating room. Aunts and grandmothers bustle around, unwrapping extra deli platters, washing abandoned wineglasses, cutting pieces of cake. Gabriel—still woozy—sleeps through all of it.
• • •
Months after the bris, we meet our rabbi at the mikvah, which is owned and maintained by a more conservative temple than the one we belong to. It’s time to cross our t’s and dot our i’s, officially converting Gabriel to Judaism.
In the changing rooms, I slip into a bathing suit, then strip Gabriel naked. Kevin stands at the ready with a camera and two towels.
Tentatively, the two of us make our way down the steps and into the small square of chlorinated water, as deep as my chest. Gabriel is slippery and squirms in my arms, and when I dunk his head once, twice, three times, he spins around and looks at me, as if to ask: What did you do that for?
• • •
When I am twenty-six, I travel to Israel with the Birthright Israel program. The program, which was established in 1999, sends young adults from across the Jewish diaspora to Israel for ten days, all expenses paid. If you identify as Jewish, you qualify to go. No questions asked. The hope is that participants will connect with their faith and, in the process, become advocates for Israel.
I am assigned to a travel group made up of forty young professionals, about my age, and together we crisscross Israel in a generously appointed motorbus. “Go home and have lots of Jewish babies,” our tour guide jokes on more than one occasion.
I am already raising a Jewish baby, though when I tell my travel companions about Gabriel, no one can quite believe that I am old enough to be a mother, let alone a mother to a baby I adopted.
The producers of an Israeli documentary about the program are tailing our bus. They reached out before I left for Israel and asked if they could visit me in the United States, meet my family, then document my experiences on the trip. Each time the forty of us file off the bus to see something new, they pull me aside and ask how that something—the Yad Vashem memorial and museum, the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, Ben-Gurion’s desert home—makes me feel.
When I arrive home, Kevin and Gabriel meet me at the airport. As soon as Gabriel sees me, he flies into my arms, and I think about how, for all the ancient and holy places I’ve just seen, this moment might be the best part of the trip.
A few months later, a DVD arrives in the mail, accompanied by a note. I learn that the documentary has aired in Israel and this English-language copy is mine to keep. I pop the disc in the DVD player, and Kevin and I watch as I experience the Western Wall, Masada, the Dead Sea.
In a background segment, the producers share some of the photographs I provided the crew: a still of my grandparents celebrating Passover, one of Kevin and me getting married, another taken soon after we traveled to Guatemala to adopt Gabriel. The voiceover, English in a thick Israeli accent, says that we adopted “a little Catholic baby,” and I laugh out loud. “Did you hear that?” I ask Kevin as I pause the DVD, rewind, and hit play again. “They just called Gabriel ‘a little Catholic baby.’”
I’m amused—it’s a funny way to identify a baby—but also maybe a tiny bit annoyed. Gabriel was never baptized, never took Communion, never said so much as a single rosary. I think of him as Hispanic, always, but Catholic, never.
There’s something about the way the phrase is used to define my son that feels intentional, exclusionary. Israel is meant to be a safe haven for the world’s Jews, an escape hatch if the shit hits the fan. It’s a country for all of us, but now I find myself wondering, is it also for him?
• • •
We are in our late twenties, living in Richmond, Virginia, when our synagogue hires a young assistant rabbi named Jesse. He and his husband, Andrew—also a rabbi—buy a house down the street from us. They don’t have kids yet, so they come hang out on our front porch in the evenings after Gabriel and his new sister, Clementine, are asleep.
The four of us drink beer and play Cards Against Humanity. The first time I have Jesse and Andrew over for a proper dinner, my mother has to remind me not to serve shrimp. Another time, I make a salad that contains both steak and blue cheese crumbles.
“I’m the worst,” I say, when I realize I’ve just trampled a major dietary law.
“It’s why this relationship works,” Jesse consoles me. “Ordinarily, it’s hard to be friends with congregants. But you guys are barely Jewish.”
• • •
Kevin’s mother, Beverly, used to buy an ornament for each of her three children every year at Christmastime. Most of them are customized with the child’s name and the year: a bear in a tutu, marked “Stephanie 1989”; a whale in a stocking cap, “Brian 1990”; a miniature sled with “Kevin 1987” spelled out across the seat.
Kevin’s siblings move out, get married, buy houses, and eventually start putting up their own trees. When they do, their ornaments go with them.
For about a decade, Kevin’s ornaments fly solo on Beverly’s fake fir.
“How come Daddy’s the only one with ornaments?” the kids like to ask as they admire the seven-foot-tall Christmas tree in the corner of my in-laws’ living room.
“Because I’m Gramma’s favorite,” Kevin yells from the next room.
One Christmas, the Kevin ornaments aren’t on the tree. The kids notice right away, and when they alert my mother-in-law to the problem, she hands Kevin a shoebox.
“What am I gonna do with these, Ma?” he says, lifting the lid off the box.
“Put them on a tree.”
We don’t have a tree. Have never had a tree. Aren’t ever going to have a tree.
“If you want me to enjoy them,” Kevin says, “keep hanging them on yours.”
• • •
When Kevin and I decide to adopt a third child, domestically this time, our social worker tells us to write a letter, introducing our family to prospective birth mothers.
This is new to me. With international adoption, you fill out a mountain of paperwork and your name gets put on a list. Eventually, when your name moves to the top of that list, you receive the referral of a child. It would be possible for our application to be discounted because we didn’t stamp the right affidavit in triplicate, but never because I’m Jewish.
In the US, pregnant women read letters and peruse photo books in an attempt to pick the perfect parents for their baby. The letters read like advertising copy, intended to sell a confused sixteen-year-old on the prospective parents’ homes, pets, jobs, extended families. The baby will have its own room! We’ve got a dachshund! We love going to the beach! I’m a teacher, so I’ve got my summers off! No one knows exactly what will appeal, so prospective parents throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
I don’t know where to begin with the letter. But I do know that 83 percent of American Jews—more than any other major religious group—believe abortion should be legal. Jews are also, according to the Pew Research Center, the religious group with the highest household income; 44 percent of Jews in the United States live in households that make more than $100,000 per year. This means that if a Jewish woman wants an abortion, she’s likely to be able to afford to get one. What I come to understand is that the women reading our letter aren’t likely to be Jewish.
I agonize over the letter, and when it’s finished, I decide it might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever written. In it, I describe our century-old row house, Kevin’s job as a professor (Education is important in our family!), our commitment to diversity and to maintaining ties to our kids’ birth cultures. I call out the cute park down the street from our house, the ice cream parlor where we take the kids for treats, and the fact that we travel down to Orlando each winter to celebrate Christmas with Kevin’s family. What I do not say, anywhere in the letter, is that I’m Jewish and that we’re raising Jewish kids.
• • •
Kevin is offered a job at a private liberal arts college. Everything about the job is better than the one he’s got—except the college’s location in a rural Virginia town of seven thousand residents.
After the moving truck has come and gone, we drop by the campus Hillel House. I know they offer programming for the Jewish students at the university, but I’ve heard they also work hard to engage the larger Jewish community, particularly since there’s no synagogue in town. The director ushers us into his office with the kind of familiarity that tells me he knew we were coming.
He talks about the High Holy Days and how Hillel pays for a rabbinical student to travel in from out of town to perform the services. But if we want our three kids to get any kind of regular religious education, we’ll have to drive an hour down the road to Charlottesville.
“We’ve only got fifty-nine Jewish families in town,” he says, and I laugh at the exactitude.
“I guess we make sixty.”
He shakes his head. “No, no. You’re fifty-nine.”
• • •
On the drive to Charlottesville one morning, nine-year-old Gabriel tells us he hates Sunday school.
Clementine, who is three years younger and lives for contradicting her brother, says she likes it.
He makes his case. “All we ever do is learn religious stuff.”
I turn around in the passenger seat and look at both of them. Neither of them would have been raised Jewish if their lives had taken a different turn.
“That’s kind of the whole point,” I say.
• • •
I join a book club. The club’s members seem like smart, engaged women who, one way or another, have managed to make small town life work for them, and I want to know their secrets.
When it’s my turn to host, I make guacamole and pour salted almonds into a pretty ceramic bowl. I wash some grapes and unwrap a selection of cheeses. By the time I’m done putting out the spread, I feel embarrassed. It’s more food than anyone needs, but I want to make a good impression.
Some women show up with the book. Others admit to not having read it. One arrives with a bridesmaid dress slung over her shoulder. She says she wants to try it on for all of us, so I show her the bathroom down the hall. Do we think she needs to get it hemmed, or can she make it work with a tall pair of heels? Everyone’s got an opinion, and a story about an alteration they paid for that was bad or expensive or both.
One woman starts in on a seamstress who charged far too much for far too little. As the story winds down, this woman leans over the salted almonds conspiratorially. “No offense,” she says, looking directly at me, “but she really jewed me.”
“I am offended,” I tell her, but saying the words out loud doesn’t begin to alleviate my confusion. I can’t believe there are people still saying this shit. That she knew I was Jewish and said it anyway. In my house. In 2015.
• • •
We move back to Richmond. I survey the new house, soften, tell Kevin he can put up a tree, string lights if he wants. Since it’s not my thing, I warn him that I won’t lead the charge, buy the tree, drag it home. Any pagan/Christian traditions we introduce into our home have to come from him, born out of his own personal desire to reconnect, if not with his faith then with the things that mattered to him as a kid.
Kevin barely looks up from whatever he’s reading. “I’m good.”
“You don’t miss the tree? The decorations?”
“I don’t want to be taking lights down in January.”
It’s one of the unsung benefits of being Jewish. Not standing on an exterior ladder, numb-knuckled and hungover, for several hours on the first of the year, the tree an oversized tumbleweed on the curb.
• • •
Jesse and Andrew, the rabbis, have moved out of state, but they return to Richmond for a visit with their twin boys in tow. Kevin and I serve a big brunch—no bacon—and the four of us sit around the dining room table, drinking coffee and watching our kids get to know each other. Their family exists because a woman in North Carolina was willing to serve as a surrogate, carrying their beautiful boys to term in the same womb where she once nurtured her own children. Ours exists because three separate women in three separate parts of the world made the decision to place their children for adoption. It’s a weird and wonderful fact that neither family would have existed a hundred years ago.
I start to clear the table, and Jesse follows me into the kitchen. Asks how the congregation is doing. “Truthfully,” I say, as I open the dishwasher and stack sticky plates, one next to the other, in the bottom rack, “I’m beginning to wonder if I should quit. It’s a lot of money.”
“Don’t give up on it,” he says.
I stand up straight, grab a handful of flatware from the sink. Do I dare tell him the truth? He’s our drinking buddy, but he’s also a man of faith. “Jesse, I don’t believe in God.”
“Oh Rachel, that’s half the congregation.”
• • •
In 2012, Gallup polled fifty-one thousand people in fifty-seven countries, asking them: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”
Among people who self-identified as members of a religious community, Jews were found to be the least religious. Of Jews, 54 percent said they weren’t religious, and 2 percent said they were atheists.
Since Judaism is both a religion and an ethnicity, scholars suggest it is possible to be both ethnically Jewish and religiously atheist.
This sounds pretty good to me. Except I’ve got three kids who aren’t ethnically Jewish. If I don’t raise them to be religiously Jewish, then where am I leaving them?
• • •
I contact the temple’s office and ask if I can change the payment method on file.
“Do you accept credit cards?” I ask.
It has occurred to me that if I’m going to pay all these fees, I should be earning the air miles.
• • •
My grandmother dies on the eighth of December, and by the time her five children descend on the assisted living community where my grandparents lived together, it is Hanukkah.
In an effort to capture some semblance of normalcy, my mother and her siblings light the menorah and say the Hanukkah blessing. Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
“You’re saying it wrong,” says my aunt.
“How do you say it?” one of them asks.
They go around the table, reciting the same blessing they all learned as kids. Every single one of them says it differently.
My mother texts me a video. In it, my aunts and uncles are doubled over, laughing at their religiosity, or lack thereof. “You can’t even recognize Woody’s version,” my mother writes.
The video is heartwarming. It’s good to see my mother and her siblings together, funny to watch them realize they’ve all taught these mutated versions of the blessing to their own children, who have in turn passed them on to their partners and kids. It’s Judaism reduced to a giant game of telephone.
• • •
There are plenty of studies that say it’s good for children to be raised with religion. Kids who believe in something display signs of improved mental health, demonstrate stronger self-control, and react more positively to discipline.
There are also lots of studies that say that the abovementioned studies are crap, and that kids raised without religion are more generous and empathetic and a whole lot more likely to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality.
• • •
My younger daughter, Florence, calls the Star of David “the Sunday star,” and I find I am both tickled by her perception (she does see it on Sundays, after all) and overwhelmed by how much I have gotten wrong. If I had done a better job with this religion stuff, she wouldn’t have relegated the symbol to a single day of the week.
• • •
It’s August and another green card must be returned to the synagogue.
“I’m really thinking about quitting,” I admit to Kevin. I believe in Planned Parenthood and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and the community arts center where I work, and I don’t give those organizations a fraction of the money I give our temple.
Then several hundred neo-Nazis descend on Charlottesville, and we watch as they shout anti-Semitic slurs, physically attack counterprotesters, run down pedestrians with a car. President Trump offers empty platitudes and ultimately sides with the perpetrators, not the victims.
Alan Zimmerman, the president of the board of Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel, where my kids used to attend religious school, writes a blog post for ReformJudaism.org. In it he describes what it felt like to be Jewish in Charlottesville that weekend: “When services ended, my heart broke as I advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.”
The blog post could have been a journal entry written by any Jew living in prewar Germany. But he reminds us, “This is 2017 in the United States of America.”
I read his words and sob. Then I share the post with everyone I know.
Finally, I fill out the little green card, agreeing to make twelve equal payments of $150 per month.
• • •
It’s December, and I’m in the back of my mother-in-law’s Christmas closet. It’s a daunting place—a six-foot-deep nook under the stairs, full of shirt boxes and gift bags, carefully refolded and stored in large plastic bins so they can be reused year after year.
I am returning a stack of shirt boxes, folded down at their cardboard corners, to their rightful place when I spot a ceramic menorah—painted in splashy shades of blue—under some abandoned tissue paper.
“Bev,” I yell to my mother-in-law, who is at the kitchen sink, “did you buy a menorah?”
“It was on sale,” she shouts back. No one loves a sale as much as my mother-in-law.
I touch the thick base, the stubby candleholders. Is her plan to send it home with us?
The water in the kitchen shuts off. “I figured we’d keep it here,” she says in a quieter voice, from the doorway of the closet, “save you from having to bring one when Hanukkah falls on Christmas.”
• • •
Gabriel’s bar mitzvah is four months away, and he refuses to practice his Hebrew. Once a week, before his tutoring sessions, I force him to get out his three-ring binder of photocopied prayers and Torah readings, and I stand over him as he moves haltingly through the kiddush, the tallit, the haftarah. Within moments, he’s screaming in frustration, or I am, or we both are.
It’s hard to watch him struggle with this because there’s so little I can do to help. He’s learning a series of prayers I don’t know, learning to pray to a God I cannot reach. I wanted to raise him with religion, hoped to nurture in him a belief in God. His bar mitzvah marks his entrance into manhood, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the passage of time. All I may be able to do is teach him to ask his own questions, to go in search of his own God.
• • •
I receive a letter from the Jewish Community Center, asking if our contact information has changed. It’s for a directory, which the JCC publishes and distributes to Richmond’s Jewish community—about three thousand people total. There’s space on the form to submit new information and a box to check if I’d prefer not to be included.
The directory is both a resource and, if it ever got into the wrong hands, a risk. I picture some lunatic turning it into a hit list, going after the city’s Jews in their homes, one by one. The temperature of the nation isn’t the same as it was the last time this directory was published. In the wake of Trump’s election, hate crimes against Jews in the US have more than doubled.
I consider checking the box. Please don’t include us, thanks very much. My dad was a Methodist; my kids are multiethnic; my last name is Beanland. I’ve been told even my nose doesn’t look Jewish. If there is anyone who should be able to slip off the rolls, it’s me and my family.
But in the end, I can’t do it. I leave the box unchecked.
• • •
On a Saturday morning in October, a gunman walks into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and opens fire.
Throughout the day, my phone buzzes with news alerts. Eleven people are dead. Six are injured, including several police officers who responded to the scene. The shooting is the deadliest attack ever on a Jewish community in the United States.
That evening, Gabriel is to go to a bar mitzvah at our synagogue, and I wonder how I will manage to let him walk out my front door. My one, precious son.
I wait for word that the bar mitzvah is to be canceled, postponed. Instead, I get an email from our rabbi, addressed to the entire congregation: “The mission of the Jewish people is to be a ‘Light unto the Nations,’ that is, it is our obligation to act and react in a way that shows the world the morality that we wish for all.”
I go through the motions. Tell Gabriel to put on his suit, brush his teeth, wet down his hair. Write a check, scribbling “Mazel Tov!” in the memo line. Hand him a card to sign. Finally, there is nothing left to do except let him go.
I count the hours until it’s time to pick him up. Four, three, two, one.
In front of the building, a uniformed police officer waits on the sidewalk, not far from his patrol car. If something were wrong, I tell myself, there would be blue lights. More cars.
“I’m here to pick up my son,” I say when I’m in front of the man. “At the bar mitzvah.”
He waves me over to the doors, and I stand by as he unlocks them.
“Thank you for being here tonight,” I say, when he holds a door open for me. “Especially tonight.”
“It’s terrible,” he says quietly. Then he ushers me into this house of God and locks the door behind me.
• • •
On the occasion of a child’s bar mitzvah, it’s customary for the parents to go to the bimah and say a blessing, called an aliyah, before he reads from the Torah. A few weeks before Gabriel’s ceremony, the rabbi hands me a copy of the aliyah, and my eyes widen. It’s a lot of Hebrew for Kevin and me to learn.
The blessing sits on the kitchen counter for several days before Kevin and I gather around an ironing board in our living room and pull up a YouTube channel called “Prayer-eoke” on my phone. With the words in front of us and a voice singing the incantations in our ears, we stumble through the blessing. The video is helpful, so we keep playing it, which the kids think is both nightmarish and very funny.
• • •
I write a novel that’s based on a family story my mother told me. My great-great-aunt Florence was training to swim the English Channel when she drowned off the shoreline of Atlantic City. Her sister Ruth was pregnant and on bedrest after losing a baby the previous year, and the girls’ mother made the decision to keep Florence’s death a secret until Ruth had delivered a healthy baby.
“Can you even imagine?” my mother always said of her great-grandmother. “Visiting her daughter in that hospital room, and never letting on that Florence was dead?”
The week the novel is to go to auction, my agent schedules calls with editors who are interested in acquiring it. Almost all of them are Jewish. When we talk, they want to know what’s fact and what’s fiction, so I outline the real story, which took place nearly ninety years ago. There comes a point, on nearly every call, when the editor says, of the story, “It’s just so Jewish.”
What makes the story a Jewish one, I wonder, as I hang up the phone after each call. Sure, I throw in a few prayers, references to sitting shiva and observing Shabbat. But that’s not what they mean. They’re referencing the secret my mother’s great-grandmother kept. Her inclination to protect the living rather than honor the dead. The edict she issued, in a moment of gut-wrenching agony, which everyone else in the family willingly obeyed.
I didn’t set out to write a Jewish story. In fact, I feel barely qualified to write one.
But I’m learning that the stories I know in my bones are Jewish ones.
• • •
We attend our daughter Florence’s consecration—otherwise known as the beginning of her formal education in Judaism. A dozen five-year-olds wiggle in a pew at the front of the temple, and Florence turns in her seat, trying to spot us among the other parents.
“Your beginning, here, means Judaism will continue,” says the rabbi as he calls her up to the bimah.
• • •
On the morning of Gabriel’s bar mitzvah, I worry about whether our out-of-town family will find parking and whether the caterer will be able to get into the venue, whether the knot on Gabriel’s tie is too big and whether my brother will arrive in time for the family photographs we’re taking on the temple’s front steps.
What I do not spend much time considering, until I am staring at my son, who sits on the bimah, beaming, is what will actually happen at the ceremony.
There is a part of the service called the dor l’dor, which, when translated, means “from generation to generation.” After the rabbi opens the ark and removes the Torah, he passes it to my mother, who passes it to me. The sacred scrolls are heavier than I anticipate, and Kevin helps me position them, securely, against my shoulder before we pass them to Gabriel. He receives them, his arms open, and I am wholly moved by the significance of what we have just done.
• • •
The Shema is the oldest daily prayer in Jewish tradition. It is said at morning and evening services and is considered to be a declaration of faith. It’s big and important and also really, really beautiful.
I never learned the Shema as a kid but my own children have been singing it for years. Sometimes, they’ll be in the bath or doing their homework, and I’ll hear them saying the words under their breath, the melody as soothing as a lullaby.
One day at services, when the congregation begins to sing the prayer, I realize I am singing too. Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. I sing the next verse and the one that follows that. I can’t tell you what the words mean, or if I believe them. But maybe, I tell myself, it’s enough to sing along.