I’m not fond of hypotheticals.
The other day my 11-year-old daughter asked me if the Holocaust were to re-occur, would she be considered a Jew or a Christian. Based on Jewish law and due to her maternal roots, she and her siblings would be considered Jewish — even if they don’t actively practice Judaism.
“Even if we don’t go to temple?” she asked.
Yes, I answered her.
“Even if Dad isn’t Jewish?” she asked, searching for some sort of religious pass.
Yes, I answered her. Then I told her that Jews aren’t the only religious group who’ve been unfairly persecuted. Consider Christians, who since the time of Christ have been oppressed for their faith, I told her, they too have died for their religion. Sophie, whose world view is hued in pastel colors, quietly gazed at the passing cars, and asked again, “But, what am I? Jewish or Christian?”
Growing up I shared her confusion. My father, the son of a pastor, has always, for as long as I can remember, worn a gold mezuzah around his neck. My mother, who was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism, ran a kosher home at one point in her life. She observes all the high holidays and the Sabbath. Yet, despite all outward appearances, never have I encountered a more stalwart Jew who didn’t adore Christmas more than her. Hanukkah is not the same without a menorah, a Christmas tree, twinkling lights, Christmas Carols, a nativity scene, and Nat King Cole. During Passover, my mother buttered her matzo while helping me color my Easter eggs.
In truth, my childhood was a Judeo-Christian experiment.
In Puerto Rico I studied at a Catholic school which required a baptism and a first communion. Our home was near a Jesuit monastery. My parents befriended kind monks and they baptized me. In Catholic school I learned about saints and penitence. During Easter week, Christ’s crucifixion was recreated with a man who buckled under the weight of a wooden cross as he crawled on an unpaved road that wound its way into our small school chapel. That sweaty man, recreating the crucifixion, scarred me for years.
Years later, stateside, we moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. By then, I was old enough to question things. In our Jewish neighborhood, we had a mezuzah on our door, my friends and teachers were Jewish, I was invited to Bat Mitzvahs, and I was immersed in Judaism. We went to the Jewish deli for loxs, bagels and gefilta fish. I was Jewish. I went away to college and pledged a Jewish sorority. I was Jewish, so I thought.
But was I really? After college, the ties that bound me to Judaism began to fray. I meandered through Eastern religions trying them for size, but didn’t find a fit. Then I abandoned the quest for a religious identity all together. It didn’t matter, after all, I was now “spiritual.” During those confusing times I remembered my maternal grandmother, whose hard-core evolutionary beliefs scoffed at the notion of creationism. She was an atheist by day, but at night, when sleep overtook her and she was most vulnerable, she often cried out to God. Religion (or the absence of), I concluded, was not a steadfast thing.
Today, I am neither entirely Catholic, Christian or Jewish. I’m somewhere in between. But for children, that’s not good enough. Religion is not a political affiliation where an independent status is acceptable. It seems to me the work of instilling values in children should begin at home and be further supported by religious instruction.
“Sophie,” I answered simply, “we believe in God and the Ten Commandments.”
It’s messy and non-specific, but it’s my most exact truth.