Vicki is one of my oldest friends, and I recently trekked to New Jersey to watch her son celebrate his bar mitzvah. Vicki and I worked for a Jewish civil rights organization when we lived in New York, and at the time, the job was our strongest connection to Judaism. But even then it was clear to me that Vicki had the most Jewish heart of anyone I knew.
During the New York years, Vicki had an intense rollercoaster relationship with the man who would become her husband. Kurt is an only child of Lutheran parents who were more bewildered than upset about their son’s Jewish girlfriend. The Vicki-Kurt story is a fairy tale that was not without drama or practical real life concerns. How would these two reconcile their religious differences? How would each set of parents react to a Christmas tree or a menorah? A judge married Vicki and Kurt, and at the time, Vicki told her mother that her future grandchildren might not celebrate b’nei mitzvot.
Over the next few years, Vicki and Kurt were blessed with two sons. Both boys had traditional b’rit milot – circumcision ceremonies. Just in case we bring up the children Jewish, my friend thought. Vicki also knew that navigating through the various branches of Judaism was less complicated because her kids had a Jewish mother. (Matrilineal descent as the sole determinant of Jewish identity is a different discussion for a different time. I have friends and colleagues who are much more knowledgeable and eloquent on the subject, including Ed Case, founder of Interfaithfamily.com). All I mean to say here is that children of interfaith parents are generally not as scrutinized about their Judaism if they have a Jewish mother.
When Vicki and Kurt lived in Florida, Vicki worked for the Jewish Federation, demonstrating again that her Jewish heart sought out what she needed. One of the synagogues that Vicki casually attended in Florida gave her a copy of “Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays and Values for Today’s Parents and Children.” Full disclosure: The authors of “Jewish Family & Life” – Yosef Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman – are dear family friends. Apart from our friendship, I can unequivocally say that their book should be in every Jewish parent’s home.
Like the authors, the book is accessible and warm and encouraging. Abramowitz and Silverman begin with the basics of making a home Jewish by hanging a mezuzah. With compassionate awareness that Jewish families are blessedly diverse, the authors also write, “There are many paths to family kedushah (holiness).” They recognize that having so many paths leading toward a Jewish life can be confusing. They encourage families to develop personal approaches to holidays, including the ubiquitous Shabbat, and write that:
One mother remembers that her first attempts at Shabbat rituals felt overwhelming. ‘But it’s worth taking the risk,’ she adds. ‘It’s like wearing a new pair of jeans. It takes about four times to feel comfortable.’
Vicki and Kurt went temple shopping again when they moved to New Jersey. Once again they were given a copy of “Jewish Family & Life.” The book sat on their living room coffee table until Kurt picked it up one day and read about subjects such as “Tikun Olam: Repairing the World” and “K’lal Yisrael: The People Israel as an Extended Family.”
My friends were beginning to feel that it was important to make a decision about their family’s spiritual practice. Kurt liked what he read in “Jewish Family & Life.” He was already comfortable in various Jewish settings through Vicki’s work, and they celebrated the major Jewish holidays. He knew how much Judaism meant to Vicki, and he wanted to be her partner in bringing up their sons Jewish. “Parenting is a sacred path,” write Abramowitz and Silverman. “Families in all their various configurations give parents a mechanism and structure to raise children.” Vicki’s son conducted his bar mitzvah with keva and kavana – fixed and spontaneous reflection. He read four portions from the Torah. He read Haftarah – a selection from the prophets that is paired with the Torah reading. He talked about how his beautiful mother and his generous father supported his Jewish learning. His non-Jewish grandparents read the Schechehiyanu –an encompassing blessing for momentous occasions – in transliteration. Vicki and her family were mindful and grateful for every moment that brought them to the season of their joy – to their older son’s bar mitzvah.
I took Kurt aside during the weekend and thanked him for being a beloved companion of the Jewish people. He’s a modest guy, and he simply said that all of the thanks should go to Vicki and his sons. Yes, but I still want to say it: Thank you, Kurt, from the bottom of my Jewish heart.