This is the story of “My Life as a Jistian”I grew up in a Reform Jewish, secular home. For many of you this may sound like an oxymoron – how can someone be Jewish and secular? This is the mystery that my dear husband still finds perplexing, so I will try to do a better job of explaining it to you. First it is important that you understand Reform Judaism.
For those of you who are not familiar, Reform Judaism originated in Germany in the early 1800s (where most of my mother’s family is from) and was started by Jews who were freed from the segregated experience of the ghetto and who wanted to assimilate into German culture. Reform Jews do not follow the strict rules that affect every day life (the 613 Mishnah that define every detail of life for Orthodox Jews), and because of this are able to live more easily with peoples of other faiths.
So in my family we did not treat Friday nights or Saturdays any different than any other day. We ate pork (in fact my mother liked to joke about serving pork for Passover). We even, to my father’s displeasure, celebrated Christmas and had one of the largest Christmas trees in town. But that is how my mother had been raised – everyone in her German Jewish family had always had Christmas trees. My mother had had no religious education, nor had her mother. But they still strongly identified themselves as Jewish – it was a cultural identity, a part of our family identity.
My father’s family was more observant – Russian and Scottish Jewish. My father, a brilliant lawyer with a photographic memory, always had a strong intellectual interest in Jewish history and theology in general, but actually did not believe in God. For that matter, I am pretty sure my mother didn’t either.
But despite the lack of faith in God, and the lack of observance of the detailed practices that define Conservative or Orthodox Jews, my family was still clearly Jewish. We attended synagogue on the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). We celebrated Hanukah and Passover. We made Jewish jokes and laughed at the parts of Mel Brooks movies that our non-Jewish friends didn’t get. I also believe that my family identified themselves as Jewish in response to experiences of anti-Semitism that they (certainly my father) had had. Members of my mother’s family had died in the Holocaust. I knew I was a Jew because Hitler would have defined me as such.
My Jewish identity was also shaped by my religious education. I attended Hebrew school through my Bat-Mitzvah, and beyond. I chose to do this: My parents told me that I would not be having one of those ‘over the top’ Bat Mitzvahs with a big party and lots of presents. And I didn’t care. I was always interested in religion and was just basically a nerd who just loved to study. And to be able to read the Torah in Hebrew for one’s Bat Mitzvah requires a lot of study. Other than learning Hebrew, the other aspects of my religious education were primarily cultural, and political. Cultural in that I learned about all of the Jewish holidays; Political in that we spent a significant amount of time learning about the Holocaust, the history and political situation of Israel, and about the importance of rebuilding and sustaining the Jewish people after our near complete genocide.
I want to linger on this point because it is one of the ways that Judaism is so different than Christianity – because to me, and many other Jews – being Jewish is about identity, and obligation. I was raised that because of the continuous persecution of the Jewish people, and the 6 million Jews who were killed in Holocaust, that it is my duty as a Jew to keep Judaism alive. The main way I was supposed to do this was to marry Jewish, and to raise my children as Jews. I remember being told by my rabbi that it was better not even to date non-Jews, because then I ran the risk of marrying a non-Jew and having non-Jewish children (he was quite prescient on that point). I was also told that I should have at least three children – two to replace my husband and myself, and a third to replace a Holocaust victim.
After my Bat Mitzvah I again chose to continue my religious education through to 10th grade Confirmation (a Reform Jewish phenomenon, I should mention). It was not until 10th grade that we covered ethics as a subject in any depth. In that year we studied the Pirke Avot – the Sayings of the Fathers – which I still remember as being a formative and wonderful exposure to the ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition.
The third crucial influence from my childhood was my education. I attended a Quaker school. For those of you unfamiliar with the Quaker tradition – Quakers are a group within Reform Christianity that hold extraordinarily liberal and egalitarian ideas about religion and society in general. Quakers do not have churches. They do not have ministers. Quakers have ‘meeting houses’ – and once a week they assemble in the Meeting House and everyone just sits in silence. Then, when and if anyone in the congregation has something to say, they get up, say their piece, and then sit down. I attended Quaker meeting once a week from Kindergarten through 12th grade – and I loved it. It was a time for contemplation – for sharing insights. Politically what is distinctive about Quakers is their complete commitment to Christ’s message of non-violence. They believe that violence is NEVER justified. We never had someone come to talk about the Draft – we had someone come to explain how to be a conscientious objector. The school was, not surprisingly, incredibly liberal in general and instilled in me a strong sense of obligation for those less fortunate. Interestingly, the student body of the school was perhaps 50% Jewish – and my mother and her whole family had attended this school. In high school and beyond I found myself drawn to philosophy, Classics, English – subjects where there was room to explore the ‘big questions’ of life – because I just was one of those people who did a lot of that (others might call it spending time analyzing your navel).
So these three sources of influence: home, religious education, and Quaker school, made me into someone who clearly identified myself as Jewish, had a strong intellectual interest in religious and philosophical issues and a concern for social justice, but who was at core secular in practice and profoundly non-spiritual.
College was a revelation for me in a number of ways. Early on I developed an interest in political science. Taking an intro to international relations course my freshman year I had the opportunity to do a research paper on the founding of Israel – and learned for the first time how one-sided a view I had of Israel’s history. I will hasten to add that I still am a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist, but I now have a much greater appreciation of the other side of this story. I also had the opportunity to take several religion courses – one in Jewish history, and another in Jewish philosophy, that made me appreciate the richness of Jewish heritage in a way that I, quite frankly, feel I should have gained in my religious education but did not. In one of these courses I had a chance to write a paper that became crucial for my thinking over the next few years. It was about the modern American Jewish identity – and specifically – grappling with the obligation that had been laid on me as a child. My question in that paper was about what exactly it was that I was supposed to be preserving when I was challenged to ‘preserve Judaism’. In Reform Judaism, where the distinctive practices that define Orthodox and Conservative Judaism have been eliminated, what ends up being left – at least, what was left for me – was the formative experience of centuries of anti-semitism culminating in the Holocaust and the tribal obligation of rebuilding and preserving the Jewish people. But what was the positive model that I was striving to preserve? What did it really mean to be Jewish?
I graduated from college in ’91, as the Berlin wall was falling and Yeltsin was standing on a tank in Moscow. Fascinated by the changes taking place in Eastern Europe, I took a job teaching English in what was then Czechoslovakia. I was there when the country decided to split into two, and watched the peaceful, yet occasionally tense relations between the Czech and Slovak students I taught. Disturbed by this experience and more deeply horrified by the ethnic cleansing occurring in other parts of the region, I decided to focus my attention on issues of nationalism and ethnic conflict. Returning to the states, I got a job working as a research assistant in the Washington DC bureau of one of Japan’s leading newspapers. It was a wonderful opportunity to continue to follow foreign and national policy issues as I did all the work of a journalist except writing the story (I turned in all the research to the correspondent who would then write the story in Japanese). After two years in DC attending white house press conferences, travelling to the Hill and continuing to follow developments in Eastern Europe I resolved to pursue a career in foreign policy and ethnic conflict resolution in Eastern Europe. I spent the summer of ’94 in Moscow brushing up on the Russian I’d learned in college, then started graduate school to get a degree in foreign policy.
Two-thirds of the way through the first semester, my mother, with whom I had always been very close, was diagnosed with breast cancer. My life changed.
Already beginning to have second thoughts about my chosen career as I reached my late twenties and started to feel my biological clock starting to tick, my mother’s illness made me truly reassess my priorities. I realized how important family was to me. I realized a life traversing war-torn regions, while appeasing my need to feel like I was ‘making a difference in the world’, would not ultimately make me happy.
I took a leave of absence from graduate school and returned home. After some soul searching I decided to do something crazy and try to actually develop some usable skills. I got a job through a friend at a software company. I discovered then how business- particularly small local businesses – can have a profoundly positive impact on local communities – giving jobs and hope to people who have nothing. I was fascinated by the creativity of technology, and the energy of an entrepreneurial environment. Three years later I decided to return to graduate school, but this time to get an MBA.
I should note that through my twenties, I repeatedly attempted, and failed, to do as I’d been taught and meet a nice Jewish boy. As I arrived at business school I was dating a man who had been raised Jewish but who had completely rejected Judaism and converted to Buddhism. He insisted that if we had children we could NOT raise them Jewish. Truly ironic.
I met my future husband (Doug) on my first day of business school. And my life changed again. That first semester, my mother’s cancer, which had gone into remission, returned. During the course of my first year at business school she became progressively sicker and died in March of that year. Doug had only just met me, and probably a lesser man would have run away from the intensity of the situation. But he stood by me. He was my rock. It was then I knew that he was a keeper.
As my relationship with Doug deepened, it became clear that religion would be the biggest issue we had to resolve. Doug had been raised a devout Presbyterian. His parents were very involved in their Presbyterian church. He had gone to Christian camp as a kid, had done youth group. His faith was something important to him and his family. And I was a Jew, with no faith but a strong sense of identity and obligation. But I was in love, as was he, and after much discussion I decided that while I personally would never convert, I would be OK raising the kids Christian. I decided this based on a comparison of our experiences with religious education. As I explained already, my education had been primarily linguistic, cultural, political. I had only covered ethical issues in 10th grade, and in college! In contrast, Doug’s education had been all about how to treat others by embracing the message of Jesus. To be frank, Doug’s religious education seemed to me more what religious education should be about.
I knew on some level that this decision would be decisive for my relationship to Judaism. As soon as I had made this decision, I had betrayed the key obligation of being a Jew – to continue the Jewish people.
Doug and I got engaged soon after we graduated from business school in ‘99. I pursued my passion for technology and entrepreneurship, working for various dot-com startups. Doug and I took inter-faith couples classes to help us figure out how our joint faith relationship would work. This class further affirmed that the choice we had made regarding the kids was the right one. We learned that raising kids ‘both’ rarely worked out well, and raising the kids ‘nothing’ did not appeal to either of us. During this time we also struggled to find a rabbi who would agree to marry us – as we had decided we want a co-officiated wedding. We finally succeeded, and I am eternally grateful to that rabbi.
We were married in September of 2000. We had thought we would wait about a year to start a family, but things went a little faster than planned and a few months later I found myself pregnant. My daughter was born in November of 2001. We moved to the suburbs in 2002. In 2003 I became pregnant with twins, who were born in January of 2004.
Right around this time we began to attend the local Presbyterian church. Our first time at the church was the Christmas Pageant. I fell in love with the church right then and there – the informality and inclusiveness won me over. We started attending regularly, and feeling guilty that I had three children in Sunday school, asked if I could help as a teacher. This was another moment where the church really won me over – because the head of the Sunday school said ‘yes’. Doug used to make so much fun of me for being the world’s first Jewish Presbyterian Sunday school teacher and asking if I was teaching the kids Hebrew on the sly. But the fact that the church welcomed me this way – let me teach what I could (I still opted out of teaching the Easter class) – was something truly special.
This church was really the first time that I truly felt a part of a religious community. Growing up, my family did not attend a synagogue regularly. Hebrew school occurs at a different time than worship services, and parents simply drop the children off to get their religious education and then go off to do their own thing. The synagogue we attended was a thirty minute drive from our home and almost none of the children attended the same grade school as me. Coming to this church – where so many families attend church regularly, live near by and go to the same schools – where the church community is a real community – was something magical. It was something I had long sought but had never found before.
During this time I was also reading a lot. Now that the children were beginning a formal Christian education I realized I needed to come up with my own answers about what exactly I believed. Of course, the only real question was what I thought of Jesus.
The first book I picked up is one that had been a cast-off left in my apartment building in NYC: The Question of God, by Armand Nicholi, which was a comparative biography of the life of C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. This book led me to my first moment of opening – to considering Jesus in a way I never expected to. I remember the specific moment when this happened: when the book quoted C.S. Lewis’ point that there are two ways to explain Jesus’ statements that he was the Son of God. Either you could assume he was insane – but little else in his behavior supports this explanation. Or, you could assume that he was telling the truth. At the time I found this point incredibly powerful. Other parts of this book also moved me: the author, a Harvard Medical School Professor of Psychiatry, shared some of his findings regarding the profoundly positive impact that faith had had for some of his patients. I was also fascinated by the fact that someone so brilliant and previously secular as C.S. Lewis could undergo such a profound transformation – and how that transformation had turned him from a bitter angry man into someone who was filled with grace and peace until his death. Bottom line – I was intrigued.
It was then that I began meeting with the minister of our church. This was again a point where this church, and this minister, were so outstanding. I was so impressed by the fact that the minister NEVER put any pressure on me. There was no hard sell, or any sell at all for that matter. He just gave me books, and recommended books, and engaged with me intellectually. He was fantastic.
Of the books that my minister recommended, the ones that influenced me the most were those by Marcus Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity. What I found the most compelling about Borg’s approach was his point that Christianity was not just about beliefs – about having to believe every single part of a story which, to be honest, is kind of tough to swallow for an outsider. It’s about making Jesus central to your life – the source for inspiration, transformation, grace. While I actually continue to struggle with whether Marcus Borg’s theology actually represents Christianity or something else, he definitely opened the door for me. Again, my minister was tremendously helpful in pointing out that in our branch of Presbyterianism, what you believe is between you and God.
I also spent a fair amount of time reading the Gospels – particularly the synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. I was blown away. The Jesus of the Gospels was nothing like the stereotypes I had received second-hand. His message, His life, His being, all were compelling, inspiring in a surprising and refreshing way.
All of what I have described so far were intellectual developments, but now comes the weird part. During this time, when the boys were still babies, and my daughter was in her early preschool years – these were really hard years. They are hard for any mother –but I have always had a tendency towards…darkness. I felt tremendously isolated during this time – I was deeply depressed, hopeless. Moving to the suburbs was, to be frank, a cultural challenge for me. Being a mother – and so quickly a mother of three – was also difficult. Doing it without my own mother as a source of support, and with no close friends around, was excruciating.
Then something happened. While I was doing all of this reading, and thinking, about Jesus, in this time of darkness in my life – something happened. I felt better. I can’t really explain it. But I just remember these periods when I’d be up at night reading– using up precious moments when I should have been sleeping – and all of a sudden I felt like I was touched by something and my darkness lifted. I felt different – happier – more alive. And that’s when I became a believer.
I told my minister this story, and told him that I wanted to get baptized as a way to give thanks for the transformation I had experienced. And that is how I feel now every time I take Communion – I am giving thanks for the new life I have been given.
So the rest is history, and not. I continue to struggle to figure out exactly what I believe, and what happened 2000 years ago, and what the heck I am. I am pretty sure I’ll never finish that process. I can tell you though that I basically consider myself a Christian Jew. Because of my upbringing and the remaining sense of obligation I feel, I will never reject my Jewish cultural identity. I want my children to understand the rich Jewish heritage of my family. This year we hosted 20 members of my family for Passover. As my children get older I will teach them other aspects of Jewish history. But in terms of my faith – I am Christian – although a very non-traditional one. I feel completely comfortable saying that Jesus is my Lord and Savior – but those terms don’t necessarily mean to me what perhaps they mean to others. To me Jesus is my Lord because he is the guiding inspiration in my life – following His way is my top priority – above money, power or prestige. And He is my Savior because he literally saved me in this life from darkness, and continues to save me when I feel myself slipping back.