If anyone would have told me when I was 17 that someday I would be in an interfaith marriage and have five bar mitzvah boys, I would have said, “What’s a bar mitzvah?”
It all started in 1960 when I met a young man who would change the course of my life in Southern Louisiana.
As the heat of the day melted into the lukewarm of evening, I often went to cool off at the town’s swimming pool. I sat dangling my feet in the tepid water when a very cute boy walked out of the bath house. He took in the scene, then dove into the water and swam up to me.
He looked at me directly, holding on to the side of the pool near my feet. In a clipped, clear voice, his eyes curious and sparkling, he said, “Hi!”
In that instant I knew he was not from Louisiana, maybe not even Catholic.
“Hi there. Where y’all from?” I answered, taken off guard by his directness.
I soon learned that he was traveling across the country to visit a cousin in San Francisco. By the time he had left, I had discovered he was from New York, a pre-med student at Columbia University and Jewish. I had never met a Jewish person before.
Living in a very insulated place with no library and only limited television, I knew very little about Judaism. Of course, I had read about the Jews when studying the Old Testament in school. But I knew nothing about Jewish history, traditions, accomplishments and oppression.
Four years later, we eloped.
After Bill graduated from medical school in New Haven and a stint in Boston for his internship and residency, we went off to India with the Peace Corps. Our first child was born in New Delhi and we never gave a thought to religion.
After returning to the United States, Bill resumed his medical training in Boston. We had two more children and decided to raise them without religion. It was the 1960s, so who needed God?
Then Bill’s father had a heart attack. When Bill walked into the hospital room in New York, his father asked, “Son, who will say the prayers for me?”
“Dad, what prayers? I never saw you saying any prayers for your father, Papa Eddie! You never went to temple when I was a kid.”
The next visit, it was the same.
“Son, who will say the prayers?”
When he died, we decided to find a synagogue. We found one and walked right in. A kind rabbi put his arm around my husband’s shoulder, and explained Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. He gave Bill a copy of the prayer and its transliteration from Hebrew.
Thus began our life together as an interfaith couple. I prepared my first Passover seder in a friend’s kitchen when both of our husbands were on overnight duty. She taught me the principles of the holiday, using a simple children’s Haggadah. Other friends also played a role. They occasionally invited us to share a Sabbath meal with them, impressing me with the power of a family worshiping together.
We celebrated Hanukkah, very simply, with candles and minimal presents. We had a Christmas tree and put a Star of David on the top. I learned to cook chicken soup from my mother-in-law, who rarely cooked traditional foods. Using Sara Kasdan’s endearing cookbook, Love and Knishes, first published in 1959, I experimented with other recipes and made kugel, matzoh ball soup and even gefilte fish from scratch. Soon we were inviting Bill’s mother for the Jewish holidays with our own kids.
When the children’s friends started to have bar and bat mitzvahs, they didn’t express much interest in having such a service for themselves. Then one year, Bill accepted a visiting professor into his department from Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Bill learned it was relatively easy to have a b’nai mitzvah in Jerusalem. Though our youngest daughter was too young, and our older daughter wasn’t interested, our son, Edward, decided to have a ceremony.
In college, dating people of other faiths felt natural to our kids. Our son married a lovely Christian woman and, to our surprise they joined a temple in Connecticut after their wedding. They loved it and were all in from the start, joining activities, going to services, volunteering.
My children had their own kids, and I ended up with four Jewish grandsons. I hosted Jewish holidays featuring my own version of Jewish dishes, and taught those who were interested how to prepare them.
When it came time for the oldest to have a bar mitzvah, it was clear he wanted to have a ceremony. I asked the younger ones if they would do the same.
“Of course, they replied. “We want to become adults.” And now I have five bar mitzvah men—a son and four grandsons.
They all have their own Jewish affiliation. Our oldest daughter goes to Chabad, and our youngest daughter is also raising Jewish children.
How did it happen? What was it that led to this outcome? I decided to ask them—especially since this wasn’t something we ever directly talked about.
Everyone felt that the holidays and food were very important. Small things were important too: Lighting Hanukkah candles, hearing a prayer at Jewish summer camp and learning a melody at Hillel services. They felt the warmth of being part of a Jewish community.
They knew our home and holidays were a little quirky, and different from their friends. But still, they identified as Jewish, not always in a religious sense, but in feeling part of Jewish tradition.
They all felt wholly supported by me, even though I never converted or learned the prayers. Looking back, I’ve learned to find the good in whatever is before you, be open to the new and take advantage of every opportunity. Expect good things to happen. And chances are they will.