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Seeking the Light: Child of Holocaust Survivors Reclaims Judaism

I can’t tell you how many people asked if it was my first marriage when they saw my engagement ring…a traditional round diamond chosen by my intended.

Indeed, it was a first marriage and I was bucking the odds… at forty-two years old! We had a lot in common: both New Yorkers, similar interests, single, and we wanted to start a family. The difference—I am Jewish and my (now) husband is Roman Catholic.

Looking back at our dating days, in the early nineties, my husband Michael says, “Well, you didn’t seem very Jewish.” I led a secular life, having had no religious education as a child.

Fast-forward more than a decade, we are members of a Reform temple, have two daughters who were adopted in China, and they are being raised Jewishly. How did we get here?

It was only after my marriage and adopting our first child that I began slowly to confront feelings related to being the child of Holocaust survivors. Looking back—it’s been about a decade since I became a parent—I’d say that creating a family, when I was raised in a home filled with unverbalized sadness and loss, pushed me to examine my Jewishness. Had my husband not been a practicing Catholic, perhaps I wouldn’t have been impelled to reclaim my heritage. We began our marriage with the understanding that we would raise our “hoped for” children with both faiths.

In a recent discussion with Dr. Irit Felsen, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in treating Holocaust survivors and their families, she noted that 2Gs (second generation Holocaust survivors) often intermarry to escape Judaism. That isn’t my story: When hopes of marrying were dimming—I was already past forty—I found someone to share my life. As I had lived on my own since I was 18, with a secular life and no religious education, finding a Jewish partner was not a priority.

Shortly after our marriage, which took place less than a year after our first date, we focused on creating a family. Distant as I felt from Judaism, I wasn’t drawn to my husband’s religion. As we began to discuss raising children, my husband looked to the Catholic Church for interfaith guidance, but didn’t find support at that time—in the early nineties. We quickly found an interfaith group at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and that was our first attempt at resolving how we would raise our children religiously.

The more we talked, the more convinced I became that our children needed to be raised Jewishly. “From generation to generation” (l’dor v’dor), a touchstone in Judaism, so lacking in my own family, began rattling in my brain.

Initially, we considered having both religions for our children. But discussions in the Jewish-based interfaith groups led us to feel that it was an obligation as parents to choose one religion for our children. My conviction that the children needed to be Jewish—to honor family I have lost and continue our legacy—was, after years of parsing our dilemma, accepted by my husband, who finds nothing in Judaism—which predates Catholicism—contrary to his beliefs.

We were married for three years and living in New York when we adopted our first child in 1995. When we moved to New Jersey, in 1996, we found Pathways, a wonderful program that helped families explore Judaism and, if they felt ready, find synagogues where they would be “comfortable” and accepted.

It was about four years after we had moved to New Jersey that we chose to raise our then only daughter Jewishly. As the years pass, my husband becomes increasingly at ease with Judaism.

Much of what we learned in the Pathways family program was familiar to me as a culturally Jewish person, but it made me thirsty to develop my religious knowledge. Also, my husband’s adherence to Roman Catholicism polarized me to learn about Judaism. If he were less attached to his faith, perhaps I wouldn’t have regained my Jewishness—mostly lost in the tumult of being a child of survivors.

Today, we have two religions and three cultures in our family: my European-Jewish ancestry, my husband’s Italian-American background and the heritage of my two daughters, who were born in China. We visit with my husband’s family on Christmas and Easter. On Christmas Eve, the children decorate a tree with ornaments we’ve collected over the years, a few paper driedels and a blue star that my older daughter once cut from a piece of paper. For Hanukkah we light two menorahs that my father brought back from Israel—which the girls cherish. Bringing Judaism into our home has been a unifying force: the music, the prayers, the candles, the holidays, the foods and belonging to a synagogue.

Reconnecting myself to Judaism after I became a mother, I learned my alef-bet (Hebrew alphabet), pursued Jewish studies and in 2004 became a Bat Mitzvah. Standing on the bimah (pulpit) and reading my d’var Torah (analysis of my Torah portion) was a chance to honor family I have lost and to link my daughters and husband to my heritage. I concluded my d’var with: “The Jews left Egypt and my family lost their homeland in Europe. But as the slaves in Egypt, I feel that I have earned my freedom. My freedom to choose to be a Jew: to do and to learn.”

The joy of having the bat mitzvah was scarred by the loss—other than my husband, our two daughters, and my sister, not one relative was at the service. My mother died when I was a teenager and my father died five years ago—both without having shared their stories with me. I did know that my mother came to the United States from Germany, at about 12 years old, one of 1,000 children who were sent here without their parents. My father, who was born in Hungary, never spoke of his time in Europe—except for a short stint in Rome after the war, before he came to the U.S. in 1947. His death left me with so many mysteries and so few answers.

So, what is the source of my relatively recent sense of Jewishness, my need to be a practicing Jew, and my determination to have our children follow the Jewish faith? Echoes in my heart, echoes in my mind, of what once was—my German grandparents, who were practicing Jews with five children. And my given names—so European, so unlike my parents’ first born (Susan Linda). The middle name I bear (Edith) memorializes my mother’s “lost” sister, and my first name—my father never said and the atmosphere of silence left questions unspoken—may have been for his mother. Culturally, my father was strongly Jewish although I doubt that he ever received any religious education.

Whether a choice or legacy—I am the “memorial candle.” A Jewish light destined to carry the shreds of our family to the next generation. I’ve read that children raised Jewishly in interfaith families often don’t continue their observance and don’t choose Jewish partners. My 10-year-old daughter and I sometimes muse that her ideal partner would be a Chinese Jewish man, but the future we cannot foretell. Nonetheless, we are creating a foundation so that our daughters will hopefully continue their Jewish legacy.

The face of Judaism is evolving. At our Reform temple, we are warmly welcomed and multicultural families are encouraged to become members of our congregation. We are looking forward to Rachel (who is named for my mother, Ruth) becoming a Bat Mitzvah in a few years. Our second daughter Renata (named for my mother and also for a Holocaust survivor named Renate who was my neighbor for many years) attends Jewish nursery school and at age four is already reciting Hebrew prayers.

The Ner Tamid (eternal light) is shining and we are keeping its brightness in our sight.

Hedi Molnar

Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, lives in New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. She is a second generation Holocaust survivor. Her family belongs to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.


Author: Hedi Molnar