Some years ago, my mother-in-law announced that she would be taking our young Jewish daughter, Hannah, to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. My husband, who was raised Catholic by this very Catholic woman, told her we didn’t want Hannah to go. She continued to insist.
My reaction surprised even me.
“She isn’t going to Mass,” I told her.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because we don’t want her in a church,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because she’s Jewish!” It was the first time I’d raised my voice to her.
“I know that,” she snapped.
“So she’s not going,” I repeated.
“Fine,” my mother-in-law said, and left the room. I turned to Vince.
“Sorry I yelled,” I told him, but he just hugged me.
The first conversation Vince and I had about religion had been shortly after we’d begun dating, when I asked him whether being raised Catholic meant he was opposed to abortion. Vince assured me he wasn’t—and added, for good measure, that he had no problem with premarital sex. That was good enough for me.
Both of my parents are Jewish. My family attended services at the High Holidays, lit the candles at home every Friday night, and celebrated Hanukkah with latkes and Passover with a Seder. I had a bat mitzvah and promptly forgot all the Hebrew I’d learned for the occasion as soon as I left the bimah. My religious upbringing was unexceptional and uncomplicated, and perhaps because of that, the aspects of Judaism that I found most interesting were culture and history. After I left for college, I stopped attending services because I realized that I didn’t know if I believed in God. I had always been proud to be Jewish; the idea of not having that be a part of my identity was unimaginable. But so was the idea of praying to a God I wasn’t sure existed. I decided to become a nonreligious Jew.
Vince had decided, years earlier, that Catholicism wasn’t for him. He’d told his parents that, but his mother—again, as Catholic as they come—held out hope that he’d eventually settle down with a Catholic girl. (My parents’ dreams for me consisted of my having a job that offered health insurance.) Instead, he decided to marry me.
Our ceremony had very few religious trappings—our venue was a museum, our officiant the friend who’d introduced us. But after we decided to have a chuppah and ketubah, I asked Vince if he minded that we were observing only Jewish traditions. He didn’t. Judaism aligned better with his belief system than Catholicism ever had, he said.
Five years later, I became pregnant with our daughter. Because the Jewish religion is matrilineal, Vince told me he considered her Jewish, not Catholic, and wanted to raise her that way. I wholeheartedly agreed, and neither of us thought more deeply about the matter until that December night when I probably shouldn’t have yelled at Vince’s mom.
The evening didn’t just mark the beginning of an awkward relationship with my mother-in-law. It made me reevaluate my own relationship with Judaism. In 2012, the year Hannah was born, Jews made up less than 2 percent of the total population of the United States. (That number is more like 2.4 percent now.) American Jews were a sharp minority here, and we were also part of a worldwide religion that was still recovering from a genocide that had occurred nearly eight decades ago. But for all I could talk about numbers and history, what was I actually doing to ensure that my daughter grew up in a Jewish household? We didn’t belong to a synagogue, didn’t light the candles on Shabbat. We didn’t even have candleholders.
Interfaith marriages like mine have also historically been controversial in Judaism. Orthodox Judaism refuses to recognize interfaith marriage as valid or legitimate. It wasn’t until 2018 that Conservative Judaism began allowing rabbis to attend interfaith weddings, even as it prohibited rabbis from performing such marriages. Still, Conservative Judaism makes a point of being actively welcoming to interfaith families, as do Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism. Neither of those branches prohibit rabbis from either attending or officiating at interfaith weddings.
I understand why the subject is contentious. If Vince had insisted that we raise Hannah fully in another faith, I would have refused, in large part because of those numbers and history: Knowing how precarious Jewish survival had often felt, how could I deliberately raise a non-Jew? I could encourage Vince to teach her about Catholicism; I would let him take her to church if she ever asked to go; I would gladly teach her about other religions. But for me, all of that could be done only in addition to Judaism, not instead of it.
In the months after that Christmas, I tried to puzzle out why I felt so strongly about Hannah’s religious upbringing when I still wasn’t sure if I believed in God. Because it wasn’t just those numbers and that history that made me want to ensure that my daughter knew what it was to be Jewish—pure emotion was driving me too. It was akin to the recognition I’d felt when, visiting Israel for the first time, I walked into Ben Gurion Airport and was surrounded by people that looked like me. It was similar to the feeling I’d had when I went to Birkenau: an immense swell of loss and yearning that, 20 years later, I still lack the words to adequately describe. I realized that to me, being Jewish wasn’t just the religion I was raised in. It was a visceral sense of love and connection that I couldn’t imagine living without. And I wanted Hannah to grow up with that too.
I will always have my doubts about whether the God I learned about and accepted without question as a child exists. But that uncertainty helped me find a synagogue that welcomes such doubt, and rewards it with robust discussion. Our attendance was sporadic at first, as Vince and I both tried to get used to incorporating religious worship into not just our schedules but our lives. But slowly, one Tot Shabbat at a time, we began to find a new community, one made up not by friends or work colleagues but by other Jewish families we never would have met otherwise.
Six years later, I’ve come to appreciate how attending services is a chance to step out of my everyday life for an hour or so. I like the calm and respite that comes with sitting still and listening to the familiar prayers and songs, and the muscle memory that recalls Hebrew words I thought I’d forgotten a long time ago. Sitting in synagogue connects me at once to my past and present, and to the future that is coming in the form of my daughter and her peers. It has taught me that my religious practice is less about knowing the answers and more about being willing to sit in silence with the questions. And Vince and I have found comfort in this community that, like us, is doing its best to keep itself and its families safe during increasingly alarming times for Jews.
Indeed, Judaism has become such a part of my family’s life that, this fall, Vince began studying with a rabbi so that he could convert. Not surprisingly, he decided to break the news to his mother when I wasn’t around. “She didn’t seem surprised,” he told me after their conversation. “Honestly, I think she’s just happy that I consider myself religious at all.”
We finally bought Shabbat candleholders a few years ago. They’re simple and silver, decorated with drips of wax that have accumulated from the candles we light almost every week. Recently, Hannah has insisted on leading the prayers. She says it’s good practice for the bat mitzvah she’ll have in a few years. My daughter begins each prayer, and Vince and I follow her, our voices rising into the air like smoke.