I always thought my religion story was unique, uncommon if nothing else. I grew up with a mother who was raised Catholic and a father who was raised Jewish in a household where religion never really played a role at all.
In elementary school, I decided, after seeing classmates of mine go through first holy communion, that I, too, wanted to become a Christian. I’m not sure I so much decided to choose that religion, as I decided I wanted to choose to be part of a religion, and the most natural choice for me, with mostly Christian friends and attending an Episcopalian-associated school, was to go with Jesus.
In third grade, I cajoled my mom into “letting me get baptized” which she then decided, if she was going to go through the process with me, why not my two sisters, one older and one younger. We all were baptized at age 3, 8 (me) and 15 respectively, and went along with our lives. I went on to get confirmed and served as an alter girl, participating in church activities throughout the years including youth group, church camp and acting in the Christmas pageant. In my adult years, although I’m not as involved as others, religion continues to be a community I seek out and define myself, in part, by.
My younger sister, Emme, the one who was group baptized with me without any decision on her part around age 3, became very religious also. Except it wasn’t because she got baptized. Actually, in spite of getting baptized, she is Jewish.
Even though I’ve known her all her life, I had never really sat down with her to talk about it until now.
“As long as I’ve had a sense of self, I’ve been Jewish,” she said. “I didn’t decide one day I was Jewish.” She told me that in high school she thought of herself as Jewish but didn’t feel comfortable integrating herself into a religious community at that point in her life.
When she went to college, she decided to start attending a few get togethers at Hillel, the Jewish college student organization. After college, she went to synagogue occasionally, but with no regularity.
Then, in October 2018, there was a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, close to where we had grown up. This shocking and horrific event made her yearn for a Jewish community where she could feel surrounded by people of the same faith.
She found one in the Boston area where she started attending Shabbat morning services and small group meetings. She felt like it was a community that she was always meant to be a part of.
I asked her, when thinking about her future, how Judaism would play a role.
“It would absolutely be central to my family,” she told me. For two reasons. The first is that she feels a calling to continue to pass along Judaism down in the family line. An important tenet of Judaism is that it is kept alive in the world by passing it down through generations. She told me she thinks about our ancestors who are from Eastern Europe. She thinks about the oppression and Anti-Semitism that they had to live with. To let Judaism cease to be a factor that exists in the family line, she told me, would be doing them a disservice.
The second reason it would be important to her to keep at the center of family life is that Judaism is constructed in a way that puts a high value on family life. If you guide your life as a parent or spouse around Judaism, she believes, it helps you have positive, strong relationships.
Beyond being part of the religion, she is also starting graduate school for Jewish education. It feels like a natural combination to her- she has always liked working with kids and she believes that it’s important to teach about mitzvot-the 613 commandments that govern Jewish life.
She’s still learning about how, exactly, religion will play out in her life but she knows that it will play a central role. She is determined to live a life that centers around a Jewish community and is guided by mitzvot.
She described to me something that she learned through Jewish teachings.
When she began going to synagogue regularly and observing Shabbat/mitzvot, it felt like something that had been missing from her life had been filled. She explained that it’s important to do mitzvot, even if you don’t really feel like that, because your heart will follow. If you do whatever you feel like, you might never get around to mitzvot. She told me that by following this guidance for living, she feels like she is living her true self- her outer identity is reconciled with her inner.
There is a lesson in Judaism, she told me, that says if your father abstains from Judaism, maybe not in the next generation but in the next or the next, your children will go back to Judaism.
This speaks to her. This is something she feels she is doing, in her soul.
Even though we’re from the same two parents and have the same lineage, something maybe even stronger than genes, something in her soul has been passed down to her from generations before.
It reminds me of a message in the book Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. In the book, there are characters who have certain traits that don’t quite make sense to them. A fear of fire, fear of the ocean. The reader knows that these non-physical traits are characteristics that were passed down from previous generations, but the characters do not. The characters only know that there are things about them that they cannot explain. The book weaves together lives of people from different generations—family members that never met each other, never were alive during the same time. It depicts hundreds and hundreds of years of ancestry as one singular story. Instead of someone’s life being a story in and of itself, an individual life is part of a larger story that doesn’t start nor end with them.
The connection that Emme has to Judaism reminds me of this. It’s both an integral piece of her and not hers at all at the same time. It strikes me that while religion was something that I claimed as a want, Judaism has claimed her from the beginning. She’s carrying with her the struggles, joys, faith and stories from generations passed. It seems as if, maybe, while she is here to tell her piece of it, this is part of a story that started long, long ago.