The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

February 20, 2018 by

My Ex is Jewish. I’m Not. So Why Am I Raising My Children Jewish?

jewish-2445887_1920Elijah looks like a small man in an oversized suit as the rabbi hands him the Torah. My son presses it against his chest and right shoulder. His 12-year-old arms aren’t long enough to wrap fully around this sacred book. He hugs it tightly as he steps off the bima toward the congregation.

My eyes follow my firstborn through the crowd. There’s a part of me that wonders on this chilly Saturday morning what we’re still doing here at this temple. I feel proud of this boy and also uneasy and alone as I witness him completing a path that jogs so far from mine. This coming-of-age ceremony solidifies that our religious paths will never meet.

Yes, I helped pick this route for him long ago when I could feel his bony elbows jab the insides of my rib cage. Back then, we moved as one, and I didn’t realize the decision to raise my child differently from me could tear at us little by little and maybe even pull us apart. We have lived every moment it has taken to create this day, and I never had a full understanding of my decisions when I chose our fate.

I grew up with Jesus and a red-hot hell reserved for those who didn’t favor this man. I had met—but didn’t really know—Abraham, Moses and Esther.

A naked church, I thought, the first time I entered this synagogue. Beautifully barren with no cross. More than a decade ago, at 28, I came to the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation a shiksa. A man from the East Coast led me to this space. Then like many Midwesterners, I understood only the most obvious difference between Jews and Christians: Jews don’t believe in Jesus.

My Protestant father introduced me to my long-haired hippie savior. Most Sundays my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins joined us in our tiny church located in our hometown of Speedway, Indiana. On my 11th Easter Sunday, I stepped into a pool of water and into the arms of my minister to enter my covenant that solidified my faith in Christ, a figure in my mind who matched the main character in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera. I held my nose with my left hand and grasped my left forearm with my right hand. Andy placed his palm flat against the middle of my back and said; “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” A calmness crept into me, and my body fell limp as I entered the water.

I grew up looking at a cross and listening to a pipe organ and off-key group singing about sinners and salvations.

Elijah grew up in this synagogue.

To him, this is home and full of every furnishing needed, including an ark with wooden doors adorned with Hebrew writing that guards the sacred book cradled in his arms. “Kiddish em,” it says, meaning holy.

I glance at Elijah’s father sitting rows away from me. Elijah ambles toward him moving through relatives, friends and congregants while offering the Torah for them to touch. The man who introduced me to his Jewish heritage later surprised me with a diamond ring at a trendy restaurant. Right now, he holds the Mishkan T’filah prayer book read during services. He leans toward our son and uses it to lightly tap the ancient scroll.

More than a decade ago, Stuart had asked the rabbi to marry us. “Only if you and Stacey promise to raise your children Jewish,” the rabbi answered.

I couldn’t agree. Not right then.

As I grew older I began doubting my religion, especially the part about Jesus being the only way to God. Still, I wasn’t ready to commit my children to something else.

So my fiancé and I recited vows under the afternoon sun instead of under a chuppah. A lawyer stood before us listening to what we had written for each other. The words of Gibran and Rilke replaced prayers and scriptures.

A year later, when we decided to start our family, we wanted religion to bond it. Stuart said he couldn’t worship in a place with a cross, let alone a man hanging from it. We’d taken a class together in basic Judaism for interfaith couples and had been attending the synagogue on occasional Friday nights and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I admired the intellect of the rabbi, who welcomed debates on all subjects. The lyric soprano voice of the cantor outweighed that obnoxious church organ.

Still I hadn’t committed myself or raising my unborn children to the religion. I ingested bits of Judaism but didn’t fully understand all the rituals or the Hebrew spoken and sung.

Then I became pregnant and had to make some choices. At one time, I thought our children would explore both Judaism and Christianity. I changed my mind after I learned those children often didn’t identify with either religion because there was no clear direction to follow. I liked Judaism and its emphasis on social justice and education. I especially liked the Reform style at this temple because it tinted many issues gray and not just stark black and white.

When I told my father the path I’d chosen for his grandchild, my father squinted like he was looking into a hot fire. “What about Jesus?”

“He won’t know him like we do.” My father said nothing else.

Stuart and I invited the rabbi to our house for Elijah’s brit, a baby naming ceremony. We enrolled him in a Jewish daycare, took him to the temple for religious school on Sundays and sent him to a month-long overnight Jewish summer camp as he grew older.

Now all of those efforts are solidifying. Standing next to the rabbi, Elijah reads a portion of the Torah in Hebrew, a language that looks to me like chaotic symbols. A kippah rests on his head as a sign of respect to his God, Adoni. The cap is speckled with many colors but mostly blue, the color of my bruised heart several months ago.

I hadn’t kept track of this day. My excuse? I am a Gentile still; a bystander equipped with just a shred more knowledge than my fellow Goys. My Jewish best friend had written her son’s Bar Mitzvah date on her calendar a year in advance. Elijah’s crept up on us.

Unbeknownst to me, it was twelve weeks before the ceremony when we walked into his sixth-grade classroom, oblivious again, with two pieces of felt cloth. Parents were helping our children design their mantels to cover the Torah they’d carry during their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. We gathered around a long rectangle table with markers, stencils and glue. On his cloth, Elijah drew a Redskins football helmet, a chess piece, the cover of Call of Duty video game and the Star of David.

The rabbi entered the classroom with a list of dates, reminding us of when our children’s ceremonies would occur. He showed me Elijah’s. Our time to prepare had been quickly dwindling away. Instead of marking the calendar with this important date, I’d been marking off the days I survived. After 13 years, two more children and three marriage counselors, I had given up on my union with Stuart.

As I guided my tribe down my new handmade path, I let everything nonessential fall away. There wasn’t time to coordinate meetings with Elijah’s Hebrew teacher—let alone get him to her house. I was grabbing groceries in between picking up my daughter from pre-school, shuttling my boys to football and soccer practices, earning money to pay all the bills and then giving baths and reading bedtime stories. Stuart helped when he could but he was still shell shocked from the dissolution and unemployed and looking for a job.

That morning standing in Elijah’s classroom, I dug out a pair of sunglasses from my purse to cover my eyes, hoping my son wouldn’t see my tears. The divorce had not even turned one-year-old. I carried those shades to the temple no matter the weather. Pain stung me hard here. This was the place we’d agreed to raise our family. This was the place my shadows ambushed me.

The rabbi saw the tears that fell below the dark lenses onto my hot cheeks and called me into the hallway.

“I didn’t realize this was coming so soon.” My voice shook.

“Postpone it,” he said. “Elijah doesn’t have to take this day.”

The next available date was at least a year away. At that junction in my life, where every road was a mystery, something so far off felt more frightening than something so close.

“Elijah and I will figure this out.” I whispered these words because I didn’t possess the strength to say them louder. I leaned against the hallway wall, letting it hold me. Elijah walked out of the classroom. I sucked in the air that surrounded me.

“Mom, we can do this.” He said this with such confidence I believed him.

I called the Hebrew teacher. “He’ll have to double up on lessons,” she said. “He still needs to learn his scriptures, meet with the Cantor to memorize his prayer chants and write his interpretation of his Torah portion that he will share at services.”

Elijah gave up football practices, video games and time with friends. I drove him where he needed to be, encouraged him to study and began sending out the invitations to Stuart’s family in Maryland and my family just miles away.

Together, we set out to complete his pledge, one that would lead him to become the first male since his Polish grandfather to complete a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Neither his dad nor his three uncles did—even though their mother sang in the choir and their father was in the brotherhood. “I don’t know why we didn’t do it,” Stuart said. “It’s not easy to fulfill all the requirements, especially the Hebrew.”

The ceremony continues unfolding. Elijah is back on the bima chanting a prayer with the cantor. My father sits with the rest of my family in the row behind me. My four-year-old daughter squirms next to me and my eight-year-old son stares intently at his brother. Instead of their father, my dedication to our kids brings me here. I wonder if these two and I have the stamina to make it to a day like this. What happens when it’s their turn? I barely pulled this one off.

I do like the coolness of the brown wood in this chapel and the crispness of the white tallit Elijah wears. He’s a son of the commandment, and he’s my son who chose to commit himself to studying what rings true to his heart. In this world where commitment remains so fragile, I realize the two of us acted in tandem to create this destiny. Maybe we are more alike than different. Religion is important, but not the only thing that defines us. I will continue to share the intricacies of this ancient religion with my children. And because I have chosen to keep Christianity to myself, they will continue to have no emotional connection to mine.

Hanging from the ark is an electric candle deemed by the Jews never to be extinguished. Called the eternal light, it represents the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Watching it glow steady, I can imagine a light similar to this will continue to lead the way for our crooked family. Whatever legacy we are creating, we will create it together.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

 


  • Rachel

    Beautiful. Elijah, with your essential help and love, is taking something broken and while honoring the old, also making something new with those broken pieces. To me that seems like the central legacy and lesson of Judaism – as well as faith and family, in all its changing forms. Thank you both for sharing your story.

    • Stacey McArthur

      I so appreciate your kind and wise words, Rachel. I told Elijah that you you had thanked him for sharing his story.

  • Stacey (the kids’ Aunt Tasty)

    Beautiful, Stacey. Blessings upon you and yours as long as you walk the Earth.

    • Stacey McArthur

      Thank you so much. I love the blessing.

  • stacy

    What a beautiful article Stacey!