My daughter brought me back to synagogue after 20 years away.
It started right after she was born, with her baby-naming ceremony. The ceremony was my mother’s idea—she was a regular at her Reform temple in Florida. So, on our new family’s first flight to visit her, we went to her synagogue. Apprehensively I handed the baby over to my mother’s rabbi. He serenaded her with a few prayers. When he asked my Hebrew name, I confessed, embarrassed, that I didn’t remember. He held my baby up high in the air, a bit closer to heaven, for the entire congregation to view.
My daughter was officially named Ahava, which means love in Hebrew. Coincidentally my husband and I had purposely chosen Amy, derived from Latin and French meaning “dearly beloved,” as her English name. The “A” was to honor my late father, Arthur.
When the rabbi returned Amy to me, I was surprised how deeply moved I felt. My husband and I considered ourselves secular. Yet this rite was unexpectedly comforting, connecting me to my ancestors. I wondered how, and when, I might introduce Amy to Judaism. What I didn’t realize at the time was how she would re-introduce me to the Judaism I’d left behind.
When I was a kid, Grandma Regina spent summers with us in our two-family house in Brooklyn. She was a Polish immigrant who spoke six languages and dressed in high-topped black shoes with stockings knotted below her knees. Strictly kosher, she refused to eat from our plates; the only morsels she ingested at our dinner table were words from conversations. I loved going downstairs for dinner with her, joyful I didn’t have to drink the dreaded glass of milk forced upon me by my mother; it was haute cuisine at Grandma’s, where her homemade pineapple soda washed down brisket like a carefully paired vintage wine. We visited her Hasidic relatives from the “old country” in pre-hipster Williamsburg. On Shabbat, Grandma left a light switch on for 24 hours. She walked to a nearby Conservative synagogue every Friday night, and to honor her, so did we—as long as she was there.
As soon as Grandma flew back to Florida for the winter, however, my mother drove instead to a Reform synagogue miles away, like a teenager sneaking away from her elders. Here my two older brothers became “men” at the age of 13. “I want to enroll in Hebrew school,” I kept begging my father. I was a tomboy, and that’s where all my male friends spent their afternoons. Dad’s response: “Girls don’t need that.” Eventually I was resigned to my fate as a female, excluded from the boys’ bastion.
“You’re lucky you don’t have to go,” my buddies assured me when they were sprung from their studies and we reunited on the local handball courts.
My father was an engineer who left the field because of anti-Semitism, a self-proclaimed fatalist, and, I would later find out, an atheist. When he didn’t fast on Yom Kippur, even though the rest of us did, my mother claimed it was because of health reasons. “God excuses him,” she explained.
My family background was such an amalgam of observance and non-observance that if someone asked what my religious affiliation was, I’d respond, “Confused.” I never stopped identifying as a Jew on a cultural level, observing the holidays, mostly in a culinary manner: latkes on Hanukkah, macaroons on Passover, hamantaschen on Purim. I made chicken soup for the holidays and to soothe colds, my knaidlach were nearly as light as Grandma’s, and I could recite prayers for candles, bread, and wine—with a little transliteration help from the Internet.
Synagogue, however, was a different story. After I left for college in 1970, I stopped going. No one was telling me how to observe now; it was a decision I wanted to make as an independent co-ed. Temple seemed boring and unexciting, especially compared with antiwar protests on campus. I had lots of excuses: Judaism was irrelevant to my studies, I disagreed with certain principles as a feminist, a temple was hard to find near my Midwestern campus. My mother didn’t make me feel guilty about not going to temple. It was implied that I had a four-year pass, the way my professors allowed a number of unexcused class cuts.
When my grandmother couldn’t travel north anymore, my parents moved to Florida. My brothers also migrated south, joining congregations in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. I visited their synagogues to honor my nieces and nephews’ bar and bat mitzvahs, but that was the extent of my temple attendance.
My husband identified as a cultural Jew, yet since his bar mitzvah he had not felt drawn to temple either. Our religious observance was driven not by rabbis, but by our mothers: My mother “religiously” called the family together in her sunny living room every Passover, Hanukkah, and Rosh Hashanah. His mother, a Jewish preschool teacher, directed candle-lightings for holidays we observed in our own home, using the same songs she’d crooned to her young students. It was enough for us.
When I was 34, my oldest brother Jay was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer at the age of 44. He died two years later. Some people seek comfort in synagogue when awful things happen to their loved ones, but not me. Instead, I began to question my faith: How could God take away the brother I had adored, and leave behind his three children for his widow to raise alone? I wasn’t sure I believed in God anymore. And I was sure that temple wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Then Amy was born, and I had to re-evaluate.
It began with the naming ceremony. After Amy became Ahava, my mother recited kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in memory of the son she’d lost. I didn’t know the prayer by heart, but I was soothed by the collective sounds from an entire room of mourners.
Before Amy was old enough to walk, my husband and I knew we had tough decisions to make. What kind of Jewish education would we give her? We both wanted her to identify with our tribe, hoping she’d marry a Jew. Yet we didn’t want to feel hypocritical, since neither of us observed consistently.
I started slowly, like a swimmer wading into the ocean to get used to the chilly salt water. Once a year I took Amy to the children’s service at one of our neighborhood temples. I told myself if I fell in love with any of them, I’d join. But I remained an interloper, escorting her each year to free services. I tried Conservative, Reform, even the post-reform New Shul, whose services were held in a school cafeteria. I listened to mellifluous cantors who sounded like opera stars, contemplated sermons from lesbian rabbis, and danced to guitar-playing Sephardic hippies. Unable to commit to any one congregation, I went to a different one each year, shamefully promising each membership director I’d consider enrolling. Eventually I ran out of temples.
My husband and I continually agonized over whether to send Amy to Hebrew school. Would we regret it? Would we feel hypocritical foisting this upon her when we, as role models, never went to shul? We even weighed the cost of a synagogue membership into the complicated equation.
“Do you want to learn Hebrew?” I asked Amy.
“Not really. All my friends complain about that part,” she said.
On 9/11, we were living a mile from the World Trade Center. I rushed to Amy’s school after the second tower crashed, wanting to be close to her, sitting outside her classroom on a stoop for hours until she was dismissed. For the first time in decades I felt like praying. For the lives that were lost, for our own safety. A few days later I felt the need to escape into a peaceful sanctuary. I gingerly entered a historic church across the street from my apartment and sat in one of the pews. I admired the stained glass and art, as I’d done on trips to Europe. The church felt meditative in a time of chaos, but I was still a visitor. This was not my home. Yet I yearned for a communal sanctuary of my own.
My grandmother was no longer alive and my immediate family was 1,500 miles away. On holidays when we couldn’t fly to be with them, I felt sad and lonely, suddenly understanding why people were drawn to the familial connection of a religious congregation. Most important, I didn’t want my daughter to feel adrift, a Jew without the ties that have bound us for centuries. I realized I didn’t need to give her a formal religious education or a bat mitzvah to introduce her to our faith. I could do it in my own way, different from the ways of my parents and grandparents. It was my responsibility as a parent to provide her with a foundation and knowledge of some kind, and let her decide.
I started lighting Friday night candles and buying challah. I taught Amy to light the candles and recite the prayers, a ritual we shared and enjoyed together. Her favorite dinner was a rich, cheesy kugel whose recipe we labeled “Aunt Joyce’s noodle pudding”—a Rosh Hashanah staple in our family that we came to eat year round.
I downloaded easy-to-follow Seder guidelines for Passover. Amy tried giving up leavened bread to support her more observant friends during the holiday. But she was a petite underweight picky eater going through that kids’ stage of ingesting only white food, mostly pasta. After a few days, she felt dizzy and weak. I gave her permission to have a bagel, reassuring her that we each observe in our own ways.
When she was in seventh grade, Amy was invited to an array of bar mitzvahs, from Saturday morning services followed by bagels, to splashy nightclub extravaganzas pricier than a wedding. She enjoyed these celebrations, especially picking out a new dress to wear to each one. Throughout her high-school years, I introduced Amy to aspects of a Jewish education she might not have discovered if I’d sent her to Hebrew school: Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, the Marx Brothers, and Woody Allen. In college, when she signed up for a freshman literature course called Contemporary Jewish Writers, I celebrated as if she’d made Dean’s List.
The first time we were apart on the High Holidays, I urged her to go to Hillel.
“Since when are you so religious?” she asked.
She was too young to understand that one day she might feel guilty about not observing. Or even that she was missing out on something she wasn’t even aware of. She was an only child. Both her grandfathers were gone. Someday her parents wouldn’t be here for her. Her family was shrinking. I wanted her to forge a broader spiritual connection.
“I’ll pray for you,” my mother used to say when she went to temple on holidays and I didn’t. “I’ll pray for everyone.” Perhaps it was inevitable that I inherited her role. After all, I was a Jewish mother now.
The transition of separating from my daughter when she left for college spurred me to start going to temple again. Not in the forced way my mother made me endure lengthy conservative services with Grandma, where I didn’t understand a word and had to sit in the airless balcony, but because I wanted to. Needed to. Even when I didn’t understand the words to the prayers, the familiarity of the rhythms and musicality soothed me, made me feel calm. Sometimes my husband came with me, but more often I went by myself. My mother was pleased, full of praise rather than the guilt or the “I told you so” comments I’d expected. As if she knew if she waited long enough, I would return. In my own way. In my own time.
Now that Amy is 21 years old, she is planning to go on Birthright, and contemplating an adult bat mitzvah. My friend whose son is studying to become a cantor will prepare and coach her. Last year, Amy spent Rosh Hashanah at her campus Hillel, which she now does every year on the High Holidays.
My friend Barbara invited me to her synagogue for the holiday. She had extra tickets since both her daughters were also away at school. Born Catholic with nine siblings, she converted to Judaism when she married. She made gefilte fish when I bought mine at a specialty store, and she knew more about her adopted religion than the one I was born into.
While we sat next to each other I contemplated my complicated and evolving relationship to Judaism. I’m not as confused as I used to be; my religious observance feels more inner-directed and natural. I’m doing it on my own terms and at my pace—just like Amy. And even though we were 150 miles apart for Rosh Hashanah, being in synagogue made me feel closer to her.
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