I became a mother in September of 2012. Although maybe it was August. You see, one month before my daughter was born, my teenaged cousin came to live with my partner and me. He was about to turn 16 – the same age I had been when he was born – and we were thrilled to have him. The Teenager and I had always been close. After the baby, little T, was born, I had a series of strange dreams. In the dreams, I was holding T on my right knee, and the Teenager (in infant form) on my left knee. In the dream, friends would come up to me and say, “I didn’t know you had twins!” And I would reply, “Yes, it’s just that they’re a few years apart!”
When I was invited to write about spiritual parenting, I balked, as my first instinct was that I am completely unqualified to write about such a thing. So I want to be up front about two very important things: 1) I am no expert on Jewish spirituality, and 2) I am no expert on parenting. I do, however, have a wealth of rather unique life experience (as do we all!) that informs both my parenting and my Jewish identity. As I suspect may be the case with many of us who are attracted to OneShul, I consider myself a bit of a Jewish outcast, and for that reason I am very excited to have finally discovered a Jewish community where our differences are celebrated and embraced. Of course, it is harder to build community with one another if we are never physically in each other’s company. I think that one way we can bridge that gap is by sharing our stories. So despite my insecurities, and in the hopes of being rewarded with your stories in return, I have decided to share a bit of my own.
As a child growing up in my tiny New England farming town, I believed that being Jewish was something peculiar to my large, boisterous extended family. I had never met any Jews outside my own family, and had seen no indications in my community that such people might exist. None of my schoolmates even knew what “Jewish” meant, or had ever heard of Passover or Hanukkah. Handily, this meant that I never encountered any religious prejudice, since the locals’ complete and utter lack of knowledge about Judaism meant that they had no preconceived notions about it, either.
As it turned out, my family may as well have been the only Jewish family in the universe, since our particular brand of Judaism bears no resemblance to anything I have encountered since. We are Italian Jews, hailing from Venice and Milan, of Sephardic heritage. On Passover, we sing in Venetian dialect, not Hebrew. (Venetian dialect, incidentally, includes a great many Hebrew words – but that’s a story for another time.) My family came to the US during WWII, on a luxury liner, and lamenting all the way how they had to leave their servants behind in Italy. Many of my aunts and uncles returned to Italy when the war was over; thus, I grew up with a large part of my family overseas, and hearing Italian conversation over almost every meal. My family never really assimilated, our Italian identity always setting us a bit apart.
Our practice of Judaism was nominal in its religious aspects, but all encompassing in its cultural and historical scope. It never failed that we would forget to light Hanukkah candles for one or two of the eight nights each year, and our Rosh Hashanah observances mainly consisted of my Christian mother carting my brother and me to services while our Jewish dad stayed home and watched CNN; yet when I turned five, my father made a great ceremony of showing me my first documentary footage of the Holocaust. I remember sitting on his lap and watching the skeletal bodies of the Jewish prisoners being riddled with bullet holes, and then falling into a pit. I was frightened, but then remembered what my big brother had recently explained to me: that movies were just pretend, so you don’t have to be scared. I confidently repeated this to our father, who solemnly explained that some movies are real. Shortly after this initiation into my family’s version of what it means to be a Jew, they presented me with my first Magen David; apparently, I was now old enough to understand what it stood for.
I have absolutely no intention of repeating this last (rather traumatizing) experience with my own daughter, and since I didn’t get to raise the Teenager myself, my influence over him is arguably limited anyway. The boy, being almost grown already, has had the benefit of being surrounded and loved by the same posse of aunts and uncles that surrounded and adored me growing up. However, I know that they will not be around for terribly much longer, and it saddens me that I will not be able to recreate for little T the warmth and security of being raised in a large, close-knit clan. Unfortunately, most of my cousins have scattered, and have no interest in continuing any of the traditions we were brought up with. Even beyond that, they mostly have little interest in even remaining in each others’ lives. With one or two exceptions, the cousins I grew up with have become strangers to me; as the older generation, that last bastion of a unique and beautiful culture, fades away, I am faced with a difficult choice. Do I try to assume, single-handedly, the responsibility of perpetuating that culture for another generation? Would it even have the same meaning and beauty if I am the only one doing it? And is it even possible?