A through line — sometimes faint, and mostly cultural — in my journey of being a wife and mother has always been my identity as a Jewish woman. Like so many people in my generation, I was dropped unceremoniously at the door of the religious school three days a week, twice for Hebrew lessons that were little more than decoding an unfamiliar alphabet, and once for the study of Jewish laws and history. I sat through many Friday night Sabbath services enthralled with the voices of our choir and of our cantor, a deep bass whose lowest notes made me imagine the voice of G-d. I went to three days of services on the High Holy Days, had a Bat Mitzvah in which I chanted a Haftorah portion that I’d never seen translated into English. I knew which foods went with which holidays: challah with the sabbath, apples and honey and mandelbrot with Rosh Hashanah, matzo ball soup with Passover.
It was all a ritual and surface-level observance. What held me to it was my mother and father, and their parents, and the parents before them, the long tail of history and the other-ness that held us together. “In the end,” I was told over and over, “you’ll be seen as a Jew no matter what you do.” Of course, that was a reaction to the recent history of the Holocaust, but I took it at face value, as least as it applied to the wider world’s opinion.
As a young adult, I fell in love with and married a Jewish man whose connection to Judaism had been stronger than mine, but brutally interrupted when his father died far too young and far too suddenly. He believed in having a Jewish home, but neither of us paid particular attention to the particulars of that. Before we had children, it was still the faith of our parents.
Becoming a mother forced me to decide how to reconnect to this faith in a way that would mean more to my children than whatever the Hebrew lessons and matzo balls had come to mean to me. Rather than a religion of their parents, I wanted my children to see themselves as Jews of whatever type moved them.
And then Sammi, my younger daughter, was born with a host of medical issues that took years to unravel. For many holidays during the years when her health changed our entire family’s diet, the connection of faith and ritual to food became tenuous. How do we define the sabbath without a challah? For that matter, how do we define a challah? According to Jewish law, a challah to be used for religious purposes has to be made of wheat, barley, spelt, oat or rye. What, then, of my gluten-free challah during Sammi’s six-food-elimination diet?
Was that challah Jewish? As I grappled with why this was the path my little girl’s health had taken, was I more than a mother pantomiming faith for her children?
Near the end of Sammi’s medical journey, she had major cardiac surgery at a children’s hospital. I was expecting no Jewish experiences there — truly, I had barely a thought about religious observance in the days leading up to the surgery — but found that, like so many before me, faith crept up on me when I needed its reassurance most.
This article published at Kveller is the story of my encounter in the cardiac waiting room with a far more religious Jew, someone I expected in my ignorance would have only disdain for immodest, relatively unobservant me. We had lessons for each other, it turned out, and it was in that moment that I found an early, glimmering thread of what I wanted from my spirituality. I am grateful to Kveller for giving it such an eye-opening audience.
originally published on Kveller.com
The family room on the cardiac floor of our local children’s hospital is full of natural light, wood grain, and soothing colors. Windows on every side offer views to the outside–either the real outside, where people are not struggling to hold their hearts and their children’s hearts together, or the hallway outside the room, where just about everyone needs some kind of care.
I sat in a rocking chair in that family room–one of several, clearly not designed to offer rhythm to mothers with babies and toddlers, since no one under the age of 16 can visit the cardiac floor–and read a book. Only three people were allowed at my daughter’s bedside at a time, and she was currently flanked by her father, grandmother, and aunt.
While they visited, I rocked alone. Across from me was a closet labeled “Yaakov’s Kosher Pantry.” After I’d been reading the same three pages in my book for 10 minutes or more, a woman came in wearing a long skirt and a tichel (headscarf) and opened it, removing a loaf of challah.
I looked up. “Good Shabbos,” I said, because it was Saturday.
Her eyes widened and she sat down. “Good Shabbos!” she said, the breath rushing out of her as she sank into the rocking chair next to me. “Are you Jewish?”