Do you know your family’s Jewish history?
Here is mine, gleaned almost fully from a single conversation with my mother…
Both of my parents’ families hail from various regions of Eastern Europe, and all of my great-great-grandparents were likely old world Orthodox. My parents were both raised in Brooklyn, NY.
My father’s father’s father, David, was a kosher butcher. My great-grandmother (his wife) was quite observant; she used to invite poor folks off the street to Shabbat dinner each week. Passover Seder was conducted in full in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish! To this day, my father can ask the Four Questions in Yiddish.
David’s son and daughter-in-law, my grandparents, kept a kosher home while David was alive. After he passed away, they ate anything and everything (including pork) in their home. My grandfather, Harry, would later buy tickets to High Holiday services at a Reform synagogue, and attend with his future daughter-in-law, my mother, when she expressed an interest in joining him. We don’t know what made him choose a Reform synagogue.
My mother’s mother’s mother, Chani, came to America at age 16. She was raised Orthodox, and was strict in her own way, but would not light Shabbat and holiday candles since she felt it would be hypocritical. Her husband was a waiter and brought home food from the restaurant where he worked, including shrimp, which he loved. Chani ate only kosher food, but she was the family cook, and prepared non-kosher food for everyone else. Thus, although she felt religious, she could not truly keep kosher and thus did not light candles because she felt strongly about not being a hypocrite.
My mother recalls that most Jews did not participate in religious observance, as it was the era of assimilation. Most of them, in fact, celebrated a secular version of Christmas, including my mother’s family. My mother stopped doing this when we were little because she felt it was confusing for us. As the youngest of three, I have no memory of this.
My mother remembers that her ‘religious’ friends in Borough Park had different color bars of soap in their kosher kitchens – one red, one blue; she also remembers that these same friends would walk a few blocks on Saturday, and then board a bus. This charade was for the benefit of their neighbors.
She further remembers going to the grocery store during Passover and seeing the milkman place a Kosher for Passover stamp on otherwise ordinary bottles of milk. These things made her wary of the kind of Judaism she saw as a child. As she so bluntly put it, “I knew that bullshit Judaism was not for me.”
She believes that her grandmother Chani’s strong feelings against being two-faced had a large influence on her, and is likely why the type of Judaism she saw as a child in Borough Park made her so angry. This led my mother to grapple with what elements of Judaism she would observe, and to determine a rationale for observing them. In other words, it led her to Reform Judaism.
My mother seems to have been drawn to Judaism more than many others of her generation for whom assimilation was key. The very first Seder my mother ever attended was one that she herself made as an adult. And as a child, her family did not belong to a synagogue, but she remembers sitting outside the synagogue by herself and listening to the cantor chanting inside.
When my siblings and I were very little, my mother joined a Reform synagogue and thus brought organized Judaism into my family’s life. We attended religious school from the earliest years through tenth grade confirmation.
I have two siblings. My sister, a physician, worked for a time as a cantor, is married to a rabbi, and has three children who attended a Conservative Jewish day school when they were growing up. My brother married a wonderful gentile woman who took it upon herself to maintain Jewish holiday observance in her home for their three children. And I have been working as a cantor for 20 years, and have three incredible sons whose father is Israeli, and who have over 60 Israeli first cousins.