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Mnookin: Being Jewish

My mom jokes that when she found out I was going to marry Laura, she struggled more with the fact that my partner wasn’t Jewish than she did with the fact that she was a woman.

I was raised in a home in which religion played a tangible, but not central role. We observed the major Jewish holidays - Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover. We didn’t observe the Sabbath with a day of rest, but we had weekly Shabbat dinners; in high school, we were expected to be home for these Friday night family dinners before we could go out with friends. I was slightly embarrassed about singing the blessing over the challah bread, but I sang along anyway.

Laura views her Unitarian Universalist upbringing as being more spiritual and nature-based than religious. Her family mostly celebrated religious holidays by spending time outdoors and hiking in the woods, though they did have traditions with Easter eggs and Christmas trees.

Long before we had a child ourselves, Laura and I discussed religious upbringing. Would our family celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or both? Would we have Passover Seders or Easter dinners?

Like many interfaith couples, which now represent 45% of marriages in this country, we compromised: We would alternate winter holidays with each of our families; we would not have a Christmas tree in our own home. And given our shared beliefs, we would raise our children Jewish.

Still, many questions remained, like: What exactly does it mean to be Jewish? Would our children be Bar or Bat Mitzvahed? Would we celebrate only the most significant Jewish Holidays, or would we have a regular observance, like weekly Shabbat dinners? Did we need a community to celebrate with, and if so, would we find this community in southern Vermont?

And then there was the question of God. Would we teach our children to believe in a God we were unsure of ourselves? And if not, were we still Jewish?

It’s a good thing that Judaism, particularly Reform Judaism, embraces the tradition of asking difficult questions, as well as the belief that actions speak louder than words. The Torah teaches us to stand up for what we believe in and to speak up when we see injustice, values that we both want for our children.

When our daughter was born, my parents signed us up for PJ Library, a free program in which children from birth through age five receive an age-appropriate Jewish-themed book each month that connects to that time of year. Titles include Apples and Honey about Rosh Hashanah, but one of my favorites is Baby Be Kind, in which we are told, “Say hi to your friend. Be kind to your pup. When someone falls down, help them up.”

We’re still figuring out what it means for us to raise our daughter as a Jew. Meanwhile, we encourage the kindness and action against injustice that is central to Judaism.

And we sing the blessing over the challah, which our daughter loves.

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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