Growing up, my favorite thing to show houseguests was a little ceramic sign in my kitchen that read “Shalom Y’all.” I’d explain how the “Shalom” part represented my father, a 6’6’’ dad-joke-cracking Jewish man from New York, and the “Y’all” part, well, that was my mother, a brown-haired, book-loving, Christian woman from Tennessee.
As a child, I reveled in my interfaith family — I loved feeling like the rare bird in both the Jewish and Christian community. I loved smugly raising my hand during rug time in 3rd grade to tell a classmate, “Well actually, Jesus was Jewish” and I loved the look of awe on the faces of kids when they found out that, in my household, we had an “Easter Exception” to Passover and that we celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah in December (I withheld the fact that we didn’t get double the presents).
Of course, there were also downsides…
Kids in the hallways of my Hebrew school would make snarky comments about me not being a “real Jew,” reminding me that thanks to matrilineal descent, my Jewishness was supposedly dependent on my mother’s faith. They would get a kick out of making me feel like I wasn’t the same kind of Jew as they were. These childish squabbles eventually blew over (teenagers have better things to tease each other about), but the sentiment stuck with me.
As I grew older, more and more of my life became centered around Judaism. I was bat mitzvahed. I became an assistant teacher at Hebrew school and started spending my summers as a counselor at a Jewish preschool camp. I helped set up for seders at my college’s Hillel and found a new level of sacredness in the Rosh Hashanah tradition of tashlich on an old industrial Ohio bridge.
I was still proud of being interfaith — I even gave a Ted Talk about my religious upbringing three weeks into college — but in practice my Christian identity was dwindling to simply a fun fact to be shared during Two Truths and a Lie.
Then one summer night, my mom walked onto our back porch and told me she was converting to Judaism.
I was thrown for a total loop. I immediately turned to asking what her conversion meant for my own identity. Did the part of me that was half-Christian simply evaporate? Would we still get a Christmas tree and hide Easter eggs for my younger brothers? Did this completely invalidate my Ted Talk?!
Then I turned to questioning the validity of her identity. Sure, it made logical sense — she spent a lot of her life engaging and volunteering with our Jewish community and her job was working with Holocaust survivors’ children to help them keep their parents’ stories alive. And sure, I knew in theory plenty of people converted to Judaism, but something didn’t sit right with me. Judaism, to me, was so innately intertwined with essence and personality, with a rich history of family traditions and experiences. Being Jewish didn’t feel like something you could suddenly choose.
Soon I began to notice every time my mom suggested we go to services or I saw her working on learning Hebrew from an old workbook of mine, it bothered me. I found myself treating her the way the snarky kids in the hallways of my Hebrew school had treated me, trying to prove to her that she wasn’t the same kind of “Jewish” as I was. This continued on, my willfulness and confusion brewing for months.
The day of my mother’s conversion ceremony arrived and I noticed a girlish excitement in her eyes as she stepped onto the bima. I’d never seen her like this before. As she stood encircled by her nearest and dearest, she shared her journey to Judaism and tears streamed down my cheeks. First I was crying tears of joy and pride, overcome with the beauty of her story, but then I was crying for the shame I felt for not ever asking her to tell me this story before. For spending months dismissing her emotions. For being confused by her “choice” to convert, which I now understood wasn’t even a choice at all, but a realization and acceptance of who she’d always been.
Even after her conversion, my mom’s journey was far from over as she learned more and more about what it meant to be a Jew. But this time, instead of voicing my disdain for her path, I decided to join her. We’d always shared a love of learning, so I began asking questions. And through our shared learning, I not only found myself finally understanding why a Jewish groom crushes a glass with his right foot at the end of a wedding ceremony, but I found myself growing closer to her as my mother.
I loved how she made me ask questions about the traditions I’d always carried out and helped me realize that knowing why I did things made them all the more meaningful. It soon registered with me that I’d been living my Jewish life in a very passive way; the active way she tackled each holiday and ritual bred new light and excitement.
And honestly, my house has never felt more Jewish. My mom organizes a weekly family Shabbat, incorporating her own twist: everyone writes down one thing they’re grateful for, and then we guess who wrote each one. There are books about different Jewish philosophers, writers, and rabbis scattered on dining room tables, bookshelves, and kitchen countertops. And every time my phone is running out of storage, I know it’s because of all the Jewish podcasts my mom has auto-downloading to our shared account.
I still think of myself as a person who was raised interfaith. It will always be a part of my story, the way that my mom’s upbringing is a part of hers. But now I also know that our past doesn’t make us any less Jewish in our present. “Shalom Y’all” has taken on a second meaning: It’s still a representation of the hybrid of both my mother and father’s upbringing, but it’s also the first sound of our weekly Shabbat, the words so authentically spoken in my mother’s Southern accent from her very Jewish soul.
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