I took my first trip to Israel in 2002 for two months, and at the end of the trip we took a survey about how our sense of Jewish identity had developed and changed during the trip. And the last question was: How important is it for you to marry someone Jewish?
Very important, somewhat important, not important, or I don’t know.
Answering this question was a watershed moment for my Jewish identity. The question assumes that it’s important to marry someone Jewish, which went against a rule I’d adhered to up until that point in my life based on the values my parents taught me: “It doesn’t matter where you come from (i.e. religion or otherwise), what matters is who you are when looking for a partner.”
What my personal life should look like felt like it was on trial because it was, and also – I was changing. Cautiously and inspired from a moving trip, I filled in the box for ‘very important.’ Then after that felt too uncomfortable, I erased it and re-filled in ‘somewhat important.’
I was wrestling with something I like to call: authenticity anxiety – when the next right choice for us is different than it used to be, because our authentic selves are always changing.
That’s growth, that’s life, and for some of us – maybe most of us – authenticity anxiety follows us our whole life. And in that anxious moment I was discovering a new way of creating a little more distance between me and my folks; outgrowing their house – which was an interfaith home.
My Mom is Jewish, and dad a Christian, Taoist, Buddhist black belt.
And while this survey moment didn’t change how I dated anyone for over a decade. In fact until rabbinical school I made it a point to date outside the Jewish community and only then I felt the need to explore dating within the Tribe. I found myself on match.com, Jdate, okcupid, and hinge with algorithms that all knew I was looking for Jewish women. And in my final year I met Stephanie, and while staffing a Honeymoon Israel trip about four weeks ago I asked her to marry me and she said yes!
The people who designed that survey would be thrilled, because they – like much of the Jewish community at large – commonly measure the success of Jewish education, Jewish life experience, and community health, by the number of Jews who marry other Jews.
But what is that really measuring if authenticity is always evolving? Today approximately 72% of Jewish identifying couples are interfaith — is their Judaism not authentic? Or does the Jewish community need to reexamine how to connect the dots between two things that naturally depart from one another. An ancient story of how things should look, and people making modern authentic choices.
Well, I made my authentic choice and am also thrilled to be engaged to Stephanie! She inspires me, she pushes me to be a better me, we’re in love, and quite often I find myself surprised at the Jewish stuff she knows and love it!
But our love isn’t Jewish. Our love is love. Her family background and ½ of mine is Eastern European Jewish, and the other important half of mine is Pennsylvania Dutch.
So while on the one hand this new year is starting with something beautiful to celebrate, I can’t help but fear that I’ve departed further from something sacred. Namely for me – an ability to honor my father and his heritage. Not because of who I found to love, but because:
Where will the rich diversity of dad’s Christian Taoist Buddhist black belt self exist into our world moving forward? And more pointedly given the fact that 4 years ago this year he passed away from early onset Alzheimer’s.
This is MY moment of sacred departure at the start of this year, like lech l’cha, with Abraham on the ultimate sacred departure from his father’s house. And understandably honoring my father is particularly on my mind as this new chapter starts.
Though in truth we all experience this departure in different ways. When the distance grows further from a lost loved one, or we can see in the coming years an inevitable generation shift.
How will we hold on? In the departure from old identities as we discover and reinvent our authentic selves, how do we preserve and reconcile with our previous selves?
Or the departure from a family or tradition, when ways of doing things may not have lost their importance but their relevance, and seemingly don’t fit anymore in how we’ve chosen to live.
These are the departures from sacred things, because they make up the DNA of who we are. Inviting the question: “How can we hold onto where we’ve come from, while naturally and intentionally breaking away from it at the same time?”
“How can we hold onto where we’ve come from, while naturally and intentionally breaking away from it at the same time?”
Consider this Honeymoon Israel trip last month. Honeymoon Israel is a Jewish organization that provides trips to Israel for diverse couples with at least one Jewish partner. The couples on this trip are choosing to seek out a new horizon for themselves that naturally and regularly stretches out the distance of their departure from their origin stories.
Some couples were supported by their families in this journey, while others experienced harsh judgment, accused of not being suitable or good enough for their partner, or skipped over entirely in the succession of a family honor on account of their partnered-status. A pain that even after finding a way to be empathetic to or rationalize, is hard to hold.
Yet, they do. And whether or not they are aware, their ability to hold on to where they’ve been while departing from it at the same time is made possible by their willingness to embrace one another fully and be along for the ride, and have a sense of responsibility to one another to turn and face their past. To learn where they’re from. To revisit it. Examine it. And reconcile with it to better understand who they are.
And the truth is that very few if any of these couples were on this trip learning about or being challenged by different parts of their heritage to honor their parents. They were showing up for each other. To honor where the other had come from in order to understand the wholeness of their relationship; creating their own family origin story.
And we can do this for ourselves – no partner necessary – which is neither simple nor easy.
Sometimes, turning back to face and our own family histories and reexamine our parental relationships can be triggering. It takes a special love, a special embrace of ourselves, to spark the conviction and bravery to revisit scars, open old wounds, or dormant memories. Figuring out how and where to start will be different for everyone.
This is, of course, one of the major themes of this High Holiday season! These rituals, this liturgy, these stories; were fashioned with love for us to be responsible to ourselves, to know ourselves more wholly. To do cheshbon ha-nefesh, a complete accounting of our souls. This is what we’re supposed to be keenly aware of these next 10 days.
And one of the places we cannot avoid looking if we’re to do this completely, is examine our human createdness.
The commandment to honor our parents tells us —– not to let the distance grow too far away from the story of those who literally got us here.
And it’s not about needing to have some sort of imbalanced gratitude or owing to our parents because we exist. It’s about how our identities will naturally and intentionally evolve to outgrow their house, and our responsibility to ourselves to keep them written into our stories as we break away.
There is a particular parent-origin-story text in the Torah that can help bring this together. The scene is at the temple, God’s house. Every year our ancestors were commanded to go there to pay a tax of their first fruits, the most precious from their fields, and worth real money. And upon arrival they are to go up to the Priests and say the following, a script from the Book of Deuteronomy:
“My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with small numbers, lived there; and became a great and populous nation.” (Deuteronomy 26:5)
Let’s break it down a little. “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Well, I don’t know about you, mine was from Pennsylvania, but the truth is that even the Jewish tradition doesn’t have consensus about who this is referring to. It could be Abraham, or Jacob, it could be mine from Pennsylvania, which is I think the broader point. This is our story, this is your story.
“He went down to Egypt.” — This should be a red flag. This text is from Deuteronomy, we’ve already read all about what happens in Egypt. Good things don’t happen in Egypt. In the biblical canon, ‘down to Egypt’ is a euphemism for ‘bad idea.’ But even so, it’s a part of our story we have to tell it, know it, and reconcile with it.
Egypt is where my father chooses to go, live, and transform into something greater. It’s a story that’s end is not determined by its beginning. What story is? And by telling the story and learning how to tell it better, we can expand the way we look backwards for the way we look forward. And if we don’t, then on some level we stay broken, and incomplete.
But I think my favorite part of this text, is the context. The previous two verses that describe how this story accompanies a tax. It’s as if when we as Americans submit our tax forms in April, that we be asked to also recall out loud our parent-origin story. Like:
Here’s my tax return. “My mother was from Skokie. she had me and 3 sisters, we lived in the city and she worked at a law firm, life is good. This and that happened, and that’s why I’m here, giving you my taxes – these precious first fruits.”
“My father was absent for most of my life and I hate him for it. He went down to Florida and is now a successful store manager.” Here are my fruits.
“My father was a profile picture from a fertility clinic, we’ve never met and I don’t know much about him other than what was on the form.” Here I am.
What I love about this Torah, is that it teaches us that in order to access sacred space we need to connect the dots of two things that naturally depart from one another.
Dot one are the fruits, a representation of ourselves, our life choices. We – as farmers – love the land, work the land, produce this fruit, and choose which ones, of the first harvest, would best represent ourselves when we knock on the door to GOD’S HOUSE.
And the second dot: our story – the one we’re naturally departing from every year. A vocal retelling of where we came from, how we got here and why we’re standing here – At GOD’S HOUSE – starting with our parents.
And I wonder, how will we tell this story a year from now? If we keep in touch with these characters, how might the narrative develop, and what might we uncover about ourselves? What will we care to try and change?
“My mother was from Skokie. She got sick and had to retire, now my 3 sisters all live in Skokie to help support her. I live far away but get back when I can and call almost every day. This and that happened, and that’s why I’m here, giving you these first fruits.”
“My absent father and I reconnected, still hate him for it, but the next Florida trip should be better, I know where the boundaries need to be.” Here are my fruits
“I still haven’t met my father and don’t expect to, but I know I was born from love like my mothers tell me. We talk about it.” Here I am.
Here’s my tax return:
My father’s from Pennsylvania and had a deep love for astronomy. About a year after he died I was home looking through his astronomy boxes in the attic and found a black journal of his. It was mostly empty, but contained pages of poetry, notes, and a draft of letter to me that he never shared or more likely never finished. It reads:
One of my favorite quotes I give to you, it says: “A ship is safe in the harbor – but that’s not what ships are for.” by John D Shedd
It goes on, but that’s all I needed. A piece of dad’s Torah. A treasure I never intended to find or even could have hoped to discover rummaging around old boxes in the attic. And it will change me forever, because now I can connect the dot of my story – and dad’s favorite quote – to the dot of the fruits of my life choices. Now we’re equipped, Stephanie and I , with a compass to figure out how to honor him in years to come.
We need to open ourselves up to discovering things about ourselves we couldn’t know we didn’t know. Examining past the surface, past our ego or prior definitions and assumptions we ever had about what makes something Jewish, or a family member challenging, or not worth another look. Revisiting these relationships and retelling these stories gives us the chance to shape ourselves, those we love, and our community. That’s what it takes to hold on to two things that naturally depart from another. That is what these High Holidays are for.
May this be a new year of starting new dialogues, renewing old ones, and building relationships that may diverge from where we came from or where you are and bring us all closer to wholeness.