Explaining My Brother’s Big Jewish Communion

If your Jewish brother invites you to his child’s communion, how do you explain it to your kids? Read More

By / March 2, 2011

My brother, a very successful and prominent bankruptcy lawyer (yes, my mother kvells) called me the other night with an offer that surpasses the realm of generosity and falls somewhere around I Never Thought I’d See the Day. Brad is married to a lovely woman who just happens to not be Jewish. In fact, she’s an Italian girl raised on Long Island; there was an Uncle Lefty at their wedding. Brad and Jane have two daughters, and their older girl, Olivia, is about to make her First Communion this May. Brad wants my sons and me there, and since I’m not exactly in the most secure of financial positions (to say the least), he’s going to foot the airfare.

While my sons were delighted beyond words that they’re getting a free trip to see their cousins, they were confused at the reason why. “What’s a Communion?” asked Jack, 12. Ben, 7, couldn’t even say it. “We’re going to Jane’s Community!” he joyfully announced to my mother on the phone.

The boys were certainly more focused on the surprise trip itself, and not the reason for it. “Hey, does this make up for everything Uncle Brad did to you when you were kids?” Jack asked jokingly. I threw the snark back and told him it was a great start, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking about how to explain all of this. Not just what a Communion is; there are plenty of resources for a textbook explanation. What I won’t be able to explain as easily is the why.

I was raised a Reform Jew in 1970s and 80s New Jersey. Being Jewish was a big part of my identity in my early years. We celebrated the holidays, and I went to Hebrew School to study for my Bat Mitzvah. I loved the ritual of the Friday night and Saturday morning services, the smells in the synagogue prior to the Oneg Shabbat, and my rabbi’s deep, rich voice. I questioned nothing; we were Jewish. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. Oh, and learn our Torah portions, too.

It wasn’t until I started my Confirmation classes that I began to think about what we were being taught. We were taking Comparative Religion as part of our curriculum, and one memorable day, we were led into the synagogue and shown the movie “Ticket to Heaven”, which was about a cult. As I listened to what the cult leaders were saying on the screen, I realized it wasn’t a whole different than what we were told, just with less Biblical background. There was only one true Father who loved you, according to the cult in the movie. Ignore the teachings of all others, stay with the people who believe what you believe.

How was that any different than what we did when we came to Temple? We were told to put our faith in a leader we never saw, like the cult in the film. We were told stories about those who came before us, to blaze a path so we could worship our God the way we wanted to, and we were special because of that. We were encouraged to do all of our activities through the Temple, staying with our own. Wasn’t that cult-like? What separated us from the characters who were yelling “Bomb with love!” besides the regional accents?

For me, it came to a head the night the Rabbi came into our class to talk to us about interfaith dating. We were all in 8th grade now, our hormones going kerflooey in all directions, and he wanted to talk to us about making the right choices in whom we spent our time with. “How many of you would date someone who wasn’t Jewish?” the Rabbi asked. Most of us raised our hands; at 13, you just want someone who’ll want to date you, and you really can’t be choosy. But then he raised the stakes:

“How many of you would marry someone who wasn’t Jewish?”

Hands dropped all around me. Soon, mine was the only one left remaining in the air. “You would?” I hear one of the girls say.

The Rabbi looked at me, disappointed, as if he was saying There goes another one. I don’t recall his exact words, but the basic gist was that it was up to me to keep the Jewish faith going by marrying a Jewish man and making Jewish babies.

I looked around the room. There had to be at least 30 kids there with me, and I opined that they’d be able to pick up the slack from my heathen uterus (I didn’t say this aloud, of course; I still had mad respect for the Rabbi). I do know I said, “If I fall in love with a black Zen Buddhist and I think he’s the right man to father my children, then that’s who I’m gonna marry.”

When I told my parents I was done with Hebrew School, my father only shrugged. My mother asked why, and after I was finished, she said, “If that’s the way you feel, then fine.” It also meant she wouldn’t have to drop me off at the Temple every Monday night at 6 and return for me at 9. I’m sure they figured I’d eventually settle down with a Jewish guy, why make a fuss when I was only thirteen?

The boys I knew at Hebrew School were rich Princes from Holmdel, a New Jersey suburb rife with money and privilege. These boys were snobby and self-entitled and a complete turnoff to me in every way. As a result, I’ve never even dated a Jewish guy, nor have I ever slept with one. Interestingly, both my brother and I ended up married to people raised Catholic. My mother, long divorced from my father, is married to a lapsed Catholic. My boyfriend leans towards the agnostic, and the last time I was in a legitimate House of Worship was in June 2000, for my brother’s wedding.

My sons’ contact with the religious world has been minimal at best. We do Chanukah in this house, and I even make them recite the Hebrew blessing over the candles. They have Christmas at their father’s, but neither of them associate the holidays with anything other than the overt commercialism that surrounds them. I have told them the story of Chanukah, so they ‘get’ it, but since we don’t go to Temple or keep kosher, it’s just not a big deal. I talk to them about their Jewish heritage, but it’s not like we’re davening over here.

For me, forcing my sons to believe in something I don’t seems hypocritical. Certainly they can educate themselves in the ways of world religions, and if they’re into a certain one, I won’t stop them from exploring it. But I see modern religion as the last holdout from an antiquated time. I believe men created gods because they didn’t have the scientific knowledge to explain things. As we evolved as a species, we learned that a man in a golden chariot did not, in fact, drive the sun across the sky every day. No one was throwing lightning bolts around up there, and there wasn’t a big dude holding up the Earth.

And so my argumentative nature makes me ask: If we don’t believe in all that hooey anymore, how come there are those amongst us who believe an invisible being in the sky is in charge of what’s going on down here on the ground? Because they have faith, which is something you either have or you don’t. You can’t give it to someone, and you can’t make them give it up if they have it.

Therefore, I live by my own beliefs, and I’ve shared them with my sons. I’ve also let them know that they are free to choose their own belief systems. They’re practical children, Jack and Ben: if they can see it, they can understand it. If it’s something you can’t physically produce, they’re skeptical. I’ve given them the textbook explanation of what a Communion is. They know it’s important to their aunt, and that Jane has worked hard on this. They know their cousin will be wearing a white dress, and that she’s going to have an awesome party with cake afterwards. They know they’re getting a special chance to spend time with family they don’t normally get to see. Right now, if my boys are going to believe in something, it’s that their uncle is a pretty cool guy for being so generous with his hard-earned cash.

That’s totally something I can get behind.