Today’s post is part of the From Left to Write online book club. The idea of this book club is not to write a book review, per se, but rather to write a post in which the blogger connects that month’s book to an experience from his or her own life. March’s book is Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, a novel written by Natasha Solomons.
Today I drove my daughter to Hebrew school. This is not remarkable in and of itself; I have driven her to Hebrew school every Sunday for the past two and a half years. And, the temple where she attends Hebrew school is also the home of my son’s preschool. In other words, I’m at that temple at least five days a week. This temple is, in many ways, our community. Yet I did not grow up in the Jewish faith.
For my husband, there is nothing remarkable in having a synagogue be a regular destination. He grew up in an observant Jewish family and they lived in a small town without a lot of other Jews. The synagogue was a natural place for his family to gravitate to.
I, on the other hand, grew up in a large Eastern city, where Jewish families were plentiful, but my family was not one of them. My father had been raised Jewish and my mother had been raised Catholic. When they decided to get married in the late 60’s, their families had objected on religious grounds. My parents disregarded their objections and, perhaps not surprisingly, as adults neither was interested in organized religion. When I was a child, my family observed Jewish holidays with a family meal, but the only time I ever entered a synagogue was at friends’ bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.
Yet, somehow, I always felt Jewish. I remember reading the wonderful All of a Kind Family series of books about a large Jewish family living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century and thinking that I was a part of that fictional family’s legacy. When I was studying abroad in Paris, I lived with a Sephardic Jewish family and was fascinated to learn about a whole new Jewish tradition, one that included a festive couscous to mark the end of Passover and throwing water after a departing guest to ensure that she would return some day.
I met my husband after college, when we were both in law school. We were friends before we became a couple, and one day, when we were still just friends, my husband told me that it was important to him to marry someone Jewish. “How Jewish does she have to be?” I asked. “Like, would you marry me?” He conceded that he might be willing to marry someone like me because at least I had Jewish grandparents and therefore understood some of the key cultural aspects of being Jewish, like not putting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich. (Ten years of marriage and two kids later, it always makes me smile to remember that conversation. You could almost say that I proposed to him.)
Despite the difference in our upbringings, my husband and I feel the same about raising a Jewish family. I don’t think that it was an accident or a coincidence that I ended up with a Jewish man. I think it was one of the things that brought us together — even though I actually had to undergo a formal conversion to Judaism before we got married.
With Judaism still recovering from the horrific events of the 20th century, raising Jewish children feels imperative. My husband’s paternal grandparents both fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s. Their families back in Germany, needless to say, were wiped out. My Jewish grandparents had six children and eleven great-grandchildren. Of the eleven great-grandchildren, only four are being raised as Jews. I’m not good at math, but those are not great numbers if you are trying to keep a faith alive.
I thought a lot about my husband’s paternal grandparents — only one of whom I was lucky enough to meet — as I read Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, a novel about a Jewish couple who flees Nazi Germany in 1937. The Rosenblums ended up in England, where a baseline of casual anti-Semitism put tremendous pressue on refugees to assimiliate, even at the cost of losing their faith and identity as Jews. Although American history is not free from anti-Semitism, our self-image as a nation of immigrants created more room for immigrants to this country to hold onto their language, their traditions and their faith without fear of complete exclusion from the larger society. But, of course, assimilation comes to all groups — with the exception of those who seek to cut themselves off — and with it the risk of losing all connection to the past.
For me and my husband, and for many of the families we know through our temple, the things we do to raise our children as Jews in this mainly Christian country are important. We force them to go to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings, we take them out of school on Yom Kippur, and we resist the urge to succumb to Christmas (although we do celebrate Christmas with my parents, as I explain here). These are small but critical ways that we keep that connection to our long-dead ancestors — many of whom, like the Rosenblums, were forced to leave everything behind and flee in the worst of circumstances.
A “From Left to Write” Book Club post. In conjunction with the book club, I received a free copy of Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English. Buy your copy here. You can find more bloggers’ reactions to Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by following the links on the From Left to Write website. Follow From Left to Write on Twitter here.