Religion? It's a personal choice

For me, it's important to be with those who make me happy, Jewish or not.

religious zionists 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious zionists 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Let me introduce myself: My name is Cynthia, and I am a Jew. I have always been a Jew. I was a little Jew in my mother's womb; I was a Jew before my parents knew if I was going to be a boy or a girl, and I was a Jew before they picked out a name. Growing up Jewish is different for everybody, but for me it meant Shabbat dinners, attending Hebrew and Sunday school and observing the high holidays. Now let me introduce my grandmother, Miriam. She was born on May 20, 1919, in the same city as me, Columbus, Ohio. Her parents were immigrants from Russia who came over to the States separately in 1917. My grandmother grew up in a religiously integrated area, but most of the people on her block didn't like Jews. Although the phrase "anti-Semitism" had yet to exist, my grandmother had many run-ins with those who weren't fans of the Jewish people. My grandmother and I obviously had very different upbringings, which has led to our varying opinions on what it means to be Jewish. Our definitions of Judaism come from the same seed; but for each of us that seed has blossomed differently. My grandmother's definition: Preserve the Jewish faith by surrounding yourself with Jewish friends, marrying within the Jewish people and leading a Jewish life, keeping kosher, going to synagogue, etc. My definition: Preserve the Jewish faith by keeping Jewish traditions as a part of your life, but not allowing them to dictate how you live. As I said, the seed is the same. We both want to maintain a sense of being Jewish; however, the way in which we choose to do this is different. 'SO DO you have a new boyfriend yet?" she asks me, as we sit in her room at the Jewish elderly home where she now resides. She opens the bin of Biscotti my mother recently bought for her. I shake my head, no. "I'm still seeing the same boy I was seeing a year ago." This is a question she asks me every time we talk. It is the first question she asks. "You know I don't like him. I don't like that boy." No matter how many times I've told her that his family life, ethics, values and morals all fall in line with how I was raised, it doesn't seem to matter. He is close with his family; their traditions are similar, they also gather round the table with food and conversation. And, most importantly, he makes me happy. But this does not matter. It doesn't matter because he is not of the Jewish faith. Because of this, my grandmother has asked everyone in the elderly home if they have any grandsons to fix me up with. She has called my aunts and asked them to find nice Jewish boys for me. She has gone so far as to find a boy who lives four states away, saying, "Your uncle tells me plenty of people will travel great lengths to be with someone Jewish." Right, he only lives in Delaware! "But, Mommo, I'm happy. And, like my mom says, 'I have the bananas, the three flavors of ice cream, the whipped cream and a cherry.' Sure, it would be great if he were Jewish, but I've already got the whole sundae. Do I really need that extra cherry?" MY GRANDMOTHER looks at me, and I know I've gone too far. I try to combat her and when I do, she goes quiet and stops listening to me. I can see she's already thinking about something else. She switches the topic to something more important, like the food in the cafeteria. "Mommo?" "Yes, dear." "Did you hear what I just said?" "I don't like it, no. It doesn't make me happy. Your grandfather wouldn't like it, either. It hurts me that you won't go with Jewish boys. I hear there are plenty of them where you live. Why don't you go find one? You're pretty and smart, and I'm not biased at all." I know she is trying to clear the air. But it doesn't work. I can't let it go. When my sister is around, she motions for me to stop pressing the issue. My sister will say, 'Just tell her he'll convert.' "I like him, grandma." "Well, I like shellfish, but does that mean I eat it?" And just like that, she's finished. The conversation? Over. "Well, too bad," I say frustrated, "I'm not looking to be with anybody else." "You and your mother, it's like you're trying to put me in the loony bin. I might be old, but I'm not stupid, you know." She stares at me. She has won for now because I'm too tired to fight. I watch her eat her Biscotti; neither of us says another word. THERE IS a part of me that understands where my grandmother is coming from; if I do not date Jewish people, I am less likely to marry one. And if you are not a part of a Jewish family, how can the religion survive? But for me, it is important to be with someone who makes me happy and supports my beliefs; and if this person resides outside of the Jewish faith, then so be it. I care about preserving my connection to Judaism, and by being with a non-Jew who respects my traditions and understands their importance in no way dissolves my wanting to maintain a sense of Judaism in my life. This is the difference in the worlds my grandmother and I grew up in. I don't need the person to be Jewish, I just need them to understand my traditions. Similar to how I need my grandmother to understand my views. My grandmother's biggest fear is that I won't preserve my faith. And it is hard to let her know that I want to do so, but I need to do it from within the world that I live in, not the world that she lived in. My grandmother lived in a time when you went to synagogue because it would be blasphemous not to. Now there are other ways to seal one's faith, and it's much more individualized, more personal. My grandmother grew up in a time where people worried about what the neighbors think, and religion manifested itself in all sorts of behaviors. Now, religion is more of a personal choice. You do it because you want to, not because you have to. There is no guidebook that tells you how to be Jewish because now there are so many ways you can be Jewish. It is interesting that with all the changes made to keep up with the world we live in, many have yet to accept that religion also must adapt to the present day. It is a constant struggle, or battle, between old and new. 'WHAT YOU are doing hurts me," she says, taking a break from the biscotti. "Why do you want to hurt me?" I'm shocked at her statement. Because the truth is that this doesn't have anything to do with her. I need to live the life that I want to live. Being with someone who is not Jewish is something I've chosen. I've chosen to do this not to send my grandmother into cardiac arrest, but because this person makes me happy. "We happen to be from two different religions, but this doesn't mean that I am any less of a Jew because he is not a Jew. Do I want my kids to go to Hebrew and Sunday school? To have a bar or bat mitzva? Yes. But these things are possible even without marrying within my religion." "You're wrong," she says, putting the biscotti on the table next to her chair, "it doesn't work that way." "And you're right?" I ask. She shrugs her shoulders. "I think I am." The writer is a freelance editor living in Madrid, Spain, and the author of Class President.