The First Hero
By Emma Mair
On my parents’ first date my dad asked my mum if it was a problem that he wasn’t Jewish. She said it wasn’t a problem unless they planned on getting married. Six years later my Protestant dad and Jewish mum had a traditional Jewish wedding, and when my brother and I were born they sent us to a Jewish preschool. My dad’s favorite holiday is Sukkot because he loves the fall. He has his own chanukiah and sings the Hanukkah blessings loud and proud. At my bat mitzvah, he and my mum received the Torah from my grandparents and handed it down to me, and he stood faithfully beside my mum on the bimah as she chanted the blessing over the Torah before I chanted my third aliyah.
Robert Lappin, Jewish philanthropist and the man whose foundation sent me to Israel this past summer, has said that interfaith families who choose to raise their kids Jewish are the heroes of Judaism. With Jews making up only .2% of the global population, Judaism is both the oldest and the smallest monotheistic religion, meaning that families who tackle raising their children Jewish in this Christian-normative society are much needed.
If you’re good at math, this is your time to shine: My parents had two kids. If I have two kids and my brother has two kids, and each of our kids has two kids, and each of our grandkids has two kids, and each of our great-grandkids has two kids, and all of those kids are raised Jewish, how many more Jews are there? The answer: sixty-two Jews in just five generations.
During my time in Israel with the Lappin Foundation’s Youth to Israel program, it was ingrained into us that we mustn’t break the chain. Each lecture we heard, that was the message: “Don’t break the chain,” “Even if you don’t marry Jewish, raise your kids Jewish,” “Find some way to remind yourself every day that you’re a Jew.” At first, I was annoyed that I was being told how to live my life. I’m a religious Jew, of course I’m going to raise my kids Jewish; I didn’t feel I needed to be told that. But it didn’t occur to me at the time that for some people, this isn’t so obvious, or important.
The line of David, the Messianic line, begins with Balak, an ancient king of Moab, who sought to destroy the Israelites. Unfortunately for him but fortunately for us, every curse that his sorcerer tried became a blessing, and several generations later Balak had a great-great granddaughter named Ruth, who ironically enough became the very first convert to Judaism. Ruth was a Moabite woman who married into the tribe of Judah, and when her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law died, she followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to the Land of Judah insisting that, “Your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d.” Ruth’s great grandson was King David, and it has been said that the Messiah will come from his line, Ruth’s line.
Ruth, like my dad, started a chain. Her legacy lives on in those interfaith families who choose to raise their kids Jewish. She sacrificed plenty because she saw the beauty in our faith, and felt a call to her relationship with Naomi. We read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot because her acceptance of the Jewish religion is analogous to the acceptance of the Torah.
When we read her story at my confirmation service, my rabbi thanked the interfaith families in our congregation for their commitment to Judaism, because while every Jew is important, interfaith families are posed with a unique challenge, and their willingness to overcome barriers to raising Jewish children is imperative to Judaism’s ongoing existence.
I think my dad has always felt a little self-conscious in a family of Jews, but he’s always the first to remind my brother and me how special we are, and what a great gift our faith is. He’s a vocal supporter of Judaism and its values, and he’s a huge proponent of not breaking the chain. He told me recently that he is who he is and he’s proud of his own faith, but he’s even more proud of his family. He’s the embodiment of Ruth’s spirit, and when I read her story I think about how grateful I am for him and his commitment to my Jewish life and education.
To all of the interfaith families out there I say this: real heroes don’t wear capes.
Emma Mair wrote this piece as part of the Rising Voices Fellowship, a program of the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA). This piece was originally published on JWA’s blog, Jewish Women, Amplified. Emma is also a Teen Israel Advocacy Fellow and alumna of Lappin Foundation’s 2017 Youth to Israel Adventure.