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Wednesday
Dec212011

Half-Baked

There are probably a million ways to be half-assed in life, and parenting seems to be an opportunity for me to explore most of them.

My semi-annual attempt to expose Ezra to his roots - roots I barely access myself - started last night with the first night of Hanukkah. Basically it means we dust off my grandmother's menorah, fumble through a half-understood Hebrew prayer, light a candle and give Ez a small present. This year it will be a series of eight Hot Wheels. I imagine we are all vaguely befuddled at this exercise, divorced as it is from any larger context in our lives. And yet, here I am, compelled to do it anyway.

---

My brother and I shuttled weekly between our parents' houses when we were growing up. Among other things this meant that the Episcopalians had custody of us every other Sunday morning. Alternate Sundays we ate bacon with our Jewish dad and listened to the Grateful Dead. Small wonder that I turned into a pagan/Buddh-ish/atheist.

Mom's week. Dad's week.

Half. Half.

Fair. Square.

And yet.

Here I am, still wondering what it means to claim identity and why it feels important anyway.

---

Here is what I know about Judaism: Family. Laws. Other. My paternal line is Jewish in a typical American way that involves bad news in eastern Europe, long journeys, short memories. Also, Brooklyn, boot straps, assimilation, intermarriage. It did not, in my experience, involve much in the way of temple, formal holidays, or practice. No matter. They are Jews because, as my father once told me, it's what they Are.

Judaism is a religion of laws, deeply imprinted with a sense of Other-ness (enforced from both within and without, over and over). The laws on this are clear: there is no half-half. You either Are or you Are Not. You are borne of a Jewish womb or you are not. Never mind Ukraine. Never mind Brooklyn. Never mind the occasional Passover or that one cousin's ostentatious Bar Mitzvah. Never mind the paternal line.

And yet.

---

We lit the first candle last night. Ezra opened the '86 Monte Carlo, delighted.

I never had a menorah growing up. My entire experience of Hanukkah consisted of an annual check from my great-aunt Hannah. My brother asked me yesterday Why on Earth? and I have no good answer except Ezra is getting pretty far removed from the family's last Jewish womb and even though we Are Not, I want him to somehow know that this is related to him. As is Gin Rummy, and curly hair, and the old sepia portrait of the Russian soldier in the big furry hat.

Is pretending to practice Hanukkah a good way to do that? Hell, I don't know. Last night it brought up the familiar combination of feeling both ridiculous and half-assed that seems to accompany any of my tip-toed excursions toward this identity. But Ezra liked it, and he was golden in the light of my Grandma's menorah.

---

The book of Jewish children's stories I had as a child included the one where King Solomon was wise enough to know that no real mother would split the baby. No half-half. No half-ass.

I was never that sure of anything, my whole life.  Must have been nice.

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Reader Comments (13)

This is beautiful! It's sometimes so complicated bringing up children and offering them a 'religious' base. We - too - celebrate Chanukah..and altho my kids are mostly grown - they have fond memories (and expectations) of those 8 nights gathered around the menorah - each taking their turn lighting the candles. Love the image. Brings back many happy memories!

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcie

Years ago I came to a realization about my own religion thanks only to a conversation with a Jewish woman I worked with. We discussed faith over lunch one day, and she patiently answered all my questions about Judaism, naive as they were. I remember sitting there in awe of her description of the rituals, and how soothing they are for her. And I wished that I had that. And then I realized that hey, dumbass, I DO have that. I just hadn't really taken the time to see it in that way. Since then I have figured out that when an idiot hellfire and brimstone priest is up there spewing stuff I can't believe (which happens often enough in any organized religion, I think), I tune him out and focus on the ritual. This brings me peace and comfort, and connects me more than anything else to my personal faith and to what is truly important.

Maybe it's the ritual you're introducing to Ezra, much like your new daily morning meditation you've introduced to yourself, and less an organized religion. Maybe it's not about being Jewish or Episcopalian or Buddhist or Muslim...maybe it's just about doing that one thing, over and over, that keeps you grounded and helps you remember those who came before while honoring who you are today.

And of course he's delighted with the '86 Monte Carlo. Those things are kick-ass.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteramy z

Hi Corinna. I can relate to your words. My husband is Jewish and I am not so we try and expose our girls to some of the Jewish practices and customs, but also celebrate some of the Christian holidays in a very secular way. My eldest daughter is learning what it means to live in a "mixed up" house (her words) and so far she thinks it's quite nice (loads of holidays!!). Parenting is all about finding our way as much as it is about showing them how to find theirs.
Happy holidays (of any kind) to you and yours:)

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCherish

Corinna, that was all so well said. I am in one of those "mixed" marriages and once kids came into the picture, we had the dilemma of what to observe. (My husband grew up in an ambivalent Jewish household...more cultural than religious...agnostics and atheists, yet they still knew how to cook all of that jewish food, even the schmaltz for the matzo balls). We are "equal opportunity" holiday observers...it's all good, as my kids would say.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterannie

I lit my landlord's Mom's menorah for the two cats I live with and sang a sanskrit prayer three times, I think its all ok!

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeb

Lovely, Corinna. I'm not sure what it is about Hanukah, probably the childhood memories mostly, but it's the only ritual I still perform. I define myself as a Jewish atheist, but I light the candles and say the prayer every year. It seems to bring comfort. Happy Hanukah and Merry Christmas to the Old family!

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJacki Robbins

Corinna - I think it is important to expose our children to the ancient traditions of their heritage. Those traditions are beautiful and will link Ezra to his ancestors in important ways of memory. You are giving him a foundation which he can weave into his life in ways that will be meaningful to him as he comes into his own adulthood. Happy Hannukah!

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrenda

My children are of paternal Jewish lineage too. It can be an awkward thing. I no longer observe an organized religion, but neither have I converted. We celebrate the Jewish holidays in our home, but our kids participate in Christmas with my family. And it is just tough to avoid the Easter bunny in spring.

I don't know the answers. But I really like what Amy Z said. I do find comfort in ritual -- even if it wasn't from my personal roots. We don't have Shabbat dinners, but when we do it with my in-law, I really appreciate how it brings them together. And I still enjoy going to mass on Christmas with my parents, even though I don't ascribe to the Catholic church's teachings any longer. I like to sing the songs and allow my brain to remember the prayers like riding a bike. It's sort of nice to have that ancient part of the brain take over and acknowledge that it is there.

I'm still struggling to claim my identity. So much comes during adulthood. I think it is wonderful that you are sharing heirloom traditions with him to connect him to his and your past. Keep moving forward. From here it looks like you are on a pretty great road.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlifeineden {amy}

I think it's okay to expose Ezra to this kind of tradition, so, when he grows up he'll understand his roots and be more open-minded about ancient traditions.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrochure Printing

I love how you capture this moment, this uncertainty, this truth. So good.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMeghan @ Life Refocused

magnifique ce portrait
joyeux noel

December 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrem_la

I was raised Catholic, which is fine, except I married a divorced man. Taboo! I get rules...I live by them every day...but it's hard for me to understand that the (Catholic) church can't accept a committed relationship that is nearly 40 years long! Being Catholic is part of my being, but my marital status prevents participation in anything/everything Catholic.I would love to go back to my roots, but...

December 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWanda

Wonderful in every respect Corinna. The image is so sweet and innocent and it does, for me, tell the tale that crosses every culture, every origin--we do our best to pass on to our children the story of us. We may feel that we're doing a poor job but in the end they will look back with fondness at the moment, they'll remember the story and they'll tell it to their own. Happy belated Hanukkah!

January 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristopher

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