What my Catholic mother taught me about being Jewish

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Mother’s Day presents the opportunity for me to share with those of you who read my monthly musings here at TCJF that I don’t have a Jewish mother.  My family is of French and Irish ancestry, and when I’ve shared this information in Jewish social situations I’ve noticed curious expressions at times. Rarely, but every once in a while, someone will ask me a variation of “Hmm….that’s interesting, how can that be?”

Of course, there are many Jews in France, and a there is a tiny community of Jews in Ireland, but I am not related to any of them. If I haven’t lost you yet, you’ve almost certainly guessed that I am a Jew By Choice. For the sake of accuracy, I should clarify that I am in the process of choosing to become a Jew. I grew up in a Catholic family; yet today find myself an enthusiastic participant in the Jewish community. But today’s post is not going to be about conversion, although I expect that I’ll have something to say about that down the road a bit.

Hallmark doesn’t make a Mother’s Day card that can even begin to appropriately recognize what I’ve learned from my mother’s example. And I am quite certain that she would never guess the role she has played in helping me to discern a Jewish identity and to live a Jewish life. But as every parent of small children knows, “little pitchers have big ears.” We notice much more of what our parents do and say, than they normally are aware of. In this spirit, I’ve been thinking over what my Catholic mother has taught me about being Jewish.

Family & Home

My mother believes that family is the most important part of life, that the bonds among family are insoluble. “We are the most important thing in the world to each other,” she told me once. This belief in the centrality of family was reflected in the home environment that she created and the standard to which she held my father, my brother and me to as contributing members of the household. The evening meal was sacrosanct. This was the time when we would talk about our day, and was the linchpin to keeping our family connected.

These messages about home and family are a natural fit with the home-centered nature of most Jewish observance. Shabbat dinner feels like coming home for me in large part because of the traditions I learned at my mother’s table.  And it is a joy to observe the commandment of honoring my mother, because she honored each of us by her commitment to the family and our home.

Education & Study

Since the time of the first rabbis, study of Torah, Talmud and other texts have been the foundation of meaning in Judaism. Learning is the mitzvah that leads us to understanding of the other mitzvot. The process of learning itself is seen as holy by many. As a child I was challenged by my mother to do my best in school and to complete everything I started. It was okay to fail, as long as I learned from the experience. I was a smart kid, and the way my mother recognized and nurtured my abilities made a big difference in what I was able to achieve. This love of learning was transmitted to my by my mother and in Judaism, I have found that learning can be a vibrant expression of faith and spirit.

Freedom & Acceptance to Be

The greatest gift my mother gave me was to accept me as I am and to understand intuitively that I needed to grow and evolve in my own direction. I will always remember the day that I told her that I was interested in converting to Judaism. She told me that when she raised me that she hoped I would have some religious awareness, and that I would know G-d. She gave me her blessing, even though I could tell that she didn’t completely understand why I was feeling called to take this step. Her trust in me to do what was right, and her acceptance of where that would take me, have been very helpful to me as I endeavor to accept people for who they are and where they are.

Chris Mom 300x225 What My Catholic Mother Taught Me About Being  Jewish

Messages Matter

The little and big things that we heard from our parents – or that our children hear from us –  add up and make an impression. We never know where life is going to take us….just as my mother could never have imagined that she’d have a Jewish son. Yet, those authentic lessons learned in small bits over the first decades of our lives can prepare us to face unimagined challenges and to reap unimagined gifts.

Before you see or call your mother on Sunday, or as you remember your mother, you may want to think about the lessons she taught you. If you can, tell her what you learned from her. The conversation may well surprise her, and you in turn may be pleasantly surprised as well.

Photo: Chris & Mom: C. Bargeron