Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Jewish Family

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When I was a teenager I worked as a nanny for a family with an interesting religious pedigree. The husband was New Jersey Jewish, which is to say that his whole extended family was really, really Jewish, while his wife was a practicing Episcopalian. Over the two years I spent time in their home the topic of religion occasionally surfaced and I'd hear the husband say, Honey, you gotta know he wasn't your guy. It hasn't happened yet. This sort of statement was always made with a very teenage-boy smirk on his face. His wife would then roll her eyes and respond in her very best New Jersey accent, It's over, it's over. You missed it buddy. You keep on bein' a Jew if you want to, but pretty much everybody else knows it's over, it happened already. We got the guy and his name was Jesus. 

As a fifteen year old girl I wasn't mature enough to see the practical need for this sort of humor and religious banter in a religiously divided household. And now that I'm grown I wonder if they always managed to keep it light and funny, or if there were also some intense moments of resentment and misuderstanding. This memory came back to me recently as I've been thinking about different religions and what it is that allows people to play nicely. Living in lots of different places and countries allowed me to grow up surrounded by many different types of faith and so even though I was raised in a Mormon family I guess having friends with lots of varying ideas about religion and God has been my normal. 

Things haven't changed much since our current neighborhood seems to be religiously eclectic. There is a Hindu family living next door and when our kids first started riding bikes outside together the wife was practically tripping over herself in gratitude. No one else wants their children to play with us, she confided. At first I felt indignant at the rest of our neighborhood on her behalf. There are families of four or five different faiths and three different ethnic backgrounds all within spitting distance of my front door and so who were they to give a cold shoulder to the folks from India? But then Jeremy pointed out that while my neighbor's sensitivities may be real, it could also be a perception problem. People may not be acting exclusionary on purpose, they're just busy, or maybe their mothers didn't teach them to take a plate of cookies over to the neighbors every once in a while. 

But the family on our block that we know and love best is the Jewish family across the street. Like us, they have several religious activities each week couched between the usual drill of homework and after school programs. Their children go to Jewish school and are studying Hebrew, and they are actively involved in the local Jewish community. Over the years we've lived on this street I've had the opportunity to talk shop with the mother on many different parenting topics. And the more our families have bonded, the more we know about each other the more we have recognized similar values guiding our lives. Faith. Prayer. Involved parents. Disciplining our children in a way that teaches cause and effect consequences. Our list of shared values could go on and on, but one day last spring we were chuckling over how funny it is that they are so Jewish and we are so Mormon, and yet we seem so much the same, almost like family

It doesn't really matter, does it? my neighbor once observed. I nodded. I understood exactly what she meant. Their Jewishness and our Mormon-ness...the doctrinal differences didn't interfere with the friendship because people striving to be good and live well are people striving to be good and live well, regardless of religion. 

I've kept that conversation tucked away on a shelf somewhere and sometimes I take it down and dust it off to have another look. The observation that our religious differences don't matter continues to ring true because it is true. In four years it's never once been an issue. Of course the natural boundaries of being neighbors rather than immediate family members have helped that relationship. It's a lot harder when you're put in intimate family situations that bear the burden of religious practices. But even with our neighbors I've wondered how we manage to be so close when our beliefs are so vastly different? 

I think that anyone who takes five minutes to chew on the question of do our differing beliefs really matter? will come up with their own answer. Your beliefs matched against those who you spend time with, and whether or not it's working for you, will determine that answer. But as for me and my wonderful, wonderful Jewish friends I'd say that my beliefs matter enormously...to me. What I believe impacts how I live, write, mother, and love others. But most importantly it affects my relationship with my Heavenly Father. I go to church every Sunday and I visit our temples often in order to make and renew covenants and promises with God. It's between me and Him... family, neighbors and everyone else aside. 

As I get older, even within the last couple of years, I feel less and less protective or defensive about my beliefs, but maybe that just thanks to Mitt Romney and Stephanie Meyer. I say that tongue in cheek, but the fact of the matter is that Mormonism has become so mainstream that most people are kind of over the novelty and it's no longer this strange unknown. And I think the majority of those who are truly curious about our faith are smart enough to go to mormon.org or find other reliable sources to educate themselves. Anyway, my point is that for me the looking and digging part of my life is over and now I'm on to the doing, being and living part. There may always be uncomfortable moments or inflamed joints between people of other faiths disagreeing on specific issues, but for the most part I believe my neighbor. When you're in the company of people who are trying to live in a way that puts their best foot forward it's enough.

I want to add that one of the happy side effects of making friends of different faiths and backgrounds is that every once in a while you might find yourself with an invitation to a traditional Hanukkah dinner. I cannot express how excited I am to celebrate the holidays with my Jewish friends. I'm told they will be spending the day in the kitchen making latkes, challah...the works! I've have written numerous blog posts that support my belief that many of life's most important and rewarding moments will take place at the dinner table and I'm certain my first Hanukkah dinner will among them. 

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