Explorations in Religion (Or, Yarmulkes and Saris on Christmas)

(There have been a lot of articles recently written on millenials growing up with two religions. Most have been sent to me by friends saying, “hey, you can write about this, too!” so after hearing it, I’ve decided to share my story of a bi-religous household. In doing so, since religion is a tricky thing to write about, I want to say that I do not intent to insult anyone. I do not think my upbringing and beliefs are the Right and Perfect way, though they were right and perfect for me. I do not think one religion is better than another. So. That said. I’m going to start by sounding extremely intelligent and referencing an old text, and end by quoting a scandalous and mildly inappropriate musical.)

The Third Tale in Boccaccio’s novel The Decameron (think an earlier, Italian Canterbury Tales-esque book)  perfectly represents my idea of religion. In it, a man tells a story of king who had one ring and three virtuous sons. The king says upon his death that the son who receives the ring will receive his estate. Unable to make a decision, the king had two copies of the ring made, thus, at his death, each son had an identical ring and no one knew who had the real thing. The story is compared to religions, saying that they’re all, in a way, identical, and there’s no way of deciding which faith is the true one.

I read that story in college and remember it to this day. Being raised by a Jewish mother and Italian Catholic father made me think about, and question, religion a lot growing up. Which was right? Which was wrong? And does it matter? The story made me see that no, no it does not.

Though I was a product of two religions, my parents raised me mostly without religion. We didn’t go to church or temple. We didn’t pray at dinner or before bed, and I never went to Hebrew school. Instead, they gave me tales and ideas and culture. I learned about god, as this omniscient being. I knew the stories behind Hanukkah and Christmas, and we celebrated them both. I played spin the dreidel with my brother while watching the Muppet Christmas Carol. We had Santa and latkes.

It never bothered me that I didn’t have a single religion, even as my friends proclaimed theirs (with new middle names after confirmation, or giant bat/bar mitzvahs). In fact, it made me feel unique and special that I could see both sides. I got both December holidays (toys!), and though, sure, I might have wanted one of my own celebrations (have you seen some of the bat mitzvahs?!), I was okay knowing that I was this sort of inbetweener, both on the inside and outside. I liked feeling like I was part of two things, instead of one.

High school was when my friends nicknamed me the Cashew (Catholic Jew) and I found myself siding more with my Jewish upbringing. There wasn’t any specific reason, I just enjoyed the culture, the stories, the beliefs. And, perhaps, I read way too many Holocaust stories. I suppose it came to an apex in class one day, when a very brash girl told me that, because I was Jewish and therefore without Jesus, I was definitely going to hell.

To understand how much that affected me, you have to understand the kind of person I was. I was small and very timid. I didn’t speak out, I didn’t love attention. So, with red cheeks, I looked at her and said, “Jewish people don’t believe in hell.” It was my one and only drop-the-mic moment.

She kind of solidified my feelings towards Judaism.

College came, and with it questions. I was becoming someone new, and I wanted to see what that meant. I made an amazing group of friends that were all part of the same Christian organization. I figured since they were good people, there must be something there. So I went with them to a social, and met other really nice people, but didn’t quite fit in. I didn’t have the same beliefs, and didn’t like the idea that that was the only way. I loved that it worked for my friends, and I loved my friends, but it wasn’t me. Similarly, I went to Hillel, the Jewish organization, for a seder and didn’t find myself quite there, either. It was nice and lovely, and I felt more in touch with my Jewish side, but I never went back. I was still part of and not part of both.

Yet every year I had a Christmas tree and a menorah. I didn’t eat yeast for Passover. I sometimes prayed at night, when I needed to feel that someone was listening. 

It was after college that I realized I didn’t need just one religion. As a child I was happy being a part of everything, so I decided, much like a high schooler, that I didn’t need a label to define me. I was fine defining myself. Because I believed in something, and to me, that was enough.

So it wasn’t a shock to anyone when, after many years of dating, I married S, who just so happens to be Hindu and British. A third religion and more culture! It was in planning our wedding – and most importantly, our ceremony – that I realized what was most important to me…culture. Not religion, but the culture behind it all. We had a lovely non-denominational ceremony where we walked around a candle seven times (as in Hindu tradition) and S stomped on the glass at the end. We stood under a combination mandup and chuppah (because, as it happens, but cultures have a canopy you’re married under). We did the Hora, and then danced to Bollywood music. My dad toasted everyone in Italian, Hebrew, and Hindi. It was, to us, perfect.

Now we’re about to have a child. Our daughter will be born to three religions and I couldn’t be more excited. Because she’ll learn all three stories, and all three beliefs. She’ll get all of the holidays, all of the celebrations, and all of the love. And, like me, she’ll have the chance to experience everything and decide what she wants out of religion (or, if she wants religion at all). She can be open minded and understanding. She can decide. 

Because, honestly, it’s all about what makes you feel good, isn’t it? The musical The Book of Mormon ends with the idea that believing in something is important, not necessarily a specific religion. Belief is what motivates us. Faith in something, whatever it is, is important. And that’s what I believe.

Because here’s what I’ve learned – being a part of many religions is fun. Though I still consider myself more Jewish (perhaps it’s the maternal instinct), I’m so happy I have every other part of my makeup. I’m happy I have S with me now, telling me his culture. Because, much like the three rings showed, they’re not all that different. Sure, the stories are unique, but it equates to one thing, right? Just be good.

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3 thoughts on “Explorations in Religion (Or, Yarmulkes and Saris on Christmas)

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