From Family to Faith: How Judaism brought my dad and me closer together
I sometimes wondered what inspired my dad to marry my mom. They were not childhood sweethearts like my mom’s parents. Nor did they have an elaborate courtship. Having lost her husband to pancreatic cancer, my mom was a widow with four remarkably diverse, not biologically related, adopted children all under ten years old. Blended in a white middle class family of French Canadian, Czechoslovakia, and Irish backgrounds, we were four children whose skin colors reflected the varying shades of a rainbow. My oldest brother is white, and he lives with a rare genetic disease that affects his central nervous system and has confined him to a wheelchair his entire life. At 51 years old, he is one of the oldest living persons with this genetic disease. My other brother is Mexican American and depending on the season, his skin tone is either darker or lighter than mine. When we were growing up, we used to put our arms side by side at the dinner table during the summer and watch his skin transition from white to a beautiful deep golden-brown color that would surpass my complexion and later fade back to white as winter began to set in. My sister is biracial like me, of Irish and African descent, and she has the common Irish freckles we see on our white Irish family members. Perhaps my dad’s experience serving as a medic in the United States Army during the Tet Offensive, and as a dedicated psychiatrist with a zest for life, drew him to the zaniness of our family in the late nineteen seventies. Or maybe he was looking for a new adventure. Whatever his reason, it would be forty years before I would find out the answer to why my dad wanted to become our father.
Growing up, we were a close-knit family. We ate dinner together almost every night, traveled around the United States and British Columbia, went downhill and water skiing, and navigated racism and accessibility issues together. It never phased my dad that my oldest brother was in a wheelchair. When the front entrance of a restaurant had incredibly steep stairs, inaccessible for a wheelchair, my dad had no issues bringing up my brother’s wheelchair up the back-entrance. While I was conscious of the unpleasant stares from the staff and wanted to run out the back door as we wound our way through the kitchen to get to the dining room, the looks never bothered my dad. When my parents heard the story that some adults told us to get out of the pool while we were on vacation because “the help’s kids weren’t allowed to use the pool,” my dad was there to support us. We were his chosen family and the obstacles we faced were not a deterrent for his love for us.
After ten years of marriage, my parents separated and then got divorced. After their divorce, I was not quite sure where I fit into my dad’s life. My dad married a Jewish woman and seemed to be starting a new life with his new family immersing himself in the Jewish faith. While I saw my dad and did things with him and my stepmother, I sometimes felt as if I was cheating on my mom for liking my stepmom, believing she and my dad were a better match than my mom and dad. At the same time, I was not sure how to be a sister to my brother who was twenty-one years younger than me. I was still in undergraduate school when he was born, and then began navigating my life into adulthood working my way up the ladder in corporate America and graduate school. However, I knew I wanted to maintain and grow my relationship with my dad, but I just did not know how to do that.
My journey to Judaism was different than my dad’s path. While I was raised both in the Unitarian and Catholic faiths, I had Jewish influences that were always present. My first father’s best friend was a Jew and he used to take us to Jewish style delis for corn beef sandwiches and pickles. Something I loved very much. One of my cousins married into the Jewish family that was connected to my first father’s best friend. My cousin’s Jewish family began to include me in both Rosh Hashanah dinners and Passover Seders. At first, I was invited to one of the two holiday celebrations during the year. As the years past, I discovered I really enjoyed the celebrations and I started calling my cousin asking what time the holiday celebrations would take place. I had formed a deep spiritual connection to both holiday celebrations that couldn’t be ignored and I wanted to attend both of them. At one of the holiday dinners, my cousin’s father-in-law said to me “Jessi, you know you’re a Jew in the closet. When are you coming out?” While I wasn’t ready to affirmatively declare it that night, he was right.
I eventually researched several Synagogues to find a community that would welcome me and share the same values as mine. Several friends and coworkers all agreed that Temple Israel was the right place for me. I was ecstatic that the senior Rabbi was a woman, and another Rabbi was openly gay. The diversity I saw gave me comfort that it could be my home and over time, I have formed a deep connection within the community.
As I became more involved in the Jewish faith, my stepmom asked if I would like to join them for Erev Rosh Hashanah dinner at their house with her immediate family members and friends. I nervously agreed and have never regretted it. While everyone was friendly and welcoming, I went through an adjustment period getting to know this side of the family. I was my dad’s daughter that they heard about but didn’t know. Most years I sat next to or near my dad and it felt wonderful. We our had holidays together again and it was as if no time had passed from when we used to celebrate Christmas at my grandparent’s house drinking eggnog and eating carved turkey. Only now we ate knishes, challah, and apples dipped in honey. As the years passed, my significant other and I occasionally celebrated Shabbat with dinners with my dad and stepmom, went to movies, and attended events at local synagogues. My family felt complete again and Judaism helped form that bond between my dad and me.
A little over five years ago, my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It was hard to see my dad’s health decline. My dad’s movements became slower, he ate less and less, his voice became softer and his words a little garbled at times. It was tough to see the man who once towered over me my entire life, change so quickly. In July we received some devastating news. My dad was having trouble eating and he wasn’t responding to treatment of an infection. Doctor’s advised my dad and stepmom that my dad need to prepare for end of life. As the world grappled with COVID-19 and our country was on fire from the effects of systemic racism and racial motivated murders by police officers, my dad came home for hospice care and began the process of saying goodbye and making amends before he passed away. This was by far the hardest journey I would ever take with my dad and Judaism was there to support and guide us till he took his final breath.
*Published in partnership with Fig Tree Lit.