by Rachel Patterson
Rachel is a student at Loyola University Chicago, and alumna of JCUA’s Or Tzedek program and serves as a counselor in Or Tzedek’s summer and year-round programs. This article originally appeared in Loyola’s Broad Magazine.
When I was five years old, I shared with my friend the concept of girl holidays and boy holidays. It was strange to me that she was unaware on this concept. Hanukah and Passover were girl holidays, while Christmas and Easter were obviously boy holidays. It was simple – My mom and I celebrated Hanukah and Passover while my dad and my brother celebrated Christmas and Easter.
Once my parents stopped laughing at my generalization, they wondered how to correct my assumptions.
In reality, my mom and I are both Jewish and my dad and my brother are Baptist, which explains the difference in celebration rituals. That hadn’t occurred to me at five. I just knew there were traditions my dad and my brother had, while there are others that my mom and I shared. I was as excited to see a tree in our house without presents under it for me, as I was to light the menorah with my mom for eight nights. There was no “dual dilemma” as interfaith households are often described to have.
Children have the unique ability to process information as they come across it, whether they are taught the information or not. I was not adhering to gender norms, nor was I concerned with stereotypes that are too often used to describe followers of the Jewish and Christian faiths. I was never taught those things. I was simply describing something I was witnessing without malice and without indifference.
Boy holidays. Girl holidays. There is beauty in that description. It is not always beautiful to see differences as black and white or night and day. There are in fact nuances that I was not aware of as a five year old. However, it is beautiful to accept people for who they are. Innocence is not always ignorance.
My mom and dad decided to raise me Jewish. My mom always knew she would have a little girl named Rachel. In the Jewish faith, children take the religion of the mother so I would be born Jewish but every family has to make the decision to raise or not to raise their child with religion in his or her life.
My dad, who grew up in a small (segregated) town in South Carolina, had not met anyone Jewish before my mom, and knew little of the tenets of Judaism. Going to church was a central part of his family life as a child. He said that he could be comfortable raising me with either faith but it was important to him that we made a commitment to study, observe and practice the faith. He wanted me to develop a sense of value, community and spirituality.
My mother loved her faith but did not have a firm knowledge of all the components. She took it upon herself to learn more so she could be a role model and teacher, along with the teachers I saw weekly in religious school. These teachers, along with a rabbi who embraced social justice as a basic Jewish value, formed the foundation of my passion for faith and spirituality, which I carry with me today.
The Torah, which is the holy book for Jews, emphasizes interfaith partnerships as a direct result of teaching us to accept others:
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself “(Leviticus 19:17-18).
This is, of course, the Golden Rule. Although all five year olds understand it, it is important for people to understand it when they grow up, since it is inevitably compromised in our very diverse world. My parents embrace diversity in their personal lives as well as in their volunteerism and it was only natural that they would want me to actively embrace and live with these values. The summer after eighth grade, they enrolled me in a one-week social activism program run by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago. We did not approach tasks as a group of “do-gooders,” looking to step in, change peoples’ lives, and then go back home while patting ourselves on the back for a job well done.
We were taught the beauty of working with people of all races and religions, for the common good. During the entire experience, we were reminded, through readings and prayer, that this collaboration and compassion were intrinsic Jewish values: “In a city where are both Jews and Gentiles, the collectors of alms, collect from both Jews and Gentiles, they feed the poor of both, visit the sick of both…for the sake of peace” (Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Demai 4:6).
Imagine if everyone embraced the diversity in faiths of the world the way a five year old does. No one would question a person’s faith to undermine her, but instead only to understand her. No one would teach others about his faith to convert them, but instead only to inspire them. There would be girl holidays and boy holidays all because a brighter more fulfilling peace cannot exist without them both.