penelope and bumblebee

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Losing My Religion

In my neighbourhood, Christmas lights supplant jack o'lanterns about as quickly and readily as Paris Hilton supplants her BFFs. By the first of December in Toronto, the snow had not yet fallen, but my company had already had its annual holiday bash, Holt Renfrew had already unveiled their holiday windows, and the well-meaning questions had already started:

“Have you put up your Christmas tree yet?”
“Is Bee excited to see Santa Claus?”
“What are you getting Bee for Christmas?”
“Have you sent out your Christmas cards yet?”

The answer to these questions would be a respective and respectuful no, no, nothing, and no. I ain’t no grinch, and I’m not trying to bah-humbug anybody’s good time. The thing is, I’m Jewish. The other thing is, Chris is a non-practicing realistic skeptic agnostic, tho his family is traditionally Christian. The toddling, talking, soon-to-be-asking-questions thing is, therefore, both. I guess.

My – our – incapacity to identify or declare Bee’s religious heritage has not been an issue for 16 of her 18 months of life. But in December (this being her second), the question of the religion of our child inevitably gets raised, and we realize that at some point we will have to form an opinion regarding it, one way or another. I think.

You see, this vagueness, ambiguity and haziness of the issue has always been present in our relationship. Of course, we have always been aware that Chris and I come from very different backgrounds (in so, so many ways), but we have always been comfortable with each of our level of involvement (or lack thereof) in religion. We were married by a judge. We celebrate religious holidays at our respective parents’ houses. We go to church or synagogue when someone gets married or dies. We don’t say grace. While pregnant, we of course discussed the religious upbringing of our child (or, again, lack thereof), and it boiled down to this:

Penelope – I want to continue the traditional aspects of my religion that I hold dear, like big meals, Yiddish swear words and menorahs. I would prefer it if Bee knew the actual reasons for our holidays, though we must also continue my grandfather’s tradition of filling our head with stories about how we won the war with my aunt’s matzo balls and such. She must never forget. One day I would like her to go to Israel.

Chris – I want my child to make up her own mind, and to not believe the hype. However, I will not quash my parents’ attempts at showing her how to rock it, United-style.

How’s that for direction? Fine, when the idea of a child and her religious upbringing is an abstract collage of peaceful inclusion and convictions, but somewhat different when a real child enters your real world, and time for talk of what to have for dinner is hard to come by, let alone deliberations over one’s child’s practices of faith (or lack thereof).

Happily, our parents, who are completely accepting of the differences of background, have not questioned us about our intentions one way or the other. My mother did not insist on a baby-naming, nor did his on a baptism. So she had neither. I wanted Bee to have a Hebrew name, so I gave her one. Tzipporah Batsheba. I think it’s pretty. We thank whoever we believe in that day that we did not have a boy, so that we could avoid the circumcision decision. Avoiding decisions is something we are good at. Imparting a cohesive opinion regarding organized religion – mine, his, or any other – and our child, is something we are not.

I suppose the fair thing to do is to first examine exactly what religion (and it’s less bloody bedfellows, spirituality and faith) means to us. But I’ve had 31 years to figure that shit out, and I’m no closer to understanding it than I am to understanding quantum physics or the appeal of James Blunt.

The thing is, all of this proselytizing, philosophising, hand-wringing, and ultimately, uncertainty, is based not on our desire to choose one – to check a religion off of a list and say, there you go! You are a Jew/Christian/Pagan/Druze/Whatever – it’s about the fact that we don’t really want to do that at all. Is that fair? Is it fair that it seems like her religious identity, when inevitably asked about at some point, will have to be explained with, ‘Well, my mum’s Jewish, and my dad’s family is Christian?” Is it fair to assume that she will achieve a comfort level regarding this subject – this aspect of who she is – on her own, with little guidance (Chris calls it interference) from us? Is it fair to do this without completely accepting in myself the possibility that she may one day follow a doctrine that I know little about? How would I feel if Bee became a Rasta, or Islamic, or gasp! a goth? Is it fair that Christmas is going to be something that only happens at her gram and granddad’s house?

I understand that this is a complicated issue (at least to us), and in a way, I envy those whose religious footing is steadfast and unwaivering. Because for me and Chris, and so, for Bee, our grip on religion is about as precarious as a jolly fat man trying to get his jolly fat self down a skinny-ass chimney.
But I guess we don’t have to worry about that.

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  • At 3:05 PM, Blogger metro mama said…

    This is a tricky subject for this pair of atheists. We'll just try to emphasize the season for giving (although I want to emphasize that all year too). We'll embrace the fun stuff like Santa and food (I've been shopping already).

  • At 4:05 PM, Blogger sunshine scribe said…

    I SO hear you on this. I couldn't be more clueless in being able to give my son the religious foundation for the season. Nor do I really want to be able to.

    We do Santa and a lot of charity stuff around Christmas (and all year too). He loves decorating the tree and baking cookies for Santa and eating a special meal and all that jazz. We are just winging it at making it our own celebration. My husband actually grew up NOT celebrating Christmas at all and thinks Santa is lying to our son ... but he has given me this one so its an interesting dynamic.

  • At 5:26 PM, Blogger ewe are here said…

    I think religion and cultural difference can be a tricky subject for lots of couples.

    My husband and I are were both somewhat lapsed Episcopalians -he more than me- but I wanted my boy baptised, so he was. And we did attend church occasionally, once a month or so, while in Edinburgh because it was a nice tiny little congregation. And we will celebrate Christmas, but perhaps with a bit more emphasis on the 'Santa' than the religious aspects.

    Circumcision, though. Now that actually was a topic before our boy was born. Because I'm American, and boys are circumcised fairly routinely there. My husband is European, and it's not done here generally. So I ceded the point, seeing as we are currently living in the UK.

    I think the most important thing of all is the ability to talk about it everything, and compromise when necessary. You and your husband seem to have that covered. ;-)


  • At 5:34 PM, Blogger Mrs. Chicky said…

    Fantastic subject! Currently we are raising our child in the God-less Heathen tradition much for the same reasons that you are still fence sitting. I was raised Catholic and I tossed that religion as soon as I could (No offense Catholics, I have my reasons) but my husband would embrace his religion again (Congregationalist) in an instant. However, it comes down to us really enjoying the freedom to stay in our pajamas all Sunday morning.

    At least we don't have to worry what decorations to put up in December.

  • At 9:38 PM, Blogger Lisa b said…

    I had to laugh at your conversation with Chris. Even though we are both Catholic, got married in the big cathedral downtown and had the girl baptised we are still not crystal clear on what we want to teach her. My husband has more of a fear of god about him coming from a small town so he gets nervous when I say things that imply I might not be buying into the whole organised religion thing. I think sprituality is important but it is hard to defend the church.

    I am with you - I think the traditions and stories are important especially those of your family. You must keep the matzo ball legend alive! That is like something out of a movie.

  • At 11:16 PM, Blogger Christina said…

    We're in a similar situation - the huz's family is Jewish and mine is Christian. Neither of us are practicing.

    We have a decorated tree, we put up decorations, and we'll tell Cordy about Santa. But none of the decorations have religious connotations (most of our decorations are superhero and geek ornaments). It's our Chrismukkah-Yule tree, I guess.

    As for religion, I think we'll probably teach Cordy to find her own beliefs, answer as many questions as possible, and remember that in the end it all comes down to being good to others.

  • At 1:22 AM, Blogger Lady M said…

    Tough one. People of mixed ethnicities often explain their background in the way that you described (my mom is . . ., my dad is . . .).

    We celebrate Christmas in a sort of festive secular way, rather than Christmas Mass, etc.

  • At 3:22 AM, Blogger jen said…

    wow. this could also be describing our place in many ways - seperate upbringings, current beliefs, and general ambivilence...and some deeply rooted guilt on my part too...and then repeat. i very much like how you wrote about it.

  • At 10:42 AM, Blogger crazymumma said…

    AWESOME post. I love it. Oh and before I forget, I just see in your sidebar here, Franny and Zooey. You are the only other person i know who must love that book as much as me.
    Speaking from my pulpit (sorry had to get that in)of having older kids than many of you I visit. I can tell you that we have visited religion in our household.
    Backgounds? My Mum was a lapsed Catholic, my Dad a lapsed Anglican. Both of them lived thru the war and dropped god like a hot potatoe after with the logic of 'how could a god allow such horror?'.
    My husband's family has no huge religious affiliation, but god is a great excuse for them to judge others and their lifestyles. Ahem. had to get that dig in.

    As to bringing spirituality and faith to the table in our house? Well, we absorb a little bit of everything. What child does not love the story of Baby Jesus? My girls know that I beleive not in god or jesus, or any one deity, but that I rest my faith in myself and in nature and the will of the universe. Their dad is fairly neutral about any spirituality, but he sort of likes the idea of god and jesus, but not as you said so well, the bloodier side of it.

    Biggirl became VERY interested in Jesus two years ago, when she was 7...and we repected it, went and bought her a childrens bible etc. But hand in hand with that we taught her about the power and validity of other belief systems.

    I have no advice, but I think we live in a culture where so many ways of thinking are crossing and blurring. And I think it is good. I also think, having met the both of you, that she will grow up open minded and able to navigate her way to whatever faith she may choose.

    pant pant. That was a long comment. great post. really.

  • At 12:32 PM, Blogger penelopeto said…

    You guys are so inspiring. I feel like I have barely skimmed the surface of this complicated issue, and yet, your comments have helped me feel like we can navigate this with confidence - and I'm glad that in our world of mix n' match cultures (for which I am TRULY grateful), it looks like Bee will be in good company, religious ambiguity or not. Thanks, friends - keep sharing your experiences.

  • At 3:16 PM, Blogger nomotherearth said…

    Great post! I am lapsed-United and the husband is a lapsed Anglican, so we're pretty similar. We baptised The Boy in the United Church in deference to my father, who is a minister. At this age, I think that there is not much you can do with babies and religion, except raise them with the basic concepts of "do unto others" "don't hurt people", respect, etc. I haven't taken the Boy to church yet, but I might try it in the new year and see what happens. I like the idea of introducing him to religion and letting him make up his own mind.

  • At 2:20 PM, Blogger petite gourmand said…

    I love this post.
    you have just described our life,
    except the roles are reversed
    Big daddy- Jewish
    me- "Christian"
    quotations used intentionally.
    we celebrate all of the holidays & I especially love Passover.
    But I too worry that we won't be providing lulu with enough of a spiritual foundation.
    Ultimately, as long as she is kind and accepting of all people and religions this is the most important thing to us.

    when I first met big daddy almost 10 years ago and he experienced his first official Christmas he especially liked the pink chicken studded with cloves on Christmas eve.
    aka. ham
    but don't tell my motherinlaw.
    and my parents wrapped a shiny new menorah and put it under the tree for him.
    pretty sweet of them, but big daddy found it slightly awkward and weird, but was grateful for the gesture.
    he drew the line at doing the prayers in front of everyone on Christmas day.
    he felt that was just plain wrong..

    got any good latka recipes?

  • At 12:29 AM, Blogger Haley-O said…

    I'm Jewish, but I love Christmas.... I love the music, the red clothing, the lights....Love it. :) But, the monkey will be growing up with a menora (not even a hannukah bush). :)

  • At 1:30 AM, Blogger lisalou said…

    I was a little Bee like in my upbring.

    Mom: Greek
    Dad: Irish

    I remember that us kids had to go to a cathloic church for was a condition on my parents be allowed to marry.

    Then, one day, my mom said fuck it! And that was that. Relgion was no more.

    Santa, on the other hand, was always around. Because,in our family, Christmas was about us, toboganning, the turkey and a jolly man in red.

  • At 3:01 PM, Blogger Mouse said…

    Bloglines hasn't been catching your updates regularly, so I missed this post until now.

    I was raised by a Jewish atheist and unassertive Christian; we celebrated major holidays on both sides, but did not do much with the religious aspect. Trillian was raised in the Episcopalian church in a place where Baptists were most common. Both of us are atheists and agreed early on that we would raise Scooter in that vein.

    That said, we've decided to observe some holidays, particularly Hanukkah and Christmas because of what they signify in terms of family traditions. Christmas in particular is big with Trillian's parents, and I couldn't imagine denying them that joy--because it really is so joyous.

    Of course for some of our extended family, I suspect that the atheist side of things has just confirmed their fears about our lesbian-headed family.

  • At 12:09 AM, Blogger scarbie doll said…

    I think you just cover them all. Because all the festivals are fun and we're greedy. If your religion/culture has a good food ritual, we're there! Diwali? Eid? We did not know about these things before we moved to Little India, but boy do we embrace them now. Oh you're a Thai Buddhist? Sure, we'd love to come over for a cold roll party! It's that simple. Represent what is good about many religions: getting together, eating, appreciating, doing good deeds.

    Then when she's old enough, you hand her a Religion for Dummies type book and tell her you support whatever she chooses. Done. You covered the bases.

    It's hard for our generation, because those who consider themselves religious tend to be the ones who do the best and the worst deeds in society. I object to being forced to think or do anything. And I am repulsed by those who twist their scriptures to do evil thinking it's just.

    But there's something to be said for the faith that there is something greater than us. I think that's a valuable thing to teach a child, that every action you do affects someone else, directly or indirectly.

    Did I just blog in your comments? Sorry. I guess I had some pent up commenting...

  • At 1:18 AM, Blogger kittenpie said…

    From what I have seen, peoople will find their own way anyhow. If you really push religion, it can drive a rebellion away from it or a deep belief. On the flip side, people I've known who haven't had much exposure or some, but not intensive teaching in a faith have either gone blissfully along without worrying about it or gone seeking something that felt right. Ultimately, I think it's a nice balance to share what you believe, but not hold it up as the only true thing, thereby making others WRONG.

    ps I think my word verification is something rude in hebrew...


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