When I was in second grade we had to fill in one of those "All About Me" posters with our likes, dislikes, hobbies -- that kind of thing. One of the boxes was, "What you want to be when you grow up." I wrote "Mother." I drew a picture of an adult me holding the hands of two smaller stick people with a tiny blob of a baby bundle cuddled in as well.
"You know," my father reminded me, "You can be a mother and something else!" I did know that, of course, and over the years many different dream occupations came and went. But wanting to be a mother -- that never changed.
At 15 I realized I was a lesbian. I was scared, for many reasons, and the image of how I saw my future was shifting rapidly. But my vision of becoming a mother someday never wavered.
In all my imagining of motherhood, however, I can't say I thought about Judaism much -- it was simply a no-brainer. I'm Jewish, so obviously my children would be Jewish. I imagined future Passovers and Chanukahs as often as future Halloweens and Thanksgivings. Why wouldn't I?
And then I met Mary. I knew from one of our first conversations that Mary also wanted kids (not wanting them would have been a deal-breaker). But when I realized I was falling in love with Mary, a former Catholic school student who considered herself agnostic, I started wondering if her not being Jewish would be a deal-breaker.
In fact, Mary's "lack of Jewishness" had climbed its way to the top of the "Con" side of my "Mary: Pros and Cons" list. However, I quickly concluded that while marrying someone who wasn't Jewish was OK with me, I still imagined those Chanukahs and Passovers with my future children. Raising Jewish kids was a non-negotiable. Now I just needed to tell Mary.
This was still very early in our relationship -- we weren't even officially a couple. I knew talking about the religion of our future children was incredibly premature, but I figured better to know now if this would be an inevitable roadblock in our relationship.
We were walking in the snow near the icy edge of Lake Michigan on a freezing afternoon when I brought the issue up in a roundabout way:
"So, when you have kids, are you thinking of having them baptized?"
Mary looked at me like I had asked if she planned to raise them on another planet. "I don't know. Probably not. Why?"
"Well … I know that I want to raise my kids Jewish, so I was just thinking …"
Mary's response was teasing. "You're thinking about us having kids?"
"Well … yes."
Mary laughed and kissed my nose. I smiled and told her I felt crazy. She immediately told me that was not a problem for her.
"I expected that you'd want to raise Jewish kids, and I want to learn more about it."
With that major hurdle cleared, Mary showed me in the coming months how incredibly serious she was about learning more. I was traveling for work at the time and a lot of our conversations were via text, email and instant messenger. Her questions came fast and furious and in no particular order:
"What do Jews think about an afterlife?"
"I was looking up the story of Chanukah and I still don't understand the gift-giving part." "I get that you're Jewish, but you don't do the kosher thing, right? Because I love you a lot, but I also love bacon."
Some of her questions I answered easily, and others required me to do my own research. Our relationship was helping both of us learn.
Although there was never a time I didn't want to be a mother, the whole pregnancy thing never really held much appeal for me, so when the time came, Mary happily agreed to be "the designated uterus." I was extremely grateful to have had this option, but it did bring up another issue regarding Judaism: I was not going to be the biological mother, and in some branches of Judaism, a child is considered Jewish only if the biological mother is Jewish.
I wholeheartedly believe that one can raise Jewish children who have no Jewish ancestry, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted to have a Jewish sperm donor. I kept coming back to Passover, when we tell the story of our liberation. We remind ourselves that in each generation we must think of ourselves as having personally left Egypt. I wanted my children to feel connected to that lineage and share my ethnicity.
Even with a Jewish sperm donor -- which was successful, as Mary conceived quickly -- I decided that once the baby was born there should still be some kind of conversion. It was certainly possible that my child could choose to lead a more religious life in the future, so that mattered to me.
Because I didn't have a religious community where I lived, I turned to the rabbi at my parents' synagogue in New Jersey. I figured he could at least point me in the right direction. He did so much more.
Our first conversation took place the day of my grandmother's funeral. Yes, it felt strange and more than a touch inappropriate, but most Jewish occasions, even the somber ones, do involve some schmoozing after all. I explained to him the situation and that I wanted to do a conversion, and the questions just tumbled out.
"If it's a boy, does he still have a bris at 8 days old?"
"I can't imagine he can go into the mikvah (ritual bath) that young, so do we wait?"
"Is it all part of the same thing?"
He answered every question. He said we could do a conversion and follow it up with a celebration at my parents' synagogue. That was, in fact, exactly what I'd been hoping for but had been too scared to ask.
My Jewish son decided to arrive on Christmas Eve, and his bris followed when he was 8 days old. When he was 6 months, we traveled back to my hometown where we had an official conversion in a mikvah located in a nearby Reform synagogue. I had no idea what to expect from that at all. The mikvah was not part of my experience outside of discussions in Hebrew school and novels by Naomi Ragen and Tova Mirvis. I didn't know that they existed beyond Orthodox communities.
I was thrilled to learn that Mary was not just welcome but encouraged to get into the mikvah with me. Seeing as we were both committed to raising our child Jewish, it was only appropriate that she be there too. I read the Hebrew blessing and we recited the English together. I can't say I liked having to hold my tiny child under water and let go, but when I pulled him up sputtering as the rabbi, witnesses, and my parents shouted "Mazel Tov!" and began singing, he stopped mid-cry and just looked around.
Two days later I brought him up to the bimah of the synagogue where I grew up, the synagogue where I attended nursery and religious school and became a bat mitzvah, the synagogue his great-grandparents helped purchase the land for, the synagogue where he became the fifth generation of my family to attend a Shabbat service.
Despite our lack of shared genes, from the moment I discovered his conception, I never felt my son was anything less than My Son. But on that day, welcoming him into this big extended family, I felt a new level of connection to him. I also felt a deeper connection to the synagogue, the joy and excitement the community expressed to him, me and Mary. Their warmth and acceptance was something I never dreamed of when I first came out at 15.
The curiosity and interest Mary displayed about Judaism early in our relationship have evolved her into a fantastic partner in raising Jewish children. Passover, for example, has always been my favorite Jewish holiday. When we can't make it back to my hometown, we sometimes do small seders just by ourselves.
This year I had been working evenings for most weeks leading up to the seder, so when it came time for the Four Questions, I was prepared to sing along with my son because we hadn't had the time to practice. But as we began singing "Mah nishtanah … " he gave me a look that clearly implied, "I've got this, Mama" and continued along. " … halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?"
"We practiced," said Mary, giving me a grin.
A few months ago, I got a picture in a text message while on my way home from work on a Friday evening -- a fresh challah, cooling on a rack. Mary had baked it herself -- something I hadn't been brave enough to attempt my entire Jewish life.
We make Shabbat dinner whenever work and life permit it. Mary joins the kids in singing the blessings -- even our 2-year-old daughter sings the words (or something approximating the actual words, anyway). It never fails to make me feel like I'm doing something right, giving my kids some form of the Jewish family life that I always imagined. And there's no way I could be doing it without Mary.
Michelle Medvin grew up in Princeton, New Jersey and attended Smith College. She now works as a stage and production manager in the Chicago area at assorted venues including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Northlight Theatre, and Governors State University. She lives in Brookfield with her wife Mary and their two children.
Read more stories in the "Bringing Up (Jewish) Baby" blog series at www.oychicago.com/baby.
"Bringing Up (Jewish) Baby" is being produced in partnership with jBaby Chicago, which helps expectant parents and families of newborns and tots (0-24 months) make connections, build friendships and engage in Jewish life in Chicago.