On Sunday morning, my husband’s family decided to walk to the chapel in the beach community where they have been summering for generations. I was pleased when my teenage daughter agreed to walk with us and attend the service. As much as I love our community of interfaith families, as much as I believe that community to be just as “authentic” as ancient religions, I also believe it is essential to expose my children to synagogues and churches. Whenever we visit a synagogue or church, I use these occasions to deliver some (not so) stealth religious education on ritual and customs, to reinforce ties to family history and culture, and to create space for my children to feel comfortable in diverse sacred spaces.
And so we set off into a glorious Fourth of July morning, the air sweet with lilacs, the intense blue of hydrangeas set off against the weathered grey shingles of the summer cottages in the lanes. Despite the very Anglo-Saxon Protestant setting, I could not help feeling like a family of Orthodox Jews strolling to shul. While I love to claim my bothness, as someone who was raised as a Jew and still identifies myself as a Jew, I have a strong tendency to compare and contrast any new religious experience with Jewish practice. Anyway, on the walk to church, I suddenly understood the deep pleasure of walking to synagogue. Walking, observing the Sabbath with our bodies, we were on a family pilgrimage, removed from the household, chores and work. You can argue about the logic or pragmatism of the Orthodox prohibition against driving on Shabbat. But you can’t really argue against the tonic of a good family walk.
But when we got to the church steps, I felt a momentary and involuntary skittishness, even though the official greeters were old family friends and could not have been more pleasant and welcoming. I did not grow up going to churches: entering a church will never feel completely natural to me. The problem is not so much theological—I understand Jesus as a great metaphor, just as most of my liberal, progressive Christian friends do, and I am open to studying his words and discussing his inspiring life. The problem is the weight of history, culture, and the lingering effects of my own narrow and defensive religious education.
I don’t want my children to feel the way I do: I want them to be able to feel at home in a church, if they end up finding churches that feed their souls, or nurture their families. So I sat in the pew, feeling vaguely “other,” but taking pleasure in the fact that my daughter now sees the list of three-digit numbers posted behind the pulpit, numbers that would have mystified me at her age, and understands them as representing the hymns in today’s service. Without glancing at me, she reaches for the red hymnal, and with simple grace and confidence, finds the opening hymn.