Oy! Whenever My Mom Visits, I Have To Pretend To Be More Jewish Than I Really Am

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religion and kids“Oy,” groaned my daughter, lunging precariously for a dishrag to wipe up a spill. “I can’t reach the shmatte.”

Brilliant, I thought as I nibbled on a corner of matzoh, sensing the pride a coach feels for her star performer.

My mother looked up and smiled, then turned back to the copy of Jewish London we’d left out on the coffee table.

“While you’re on the walking tour, I’ll head to the kosher butcher,” I said, “to pick up the chicken for Shabbat dinner.”

I wish I could say all my interactions with my mother were as honest to goodness as in those in the Old Testament stories I pretended to pay attention to at Sunday school. But my family’s come-lately interest in the Yiddish-English dictionary was a thinly veiled charade intended – whether or not Mom bought any of it – to make us all feel a bit more comfortable around one another while sharing the same roof for two weeks.

She can’t say she didn’t start it. Since I can remember she has emphasized a Jewish education for her daughters, descendants of Eastern European refugees who relocated just in time to the not-to-be-taken-for-granted New World. Our lives were largely non-secular, governed by youth clubs, bible classes and spiritual summer camps. I fantasized about inhabiting Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose. I imagined a kinship with Bart Simpson. Were I of another era I might have found solace in my Jewish community. Instead I felt only apathy toward it. And god (for lack of a better word) knows I gave it my best shot.

My coolness toward religion in general and Judaism specifically was only barely acceptable to my mother so long as there was still a chance I’d marry in the faith (and if he were a doctor or a lawyer, who was she to complain). Yadda yadda yadda, I now have two beautiful, blonde, one-eighth German daughters.

The children are the center of her universe, but when they’re out of earshot – and sometimes when they’re within it – she drops hints that she’s not entirely au fait with our godless world (“What, no mezuzah on your door?”). Or points out that Passover is the perfect season for a visit home. And heaven forbid a month goes by without an email announcing that the daughter of the cousin of a friend from the synagogue congregation has moved to London and how rude it would be not call her and suggest meeting up for a bagel.

Thus when Mom visits I disclose when one of the kids’ friends is even a fraction Jewish, and effuse about the Hannukah party that was in reality – shh! – a secret Santa.

I was secretly relieved when I got wind that my only Jewish friend in the neighborhood lost his job, which meant we’d be bumping into him when my parents were around.

Alas the kids can talk now, and they don’t see the harm in babbling about Easter egg hunts and stockings hung by the chimney with care. So this year they blew my cover and, as a result, my mother has lost faith in me ever rediscovering my faith. Meanwhile, my stories have gone from kosher to “not suitable for consumption” and my mother’s cycle of indoctrination has begun again in earnest. Before she left town last month she also left behind a few leaflets and a children’s story about a Jewish holiday that, I’m unsurprised to say, failed to capture the imaginations of our cross-cultural kids.

It says something about mother-daughter relationships, though, that I’m still considering a trip home next Passover. What can I do?

(Photo: Lisa F. Young/Shutterstock)