I stood in the driveway sipping scotch from a lime green plastic cup; my ex husband Larry’s family entering my yard by the carload. I greeted my former in-laws, who I had not seen in 8 years, with a forced smile; sweat drops the size of pearls on my forehead, the June day hot. “This is my husband Eric,” I said, my voice dry as I made the awkward introductions. “Mazel tov,” they said shaking hands.
I was the most unlikely host for my daughter Sophia’s Bat Mitzvah party. I’m Catholic, as are Eric and my stepchildren. Sophia’s father is Jewish. For 6 years Larry and I battled in and out of court over how the children would be raised. In the end, I gave my consent for Sophia and her two younger siblings to be raised in the Jewish faith.
Getting to this day had been difficult. Though not court mandated, I was often the one who drove Sophia to and from meetings with the Hebrew tutor and cantor. During those rides she rehearsed her torah portion. I was stunned, my daughter speaking another language, completely inaccessible to me. I could not tell if she made mistakes in her reading or not. “Very good honey,” I said, feeling a tangible distance between us though she sat right beside me. I imagined her wedding, would she marry a Jewish man, no priest presiding? Would she raise her children – my grandchildren – in a Jewish home?
Many months earlier, also in the car, Sophia and I had discussed banquet halls for the party. “Can we have it at our house?” Sophia had asked. I pulled off the road. “You want to have it at our house?” I said. She stared at me and in that moment I would have done anything for her. She had suffered most from the religious indecision Larry and I kept on a steady burner, no doubt feeling she was choosing sides, though she had not made the choice. She’d been forced by her father to go to Hebrew school knowing I did not agree, but she had risen to the occasion, she had studied and worked hard. “Of course we can have it at the house,” I said rising to the occasion myself, though I knew I’d be planning an event that would highlight my loss, that would be a public display of her being raised Jewish not Catholic.
I took her hand, and decided then that while the ceremony was for Sophia and Larry, the party would be for Sophia and me. It would be the way I’d show my support, the way I would share in an occasion that had come to mean a lot to her.
Sophia and I worked on the invitations, the polka dot theme. Our entire backyard was decked out in fuchsia and lime green, 300 helium balloons in the huge white tent that was big enough to seat 50 adults and 80 7th graders for dinner.
Larry stood at the other end of the tent talking to his cousins who’d flown in from Chicago. He must be hot in that Armani suit, I thought, feeling how out of whack the situation was. All day he and I had been careful to keep a certain physical distance between us, coming together to show solidarity only once to pose for a photo with our daughter as she cut the cake.
I hadn’t invited my Irish Catholic family to the Bat Mitzvah. They would have come but I did not want them to attend, I was upset that Sophia was being raised Jewish when Catholicism meant so much to my family. I did not want to stand next to my tear-filled mother making small talk; I had my own tears to bare. Instead I had invited only three close friends. “So,” my friend Jess said, finding me hidden behind a maple tree in our sprawling back yard. “Say no more,” I smiled, exhaling a plume of cigarette smoke. “I’m not handling this well,” I said. “Are you kidding?” Jess said, “Who else hosts a party for their ex-husband’s family?”
Jess knew about the court proceedings, about my meetings with the rabbi. I thought back to my initial meeting in the rabbi’s office; Eric and I sitting on the couch holding hands, Larry and the rabbi sitting across from us. From the start of the session, I overtly tried to get Larry kicked out of the temple. “Sophia is baptized” I blurted. “I’m catholic. We say prayers at dinner.”
The rabbi was not bothered by what I am sure she perceived as nervousness. “We’re open to members of different faiths,” she said, her dark eyes wise, her smile genuine. “We have a lot of interfaith couples.”
“But Larry and I are not an interfaith couple, we’re an interfaith divorce,” I said. The rabbi commended Larry and I for agreeing on one religion for Sophia. “Parents have the duty to choose a child’s religion at this age” she said. But what had been decided was not realistic. Sophia lives with me and there was no real way for me to support what the rabbi termed Sophia’s Jewish identity.
As the Bat Mitzvah day got closer, there was the question of who would pass the torah down to Sophia, a symbolic gesture where the torah is passed from one generation to the next. “It’s not my faith to pass on,” I said, agreeing Larry alone would pass the torah; it was the right decision but still I cried, I could not remember Sophia ever doing something significant without me being intimately involved. I prayed to be able to see the situation through a different lens that might give me perspective.
Perhaps I’d gained some of that perspective. I caught only glimpses of Sophia at the party, she wore the satin dress we’d purchased on a trip to New York City months before, though she’d paired it with rubber boots and now walked on the stones in the river that cuts through our back yard.
Dozens of kids had joined her, the girls barefoot in their party dresses, the boys with their pants rolled up, pretending they were going to toss the girls in the water. This party would unfurl however it was supposed to. I had enough faith in God to believe that.
I looked at my daughter, surrounded by her friends, the clouds now pushed from the sky. She was having fun and that was all that mattered. Although for different reasons, I knew this would become a day she and I would never forget.
On the cusp of 13, she was already her own person, Jewish identity or not. I knew in the long term it would not be Larry or I who would decide her faith. A thoughtful strong-minded girl, Sophia would weigh the similarities and differences and choose to live her life in the way that best fit her.
I hoped she would keep her balance along the way, as she did now, the sun backlighting her against the river rocks, the gold embroidered band of her dress glistening.