‘You have to pick one.” Sarah stared blankly at me from the aisle side of our sticky leather seat. The bus lurched to a stop before continuing on its predetermined track, to let us off, one by one, into our weekends.
“No I don’t,” my fourth-grade self said insistently, already tired of what felt like round three. “People can celebrate whatever holidays they want.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense! Either you go to church and you celebrate Christmas, or you go to temple or whatever and you celebrate Hanukkah. You can’t do both. Pick one.”
I paused to consider the choices and wished she’d offered c) None of the above. “What about celebrating Hanukkah at church?” I asked.
Again with the blank stare. Then, simply, “No.”
I realized something that day that I’ve often been reminded of throughout my journey toward embracing my religious identity—there’s no sense in multiple choice when you need room to write out a short answer or, better yet, an essay.
As with so many Unitarian Universalists, my religious journey began with a question. Not my own, but my parents’. Coming from two very different traditions, they sought a religious home where they could raise a family—one that appreciated their diverse heritage and provided room for their children to follow their own spiritual quests. Their question, “Where is our religious home?” did not have an easy answer. Most churches, temples, synagogues, and congregations in the Deep South did not embrace both Jewish and Christian perspectives as contributing equally to a tapestry of traditions. They finally found the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta (UUCA) one Sunday in December, where the service began with the lighting of three symbolic sources of spiritual light: the chalice, an advent wreath, and a menorah. They knew they had discovered their common faith. My mother, in particular, remembers being filled that morning with a feeling of acceptance for the universal beauty and significance of Jewish traditions, which she wove into our family life.
For my brothers and me, religious pluralism was as much a part of our lives as the Southern drawl that flavored our interactions. We spent Friday evenings at the dinner table, often with a loaf of raisin challah from the grocery bakery, or with pizza and the latest episode of Star Trek, and we put our own spin on the Sabbath prayers and songs that marked the end of the week. We celebrated our cousins’ bar and bat mitzvahs and our friends’ first communions. We ended Passover at Nana’s house with songs, stories, and prayers that served as a prelude to the classic combination of brisket, green beans, squash casserole, and sweet tea. We marked Easter with morning services, followed by a backyard egg hunt and a colorful midday dinner of fluorescent Jell-O eggs, purple mashed potatoes, and our annual “bunny cake.” December meant a flurry of revolving decorations between birthdays, Hanukkah, and Christmas in a variety of chronological combinations, given that particular year’s calendar. And each year at High Holy Days we observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at UUCA with services led by L’Chaim, the Jewish Celebrations Group. It was at those services and in the unmistakably sweet taste of apples and honey that I discovered a deep connection with my Jewish heritage that I could not explain or ignore. I was so proud to say, “Please read responsively” into the microphone at the pulpit, to hear my brother create the piercing sound of the shofar as it rang through our circular sanctuary, and to listen to my mother lead the singing in her clear, passionate voice. I felt an intangible connection to something bigger than myself that I didn’t feel at any other time of the year. The haunting half-step that marked the beginning of the Kol Nidre immediately connected me not only to my family and to everyone gathered in that space made holy by our worship, but to thousands of years of human history. I felt a sense of wholeness, of connectedness with my spirituality that was unlike anything else. I felt at home within myself.
While the question, “What are you?” came from the well-intentioned curiosity of my friends at school, it felt like a challenge to the legitimacy of my plural religious identity. Jewish friends chided, “Why do you even care about Yom Kippur? You’re not a real Jew,” not understanding that I wasn’t trying to be Jewish. Other friends seemed really puzzled by the menorah that shone next to our Christmas tree in the living room window, or the glittery Stars of David and carved wooden chalices that hung as ornaments on the Christmas tree branches. Yet while many people told me that this combination of Judaism and Unitarian Universal- ism didn’t make any sense, so many others encouraged me to embrace the “and” rather than the “or.” My Sunday School teachers, ministers, mentors, and parents guided me as I spirituality developed within a community that encouraged me to explore rather than limit myself. “What is it about both Judaism and Unitarian Universalism that speaks to you?” they asked, an encouragement to go on a deep search for what was true and right for me.
Eventually, I stopped listening to those who seemed to be stuck on the What’s and Why’s. I learned that, by embracing the Who at the center of it all, I could discover beautiful and meaningful traditions that feed my spirit. I included Hebrew in my Coming of Age credo statement, a UU tradition where youth share deeply in worship about their personally constructed systems of belief. I figured out how to use yeast and started baking homemade raisin challah. I went on my own tashlich, walking each fall along the river in my Midwest college town with crackers in my pocket and casting them into the water, each year with a list of different intentions. I ate peanut butter, matzah, and jelly sandwiches for a week in the spring and raced my friends in reading “Chad Gadya” as fast as we possibly could on one breath during the Passover Seders held on our college campus. Away from where I grew up, in the town that has become my new home, I attend High Holy Day services each year at the local synagogue. “Oh, are you Jewish?” some of my fellow worshippers have asked. “Yes and no,” I answer with pride. “I’m a Jewish Unitarian Universalist.”
Excerpted with permission from Jewish Voices in Unitarian Universalism, ed. by Leah Hart-Landsberg and Marti Keller (Skinner House Books, 2014).