Kingdom of Priests

With Mother’s Day approaching, I’m busy appreciating the Mothers’ Conspiracy that’s been responsible for my own children’s having a fighting chance of passing on Jewish values to their children and grandchildren. I call it a Jewish conspiracy because a spiritual chain had been broken in my family — that is, my family by adoption — as in my wife’s. The Jewish spark was sputtering, close to extinction. However, no fewer than five mothers in three generations and three countries sought through quiet, determined effort over the decades to relight it. 

The Hebrew Bible assumes, though it doesn’t state outright, that mothers play a more decisive role than fathers in influencing their children’s spiritual destiny (see, e.g., Ezra 10:2-5). Rabbinic law codifies this as the principle of matrilineal descent. That means a person born to a Jewish mother is Jewish by default, but not so if he has only a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.
There’s a lesson here not only for Jews but for any Christian man contemplating a marriage to a woman who doesn’t share his faith, as there is for parents wishing to have Christian grandchildren.

This particular significance of mothers is little understood. So you have an interview in the L.A. Jewish Journal with Star Trek director J.J. Abrams. He reflects unperturbedly on his kids’ confused spiritual heritage:

My family wasn’t very religious, but I’m very proud of my heritage. My wife is Irish Catholic and it’s a fascinating thing having married someone who’s of a different religion, because you get to understand and see and respect another way of growing up and believing. That to me is interesting and healthy. I do consider myself Jewish, and I take my kids to services on holidays because that is something really important to me.

This is so heartbreaking. 

Abrams finds it “fascinating” to be married to a Christian. I’m sure Mrs. Abrams is as lovely a lady as he is a dynamic, successful filmmaker. I’m eager to see the new Star Trek which opened yesterday. He sounds like a nice guy too. But the truth is that with J.J. Abrams, a spiritual link between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn has been broken. He finds this “interesting and healthy.” Please note, I’m not condemning him. He’s as much an innocent victim of secular brainwashing as anyone else. He has no idea of the misfortune, for all his success, that has befallen his family.

The conspiracy in our own family started with my grandmother. Anna Bernstein, my adoptive mother’s mother, began lighting Shabbat candles and keeping kosher when she got married, in part to please her husband’s mother. But it had a spiritual effect on Anna, who prayed daily, as on my own mother, Carol Bernstein. I was raised in a Reform, that is liberal, temple, but my mother conveyed Jewish commitment to me nonetheless. When she faced death by cancer, it was as if a light came on in her, and then she passed away. I’ve often wished I could talk to her and get her opinion, about which she was never shy, on the path I’ve taken since then that led to Orthodox Judaism.

Meanwhile, I would not have been raised even remotely Jewish were it not for the initiative of my non-Jewish birth mother, Harriet Lund, who despite being raised without a religion herself in Sweden, insisted on Jewish adoptive parents for me. (Why? A fascinating story that she told me the first time we talked, recounted in my first book.)

So that’s America, Sweden — now Russia. In St. Petersburg, my future mother-in-law, Nina Perlin, was the daughter of a Jew, a Communist Party member and a strong atheist, and a Gentile mother. Because of her mother, Nina had the option of being identified on her passport as “Russian” (obviously an advantage in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union) or “Jewish.” Amazingly, and against her father’s pleading, she chose Jewish.

These women are my three “mothers” — Carol, Harriet, and Nina.

Nina married my wife’s father, who was Jewish but had passed in and out of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Something in what they gave Nika, raised in America after the little family emigrated, struck a note of recognition and truth. Just when I met her in New York City back in 1999, Nika was in the process of reconnecting with the Jewish thread in her own family history. The first night we met, I fell in love with her passionate spirituality.

It all comes together in our five children, whose love of Jews and Judaism, I know, comes much more from Nika than from me. That makes — what, five mothers? Six? Anyway, thank you to all of you. I love you!

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