The Ironic Legacy of Grandma Clara
How I became a devout Jew through my evangelical Christian grandmother.
By Manya Treece
Though I was not raised to believe in God, I never questioned that God existed, only how I should relate to him. My immediate family's religious life was non-existent, save for the occasional attendance at a nearby evangelical church when my father's parents were visiting and the annual “Christmas-Hanukkah” and "East-over" festivities were populated by my Jewish mother's extended family. These hyphenated celebrations would have appalled my father's Christian parents, the Treece clan, particularly my Grandma Clara. Grandma Clara was a woman of tremendous faith who reminded me often—with my bedroom door closed, my mother out of earshot, and a New Testament in hand—that both Jesus and I were members of something she called "the Chosen People."
Despite my discomfort with Grandma Clara’s particular faith tradition, I understood her struggle with religious expression. Grandma Clara's belief was unfaltering and she never felt she had done enough to express her gratitude to the divine. Her command of the Bible and the number of hours she devoted to daily prayer boggled the minds of her adult children. When my grandfather died in his early 70s, Grandma Clara’s faith was a buoy for the grief-stricken people around her. She acknowledged the severity of her loss, but she was fully convinced that my grandfather’s “time” had been divinely ordained. Her serenity astonished me. At my grandfather’s funeral, I braced myself for the possibility of Grandma Clara’s weeping and fist-waving. She had, after all, just lost the man who had been her beloved partner for over 50 years. Instead, her most striking behavior was bursting into tongues just before my grandfather’s casket was lowered into the ground. Confronted with inevitable loss, Grandma Clara’s reaction was to reaffirm her connection to God.
Yet that connection was a paradox. Somehow, as much as she loved God, Grandma Clara was not at peace. When she was very elderly, she would often weep in her nursing home room, lamenting to my father that, though she had labored to do so, she still hadn’t fully expressed her reverence.
Years later, after Grandma Clara passed away, I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was eighteen years old, taking time off before I went to college. I worked first at an ice cream parlor and then in an underprivileged elementary school as a tutor. At both these jobs, I was delighted to find myself surrounded by very religious people. I felt connected to this community because we shared faith. What we did not share, however, was a faith, or, specifically, a Christian faith. Suddenly, all the confused feelings of religious commonality and conflict that I once felt towards Grandma Clara had surfaced yet again.
When my co-workers in Chattanooga began inviting me to church, I decided I was going to investigate my non-Christian options. I started learning about the Baha’i tradition, but this never felt like a good match. Eventually, I discovered that I lived one block away from a Reform synagogue, and soon the Saturday morning services there became the highlight of my week.
No one had ever explained to me that the fact that my mother was Jewish meant, according to religious law, that my status as a Jew was unquestionable. I was delighted to learn this from my rabbi, who had been sent to Chattanooga to serve a Jewish congregation composed mainly of Manhattan transplants who had moved to the South for jobs and spouses. Most of the time, the synagogue felt less like a religious institution ("We have to read the Torah? I thought we did that last week!" one man often quipped) and more like a culture club. Before services, several congregants would get together for breakfast and a tacit competition to see who could complain most bitterly about how bad Chattanooga’s bagels were in comparison to New York’s. After the weekly bagel showcase had ended, we would sit down to study that week’s Torah portion.
The Torah study was my favorite part of the Saturday morning experience. Though I was encountering the majority of these Biblical texts for the first time, the other Torah study attendees were at least four or five decades my senior and had been through this literature numerous times. While I approached the literature with a terrified reverence, my companions relished the opportunity to trash the canon. "What sexist, archaic, primitive tripe!" one woman, a former English professor, would exclaim. Then a chorus of less-eager older men would begin with their rumblings of, "Well, it sure doesn't seem like any of this is any use in the modern world…" and "Aren’t you glad we don't do this stuff any longer?" Following this literary throw-down, we would all file into the sanctuary to begin prayer.
This weekly sequence finally bridged the gap between my non-religious Jewish relatives, who reminded me of my Torah study crew, and Grandma Clara, who would have appreciated the rigor of the Jewish liturgy that followed. She would have adored the way in which Jewish prayer has set moments during which to bow to God, or to, quite literally, try to become closer to God’s presence in Jerusalem by directing all of its holiest activities eastward. I imagine Grandma Clara would have loved, in particular, the deep, full-bodied devotion of the Torah procession, or the part of a Saturday morning service when the Torah scroll is paraded around the room so that everyone can kiss and bow to it.
I later learned from one of my aunts that Grandma Clara had, in fact, incorporated portions of Jewish liturgy into her own prayer life. One of the standard prayers said throughout Jewish services, the Amidah, opens with the following words in Hebrew: “Adonai Sefatai-tiftach-ufi-yagid-tehilatecha.” These lines translate to, “Eternal God, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your glory.” Apparently, Grandma Clara would often begin her prayer sessions with these verses in English. I never learned how Grandma Clara discovered these elements of Jewish liturgy. Still, I believe that, had she known about the prayer choreography which follows these lines throughout the Amidah prayer, such as the bending of the knees and bowing to the divine at the intonation “Baruch ata Adonai”—or “Blessed are you, God”—she would have extended her integration of Jewish ritual even further into her religious Christian life.
Once my adventures at the Reform synagogue in Chattanooga made it possible for me to pursue Judaism without abandoning Grandma Clara’s religious legacy, I felt free to immerse myself in Jewish religion and identity. Following my stint in Tennessee, I went to college, where I continued to pursue my interest in Judaism. I enrolled in many Jewish Studies classes, became better informed about Jewish observance, and have since come to identify myself as Modern Orthodox.
This baffles my Jewish relatives. They wonder how I can reconcile my academic study of religion with my practice. "Do you really believe that God wrote the Torah?" they ask me. "Didn't you learn that the Bible had multiple authors? Didn't they teach you that in school?"
Empirically speaking, my Jewish relatives have a point: scholarship often shows Jewish tradition down, indicating that our practices and beliefs may come from sources outside of the Jewish canon. But long ago, I learned from my Grandma Clara to trust that there is more to reality than what our most factual discoveries can indicate. Grandma Clara was a Christian whose faith propelled her far beyond empiricism. She was not an unsophisticated woman, and she was well aware of the historical and scientific findings that stood in opposition to her faith. Still, this remarkable woman chose to remain with Christ. For this, I credit her as the person who inspired me to live and worship as a Jew.
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Manya Treece has lived in Chicago, Chattanooga, Berlin, New York, and Nashville, and she is still looking for a community of German-speaking, banjo-playing, subway-riding Jews. In the meantime, she can be found at New York University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in social work. Her writing has appeared in Interfaith Insights, New Voices, and mrbellersneighborhood.com.
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