On Growing Up Orthodox Jewish and Syrian Christian 6 December 2016
My parents raised me with two religions- Orthodox Jewish on my Mum’s side and Syrian Christian on my Dad’s. Not to be confused with Christianity in Syria, the Syrian Christians I refer to are a community of Christians in Kerala, South India. They converted from Hinduism, tracing their origins to the evangelisation of Thomas the Apostle. Unlike conventional Christianity, my Dad’s family will go to church to celebrate Indian Hindu festivals, as wells as the traditional Christian festivals.
I was baptised in India and later had my Bat Mitzvah at my school’s synagogue. I attended a Jewish school from ages 4 to 16, left and went to a local Christian sixth-form. Growing up I’d sometimes have to go to synagogue on the Saturday and Church on the Sunday which, which as an 11 year old, I simply found annoying. Having spent the whole week ‘working hard’ at school, all I wanted was a morning off to stay at home and watch Arthur on television. Instead, I spent my weekend at Synagogue and Church, praying in Hebrew and Malayalum – two languages I couldn’t fully understand yet.
However growing up within two religions definitely has its advantages. I’m lucky to have large families on each side with relatives living here in Britain, as well as in India and Israel. I am part of two richly diverse cultures with fascinating histories and ancient traditions. Due to my background I have the choice to live and work in India or Israel if I ever wanted to. I get to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah. And I guess I don’t need to feel too guilty about eating the odd bacon sandwich?
It wasn’t until I spoke to people outside of my Jewish circle when I was around 12, that I started to question the way I’d been brought up. When asked what religion I was, I’d simply respond ‘My mum’s Jewish and my Dad’s Christian’. They’d reply ‘yes, but what are you?’ and I’d struggle to answer such a seemingly simple question. I didn’t see myself as either solely Christian or Jewish. And I’d never had that pressure to conform to just one religion at home. To choose one over the other seemed, in a sense, a betrayal. I’d learned so much about my Jewish history and the holocaust at school. To denounce Judaism would be to remove myself from those who had died fighting against anti-Semitism in World War 2 and throughout history. I felt Judaism was in my blood and something that could never be erased. (This leads to a bigger question of whether Judaism is a race or religion which I don’t attempt to answer here). Nevertheless, to say that I was fully Jewish didn’t feel true either. So which religion should I choose? One day, feeling frustrated at this, I confronted my parents asking them ‘What religion am I supposed to be? I’ve been brought up in both. So am I Jewish or Christian?’. To which my Mum replied ‘You can be whatever you want, you could even be a Buddhist if you like’. Not helpful Mum!
She had further complicated the situation with her ridiculous comment. My initial problem in choosing between two religions had expanded to the roughly 4,200 religions in the world. This blew things into a much larger perspective. How can I know which religion is right when I only know 2 out of the 4,200? Having too much religious freedom at 12 years old seemed stressful. However, what I had dismissed as the worst piece of advice was actually the best. Her completely open minded attitude, tolerance and need not to comply with society’s conventions are some of the qualities I admire in her.
Many have said that it’s wrong to raise a child in two religions, that she/he will grow up confused or conflicted. Nevertheless, religion is in every sense inevitably confusing and complex. It attempts to address great philosophical questions yet holds no solid answers. Of course, it is easier to have a neat, concrete perspective on religion, however I believe it’s much more real to hold a conflicted and messy religious world view.
When visiting my family in India a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to travel to New Delhi and visit the breath-taking, Lotus temple. This universal place of worship welcomes every religion, focusing on the oneness of God, the oneness of Religion and the oneness of Mankind. It is not bounded by one specific religion but a multitude of religious perspectives. I was fascinated by this simple and beautiful idea. With all the religious conflicts that are going on in the world today, I wonder what would be the reaction of a similar place of prayer in London, the capital of diverse cultures and religions.