Adopting a Faith

by Lennie Magida

 

My husband, our daughter, her fiancé and I just attended a wedding. My husband’s super-nice-guy nephew married a wonderfully lovely woman, so it was a very happy occasion. It took place in DC in the Russian Orthodox church where, several decades ago, my husband was an altar boy. And as we stood there during the service (because that’s what you do during a Russian Orthodox service—stand), I looked around at my immediate family, at all my relatives through marriage, and at the bride’s family, and I thought—as I’ve done more times than I could possibly count—“Isn’t it amazing how families happen?”

I also thought, as I have many times, “Isn’t it amazing how people figure out what they believe and where their faith lies?” My husband, John, and I grew up in different faiths. We adopted Nina as an infant and raised her with only a smattering of religious teachings and traditions. But, evolving to her 26-year-old self, she’s thought her own thoughts and found her own way, different from both John’s religious background and mine. I’ve often wondered: What are the seeds of her faith? How did they take root and grow? And do they have anything to do with biology? When you’ve become a parent through adoption, you ask that question about all sorts of things. For me, religion is one of them.

John, as I mentioned, was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Religion was a deeply important element of his upbringing. My own heritage is Jewish. My parents cast off their Orthodox Jewish upbringings, made their way through Conservative Judaism, and finally settled into Reform Judaism. But all along, their connection to Jewish traditions and culture was central to their lives—and to mine as I was growing up.

But for some reason—something genetic? something about coming of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s?—John and I both backed away from our religions, John even more than I. If we hadn’t—if we’d stayed as involved with our respective religions as some of our elders expected us to—we never would have wound up together.

But now we’ve been together for more than 30 years. And 26 years ago, Nina came into our family. Her Filipina birth mom (both her birth parents were from Manila) had hoped a Catholic couple would adopt her baby. We couldn’t offer that. But she chose us anyway, maybe because she knew we’d lived in Asia and were about to move there again for John’s job.

So there we were in 1987: a lapsed Russian Orthodox, a mostly non-practicing Jew, and a Filipina preemie who had Catholicism in her biological background. We moved to Beijing, where religion was virtually nonexistent. Almost three years later, we moved to Honolulu. We had Christmas trees because John wanted them and lit Hanukah candles because I wanted to. At Passover, we had little pseudo-Seders, and sometimes I went to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holidays. Those traditions and connections could still tug at me.

When Nina was seven, we moved to Hong Kong. We had larger Christmas trees and attended friends’ larger Seders. I still went to High Holiday services, and I started taking Nina. But the American school that she attended was affiliated with the Lutheran church, and religious education was mandatory. One day Nina said, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe that Jesus is the son of God.” I fretted a bit that we’d confused her by offering so little religious structure in our family, and that her school’s theology was having an unwanted impact on our shaky foundation. I also wondered for the first time, Is this just part of who she is? Part of something that has nothing to do with us? But mostly I figured that she was expressing the thoughts of a seven-and-a-half-year-old mind.

In the middle of Nina’s fifth-grade year, we moved to Maryland. We continued our resolutely unaffiliated quasi-traditions of trees, candles, Seders and occasional services. For the first time, many of Nina’s classmates were Jewish, and in middle school they all started preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs. The promise of a party and many gifts notwithstanding, Nina wasn’t interested.

And so it continued through high school and the two years that Nina was away at college. Then she transferred and moved back home. A few months later, we learned that she’d been attending church with the guy she was dating. I reacted horribly. I was upset beyond all reason, and I let her know it. Fortunately, though, I calmed down pretty quickly. Nina joined the church choir, and we went several times to hear her sing.

She stopped dating that guy and became involved with someone new. Before long, she started going to church with him and his family. That was more than four years ago, and now she and that guy–his name is Luke–are engaged. Their wedding is in June. It won’t be in a church, but it will be a Christian ceremony, and I admit: I can’t help but wonder how my parents would feel if they were still alive. But I honestly think they’d love our new family foursome: The handsome young blond man who is Nina’s soul mate. The still-lapsed Russian Orthodox dad. The less-practicing-than-ever Jewish mom. And the beautiful young Filipina woman who, in reaching her own religious conclusions, might also be connecting with spiritual roots that are hers alone.

McCall Doyle/McCall Doyle Photography

McCall Doyle/McCall Doyle Photography

Comments

  1. Lisa Ercolano says:

    Beautiful, eloquent, elegant and touching. Thank you, Lennie, not only for your amazing, thought-provoking essay, but for having a heart that is open enough to understand and embrace that spirituality is truly an individual journey that each of us must make on our own, and which should be respected by others.

    • I so appreciate your comment, Lisa. And I’d like to add that spirituality, in addition to being an individual journey, is a lifelong one. Or at least I think it should be!

  2. Very beautiful! Yes family is amazing. This great blessing of life must be appreciated by pele more in these modern times.

  3. Hi, just found you at TAO’s place. I had to comment here because your story reminds me of how my mother reacted when I “converted” to Lutheran when I got engaged to my husband. She reacted badly, too. Very upset. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how upset she was.
    I’d give anything, however, to have her yelling at me now. Family is a gift, and we should cherish every moment.

    • Hi Kellie! Welcome to our blog. I just wanted to clarify that this post was written by our guest blogger Lennie, and I’m Luanne, the person who reads TAO’s blog and comments over there. I understand about wishing she were around to yell now. Very wise words. Glad to meet you!

    • Thanks for your comment, Kellie. Your mother’s reaction to your “conversion” must have been very distressing. It’s remarkable how intensely people react to matters of religion. And you’re so right about the importance of cherishing family — even in those inevitable moments when it’s difficult to do so!

  4. What a lovely piece of writing, so reflective and thoughtful. I love your descriptions of the religions in your lives and the parts you have taken with you. And what a beautiful picture at the end. Thanks for sharing this on the Weekly Adoption Shout Out. x

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