Image via Flickr/​Ze’ev Barkan

Chloe Ben­jamin, author of The Immor­tal­istswrites for JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series about how grow­ing up in an inter­faith fam­i­ly has inspired her to explore issues of faith and reli­gion in her writing.

I often attribute my inter­est in reli­gion to the fact that, after my par­ents’ divorce, I grew up with two of them. My mom is the daugh­ter of an Epis­co­palian min­is­ter, and as a child, I went to Sun­day School at our local Epis­co­palian church. My dad, mean­while, is ances­tral­ly Jew­ish but present­ly athe­ist. I often tease him about the fact that his first wife is a minister’s daugh­ter, and his sec­ond — my step­moth­er, Ellen — is a Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al director.

Ellen grew up in Lor­raine, Ohio, in a con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish fam­i­ly. Now a mem­ber of San Francisco’s reform syn­a­gogue Tem­ple Emanu-El, she brought Jew­ish his­to­ry and cul­ture into our home. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by the sto­ries, the lan­guage and the tra­di­tions, from pray­ing over can­dles, wine and chal­lah on Shab­bat to the rit­u­als of Passover. When I asked Ellen to teach me Hebrew, she found an intro­duc­to­ry text­book clear­ly geared toward chil­dren half my age and helped me learn.

As the years passed, I did not go through a con­fir­ma­tion or a bat mitz­vah. Still, I remained curi­ous about reli­gion. (Broad­en­ing my purview, I even asked for Islam for Dum­mies one birth­day!) I nev­er felt pres­sure from either side of my fam­i­ly to choose. My dad still iden­ti­fied as an athe­ist, though he went to tem­ple with Ellen. My mom’s side of the fam­i­ly has always been pro­gres­sive, pro-gay rights, fem­i­nism and rebel­lion in a church that didn’t always feel the same way. Encour­aged, I explored reli­gion in my work. The the­sis for my grad­u­ate pro­gram in Cre­ative Writ­ing was a col­lec­tion of linked short sto­ries that fol­lowed one family’s expe­ri­ence of Chris­tian­i­ty and sex­u­al­i­ty. Reli­gion was less promi­nent in my first pub­lished nov­el, The Anato­my of Dreams, but it became a focus again in my sec­ond, The Immor­tal­ists, released this month.

The Immor­tal­ists fol­lows the Golds, a con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish fam­i­ly in New York’s Low­er East Side. In 1969, the four Gold chil­dren hear of the arrival of a mys­te­ri­ous woman who claims to be able to tell any­one their date of death. The grand­chil­dren of East­ern Euro­pean Jews who fled per­se­cu­tion, the sib­lings receive their prophe­cies on the fifth floor of a build­ing on Hes­ter Street. The nov­el then fol­lows each of them over five decades of Amer­i­can and inter­per­son­al his­to­ry — and ques­tions the way that the fate, chance and expec­ta­tion shape their futures.

The Gold sib­lings each have dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tions toward Judaism, just as they have dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tions toward their prophe­cies. Simon, the youngest, is a gay man who feels con­demned by Leviti­cus. Klara becomes a magi­cian whose belief in mag­ic par­al­lels her father’s strong reli­gious faith in sur­pris­ing ways. Daniel is a mil­i­tary doc­tor whose wife, Mira, brings Judaism back into his life. And Varya, the eldest, iden­ti­fies most with Judaism’s empha­sis on the pow­er of words and stories.

I was drawn to Judaism in the con­text of this nov­el for mul­ti­ple rea­sons. While Chris­tian­i­ty places great focus on life after death, Judaism’s gaze remains fixed on olam ha-ze: this world. I was curi­ous about how the sib­lings would approach their mor­tal­i­ty with­out the imag­i­na­tive escape hatch” of heav­en. I was also eager to plumb my own fam­i­ly his­to­ry on my father’s side. Like Saul, the patri­arch of the Gold fam­i­ly, my great-grand­fa­ther, Max, ran a tai­lor­ing busi­ness in New York City. And just as the par­ents of Saul and his wife, Ger­tie, came through Ellis Island from East­ern Europe, so too did my ances­tors enter the coun­try in New York after long jour­neys from Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.

My grandmother’s ances­tors were Jews who fled from Poland, as well as the Ukrain­ian pogroms. My grand­moth­er attend­ed Hebrew school, but orga­nized reli­gion was not often men­tioned in the fam­i­ly home. Still, she found her­self fas­ci­nat­ed by the range of cul­tures that sur­round­ed her in New York.

When I began to study French at Field­ston,” she wrote to me, my teacher invit­ed mem­bers of the class to attend the group per­for­mance of Handel’s Mes­si­ah. I was daz­zled and began a life­long habit of annu­al atten­dance to the event. With a boy in my class, I spent many Sat­ur­days inves­ti­gat­ing the var­ied eth­nic enclaves of Man­hat­tan: Hun­gar­i­an, Pol­ish, Greek. Each vis­it includ­ed a meal in a local eatery. This was our own idea and firm­ly fixed in my mind a leit­mo­tif of what I call OPR,’ or oth­er people’s reli­gions. With­out nam­ing it as such, I was a bud­ding anthro­pol­o­gist, vis­it­ing the core insti­tu­tions of poly­glot New York City. This has been my most com­pelling inter­est ever since.”

Years lat­er, as a more mature woman and a moth­er, she became involved in her local Planned Par­ent­hood. It was there that she met a man named Ed Lane, a Uni­tar­i­an min­is­ter, and began to attend his church. Even­tu­al­ly, she com­plet­ed a Mas­ters Degree at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia in prim­i­tive and ancient religions.

I have found favor with a qua­si-reli­gious affir­ma­tion of the sanc­ti­ty of the human mind,” she con­tin­ued. The inves­ti­ga­tion of oth­ers’ adher­ence has remained com­pelling. With Felix Adler, the Jew­ish founder of Eth­i­cal Cul­ture, I find that The place where men (sic) gath­er to seek the high­est is holy ground.’ With Mar­tin Buber, I think that God is in the trans­ac­tions of one human mind to another.’”

My grand­fa­ther, mean­while, grew up in a very Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood in New York City’s Upper West Side. His par­ents belonged to a Con­ser­v­a­tive tem­ple on West End Avenue; he has mem­o­ries of being stopped on the street and asked to help make up a minyan. Some of my favorite fam­i­ly sto­ries come from his upbring­ing — such as the time his moth­er, my great-grand­moth­er, buried the sil­ver­ware after she caught one of her chil­dren using it for some­thing non-Kosher! When he chose to leave the fam­i­ly busi­ness, his par­ents wor­ried about how he would func­tion in a Gen­tile world. Final­ly, his father took him to lunch with a group of Gen­tile busi­ness­man friends, who helped to lessen those fears.

Although my grand­fa­ther even­tu­al­ly moved away from Jew­ish obser­vance — even explor­ing Uni­tar­i­an­ism with my grand­moth­er — he told me that he still feels cul­tur­al­ly Jew­ish in many ways.

I was emo­tion­al­ly attuned to Israel’s wel­fare in its bat­tle to exist,” he wrote. In my cul­ture, the Jew­ish reli­gion was nev­er a big deal — but the sense of being Jew­ish was. So there was not much rebel­lion in going to a Uni­tar­i­an Fel­low­ship. It didn’t seem to threat­en my sense of Jew­ish­ness much, if at all.”

His com­ments drove home to me what I’ve heard many of my Jew­ish fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends say: that what it means to be Jew­ish goes beyond attend­ing reli­gious ser­vices, that it is a much broad­er cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. Like my grand­par­ents, I remain fas­ci­nat­ed by the ties that bind Jews to oth­er Jews — and those that bind Jews to all reli­gious seekers.

In the delight­ful and sur­pris­ing way that life brings things full cir­cle, my step­moth­er, Ellen, became a coun­selor for inter­faith cou­ples: a per­fect fit for our diverse, mod­ern fam­i­ly. I can’t help but see the par­al­lels between fam­i­ly and reli­gion. Both ide­al­ly offer a sense of solace and com­mu­ni­ty — a con­nec­tion to what lies beyond the self. Like my great-grand­par­ents, my grand­par­ents and my par­ents before me, I’ll hold tight to those I love as I keep searching.

Chloe Ben­jamin is the New York Times-best­selling author of the nov­els THE IMMOR­TAL­ISTS and THE ANATO­MY OF DREAMS, which received the Edna Fer­ber Fic­tion Book Award and was longlist­ed for the 2014 Cen­ter for Fic­tion First Nov­el Prize. A San Fran­cis­co native, Ben­jamin is a grad­u­ate of Vas­sar Col­lege and of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, where she received her MFA in fic­tion. She lives with her hus­band in Madi­son, Wisconsin.