From a young age, little girls dream about their wedding, their ideal bouquets and the perfect groom. Julie Stern* was no exception. She and her three brothers were always close-knit, and her dreams about her wedding included having them in attendance. That dream was quickly shattered when all three of her brothers refused to attend because she was marrying out of the faith.
Before her brothers began their religious journeys, Julie had always been the most Jewishly-committed of the siblings. She dutifully attended Sunday School and Hebrew High School in their Reform synagogue.
When she was 15, Julie attended Camp Swig in Saratoga, California, run by the Reform Movement. It was the 70s and in between singing anti-war songs and participating in feel-good activities, the campers were exposed to a smattering of Jewish ideas. It was there that Julie first learned Modeh Ani and picked up a couple of verses from Tanach which were parts of transliterated Hebrew and Yiddish songs.
“There was even a Yiddish song that mentioned Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Even though I was 15, I think I was still young enough to benefit from these few passukim and they are deeply ingrained in me today.”
The camp gave her a “Jewish consciousness,” and after returning home she decided to stop eating pork. This decision resulted from two sources: her strengthened Jewish identity which came from her camp attendance, and the example of her father who had always refused to eat pig products.
“My father, Papa, was very much into being Jewish. He could speak some Yiddish. His parents were European and his two older siblings were born in Europe. In this country, his parents didn’t observe anything except not eating treif. We thought it was ridiculously old-fashioned and funny that Papa used to not eat pork.”
And yet Julie herself decided to cease eating pig products as well. This was the first step in a journey with many ups and downs.
Julie attended college in Oregon where she met Nigel, who was originally from Australia. In 1979, they decided to get married.
“The only problem was … my brothers. They did what they could to dissuade me. Before the ceremony, the rabbi of our Reform Temple, Rabbi Rose, asked if I wanted him to wear a yarmulke. My answer was no. That somehow seemed hypocritical to me. Did I want a chuppah? Yes, I did. The marriage took place in the home I grew up in.”
A year and a half later, Julie gave birth to their first and only child. She had hoped for a girl, partially because she wanted to avoid the controversy of whether to have a bris, as circumcisions were decidedly out of style among couples in her social circles.
However, on May 1, 1981 she gave birth to a boy, whom they named Andy. As soon as he was born, Julie knew that she wanted to give him a bris. One week later, with Rabbi Rose at the helm, a Jewish doctor performed the circumcision in her parents’ home.
“Andy was born, and he was just thrilling from the start. I felt as if I had been seeing the world in black and white, but now, all was color. I was comfortable being a mother right away, and Andy was the most adorable and rewarding baby, and a tremendous source of nachas, as he is to this day.”
This was a time of tremendous transitions in their lives. Shortly after Andy’s birth, Nigel told Julie he wanted a divorce. Now, without a non-Jewish spouse, Julie felt free to define the flavor of her home on her own.
Even though her dreams for a perfect wedding had been shattered by her brothers’ boycott, she never resented them or their decision. If anything, she saw that there must have been something incredibly compelling to Judaism if they would all choose to miss her wedding because of it.
“I was interested in Yiddishkeit because my brothers believed in it. We all had an influence on each other, as we continue to do to this day. I have to credit our parents for raising us to be so close.”
One by one, her three brothers moved back to America. Julie’s first authentic and extremely powerful Jewish experience was her brother Fred’s wedding. The contrasts with her own were striking.
The other significant and serendipitous impact in her life at this time came from her next-door neighbors.
“They were a young family of typical Americans. All weekend long they just watched football and drank beer. I remember thinking, I don’t want to raise a family to watch TV all weekend. I want much more than that. More meaning.”
Realizing that she needed to learn more about her religion, Julie moved to New York. She sensed the truth in her brothers’ lives, and desired to learn more. She moved in with her brother Sam who was living in Queens.
“Shortly after I arrived, Sam had asked me if I would be willing to keep Shabbos and kashrus. I said ‘sure.’ I think he was fairly surprised, but I wanted to look into Yididshkeit. At first, I hated not answering the phone on Shabbos. I think by the second Shabbos I already appreciated not answering the phone.”
Sam taught her the basics of Shabbos and other practices. At the time he and Fred were learning together in a yeshiva in Queens, where he picked up another important item – a husband for his sister.
Ken Mendelson had become observant in college. While learning he became close to Sam and Fred, and when they told him that they had a sister who was becoming observant as well, he leapt at the chance to meet her.
After dating a few times, Ken and Julie announced they were getting married. They wed in 1984. This time, all her brothers were more than eager to attend.
Looking back on her origins and the outcomes of her extended family is a striking comparison. From the seven cousins in her father’s family, there are no Jewish marriages. On her mother’s side, there are only two Jewish grandchildren. Julie and Ken have six children, and between them and her brothers, there are already more than 30 grandchildren in the family.
“I am very thankful to have made the journey to Yiddishkeit. I would not know how to cope in this world without faith in Hashem. Raising a family with Torah values is a very rewarding experience and we are proud to see our values passed down to the grandchildren. All of our children and children-in-law are hard workers with good values. Our grandchildren are precious gems.”
Just recently, Julie and Ken married off their last and youngest child in Eretz Yisrael. (I was privileged to attend and see firsthand the beautiful fruits produced by the decisions of all the siblings to return to their roots.) It took years of hard work and was the result of the commitment of Julie and Ken to grow throughout their lives.
At the chasunah, Julie and Ken were surrounded by their children and grandchildren, as well as two of Julie’s brothers. They were back in Eretz Yisrael, where their story had begun, but this time they were all celebrating together. The cycle had come full circle.
* Names and some details have been changed.