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Finding Connection in Orthodox Judaism
Throughout our conversation in Vitali’s Bistro, one of the two Kosher restaurants in St. Louis Park, Marcie Murray makes it clear that arriving at her current observant Orthodox faith was a process. Spanning many years, several different states, various congregations, and a few pivotal occurrences that Marice attributes directly to divine intervention, one of the only things that has remained constant throughout her journey is her deep and unshakable spirituality.
“I was raised with a very strong Jewish identity in a way, but totally not religious,” Marcie explains, “You know, a lot of bagels and lox, and go to shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and one grandparent only spoke Yiddish...when [my parents] got married, they decided they were not going to keep Kosher. They’re not going to do anything. It was after the war.”
"I think a lot of people are very lonely and very disconnected from other people, and Judaism is the connection..." -Marcie Murray
Despite her parents’ secular lifestyle, Marcie remembers feeling religious from a young age, “Being from the Bronx, I lived in a very mixed neighborhood, Irish, Italian, all different kinds of people. My best friend was Catholic, and I remember at four years old having a conversation with her. She said to me ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’ And I said, ‘No, I believe in G-d*.’ And, at that time I had a very strong sense of faith. I don’t think my parents discussed it with me or anything like that, but I remember feeling very connected to G-d. But as I got older, my parents didn’t encourage anything... “I have this very vague memory of when I was about 7 years old, we went [to the synagogue] for Purim. Everyone was all dressed up. It was the only time I was ever in a synagogue until I was 19.”
After Marcie got married and had her first child, that had begun to change. Though she had married a non-Jewish man, the sense of deep Jewish identity she had held since she was a young girl had not changed. After her son was born, it quickly became clear that her children would be raised Jewish as well, starting with her son’s Bris (a ritual circumcision).
“While I was ailing in the hospital, totally out of it, my mother said, ‘It’s a boy. We have to have a Bris.’ I’m like, ‘Ok whatever, you can take care of it.’ So she opens up the phonebook, and she finds a mohel. On the 8th day, we were out of the hospital, and here we were having a Bris. At the Bris, the rabbi says to my husband, ‘Do you promise to raise him in Torah, Chuppah, and Maasim Tovim?’ which means to learn the Torah, get married to a Jewish girl, and to do good deeds. And my husband’s like ‘What?’ So, he says, ‘Do you promise to raise him Jewish?’…[my husband] said ‘Give me a minute to think about it.’ He said ‘Yes,’ and he took it very seriously. It was like a vow.”
“So the idea was that we were Jewish, I was Jewish, my kids were Jewish, but my husband is not Jewish...So he pursued Christianity and I pursued Judaism. I had this little baby, and I didn’t know what to do, so I just went to the nearest synagogue, [it was] Conservative. So, whenever the holidays came, we would help daddy celebrate his holidays, but the kids knew they were Jewish.”
Despite having a non-Jewish parent, Marcie’s children's upbringing was already far more religious than her own had been. And when it was time to send her oldest son to school, dissatisfied with the public schools in Union, New Jersey (where they were living at the time), she sent him to Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School in West Orange (now Golda Och Academy), associated with the Conservative movement of Judaism. The family moved from Union to Maplewood, to be closer to school, and bought a house. In New Jersey, the family found themselves in a strong Jewish community, with far more religious neighbors than Marcie had had growing up in the Bronx.
“I didn’t go into an Orthodox synagogue until I moved to Jersey….we had an adjoining yard with Lubavitch family….There was a synagogue, [and] I started learning a little bit. I went to some event promoted by Lubavitch. [I wasn’t] Lubavitch, [I thought] I could never wear a wig and see my husband with strings coming out of his pants. Little did I know that I do wear a wig, and my husband does wear strings coming out of his pants. So never say never. I was amazed at the difference between who people who were very involved in their Judaism. They live it 24/7, as opposed to just going on Saturday and then go off to the movies and play ball and do whatever they’re doing. It’s a difference. It’s a whole different mindset. But I didn’t meet anyone like that until I went to New Jersey.”
Soon after moving to Maplewood, Marcie made the decision to start keeping Kosher, something she says she “always wanted” but didn’t want to impose on her husband. One evening her husband suggested the family go out to eat, “We don’t go out to eat” Marcie responded.
“Since when?” asked her husband,
“Since this morning,” she responded, “I decided we’re going to keep Kosher. We don’t go out to eat”.
“As long as he got fed he was happy,” Marcie remarked.
After becoming relatively settled in New Jersey, Marcie and her family’s lives quickly changed after the moving company “Nice Jewish Boy,” where both Marcie and her husband were employed, went under. Meanwhile, the couple’s new house was rendered almost worthless by a recent stock market crash. Pregnant with her third child, Marcie and her husband realized that they couldn’t afford to stay in their house for much longer, and struggled to think of a new place to move. The idea of moving to Minnesota came from an unlikely source, her second-grade son, who had a friend whose family recently moved to St. Louis Park. Two years later, after doing a lot of research, the couple concluded that St. Louis Park was indeed the best option.
* * *
After moving into the second alphabet neighborhood, the couple enrolled their son at Torah Academy and began attending the Conservative congregation B’nai Emet (which has since moved out of the neighborhood to merge with a Conservative synagogue in Minnetonka). The family quickly became the most observant members of the congregation, observing Shabbos more strictly than they had before, and continuing to keep Kosher. While living in St. Louis Park, Marcie’s husband made the decision to officially convert to Judaism.
“He woke up and said, 'My wife is Jewish, my kids are Jewish, we keep kosher, we keep Shabbos, so I might as well be Jewish.' He converted Conservative at first. [W]e... made an appointment with the Rabbi, and the Rabbi says, ‘What can I do for you?’ [My husband] says, ‘I want to convert,’ and the Rabbi says, ‘To what??’ He didn’t even know he wasn’t Jewish. When it had come time for my son’s Bar Mitzvah, he wanted to be Jewish so he could participate in the services as a full-fledged member. It was a very quick thing. My husband’s very well read. He’s very into religion... So, he knew an awful lot, and we were already doing a lot, so the Rabbi put him on the fast track. He actually finished the conversion in August, and my son’s Bar Mitzvah was in September.”
Her husband’s conversion to Judaism wasn’t the only major religious change that would occur in Marcie’s life that year. The family would leave B’nai Emet for Bais Yisroel, the most observant Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis Park, a move that was prompted by her twelve-year-old son. For two years he had been attending a before school class at Torah Academy. Most of his fellow students in the early morning class lived nearby in the neighborhood and would return home after this early class until the normal school day began. However, Marcie’s family lived two miles away from the school, and unable to go home, her son crossed the street and began sitting in on early morning Talmud study with the men at Bais. One Saturday morning in the depths of Minnesota winter, he decided that he wanted to attend Bais Yisroel full time.
“So he wakes up in February, and he says to me and my husband ‘I don’t want to drive to the synagogue anymore,’ and my husband goes ‘Well what do you want to do? walk to Bais Yisroel?’ and he says ‘Yeah.’... He got his coat on. He got his long johns on. And they started walking every Saturday, two miles to shul...Everybody was like ‘Look at this, this kid is dragging his non-Jewish father to synagogue.’ [It] was amazing.”
Marcie is clearly filled with pride, “I was so happy,” she tells us. “It was something I always wanted.” Once the family joined Bais, their desire to buy a house, especially one closer to the synagogue, grew exponentially. “Are you ready for a crazy story?” Marcie asks us when we ask how the family ended up in the eruv neighborhood. She pauses to take a sip of tea, which she had left untouched until now. Before she takes a drink she quietly says a prayer, one of the myriad tiny ways that demonstrate the ways that her faith commands her life on a daily basis. Putting down the cup she launches into her story.
"I could never wear a wig and see my husband with strings coming out of his pants. Little did I know that I do wear a wig, and my husband does wear strings coming out of his pants. So never say never." -Marcie Murray
“For two years we’re looking for a house, and I go by a house almost every day, and I see a sign for sale but I knew that I couldn’t afford anything. But it’s such a cute house and I wish I could have that house. Suddenly the sign’s gone, we don’t know what’s going on. Fast forward another year and a half, and my friend who’s a real estate agent says ‘I have a house to show you.’ She takes us to this house...We looked in and it was perfect, it was just what we wanted. It had four bedrooms, because we had the two boys and a girl, and there was room for us. But how are we going to get this house? We don’t have any money. Now, my in-laws happen to be well off, but they think we’re very weird people. [They think] We’re doing this Jewish thing, we’ve always been very irresponsible [because] my husband hitchhiked out to California and I went to California too-we actually met in California, doing the hippie thing. They never wanted to lend us any money. After we saw this house, two weeks go by, [and the phone rings] ‘Hi, it’s your mother. We decided that we’re going to loan you money for a down payment on the house.’ It’s exactly the amount we needed. But then, how are we going to qualify for a mortgage? We don’t have any credit or anything…. [but] this house had a non-qualifying reusable mortgage. That means that you put $100 down and you reuse the mortgage of the previous owner. Now that’s what you call Haschgacha Protis, which you call 'divine providence.' That’s God’s hand in our lives, taking us in the direction that we belong to go.”
* * *
Marcie can’t impress enough how grateful she is to the neighborhood, which gave her a safe place to raise her children, and a tightly knit community of observant Jews with whom she could share her faith, and which easily facilitated an Orthodox lifestyle. When we ask Marcie about where her family is now, she can’t help but brag about her three children, who now live in Lakewood, NJ, all of whom have remained observant, married within the faith, and are raising their children within the faith. She shows us a family photo on her cellphone, three smiling generations standing on a sunny front lawn. She points them out to us: her daughter the peacemaker, her oldest son who respect his teachers, the list goes on. When she became religious, her relationship with her extended family was not quite as sunny. She describes tensions with her mother and brother, who initially felt uncomfortable with her new strict observances.
“[My mother said] ‘I wanted you to be Jewish, but not that Jewish,’ and she was really unhappy. There was a lot of tension. But my whole thing was ‘Ma, I love you no matter what. I’m not taking on being an ax murderer or bank robber. I’m doing what’s making me happy. Don’t you want me to be happy?’ And, actually, towards the end of her life, she let me know how much she appreciated me and where we’re going and my children and my grandchildren. She was very apologetic. I’ve had several instances since she passed away that let me know that she’s still with me, and understands what I’m doing because she’s ended up in the other world, the world of truth.”
Marcie clearly is happy in her faith, telling us about various Orthodox practices, her study of Hebrew, or her husband’s study of religious texts. Ultimately she recognizes that not all Jews feel the same way that she does, and she does not pretend to be ignorant of the fact that many non-Orthodox Jews often view Orthodox Jews in an unfavorable light. At one level, Orthodox Judaism is far from a universally accessible religion, marked by strict ancient laws and practices. However, at another level, Marcie’s faith centers around a basic belief in the importance of kindness and respect, a constant yearning to be a good person, to live a good life.
“[P]eople have prejudices, and I’m sure even the conservative synagogue looks at us and goes ‘Those people are religious wackos,' and that’s unfortunate. But I just know that when I do have interactions with anybody, Jew or non-Jew, and I behave in the right way, it’s called a Kiddush Hashem, then I am sanctifying G-d’s name as a representative of an Orthodox community. And I try my best to do that in any situation that I am in, because, first of all, I have no reason not to, and the way we look at it, another Jew is another Jew. It’s not like ‘Oh they’re not religious so they’re not as Jewish as me.’ No, that’s not the case. You’re as Jewish as I am Jewish. I think that Orthodox Judaism is the best-kept secret ever. When I became religious, it was like ‘How come nobody knows about this stuff?’ This is really unbelievably gorgeous, beautiful ideas that are really food for your thought. I think a lot of people are very lonely and very disconnected from other people, and Judaism is the connection, it’s the way... to find like-minded people that have similar values, whether you want to couch them in Judaism or not, whether the values of being mensch-like...to be kind to other people.” 1
*Many very observant Jews will not write "God," but instead will use "G-d" out of respect for a commandment that prohibits the disrespect or desecration of the name of God, fearing that the written word "God" may later be desecrated or defamed. Out of respect for this belief, all instances in which Marcie refers to God use the "G-d" spelling, throughout the remainder of this website, absent a few other quotes, we will use the full "God" spelling.
Murray, Marcie. "Interview with Marcie Murray." Interview by Maggie Goldberger and Maya Margolis. May 15, 2016. ↩