If there is but one lesson to be learned from Mimi Lemay’s courageous book, What We Will Become, it is to listen to our children. Not merely to listen but to hear them, to clear away our preconceptions, and see the world through a child’s eyes.
Named Em at birth, Lemay’s middle child resolutely declared himself a boy from age two. This book chronicles Lemay’s family’s journey as their household evolved and adapted; it is the unsparing story of losing a daughter and gaining a son, Jacob.
The book is the story of three generations; in addition to her son’s journey, Lemay chronicles the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and her own experiences of being raised by an ultra-Orthodox mother. The three strands of the story come together in the closing chapters of the memoir.
Growing up, Lemay was independent and unafraid — within the strictures of ultra-Orthodoxy — to challenge religious authority when she felt intellectually stymied. While studying at a prestigious seminary in England, Lemay discovered a library of literature and philosophy. In order to study there, she needed the permission of her educational institution. Her head of school was staunchly opposed to secular learning; still, Lemay made her case to him and ultimately gained access. This led to her decision to attend college.
During those years Lemay broke through the constraints of her Orthodoxy, first by dispensing with her former dress code and then by foregoing the customs of eating kosher. While these acts are presented as spontaneous, one can glean that her years of questioning authority, of feeling psychologically and intellectually constrained, led to the moment when she could claim her right to make her own choices, including marrying a non-Jewish person.
Em’s rebirth as Jacob is given full context by Lemay’s exploration of three generations of seekers. Lemay’s mother’s conversion to Orthodoxy is just as intriguing as the author’s decision to leave it. Lemay’s brother forged a path from pious yeshiva student to beloved secular uncle. In accepting Jacob for who he was, the author’s nuclear family moved through emotional turmoil to peace and understanding, grounded on their solid foundation of love. More than anything else, this is the story of how one boy persisted with the language and tools of a child to convince the adults around him that the identity he proclaimed was rightfully his.
Rabbi Reba Carmel is a freelance writer and interfaith facilitator.