Jil­lian Can­tor is the author of award-win­ning nov­els for teens and adults includ­ing, The Sep­tem­ber Sis­ters, The Life of Glass, and The Trans­for­ma­tion of Things. Her lat­est nov­el for adults is Mar­got (River­head Books), a reimag­in­ing of Anne Frank’s sis­ter in post-war Amer­i­ca. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

My grand­fa­ther was a Kohen, which I’ve learned (thanks to Google) means he was a Jew­ish priest, a descen­dant of Aaron. I nev­er real­ly knew what he meant when he told me this (repeat­ed­ly), when he was alive, only that he had been raised deeply reli­gious. But as an adult, as my grand­fa­ther, he was more of a cul­tur­al Jew. And this was how I was raised, fil­tered down even one more gen­er­a­tion. As a child, I didn’t attend Hebrew School (though one year I begged my par­ents to send me, just so I’d have some­thing to keep up with all my Catholic friends who reg­u­lar­ly attend­ed CCD). We nev­er went to syn­a­gogue. We’d go to Passover and Rosh Hashanah din­ner at my par­ents’ friends’ house each year (the only oth­er Jew­ish peo­ple we knew who lived near­by), though I can’t remem­ber my par­ents ever cook­ing their own hol­i­day din­ners. We cel­e­brat­ed Hanukkah instead of Christ­mas, of course, but my sis­ter and I only sang The Drei­del Song” as we lit the menorah. 

My grand­par­ents lived six hours away when I was grow­ing up, and we only saw them a few times a year, but when­ev­er we did, it was my grand­fa­ther who would remind us about being Jew­ish. As a kid I’d roll my eyes when he’d tell me that I’d care more about my reli­gion when I grew up, when I had kids of my own. I couldn’t under­stand what he meant. His ver­sion of reli­gion, by that point, was social­iz­ing at the JCC and read­ing The Jew­ish Chron­i­cle. He also was fond of call­ing all us Bubbe­lah in pub­lic – an end­less embar­rass­ment to all the cousins in our teenage years. 

My grand­fa­ther died almost five years ago, so he nev­er got to see what hap­pened when my chil­dren got old enough to talk, to start ask­ing me ques­tions. (Why doesn’t San­ta Claus come to our house? My youngest son swore it was because our house didn’t have a chim­ney…). It was around this time that I start­ed to under­stand what he meant, about reli­gion feel­ing more impor­tant to me when I got old­er and had kids of my own. I didn’t sud­den­ly start attend­ing syn­a­gogue or learn­ing Hebrew, but I did sud­den­ly feel the need to teach my chil­dren about where they came from. I read them books about the Jew­ish hol­i­days and cooked din­ners for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I bought a children’s ver­sion of the Hag­gadah so my old­est son could read from it at age four, when he was a bud­ding read­er, and I helped my youngest son mem­o­rize the four ques­tions to recite. My hus­band, who is also Jew­ish and was raised more reli­gious than I was, taught all of us the Hebrew prayer to say when we light the meno­rah, which we now sing in addi­tion to The Drei­del Song.” 

When I was writ­ing Mar­got, I did a lot of research about the Holo­caust and the Frank fam­i­ly. But some of what I had to learn had to do with aspects of being Jew­ish that I nev­er real­ly learned grow­ing up. At times I felt a lit­tle bit like an imposter, won­der­ing if I real­ly had it in me to write about being Jew­ish, when I was still fig­ur­ing so much out for myself. But as I researched and wrote, I couldn’t help but think about my grand­fa­ther. If he were still here now, I can just pic­ture him say­ing, I told you so, Bubbe­lah.

Read more about Jil­lian Can­tor here.

Jil­lian Can­tor has a BA in Eng­lish from Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty and an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona. She is the author of award-win­ning nov­els for teens and adults, includ­ing, most recent­ly, the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed The Lost Let­ter, The Hours Count, and Mar­got. Born and raised in a sub­urb of Philadel­phia, Can­tor cur­rent­ly lives in Ari­zona with her hus­band and two sons.