When blood is thicker than faith

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Six years ago, I carried my brother on my shoulders at his Orthodox Jewish wedding celebration in Jerusalem, as dozens of men with long beards wearing white shirts and black suits spun in giant circles to spiraling music.

My brother is a self-described "Orthodox Jew with Hasidic tendencies" living a 2,000-year-old lifestyle of study and worship. As we danced, his bride celebrated in an adjacent room with other women. "Do you really accept me?" my brother shrieked from atop my shoulders. "Bro," I yelled back over the blare, "if you're happy, I'm happy."

But the feelings haven't always been mutual. Seven years before his wedding, my wife and I brought our then 3-year-old daughter to Jerusalem for Hanukkah. When I needed to get something in our hotel room from the lobby, my brother said, "Take either the stairs or the Kosher elevator." "The what?" I asked. "It stops at every floor," he explained. "It's been blessed by a rabbi. When you're with me on Shabbat, you must."

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I walked up nine flights. Trouble was brewing. Later that night, while my daughter ran around our room singing, "I have a little dreidel!" my brother said to me, "She's not Jewish."

He was referring to my wife's conversion. My brother wanted my wife to take a mikvah, a ritual bath used for immersion in a purification ceremony. "The hell if I will," my wife said. She was pregnant with our son. As my brother stared at her pregnant womb, I knew what he was thinking. Late that night near the Wailing Wall, eerily lit with men davening, moving rhythmically back and forth while in deep prayer, my brother said curtly, "Don't you realize you're breaking our family's Judaism?! It ends with you!"

We agreed to disagree.

This summer, 13 years later, my brother was absent from my son's bar mitzvah. I'd pushed his absence from my mind as I watched my son at the bema, standing beside the rabbi at the ceremonial platform. His voice was melodic. His poise made me proud.

For three years, my family has been living in Rome (ironic that I live in the world capital of Catholicism), and my son learned Hebrew in Italian.

My son's speech was about religious tolerance. As I listened, I felt emotions I didn't know I had. I flashed to events of his life compressed into minutes.

Only two members of my wife's family attended. We asked both to participate in the service. When my wife's cousin, an Episcopal minister from North Carolina, began to read with deep feeling, the room went silent.

After the ceremony my wife asked me, "Don't you think it's pathetic that my cousins participated, and your brother couldn't even send a note?"

I'd had it with the double standard. My brother could congratulate us or I wouldn't talk with him. It was a silent standoff. I stewed.

A week later, I realized I hadn't really listened to my son's bar mitzvah speech. He'd said, "You can't change people's beliefs to match your own."

I lifted the phone to call my brother. I had no intent of changing his mind. I just wanted to hear his voice. Almost simultaneously, we both said the same thing: "You're still my brother. And I love you."

James D. Barron is the author of "She's Having a Baby – and I'm Having a Nervous Breakdown," and is currently writing his fourth book. He lives in Rome with his wife and their two children.

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