John Blumers is the Protestant father of two Jewish sons. He and his family reside in New Jersey.
Can It Be Done? New Book Shows How Intermarriage Can Work
Review of Inside Intermarriage by Jim Keen (URJ Press, New York, 2001).
According to its dust jacket, Jim Keen's new book, Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family, is "the first and only book on intermarriage written from a Christian father's perspective." Even if there were others, Keen's book would stand out as a singular contribution to the ongoing discourse on intermarriage.
Keen's new book is more than just another resource for the intermarried; it is a deeply personal and engaging narrative that traces Keen's own journey to parenthood in an interfaith family. As a college freshman, Keen struggled to make sense of the Yiddish and Hebrew words that his future wife Bonnie slipped into conversations. Today, despite being a committed Protestant, Keen finds great satisfaction and spiritual fulfillment in raising his two Jewish daughters.
In the first three parts of Inside Intermarriage, Keen recounts experiences and emotions from each phase of his interfaith marriage. He details how he and Bonnie met, their carefree period of dating, their decision to marry, and the process of deciding to raise their children Jewish. He tells of breaking this news to his parents and of dealing with the disapproval of certain members of Bonnie's family. In the chapters devoted to parenting, Keen shows us how a Christian parent can play an essential role in the religious lives of Jewish children.
Intermarriage presents challenges not faced by same-faith couples. Keen, however, proves that these challenges are by no means insurmountable. As Jim and Bonnie confront various issues throughout the course of the book, a pattern emerges. We see how they, as a couple, have learned to address issues by first identifying what is spiritually most important, then discussing workable approaches or compromises, and, finally, communicating their decisions to their daughters and extended family. Nowhere is this process more clearly demonstrated than in Part IV of Inside Intermarriage, a section devoted to Christian and Jewish holidays.
Take Christmas for example, a holiday that is important to Jim. Yes, there is a tree in the Keen household, and Jim's family even accompanies him to Christmas services. Through deliberate and careful communication, however, Keen's daughters understand that Christmas is "Daddy's holiday." Jim and Bonnie explained it to them as follows, "It's like going to someone else's birthday party. It's not your birthday that's being celebrated . . . But it doesn't mean you're not allowed to have fun, too." By dealing directly with such issues, Keen keeps the traditions he values without compromising his daughters' religious identity. As Bonnie's stepmother once observed, "One day out of the year isn't going to make or break their Jewish identity. It's how you raise your kids the other 364 days that counts."
Having made the decision to raise their children Jewish, Keen and his wife work hard to instill a Jewish identity in their daughters. Keen has taken courses in Judaism, sits beside his family in synagogue, drives his daughters to religious school, and joins them in a host of activities at the local Jewish Community Center. Keen writes:
Perhaps, as an interfaith family, we have an advantage because we know we have to make a conscious effort. Yes, [our daughters] learn a lot about my religion, but at the same time, we go to great lengths to teach them about Judaism. They know that even though their mother and I are of two different religions, they are not of both religions, and they seem comfortable with who they are.
So why not convert to Judaism? Keen admits that it might have been "convenient" to do so since he and his family could then all practice the same religion. Yet, says Keen, "convenience is not why people should convert. It has to feel truly right. I don't feel that I can leave my religion."
Keen's writing is personal, conversational, good-humored, and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. In the fifth and final part of his book, Keen shares his deepest feelings about intermarriage. Contrary to what some might expect, this is not a section about sacrifice or compromise. Rather, Keen writes enthusiastically about all that he has gained as the Christian father of Jewish children. He values all that he has learned about Judaism and Jewish culture. He cherishes the new and different perspectives he has gained by viewing the world "through Jewish eyes" and particularly his new appreciation of Jewish humor. Says Keen, "I'm a Christian who is fortunate enough to help raise a Jewish family. In my eyes, it's the best of both worlds."
Inside Intermarriage is ultimately a story of hope. Jim and Bonnie's story proves that a couple that is committed to each other and to open communication can gracefully overcome obstacles that might otherwise separate them. It is highly recommended reading for anyone whose life is touched, or is about to be touched, by intermarriage.