Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This colorful booklet will give all the basics about this holiday which combines elements of Halloween, Mardi Gras and the secular new year. It is a holiday not only for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun, but for adults too.
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
This is an interactive, fun, and low-key workshop for couples who are dating, engaged or recently married. The sessions will give you a chance to ask questions about faith, to think about where you are as an adult with your own spirituality and to talk through what's important to you and your partner.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
This piece is a heartfelt, fictionalized snapshot of one person’s experience. It is not meant to be a judgment about having a Christmas tree. I would love to read about other people’s experiences…
Sarah had only been to her dad’s house a couple of times since he married Joanne, and her heart raced as she rang the bell. Quincy’s barking calmed her some. She knew that dog loved her.
Joanne wasn’t home, but her presence filled the rooms. Sarah saw her in the framed family photos of strangers, and her dad. She saw her in the decorative plate collection framing the kitchen archway, and in the silver thimbles on tiny shelves in the dining room. And she was in the tree…
Sarah had always loved Christmas trees. She loved helping her friends decorate them, and she loved hearing stories about treasured ornaments. She loved the way they smelled and the way the lights looked in the dark. She loved the warm cozy feeling they evoked in Christmas movies, but this tree was different.
This tree kicked her in the heart. This tree was proof of just how far her dad had strayed from their family. She didn’t see the dad who wouldn’t let her quit Hebrew school in this house. She couldn’t find the dad who only let her date Jewish boys in this house. She couldn’t find the dad who had raised her in this house.
Sarah was surprised by the strength of her reaction. The tree brought tears to her eyes. She sat on the floor with Quincy, and buried her face for a lingering moment in his soft fur.
She wanted her dad to be happy, but she also wanted her dad’s house to feel like home. She knew it never would. She also knew that she would make her peace with it, but for now, it just felt like another loss.
Passover meant a big seder, with my grandfather chanting at the end of the table. My cousins and I would scramble around the house, hunting for the afikomen. Then my uncle would play the piano in the basement while we all sang. It was a wonderful holiday.
Passover also meant skipping my usual PB&J and taking buttered matzah to school, wrapped in aluminum foil. I remember how the butter would melt into shiny globules, and I’d rub them in with my finger. There was something nice about being “The Jewish Kid” in the class, with my special food. I loved the rituals. I liked the hyper-awareness of Passover, the symbolism of the seder plate. Mortar and tears—the sense that everything mattered.
And while we didn’t celebrate Easter religiously at our house, I did get a basket from my (Catholic) mom, filled with jellybeans and chocolate eggs. This was nice, too—that while I got to be “The Jewish Kid” I also didn’t feel totally left out of Easter. Sometimes there was a neighborhood parade and we made Easter hats from cardboard, glue and feathers.
Then came a year when the holidays overlapped. My parents were newly divorced, and not communicating well. My mom did her best with Passover. If memory serves, I took my matzah to school like usual. But then on Sunday morning… I got my Easter basket. Filled with bright jelly beans.
I tore into it, of course, mouth filled with sweetness, until I crunched through a blue candy shell into the crisp goodness of a malted robin’s egg. And suddenly, it hit me. Easter wasn’t Kosher for Passover! I spit the candy out into my hand, confused. What should I do?
For the next few days, my Easter basket sat on top of the fridge, waiting for me. I remember staring up at it, thinking about how it wasn’t fair, that nobody else I knew had to wait to eat her candy. But the truth was, my dad wasn’t there to enforce the rules anymore. It was all me. I had put the basket on top of the fridge, and I felt conflicted, but also firm in my resolve.
Years later, as an adult, the holidays overlapped again, and remembering the basket on the fridge, I did a funny thing. I assembled a Kosher-for-Passover Easter basket for myself. I did a good job, hunted down fruit-gels and made chocolate-covered matzah. The basket looked lovely.
But you know what? It was no good. It didn’t make me happy at all. Staring at that basket of fruit slices and jelly rings didn’t feel the same as waking up to an Easter basket. Not remotely. It felt… wrong.
I think sometimes, in the interfaith community, we seek to smooth the ruffled feelings, to reconcile all our conflicts and contradictions. We want to believe that we’re creating families in which everything can blend, fit and make sense. But here’s the thing—some things are distinct, even mutually exclusive. Some years, choosing to keep Kosher for Passover means not eating Easter candy. And that’s annoying, but also OK. Things don’t have to be easy to matter.
In a way, I feel like I undermined the essence of each holiday in that Eastover Basket I made. For me (and I can only speak for my own experience), Passover is about the restrictions, the rigor. Passover feels powerful because of its deprivation. And for me, Easter baskets are the opposite—about abundance, sheer pleasure.
This is fine! These two holidays don’t have to blend. Each holiday holds a special place in my memory. Easter and Passover can co-exist without merging. And you know what? The truth is that all the most meaningful experiences of my life have included conflict. Every deep relationship I’ve had has been imperfect, particular and occasionally inconvenient. Often, rituals matter most when we have to wait for them, or forego something else. Sometimes, conflict serves a purpose.
When I was a kid, I stared up at my Easter basket on the fridge and thought about both holidays. I owned them both and recognized that they both mattered to me. That year, for the first time, I truly decided to keep Kosher for Passover. It mattered more than it ever had before. And then a few days later, I decided to eat my robin’s eggs.
I know this will embarrass you (and definitely make you cry) because that’s who you are, but in the spirit of this month of Thanksgiving, I wanted to say thank you.
Thank you for…
…saying yes when I was 7 and came home from a visit to Hebrew School and declared that I wanted to go back and learn Hebrew. I often imagine what the conversation was like between you and Dad that evening, but you had the courage to let me follow my heart and we joined a synagogue so that I could. There’s no way you or anyone could have known the impact that decision would have on all of our lives. Since you were never really moved by your family’s Catholicism or any sense of religion, I bet it was scary and uncomfortable at first, but you put me first and have always encouraged me to follow my passions.
Jillian (left) with her mother and sister
…participating in my Jewish life, learning the prayers and the music the best you could, showing up for everything, being so proud of me at my bat mitzvah and then confirmation and encouraging me to make every Jewish choice I wanted. Not only did I want to learn Hebrew, but I also wanted to belong to a community and I wanted you and Dad and my sister, Evyn, to belong too. We were lucky to find a community that embraced us all, found committees for you to add your voice to, made sure you felt comfortable and allowed us to find meaning and make life long friends.
…influencing the person and the rabbi I am today. The odd rude person has asked me through the years if I ever was frustrated that you hadn’t converted or even that you weren’t Jewish. Once I got over my offense at the question, I always answered that so much of who I am is due to the person you are and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. When I became a rabbi, I made sure that your name was on my ordination certificate, transliterated into Hebrew because both you and Dad created me and saw me through those many years of study, struggle and triumph in order for me to reach that particular life long dream. You are the calm voice in my head, reminding me of what I can achieve, telling me sometimes to relax, urging me to stand up for myself, reminding me how proud I make you.
…enduring any ignorance that might have come your way: the people who didn’t understand how you could have a daughter who is a rabbi or those who simply didn’t include you, or even ignored you. You never let it bother you because you knew who you were and you showed me by your example how to be strong in a world where not everyone is accepting or kind.
Thank you for all the ways you choose love, by loving me, accepting me and always being my champion and my most fervent supporter (along with Dad, of course). I wouldn’t be who I am; wouldn’t be doing the work I love; couldn’t live the happy life I do—without your example of a strong woman, your humor, your quiet confidence, your effortless style and your soft heart. There will never be enough words to express how grateful I am for all that you are.
So thanks Mom, for being you.
P.S. Writing this made me cry—thanks for that too!
How do you #ChooseLove in your life? Check out our fun video and then share your #ChooseLove moment here.
The study reports that millennial children of intermarriage – born between 1981 and 1995 – are less likely than children of inmarriage to have had a range of Jewish experiences in childhood; as a result, they are less likely to engage in Jewish experiences (Birthright, Hillel, etc.) in college; and currently they are less likely to exhibit Jewish behaviors and attitudes as young adults.
The study reports that for the most part, the fact that their parents are intermarried does not have direct impact on their current behaviors and attitudes – but Jewish experiences in childhood do: If their parents expose them to Jewish experiences in childhood, then they are much more comparable to the children of intermarriage. This confirms previous research by Len Saxe that Jewish education, not parental intermarriage, is the key determinant of later Jewish engagement. It’s something we’ve also been saying for years in response to the studies that have found low Jewish engagement among interfaith families; if Jewishly-engaged interfaith families weren’t lumped in with all interfaith families, but evaluated separately, they would look much more like inmarried families, which makes the important policy question how to get interfaith families Jewishly engaged.
The main focus of the study is to show the positive impact of participation in Jewish activities in college on children of intermarriage. Indeed, college Jewish experiences “for the most part were more influential for children of intermarriage, nearly closing the gap on many measures of Jewish engagement.” We wholeheartedly support efforts to increase participation in Birthright, Hillel and other Jewish groups and experiences for children of intermarriage in college. This appears to be the trend. Since 1999, 300,000 North American young adults have gone on Birthright trips, of whom 75,000 are children of intermarriage; the percentage has increased from 20% in the early years to over 30% recently. Children of intermarriage are still underrepresented — half of all Millennial Jews are children of intermarriage, partly as a result of the high rate at which millennial children of intermarriage identify as Jewish. We’d like to see many more of them participate.
Some of the interesting statistical comparisons from the study are:
When asked what their parents told them about their religious identity, 41% said they were told they were Jewish only; 17% were told both; 18% were told it was their choice; 18% were not raised in any religion; 5% were raised in the other religion.
44% of children of intermarriage had formal Jewish education, compared to 86% of children on inmarriage
39% had a bar or bat mitzvah, compared to 84% of children of inmarriage, while 14% had Christian milestones
89% celebrated Hanukkah, compared to 97%; 62% had a seder, compared to 86%; 25% went to Jewish religious services monthly, compared to 45%; 15% to 18% had a Shabbat meal or lit candles, compared to 42% to 46%
86% celebrated Christmas with a meal or decorations, compared to 18%; 54% attended Christian religious services at least a few times a year, compared to 11%; 47% had a special Easter meal or observed Lent, compared to 6%.
The study includes important observations about the Christian experiences of children of intermarriage. The main point made is that Christian experiences in childhood were not indicators of participation in Jewish college activities. With respect to celebrating Christmas or Easter, “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage” – another point we have been making for over the years with our annual December Holidays and Passover/Easter surveys. They recall holiday celebrations as “desacralized” – family events without religious content, special as occasions for the gathering of extended family. “Some indicated that celebration of major Christian holidays felt much more like an American tradition than tied to religion.”
Another important observation concerns how children of intermarriage react when their Jewish identify and authenticity is questioned. The study reports that children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish reject the idea that their Jewish identity is diluted or inferior and view their multicultural background as enriching, enabling an appreciation of diverse cultures and practices. “In interviews, children of intermarriage described being offended by reference to matrilineal heritage as necessary for Jewish identity. In many cases it was peers with two Jewish parents who challenged them. Even some with a Jewish mother reacted to this as an exclusionary boundary that has little to do with their experience of Jewish identity and living.” Interestingly, 40% of children of inmarriage described themselves as multicultural, compared to 52% of children of intermarriage.
Still another important observation is that for children of intermarriage, being very close to Jewish grandparents had a positive impact on many Jewish attitudes and behaviors in young adulthood. However, children of intermarriage by definition can have only one set of Jewish grandparents and as a result were less likely to have had a close relationship to Jewish grandparents; this was especially the case where their father was Jewish.
Finally, the study reports that Jewish experiences in childhood matter a great deal, and college experiences, especially Birthright, have a large impact on thinking it is important to raise children as Jews. In interviews, few children of intermarriage seemed to view being Jewish as a critical characteristic for their future spouse; the see themselves as proof that inmarriage is not a necessary ingredient for having a Jewish home or raising children as Jews. Many expressed a commitment to raising future children Jewish, or in some instance with exposure to Jewish traditions, regardless of whether they married someone who is Jewish. They often discussed the importance of giving children multicultural experiences and to sharing in cultural/religious tradition of their spouse.
The study includes a set of policy implications that for the most part emphasize the importance of increasing the exposure of children of intermarriage to Jewish college experiences. They also note that Jewish grandparents should be viewed as a critical resource, and programs should be designed to leverage their influence; that attention should be paid to providing alternative forms of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah; and that initiatives should reflect the sensibilities of contemporary children of intermarriage who view their mixed heritage as an asset and react negatively to ethnocentrism. “Jewish organizations can continue to adopt different approaches on patrilineality, but all Jewish organizations can encourage awareness of the strong feelings of Jewish identity and authenticity felt by many individuals who claim Jewish status by paternity alone.” We agree completely with all of these suggestions.
We believe that one key policy implication of the study fully supports InterfaithFamily’s work in particular with our InterfaithFamily/Your Community model providing services and programs in local communities. The study stresses that “reaching more intermarried families with formal and informal educational opportunities for their children should be a priority. Such experiences launch children on a pathway to Jewish involvement in college and beyond.” Our services and programs are designed to foster a process starting with helping couples find Jewish clergy officiants for their life cycle events, offering workshops for new couples and new parents on how to make decisions about religious traditions and then offering educational programs for parents on raising young children with Judaism in interfaith families, among other things. While this is happening, the Directors of the InterfaithFamily/Your Community projects, who are rabbis, are building relationships with couples and recommending that they get involved with synagogues and other Jewish groups. If this process works — and our efforts at program evaluation are starting to show that it does — by the time the children of interfaith families are ready for formal and informal education, their parents will be much more likely to choose Jewish education for them.
For reasons not clear to us, the study questions whether it is possible to dramatically alter the status quo regarding the childhood religious socialization of children of intermarriage. At InterfaithFamily, we are committed to working toward that end.
In Marc Maron’s recent podcast “WTF,” he interviews Jason Segel (of How I Met Your Mother fame) at length and touches on his interfaith upbringing early on. (The interview itself begins at 14 minutes in, and the conversation turns to religion at about 15 ½ minutes.)
Segel’s father is Christian and his mother is Jewish, and he tells Maron, “Neither of them are religious. So they made this decision that they were going to let me decide, which is like the dumbest thing you can do for a kid. Because you don’t really care [at that age].”
He goes on to say, “At Christian school you’re the Jewish kid and at Hebrew school you’re the Christian kid. I think that’s the nature of groups.”
It’s not surprising that Haaretz picked up on the message that being a “half-Jew” (their words, not ours—we do not promote this term) equaled “outsider” for Segel. Being brought up with two religions does not work for everyone, and perhaps having parents who Segel did not consider religious themselves, he didn’t have the necessary context for religion at home that is necessary to form a religious identity.
Susan Katz Miller takes issue with Haartez’s framing of the interview: “Clearly, by leading with this idea [of interfaith equals outsider], the intent was to use Segel’s story as a cautionary tale, warning parents away from dual-faith education, or from interfaith marriage in general.”
The argument that raising children in an interfaith family can lead to them not identifying as Jewish is nothing new. And Katz Miller makes some good points in response to this assertion, including:
“Yes, it is essential for interfaith children to have support for integrating two (or more) cultures in their families, rather than bouncing back and forth between two separate religious worlds.”
Katz Miller touches on the danger in simply being dropped into two different religious institutions without enough context at home or awareness within the religious institutions themselves about interfaith families. We don’t know exactly what Segel’s religious life was like at home, but it sounds like there might not have been much reinforcement of what he was learning outside the home. At InterfaithFamily, we try to educate parents and offer many ways to boost their knowledge of Judaism and how to do Jewish at home, so that a child has a framework for what they are learning and why it’s important to their family. And we work to help Jewish organizations create a welcoming environment where kids will feel they belong–regardless of their background.
Being raised interfaith (as I was, truly, with both Jewish and Catholic traditions and holidays) and observing two religions will inevitably lead to some confrontation with others. For me, the first time this happened was in elementary school, at the lunch table.
For some reason, the kids that I have seen talk about religion other than around holidays or in passing have been Jews. For better or worse, I have noticed that there can be an air of exclusivity amongst some Jewish people—even in young children. Surely this exclusivity can be part of the reason that the Jewish people remain alive and well as a culture and religion, but it can also be to our detriment.
As I sat across from a kid who seemed to be the elementary school dictionary of all things Jewish, it appeared the attention at the table was all his. I don’t remember how it all came up and I don’t know how it came back around to me but all of the sudden he called me in for questioning: “Is your mom or your dad Jewish?” he asked with his head cocked to the side, and a bit of a bobble to it. I answered him, and finished with, “But I am half-Jewish.” He looked smug. “That means that you’re Jewish. You can’t be both.” He said this with a professorial smirk.
I know he sounds a little devilish for an elementary school kid, but he was just proud of where he came from and of the knowledge he had acquired. If it helps to imagine him spewing crumbs of a peanut butter sandwich out of his mouth as he talks, then I recommend that you do that. I always do, and it helps diffuse the bits of white hot childhood rage that I still have left from the incident.
No matter how hard I tried to convince him of my dual faith identity he just came back with smart remarks. The whole table was on his side, and now they were laying into me too. Even the Rice Krispy treat that my mom packed me that day wasn’t going to cheer me up after that.
When I came home from school that day it turned out my parents had the same reaction I did. “How dare that child tell my child who he is or isn’t.” They essentially told me to not engage with him anymore. So I did exactly that, and he and I never really had any problems after that. The four other lunch tables were more than welcoming. To this day, he is still the same little know-it-all that I remember, and we are able to respectfully disagree without any mention of the old incident. In fact, I should thank him. This first confrontation prepared me for the many more to come in my life.
A message to parents who plan on raising their kids in more than one religion: Your child will not come out of this situation unscathed. But the emotional scars that come from it will heal and lead to a strong sense in character and identity. Without this instance and a handful of others, who knows where my tolerance level would be for people who don’t accept my Judaism. Not to mention, there are beautiful things that can come from being interfaith.
A new college student just began his summer internship at InterfaithFamily/Chicago. Curious what he’ll be writing about? I’m here to introduce you to the blogging that you’ll see from him this summer.
“OMG there is a new intern at InterfaithFamily. I wonder what he’s like…”
That’s right, and my name is Jake Weis. I am an incoming junior at the University of Iowa and I am also a resident of Deerfield, IL. My two majors are English and Communication Studies and I was raised in an interfaith family. I hope to bring my unique religious experience and my (green) skills as a writer together in order to provide helpful insight, information and advice on all things InterfaithFamily related.
“Does this mean every blog from here on out is going to be written by some kid?”
I wish I could write them all, but you probably don’t. Expect to see other authors writing on a variety of topics just as before. I will mainly be writing about the experience of growing up in an interfaith family.
“I don’t even know this person. Why would I listen to the intern when I could hear it from the Rabbi? Millennials these days!”
I was too busy snapchatting and texting to read the whole question but I think you asked if you could get to know me. I am 20 years old, soon to be 21. (Is Manischewitz good by the way?) My older sister’s name is Sarah and she is 26. My older brother’s name is Ben, and he is 23. I have two loving parents by the names of Hope and Dan. One of them is Jewish. The other is Catholic.
“Which one is Jewish?”
Thanks for asking. Sorry everyone, but I don’t feel too comfortable answering such a loaded question. If my mother is Jewish then some Jewish readers will consider me a true Jew. But if my mother is Catholic, then I am not a true Jew to some people who do not accept patrilineal descent. I will tell you this much though, both religions claim me as part of their group in many cases, and both shun me in many other cases.
“OK sassypants, what else can we expect from you?”
Whatever my bosses tell me to write about I will write about. I am not a good liar so expect the wholehearted truth in everything I write. If you disagree with what I write feel free to comment, but remember to be nice. Think of what I say as more of a suggestion and if you don’t like it, toss it. But don’t hurt my feelings: You wouldn’t want to make the new intern cry on his first day, would you?
The United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Conservative movement’s youth group, recently re-evaluated the rules for its national and regional teen board members on dating. We shared the JTA story, and realized immediately that you, our readers, were interested in this news. From the number of clicks on Facebook to the comments you shared in favor of this decision, it’s clear this is a story that matters to you.
Why? I think a lot of us were unaware that USY prohibited its teen board members from dating outside the faith in the first place and found this news a little shocking. And the fact that the Conservative movement is supporting the dropping of this policy for its youth—the future of Judaism—is also a bold statement. In the JTA article, Rabbi David Levy, the professional director of USY and director of teen learning at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, explains that the original USY “constitution” was written by teens themselves and “it always has been their prerogative to change them.”
But the recent decision these teens made has been backed by the Conservative movement. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the USCJ said “…we can’t put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith. If they do, we must welcome them wholeheartedly and encourage them to embrace Judaism.”
Rabbi Levy is also quoted in the article as saying, “While we maintain the value that dating within the faith is key to a sustainable Jewish future, we want to be positive and welcoming to USYers, many of whom are from interfaith families.”
I commend the teens of USY and the USCJ for this decision, and I hope it leads to a more welcoming space for their members and potential members. I’d like to know what you think—please sound off below.
Family tradition: Jillian (top) with her sister and mother on her grandfather's boat in Ipswich, MA after clamming, circa 1992
“Mom, Dad, I want to go to Hebrew School.” This was the simple phrase of 7-year-old me that changed the course of my life and the religious life of my family.
When I was in second grade my best friend, Julie invited me to come with her to Hebrew School after school one day. Being the kind of kid who loved school and learning, it didn’t take much convincing and a week or so later, I sat with Julie in her Hebrew School classroom, totally enthralled. When I came home that evening and announced to my parents with the innocent certainty belonging only to 7-year-olds that I wanted to continue attending Hebrew School, I can only imagine the sort of parental conversation that ensued after I went to sleep that evening.
You see, my mother was raised Catholic on the North Shore of Massachusetts and my father was raised a conservative Jew in New Jersey, although neither had much affinity for any sort of religion. They met at Northeastern University in the late 60s. They were hippies, they attended anti-war rallies and Woodstock and were married in a hotel in Boston by a justice of the peace. They didn’t give much or any thought to religion even after I was born ten years later.
When I was growing up, we celebrated a variety of holidays in very secular ways; cultural celebrations marked by food or family gatherings. I don’t remember really talking about religion at all until I decided that I wanted to attend Hebrew School and my parents had to make decisions that they perhaps did not want to make. Once I began Hebrew school and we had to join a synagogue, my whole family was welcomed into a warm and friendly community. Both of my parents served on various committees and my sister and I attended religious school and participated in youth group through the end of high school.
Jillian (second from right) with her sister, mother and father at her ordination from HUC-JIR Rabbinical School in 2012
While I didn’t really understand it at the time, I know now how amazing my parents are to have allowed and encouraged me to follow my Jewish path, despite their own personal reservations. Perhaps it should have been no surprise to them or me, after essentially choosing Judaism for my whole family, that I would choose Judaism over and over again and choose to make Judaism my life’s work by becoming a rabbi.
And now I find myself happily in my mom’s home state, as the new Director of InterfaithFamily/Boston, hoping to meet all kinds of people and families as you navigate your religious life and look to find ways to connect.
My story may be unique, but then, so is yours and I look forward to hearing all of them (contact me at email@example.com). I truly believe that the great strength of Judaism is its continued evolution and the growing diversity of our population will only add to the color, richness and relevance of Judaism for generations to come.
Where are you from? It seems an innocent enough question. But as our families become more and more diverse, the answer can get wonderfully complicated. Recently at a “Saturdays Unplugged” event at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, I asked attendees about their ancestry and invited them to place pins in a world map marking their families’ journeys.
The map shows that a sampling of Jewish San Francisco families come from Argentina, Cyprus, Lithuania and China to name a few countries of origin. As kids turned to their parents and grandparents asking, “Where am I from?” I started to think about how complicated this question is.
So I asked one of my own kids: “Do you know where you’re from?” He started breaking it down into “sides” immediately. “Mama, your side is from Poland and Russia, right? Mommy’s side is from Germany, Scotland, Finland…” I was glad he added her ancestry without hesitation even though I gave birth to him and he isn’t biologically related to her. Clearly, where someone is from is not as easy as a DNA test. As he continued rattling off the countries where he felt he had a connection, I realized that I also hoped he would list his sperm donor’s ancestry. After all, he wouldn’t be here without him. So we added those to the mix. This child who was birthed by me, an American Jew with only Eastern European ancestry, can now identify himself with a good portion of Europe.
What about my other child? He was birthed by my partner, a mix of Northern European ancestry who converted to Judaism long before his birth. Along with those regions of the world, does this little boy also claim an Ashkenazi heritage? He certainly claims a Jewish one and our Jewish practice is largely Ashkenazi…but is he “from” Eastern Europe as my ancestors were?
Jews have long disagreed about what exactly Judaism is: a matter of biology, peoplehood, civilization, religion or ethnicity. Even early on in Jewish history, there were at least two strands of thought: Being Jewish was in some instances about claiming a certain lineage, and at other times about observance of a spiritual tradition. The first line of reasoning made it very difficult to join, for example, while the latter made it much easier to choose to identify as a Jew even if one wasn’t born one.
One scholar notes that tension ensued due to these “two distinct definitional standards…the religious and the ethnic.” [Porton, Gary. The Stranger Within Your Gates] We still struggle with those definitions, but today, with more and more conversion, intermarriage, adoption, donor insemination and surrogacy, we are moving away from a genetic definition (in my eyes a welcome shift) to a Judaism defined more as an affinity with a unique worldview. A lineup of kids at a typical Bay Area synagogue classroom is quite different than it would have looked 40 years ago when I was a kid.
A few years back, I worked with college students to create a photo exhibit of their peers who claim multiple ancestries. It was called, “Jews Untitled” and they challenged visitors to the exhibit to rethink the way they defined “Jewish” and allowed Jews to create their own self definitions. With the diversification of Jewish families, we asked one another how we can best teach children about their mix of rich backgrounds. How can we help Jews claim and take pride in their multitude of heritages? And how can we make sure that the entire Jewish community is engaging in this conversation as well?
I imagine us having an infinite capacity to claim a variety of stories as our own. I was recently at an author event for the book Just Parentingabout creative family making. One participant with an adopted child told the group that she tossed out a baby book she had been given because on the first page there was a picture of a family tree to fill in. She was so overwhelmed by the challenge of fitting her child’s family story into a neatly defined map with two “sides” that she decided it needed to go.
For many of us, two “sides” doesn’t tell the full story of our origins and our affiliations. An Ashkenazi Jewish friend of mine adopted a child from China with her Filipino husband. The child says of herself at age 7, “I’m half Chinese, half Filipino, half American, and half Jewish.” She has four sides! But, really, who doesn’t? We all have more complicated stories than “two sides” allows. She’s a model of how we can comfortably hold many identities within us.