Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.
Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today. You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.” You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family. Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.” Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal. And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.
I find this text to be symbolic. It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful way. For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred. Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way. The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.” What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us. It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community. And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us! The point is that we each actively have to make the choice. Making this choice is a big deal.
The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children. The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us. Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.” I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE! What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?
I’ve thought about this question from a very young age. I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian. My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs. What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.
I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals. A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles. In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’ My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.” She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.
All of these practices brought me joy. I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not. I also liked to fit in among my classmates. And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”
Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school. A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH! Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices. With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations. They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about. I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.
I began to explore my own identity.
“Who am I really and what is important to me?”
And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.
“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”
“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”
And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…
“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”
“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”
“Can we go to services?”
“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”
And then things like…
“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”
“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”
“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”
“Can I become
“Can I study with the rabbi more?”
And so I did – all of these things. My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple. And there we built our own sense of Jewish community. And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah. And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.
These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore. Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made. But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME. These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice. And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.
Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people. We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week. We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music. We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world. Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need. We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest. We could share our own family’s history. We could question and explore our faith. If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.
I recently had the honor of working with an interfaith family as their son, Jonah, prepared for his
The ceremony began with his grandfather putting a tallit (a prayer shawl) on Jonah’s shoulders. His grandfather explained to him that this tallit had been bought in Israel by his great grandfather. This tallit had been worn by Jonah’s grandfather and father. Now Jonah, as a Bar Mitzvah, wore the tallit with pride. His grandfather said that his hope is that Jonah would give the tallit to his son one day. Continuity.
Here is what Jonah had to say:
This is my Bar Mitzvah because it is the first time that I will have the opportunity to read aloud from the Torah. To do this, I had to learn to read Hebrew and even harder, learn to read without vowels and with the fancy Torah script. This took much time to study and practice. To me learning about my Jewish heritage is very important because it shows the other side of my religion that has not been so clear to me. Since I’m neither fully Jewish nor a full catholic, I declare myself a “cashew.” No, I’m not the nut cashew but the cashew that means I have grasped both of my religions and wish to continue both of them in the future. This is very important to me.
My Torah portion is from the book of Deuteronomy. It is part of the Torah that is also read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the calendar, because this narrative is so powerful. It is about God saying to the people to never give up. Even if it is so far out of your reach you must never give up because one day you will reach it. Also, I will be reading a part of the book of Jonah, not me, the prophet. It is traditional on Shabbat morning to read from the Torah and from the Prophets. I picked Jonah for obvious reasons. He has a cool name! What I learned from the story of Jonah is to trust God no matter what the circumstances. For example, Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but chose to go somewhere else because Nineveh is so outrageously uncivilized. Jonah was then swallowed by a whale and then spit out after three days of prayer and regretting his decision to disobey God. He was spat out onto the land of Nineveh where he brought forth God’s warning to change or bare the wrath of annihilation. Jonah waited patiently for the annihilation of the people but it never came. The moral is that you should never lose trust in God and that God has forgiveness and caring.”
There is a debate in the Jewish world about whether families who want both religions in their lives can find a place within the organized community for learning and fellowship. I hope that by sharing this experience of a family who has sought out Jewish learning and living in real and meaningful ways, can help us think about how we might be able to open our gates a little more.
I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. May this be a year of getting to know the individuals who call us for information, or stop in for programming. It is through hearing each other’s stories and intentions, struggles, questions and yearnings that assumptions can be dropped and judgment held so that sharing can ensue.
This year my parents hosted their 44th annual Passover seder. I’m not old enough to have been to them all, but the only year I didn’t attend was when I was living in Israel. Thus, for me, this is how Passover seder is “done.” It’s the seder that I grew up with. I distinctly remember the first time I went to a different seder and realized that there are other ways of observing this Jewish tradition.
Many years ago my family started holding our seder on the Saturday night during Passover. Although not always the traditional first or even second night seder, it is ours. This year our seder took place on the sixth night. By bringing family together on the weekend, we are able to max-out the dining room that each year stretches into the living room, setting places for 29 people (not including Elijah). The Haggadah was the same as it always is with the additions over the years for Miriam’s Cup, a contemporary Dayeinu, and some other assorted embellishments.
However this year was different from other years because my niece (the only of her generation) is nearly 21 months old and now able to interact with all of us. Upon her birth, I enrolled my niece in PJ Library — an amazing program that sends a free Jewish book to children every month. My sister-in-law brought the most recent edition, and a current favorite, Company’s Coming: A Passover Lift-the-Flap Book.
What’s special about this book? The flaps make reading fun. The message is straight-forward. It walks the young reader through the elements of preparing for Passover, setting the table, and the items on the seder plate. Since we were setting the table while my mom read to her, it was fitting to show the actual items as they appeared in the book. We made reading come alive even more than the lift-the-flaps.
My favorite part was how she embraced the kippah. She put it on my dad’s head. She put it on her own head. She even put it on the dog’s head! Bless her heart; the dog was so patient, never moving while this adorable little girl dressed up for the seder. (Need proof? Check out the adorably cute photos below!)
If you have (or know) a little one, consider signing up for PJ Library. You may not love every book as much as my family loves this one, but I’m sure you’ll find a gem of your own. In the Bay Area, sign up online or visit their site to find the PJ Library nearest you.
If you don’t receive our bi-weekly eNewsletter, you may not know that we’re looking ahead to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) in the spring. The last two editions asked for folks who are descendant of Holocaust survivors and have relatives who intermarried. If you are, we’d love to hear your stories — contact Benjamin!
My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor from Germany. My grandmother was raised Mormon in Utah. How they met, fell in love, and eventually married is a story for another time. For now I want to fast forward to the dinner table at my parents’ home last week.
A Holocaust educator, my mother often writes about the Holocaust, modern Germany, and her own life experiences in Indianapolis’ National Jewish Post and Opinion. I thought she would jump at the chance to share one more layer of her story. When I broached the subject with her, her response was (with what sounded like a tone of offense) “I don’t consider myself to have been raised in an interfaith family.” I was surprised that she sounded so offended.
Earlier this week I was in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to visit with my mom’s older sister. I met her at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, where she volunteers twice a month. I perused the museum as she finished her shift and then we went to dinner. Usually we see each other at a family reunion or life cycle event. Finding time for a 1:1 conversation in these settings is next to impossible; this was the first time we had a chance to speak as adults.
I told my aunt about the note in our eNewsletter and she said she’d be interested in writing. I then told her my mom’s response and she replied, “Of course we were an interfaith family!” I was shocked! One sibling considers her family to be interfaith while the other doesn’t.
To break the tie, I emailed my uncle. He responded,”Well, the short answer is that ‘Of course we were an interfaith family.’ Not only did we visit cousins in Utah who were still Mormon (even if not fervent in their practice), but my mother frequently invited the Mormon missionaries, who were working in our home town, over for dinner. I even went to Europe one summer with a group that was mostly Mormon. My mother somehow hooked us up with this group and she served as one of the chaperones. Imagine going to the Moulin Rouge at the age of 15 and sitting at a table with your mother!” (Or, for that matter with a group of Mormon missionaries!)
He continues, “I think I know more about the Mormon religion than most other Christian religions… My Mom was very involved with the Jewish organizations, and we observed all the holidays. I have a theory that when it comes to religion, when people of different faiths marry, those with strong backgrounds tend to find one another, more so than people of the same religion who came from opposite ends of the observance spectrum.”
My grandparents made a lot of great decisions about how they would raise their children, weighing both how much German and Jewish influence, as well as how much American and Mormon influence, would permeate their household. In the end, they raised three fantastic children. I suppose my take-away is that parents have a lot of power. They nurture each child. But eventually it’s the children who decide who they are, how they identify, and what role religion (which religion) has in their lives. How you define yourself is ultimately up to you.
Yesterday my 8-year-old son came home and told my husband a troubling story about a comment another child made to him at his after school program.
Apparently, during a conversation with some other children, my son mentioned that he was Jewish. This other child said “Yeah, well, Jewish people are weird.” At this point in hearing the story, I think I began holding my breath. My initial reaction was, “Oh no, I’m not prepared to deal with this yet! What do I say? How do I help him deal with this?” Panic set in. I asked my husband what he had said to our son when he told him. My husband’s response was to acknowledge that the other child was ignorant and probably didn’t know any other Jewish people — and left it at that.
This morning I asked my son about the comment and how he reacted. He said he told the kid, “DUDE, that’s not nice! Saying that hurts my feelings.” WHOO HOO! I was so proud of him for standing up for himself and told him so. Then he told me he didn’t understand why the other child had said this. “Aren’t Jews exactly the same as Christians?”
Ignorance is a hard concept to explain to an 8-year-old. We talked a bit more about how there are people out there who sometimes don’t like you because you believe something different than they do. You should listen to what they have to say and, if it’s said because they don’t know any better, then you have to stand up for your beliefs like he did with this child.
If anyone has had any similar experiences, or has any advice on how to talk to children about these issues, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’m just proud of my son for standing up for himself!
I recently attended the symposium called “Interfaith Rollercoaster: Navigating the Challenges, Enjoying the Ride,” sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, PA and their Interfaith Relationship Dialogue. It was a great opportunity for sharing ideas and solutions for couples and families in our communities.
I attended the workshop “Out of the Mouths of Babes: Young Adults Share Their Experience of Growing Up Interfaith.” The teens on this panel had varying perspectives, but were all raised interfaith and were members at the synagogue hosting the event. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences. One panelist discussed her relationship with her grandparents who aren’t Jewish, including their attitudes toward elements of Judaism. The teen remarked how she enjoyed teaching her grandparents about the various holidays.
At the workshop entitled “Managing Your In-Laws,” the facilitator introduced the concept that managing our in-laws is not really what we need to do — we need to learn to manage ourselves. One suggestion was to manage our own issues by prioritizing them into three baskets: “A,” really important; “B,” negotiable; and “C,” doesn’t really matter. The strategy is to have a small “A” basket and try to put more issues in the “C” basket. I found this to be a great tool to manage all aspects of life beyond the issues raised in an intermarriage or interfaith family.
During discussion groups, it was great to hear how everyone is addressing similar items over the course of their marriage. Many couples go through the same things, but have a varying array of solutions and compromises. What was really gratifying was that many members of the congregation said that the rabbi was always learning new perspectives. The rabbi discussed this with the group, saying that he was often revisiting concepts and frequently revising his opinion. This was very refreshing and encouraging to all attendees.
My favorite story from Anita Diamant, the keynote speaker, was when she told us about a man who was Catholic but celebrates all of the High Holidays with his wife and daughters. He said that he was “Jew-ish.” The symposium was a wonderful model for sharing that would be beneficial for any interfaith community.
To read more about it, check out this article from the Jewish Exponent.
I have lead three workshops recently for religious school teachers and the same frustration came up each time. Teachers wanted me to tell them what to say when a child said x, y, or z. I veer away from giving teachers a script (I provide broad guidelines to think about) because I think each situation is different. The way each child says what they say, who the child is, how old they are, how many times the class has talked about this, etc., has to be taken into account in order for the teacher to know how to respond. However, in this blog I am going to share what I would say to a main comment that I have frequently heard uttered by children of all ages in religious schools.
“I’m only half Jewish.”
As a teacher, I would ask back, “Why do you say that?”
The child may respond, “Because my mom/dad isn’t Jewish and I celebrate Christmas and so I am only half Jewish.” (They may add that they don’t believe in God or other reasons.)
I might ask, “Do you think your parents would describe you as half Jewish?”
If a child says “yes,” I may encourage them to talk with their parents about this. I would be sure to email or call the parents after class to let them know that their child spoke about this in class and that I was happy they felt comfortable sharing with me. I would let the parents know that I encouraged their child to talk with them about these labels of identity. I would also mention that the clergy and educators at the synagogue are open to talking with parents and families about Judaism in an interfaith family and that there are lots of resources and support available to them as they figure out how to speak to their children about religion and identity.
If the child answers “no,” that their parents wouldn’t use this expression, a teacher could ask how they think their parents would describe who the child is religiously. If the child answers that their parents would say they are Jewish, a teacher could explain that maybe their parents have hoped that Judaism would be the religion and way of life they most identify with, but that this doesn’t mean that the other religion in the family is ignored or pushed away. It is wonderful to explore and experience the way one parent was raised and the way some in the family practice. This doesn’t take away from being brought up Jewish.
I would tell the child that a main hope is that we all feel whole and that we feel secure in who we are. I would also tell children that Judaism and Christianity share so much. We share sacred texts, values, core biblical narratives, faith in God, and a desire to make the world a better place. There are many prayers within Christianity and many songs that have roots in Judaism. We both love holidays, rituals, and traditions. But, there are many parts of the religions that are different. It may be hard to really be both religions. You can experience aspects of both religions, learn about both religions, come to love parts of both religions, but you might end up practicing and adhering to one religion. Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. In religious school and then in high school and college, you can continue to learn about Judaism and may find so many aspects that add much to your life. That’s one reason you are all here. We are here to learn about an ancient religion that still applies to our experiences in the world today. The stories, history, culture, language, and ethics of Judaism – all these aspects and many more – can bring joy, purpose, order, connectedness, and meaning to how we live.
When children bring up issues of identity it can be tricky for the religious school teacher to know what to say, how much to say, what would support the family and the goals of the religious school program and the congregation’s denominational ideology (whether it is Reform or Conservative, for example). This is why I encourage educators to write guidelines such as this and to role play with teachers to help teachers know how to respond to the most commonly talked about issues from going to church, celebrating Christmas or Easter to having family that isn’t Jewish to not believing in God, not wanting to come to religious school/Hebrew school, wondering about Jesus and more.
If you are a religious school teacher, let me know if you could see this dialogue taking place in class and if this is helpful to thinking through how to respond before comments are made so that you are not caught off-guard.
From the moment I left the Kallah that we co-lead with the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.
I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.
Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:
If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?
I received a review copy of A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, a slim volume of Adrienne Rich’s prose. Like many people who went to college in the 1980s, I read–and mostly failed to understand–Rich’s poetry in classes. In the 1990s, I went to hear her speak and was surprised that she identified as a Jew–my professors had never talked about that aspect of her identity when we read her celebrated early feminist poems (“Diving Into the Wreck” ) in my classes.
If I’d known her work better, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Rich wrote a foundational essay on reclaiming Jewish identity in 1982 after growing up in an interfaith family, “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity.” Born in 1929 to a Jewish father and a gentile mother, Rich was raised to hide the Jewish heritage she later came to embrace. She came of age as the crimes of the Holocaust were coming to light, and in “Split at the Root” recalls her first exposure, through newsreel footage, to Auschwitz.
Which may be why A Human Eye has a photograph of Muriel Rukeyser’s eye on the cover, and an essay about Rukeyser inside. Rich cites Rukeyser’s poem, “Letters to the Front,”
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Adrienne Rich has chosen, as she writes in “Jewish Days and Nights,”
Every day in my life is a Jewish day. Muted in my house of origin, Jewishness had a way of pressing up through the fissures. … Jewishness was muted in my house of origin, but the sense of specialness was not: that house was–intensely–different from the homes of my middle-class, non-Jewish friends. For one thing, it was full of books.
The essay goes on to articulate a leftist Jewish political stance, one that is perhaps iconoclastic–but it is an insider’s stance.
As a poet and essayist who was among the first to transform the personal to the political, Rich has undergone many personal transformations in public. She was married to a Jewish man and raised three sons with him before she came out of the closet as a lesbian in 1970. Her feminist writing and poems about her lesbian experience have overshadowed these writings about reclaiming Jewishness. Yet they are here, fluent and beautiful, a testimony to the possibility of children of interfaith families passing on Jewish heritage and participating in the Jewish community–even in the capacity of voicing dissent.
I saw a short item, “Polish-language guide to Shavuot distributed.” An organization called Shavei Israel which does outreach to people with Jewish roots or ancestry around the world, prepared the pamphlet.
Children of hidden Jews are, for the most part, children of interfaith marriages. In the Polish case this looks nothing at all like interfaith marriage in the United States–the level of anti-Semitism in Poland and the lack of freedom of religion means that hidden Jews are also people whose Jewish roots were hidden from them.
The interesting thing is that this outreach, which is entirely to people who descended from interfaith families, is under Orthodox auspices and the organization has on its website that it is “under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.”