My Interview with Cokie and Steve Roberts

I had a very interesting interview with Cokie and Steve Roberts last week. We talked about their new book, Haggadah-Traditions-Interfaith-Families/dp/0062018108/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1302369201&sr=1-1-catcorr:2dmti5b0">Our Haggadah, which I’ve blogged about before, and which our Board member Rabbi Rim Meirowitz  reviewed very positively.

I asked the Robertses what their goals were in terms of what they hoped interfaith couples would do with Our Haggadah. Cokie Roberts, a serious Catholic, said her goal was to make it as easy as possible to participate in and host a seder. She said Passover is a joyous festival, but people are intimidated about preparing for it, setting the table, and conducting the service. As I’ve said before, I applaud Cokie Roberts for being so supportive of interfaith couples engaging in Jewish practices like the Passover seder.

I asked whether they thought that interfaith couples would still be having seders twenty or thirty years from now, and both were quite certain that they would. Steve pointed out that seders have been conducted for thousands of years, and Cokie said the seder is joyous, addresses universal themes, is home based (avoiding the barriers that synagogues sometimes present), and personally customizable.

But my question posed the issue that I really wanted to explore – the interplay between Jewish identity and Jewish practices. Because if interfaith couples don’t identity their families, or their children, as Jewish, then in another generation, will the children of those families, themselves married, perhaps intermarried – will they still be interested in conducting or participating in the Passover seder?

Cokie’s answer was that what children will do in terms of Jewish practices is always a question – and aptly added that it is a question about children of two Jewish parents, too. They told me that their family has more Jewish content than the families of Jewish relatives of Steve who are in-married. Cokie said that given the reality of intermarriage, a good solution is to celebrate Jewish traditions as “a major part of the family.”

But that raised the identity/practice question again. Steve said his goal in writing the book was to provide guidance, models and encouragement to the many young interfaith couples that he encounters among his students. The model the Robertses themselves offer is to embrace both religious traditions. They said that choosing one religion, “ceding” to the other, wouldn’t work for them, because each was so deeply tied to their tradition.

So my identity/practice question is still pending. The Robertses said they don’t talk about their own children’s identity or practice, I assume out of respect for their privacy. It sounds like the Roberts’ seders are so wonderful that their children would want to continue to have them for their families. But I’m left to wonder what will happen down the road if the children of interfaith families aren’t raised as and don’t identify as Jews.

I respect the Roberts’ approach and their integrity. They are very serious about religion. Steve said he felt that couples getting married who decide to “just get a judge” because they have difficulty finding clergy “in most cases do a disservice to themselves.” He asks those couples to consider that they come from traditions and can find a way to reflect them – and not pretend they are neutral characters.  He clearly feels that religious traditions can enrich young couples’ lives.

The Robertses are not directive when interfaith couples ask their advice, either. There say there is no necessarily right way for anyone and they don’t push their model on anyone. They readily acknowledge that choosing one religion for a family and children is one way that interfaith couples can go. That is what InterfaithFamily.com has always recommended, although we hasten to add that children should learn about the other religious tradition represented in their family, and participate in it to the extent parents want them to.

We talked about other subjects and we clearly had common ground in many areas, especially the need for the Jewish community to be more welcoming to interfaith couples. Both Cokie and Steve are incredibly smart and articulate – they are great spokespersons for their approach to interfaith family life. Which leaves me, in the end, still wishing that Cokie and Steve Roberts were in IFF’s camp.

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5 thoughts on “My Interview with Cokie and Steve Roberts

  1. Both of the Robert’s children are married to Christians and are raising their children as Christians.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it points out that there’s a dsitinct difference between celebrating Jewish traditions and having a Jewish identity.  I’m glad that the Robert’s approach works for them but, as Ed Case points out,  it probably won’t “create” more Jews.

  2. Here is the wedding announcement for Lee Roberts, the Roberts’ son. His wedding ceremony was conducted by a Catholic priest in a Catholic church:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/29/style … berts.html

    I suspect that the Roberts children’s identity decision was not wholly influenced by their parents “raise in both” choice. There are other factors.

    I would note that since Steve and Cokie Roberts got married in 1966, when there was no Jewish outreach to interfaith families, and intermarried couples and their children were treated with coldness and/or hostility in most Jewish settings, it is not surprising that the Roberts’ children opted to marry Christians in weddings conducted by Christian clergy.

    I have met many half-Jewish people who grew up between 1950 – 1990. The Roberts’ children would, like many of my interviewees, have undoubtedly heard that they “weren’t Jewish” because they were patrilineal.

    I gather — I could be wrong — that Cokie Roberts made many phone calls trying to get a rabbi for her own wedding ceremony in 1966 and could not get one.

    So I think the decisions of the Roberts children need to be looked at in the context of growing up with a strong welcome from Catholics, the knowledge that Jews didn’t think they were Jewish, their mother’s inability to get a rabbi for her wedding to their father, etc. These factors — far more than the “raise in both” choice of their parents — may have tilted the balance in favor of marrying Christians and living as Christians.

    it is this type of unwelcoming situation that Ed and http://www.interfaithfamily.com has worked so hard to change.

  3. Robin, Thanks for the info on the Robert’s children.  You brought up interesting points about the reasons for the  Robert’s children lack of Jewish identities.  I agree but I do think that bringing up their children in two faith’s might have contributed a lot more than you suggest.  Also Cokie Roberts is a devout Catholic while Steve is a secular, cultural Jew.  The Robert’s children were obviously more influenced by their mother’s spirituality. 
    It would be interesting to hear what the Robert’s children have to say about this subject.  The most important thing is that they’re happy with their choices.  At least the Robert’s grandchildren are bing exposed to Jewish traditions and who knows, maybe when they get older they might want to explore their Jewish side more thoroughly. 

  4. A small clarification: the brief notices in the New York Times did not fully describe the weddings of our children. Both chose to do what we did: have a Jewish ‘elder of the tribe’ participate in the ceremony and celebrate their Jewish heritage. I performed that role in my son’s wedding and a dear family friend did it for our daughter. And our three grandchildren who live in Washington will be full participants in our Seder on Monday night. I hope all of you have a joyful evening that respects and embraces the traditions of everyone a your table.

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