The Rabbi Formerly Known as Half-Jewish

Not much time to blog today, but I need to mention these two great articles from The Jewish Week that are now a few days old:

Rabbi Beth Nichols, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, writes about her experience as an interfaith child in the rabbinical seminary. On Christmas day 2001, she was in Jerusalem at Hebrew Union College, attending a class on intermarriage:

I found it both ironic and disconcerting to be discussing intermarriage on Christmas Day. That morning I approached my professor to express my apprehension for the day’s class: “I know we’re talking about intermarriage, and, well, this is my first Christmas away from home.” Registering his look of surprise, I explained, “My Dad’s not Jewish, and Christmas was a really important time in his childhood, so it became an important time in my family. I’m Jewish, obviously, but Christmas has a lot of wonderful family memories attached to it.”

Standing there, I did not know whether I could handle having classmates share their opinions about intermarriage on a day when I, a woman confident in her Jewish identity, wanted nothing more than to be sitting in my pajamas around a 12-foot tree covered in ornaments.

Now, as assistant rabbi at Temple Israel of New Rochelle, N.Y., she has ambivalent feelings about how to interact with interfaith families at her synagogue. Responding to the question of “How can we be sensitive to the unique needs of children of interfaith families being raised as Jews in our synagogues?” she says:

I have learned from years of working with religious-school teachers that the most common answer to this question is that to help children of interfaith families one should assume that the child’s religious identity is confused and that they do nothing Jewish at home. Mentions of non-Jewish family celebrations should be ignored or giggled past, and low attendance or lack of attention should be forgiven due to their “family background.”

Ten years ago I would have fought tooth and nail against this assumption. But I have lost some of my innocence. My colleagues and I have taught students whose custody arrangements leave them believing in Jesus every other week, students whose parents naively let them choose mom or dad’s religion and students whose religious-school tuition is paid for by their grandparents because their parents don’t want to make a decision about religion. I now know that even in the interfaith families who become active in Jewish life, religious identity is a challenge for both parents and kids.

In the same issue, Julie Wiener writes about attending church for the funeral of her Catholic mother-in-law. It’s a poignant piece, and touches on the complex ways that people perceive others’ religiosity. She says, of her husband’s family:

Plus, while Joe’s family certainly never seemed Jewish to me, I didn’t see a lot of their Catholic side. A wooden crucifix hung over Margaret’s bed, but most of the objects in her home were more secular: framed family photos, pewter knickknacks, the stuffed bears she collected. I knew she attended church every week, but I rarely heard about it — I did not meet her priest or see the inside of the gray stone church until the funeral.

Perhaps she downplayed her Catholicism around me out of a desire to make me feel welcome. She never seemed to object to the fact that I was Jewish, or that mine and Joe’s children are. I used to joke that it was because Joe was her youngest, that by the time he got married she figured she already had plenty of Catholic grandkids and could thus donate a few to the Jews.

At the funeral, the Margaret the priest described — “a woman of faith,” he said, emphasizing her belief in Jesus — was different than the woman I remembered, who always seemed far more buoyed by her gardening and her grandchildren than by spirituality or dogma.

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One thought on “The Rabbi Formerly Known as Half-Jewish

  1. The convert to Judaism who opts out, or the separated spouse who abandons previous Jewish attachment, even in a joint custody situation can undermine the Jewish
    spouse’s efforts to maintain a Jewish household and to educate a Jewish child. The lack of continuity in experiences and commitments as the child moves back and forth between two households will guarantee an inadequate Jewish education for the child even where one parent is sacrificing to try to ensure that.Any effort to redress the situation will be construed as interference with the non-Jewish parent’s custody writes and contribute to ensuing conflict which can impact the child.

    John Sanders
    St Catharines, Ontario, Canada.

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