Jessica Ravitz of the St. Lake Tribune wrote an entertaining, insightful essay on the wonders and worries of being a child of an interfaith household late last month–and all in under 800 words.
When my Jewish parents split up, I was at an age when I would have sooner shoved tinsel in my mouth than throw it on a tree. It was before I could scream, “Merry Christmas!” With the arrival of my Protestant stepfather, I learned how.
I was no dummy. Even at 5, I knew Hanukkah didn’t hold a candle, let alone eight of them, to Christmas. I reveled in the holiday cheer, tried not to break too many ornaments and carefully hung my stocking. One look at the loot under our tree and I knew I’d hit the jackpot.
While celebrating both traditions–or at least the “biggie” holidays from both traditions–was a boon to her toychest, she received little spiritual nourishment. Her family “bypassed God altogether,” a typical modern liberal response to the problem of religion (and this holds for inmarried as well as intermarried families). That may have made for peace at home, but it meant she felt like an outsider in the Jewish community.
But while the Jewish community saw her as an outsider, to the non-Jewish world, she was a “representative Jew,” being called in front of class at middle school to “explain our holidays and what we believed”–even though she knew scarcely more than the typical non-Jewish student. Without knowledge of her religious background, she clung to concrete traditions: Passover seders in New York with the extended Jewish family, honey-baked ham on Christmas with her step-father’s grandparents.
Then, when her mother and step-father split up, all of a sudden she is a Jewish child again. But how do you abruptly sacrifice Christmas and Easter?
She only begins to feel part of the Jewish community as an adult following a 2-year stint in Israel. “It didn’t matter if I attended synagogue, ate bacon, donated to Jewish organizations, could read from the Torah or believed in anything,” she says. “I counted.”
This is a fascinating development. It demonstrates the essential role that community plays in Jewish identity. Belief without engagement with other Jews is not only psychologically unfulfilling, it’s not really Judaism. Judaism is simultaneously a religion and a community. Neither functions effectively without the other and one could even argue, given the success of the largely secular American Jewish community, that the community element is more important than the religious element.
It also shows that feeling Jewish is not as simple as self-identification. It takes work. In Ravitz’s case, the work was moving to Israel. In others’ cases, it may mean joining a synagogue, or gathering with like-minded Jews, or attending Jewish cultural events regularly. If Judaism were a class, attendance and participation would be just as important as knowing the subject matter.
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