The Promise

Another month, another casually great column from Julie Wiener at The Jewish Week.

In this month’s column on intermarried life, Wiener talks about “The Promise,” that vague commitment to raise the kids Jewish that non-Jewish partners often make to their Jewish spouses-to-be. (I had a conversation with my fiance on this very issue two weeks ago.)

Ah, the ill-defined Promise. I remember clearly the day almost 13 years ago that I extracted it, saying, “Before things get serious, I need you to promise that if we ever have kids together we’ll raise them as Jews.”

…Joe promised, saying he thought it was good for kids to have a religious upbringing, and he had no special loyalty to Catholicism. But just what did Joe commit to with The Promise? Does he have to cheerfully accompany the kids and me to services whenever I request it, or is it OK if he just refrains from hanging crucifixes in the house? (Not that this was his decorating preference anyway.)

Making Joe’s vague mandate even vaguer is the fact that I haven’t settled on exactly how Jewish I myself want to be. Joe loves to point out that I’m constantly changing the rules, and his theory is that while I sometimes complain about the fact that he isn’t Jewish, I actually enjoy being our family’s Jewish Boss. One year, I decided to make our apartment chametz-free for Passover, forcing Joe to go to a diner all week for his morning oatmeal. Another year, I ate bread all week.

But even if I had my whole Jewish identity figured out, it would not be so easy determining Joe’s role. How exactly does one go about being the family gentile?

Julie brings up a great point about “The Promise,” which is that it’s rarely well-defined. For many Jews dating non-Jews, they’re not entirely sure what level of Jewish commitment they want, and that’s especially so during the years that most future spouses meet (the 20s and early 30s). So asking a partner to raise theoretical kids Jewishly at some point in the future could mean anything from sending the kids to Jewish day school and not cutting their payis until their third birthday to lighting the menorah in the kitchen with a Christmas tree in the living room. If the Jewish partner doesn’t even know what raising the kids as Jews will mean, how is the non-Jewish partner supposed to know? Perhaps that’s why Wiener calls them the “Righteous Gentile Spouses” and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, calls them “heroes.”

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