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
My kid taught me a good lesson today. I was pulling out of our driveway as the usual flood of people were walking by, oblivious to my own tight morning schedule. I muttered to myself how they should be paying attention to the cars rather than being engrossed in their conversations and that I had a schedule to keep. “Come on, people, move!” I seethed, unaware that my kids heard me. My son proceeded to open the window and yell, “Come on, people, move!” at the passersby. I was mortified! But why? He did nothing wrong. He merely saw me as a model and said aloud what I was too cowardly to share. If I want my kids to be patient, kind people, I need to walk the talk because they are watching my every move.
This aspect of parenthood terrifies me. I want to present my “best self” all of the time and be a model of the values I say I live by. But it is exhausting! I fall short of those expectations on a daily basis, and try to have compassion for myself. But I also want to push myself to walk the talk, to be consistent and live what I preach.
So much of my energy as a parent focuses on my children’s behavioral shortcomings, but being a mother has also made me more aware of where I fall short of expectations for my own behavior. When I fail to walk the talk in any aspect of life, they push me to return to my goals, values and expectations. If I tell my kids they should be patient, kind,and express their needs directly rather than passively, but then contradict these values in the way I behave, I might as well have saved my breath. If I want them to respect the rules, how can I explain the instances when I bend them myself? If I hope that they own their mistakes, I need to model that I do that as well. Kids watch, imitate and yes, at times, rebel. But even then, if I have walked the talk, hopefully they will know what I stand for.
Walk the talk goes for religious life as well. The interfaith couples I work with often ask me how they should go about raising Jewish children. My advice is that if you aren’t living a Jewish life in any way (and I define that broadly), your kids most likely won’t either. If living a life according to certain values and practices is becoming important to you, or was previously more present in your life, this is the time to start exploring or re-exploring it. Couples who are anticipating having children and like the idea of Shabbat often ask me when they should start lighting Shabbat candles. I tell them to begin now. If it becomes meaningful to them, they will transmit those values and sentiments to their children organically if and when they arrive. It will be part of their routine.
If we expect kids to learn how to lead a Jewish service, we had better spend some time in the sanctuary as well. Back when I was a tutor preparing kids to become Bar or
Walking the talk does not just apply to the observance piece of religious life either. I decided early on that if I hoped my children would uphold values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) through volunteerism, I’d better get out there and find time to volunteer, and tell them about why it is so important to me. If I wanted them to be the kind of people who stop when someone is asking for food, I’d better model doing that as well. I want to be careful that I am not trying to fulfill my own hopes for an ideal life—or resolving my own shortcomings—through my kids. I don’t want to be the kind of parent who thinks she can live vicariously through them, pinning hopes on what they become that I can’t live up to myself.
Sometimes doing things primarily for the benefit of children is just fine. But how much more powerful and resonant are those spiritual practices or ideas if the adults modeling them are experiencing them for themselves as well and, hopefully, discovering deep meaning in them?
This approach requires more from us. It means we have to spend some time thinking about why we are interested in a religious or spiritual path, ritual or teaching, and we have to examine what it means to us. And when partners come from different backgrounds, we need to take the time to figure out how practices or ideologies match our shared values as a couple and how it feels to bring those ideas into our families. We need to see ourselves as modeling behavior, belief or practice—which can be terrifying, especially when we worry that we aren’t good models. But we don’t need to have it all figured out; each of us is a work in progress. If we are exploring and struggling, walking our own talk, we are the best of models.
I spend a lot of time at Starbucks. All different Starbucks locations. Lately, I have been seeing signs about it being a “Third Place in our daily lives.” We have our work places, our homes and we have the coffee shop. I think for lot of people, walking into Starbucks is comforting and familiar. The smells, the furniture, the vibe, the culture there, the drinks—we know what to expect and it feels good.
At our recent InterfaithFamily/Chicago event, Barbara Mahany read from her new book, Slowing Time. She talked about how children raised with both Judaism and Catholicism in their lives often understand the in-between spaces of life. They relate to the grays, to nuance, to ambiguity and discrepancy and can hold multiple identities and ideas in one intact soul and psyche. They don’t practice a new religion or a Jewish-Catholic blend. Rather, they hold both traditions in their hearts and minds. They keep them separate and draw from each at different times. They experience both. They understand about both of their parent’s backgrounds. In a way, this is a third place for Judaism and Christianity.
I have heard some people refer to the interfaith schools that exist around the country where families with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent come to learn and worship with the intent to raise their children as “both” as being Third Spaces. These communities aren’t synagogues or churches but have elements of both and clergy from both.
At a recent teaching session at one of Chicago’s interfaith programs, the parents asked me whether any liberal synagogues could open their doors to families raising their children “both.” Could synagogues have a track for these families where they have a certain membership level knowing that the children wouldn’t use the religious school? These families could send their children to mid-week Hebrew school and of course become part of the community on Shabbat and holidays, during social justice pursuits and on retreats. These children would have a sacred space to mark the first time they read from the Torah scroll, which is often very important to their families.
In order for this to happen, congregations would have to accept and appreciate families who want Judaism in their lives in this way. They would have to accept that everyone’s Jewish expression looks different and that every family configuration is different. These families who want both religions in their lives are often very thoughtful about faith and traditions and eager learners and worship regulars.
I think if synagogues could find their way toward working with and hearing families who want Judaism in their lives in authentic ways but who also need to have the children learn about and experience the other parent’s faith, it will enhance the community. Struggling to understand and define the boundaries of “in” and “out” will help us all clarify our path, our fears and hopes and our vulnerabilities. Having a community of diverse practices under a shared tent of united desire to see Judaism continue and flourish is good for all of us.
For some, the synagogue or being with their community is a third space in importance next to their home and their office. For others, it falls farther down their line of places they frequent (perhaps after Starbucks). Do you think the Jewish world can or should find space for families who see religion in a third way? Not as just Jewish or just Catholic but as something more fluid?
This blog post arose after a conversation about the challenges for interfaith families in which one parent is a practicing Christian trying to raise Jewish children. We were speaking about many hot topics including:
So, here are my top five reasons for congregations to consider the idea of holding religious and Hebrew education on Shabbat morning given how many interfaith families are now in Jewish life. This switch of days could help with some of the above challenges.
My 7-year-old lost another tooth last night. Since we have been through many of these over the last couple of years, the two of us agreed to put aside any pretention that it would end up under his pillow. He is a non-believer and finds the story of the tooth fairy to be the most ridiculous of all of the farces adults tell children. From an early age, he dismissed anything beyond his definition of “real” as utterly ridiculous. Since my partner and I have agreed to tell our kids the truth when they ask directly for it (lest they grow up not trusting us), we let him know from early on that his suspicions were correct about the incredulity of these tales. The one rule is that he isn’t allowed to go to school and burst someone else’s bubble.
My 9-year-old, on the other hand, has a more complicated relationship with reality. For years, he has regaled us with stories rivaled only by Dr. Seuss’ I Saw it on Mulberry Street. Tales would begin in our sphere of reality but end in a fantastical world. We were never quite sure if he knew where the line was between fiction and non-fiction, and only now that he is older does he sometimes fess up to knowing the difference.
Our elder child recently came up with a way to distinguish his penchant for fantasy from his brother’s realism. Some people, he explains, are “myth blind” and some are not. Some are able to see past everyday reality while others just can’t—it is part of their nature. Both kids seem satisfied with the terminology, and quite out of character, they don’t seem to preference one above the other.
This conversation in our home is juicy enough that the kids reintroduce it periodically, adding on layers and meanings. Recently, this category was stretched to include one’s proclivity to believing in God. The “myth blind” child sees himself as an atheist, and easily links not believing in the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, or Santa with not believing there is such a thing as God. The one who is not “myth blind” remains intrigued by theology and asks lots of questions about God. They have also surmised that one of their parents seems to be myth blind while the other is not. This observation is astute, and we don’t mind being included in this categorization.
As the “not myth-blind” parent, I have to confess that I like the sound of this category. It goes beyond the usual definition of a believer being one who is somehow able to suspend reality, as if the rational mind is just waiting to pounce, bringing us back to our senses. One who is not myth blind sees another layer of reality and is not terrified by it. To be not “myth blind” does not necessarily mean you believe, he explains. It simply implies that you are open to the idea. Furthermore, his use of the word “myth” acknowledges that whether or not the story is “True” is inconsequential. It is, in fact, more important than “True”: it is real, it is powerful.
There is a Jewish mystical concept that while we are living in the “real” world every day, there is another layer of reality beneath it or beyond it. Sometimes we get a peek, usually just a fleeting moment, when we see that there is something more real beyond the particulars of our daily lives. Our material world is dressed in the colors, human structures,and natural world we see around us. But there are moments in our lives when a veil of sorts is lifted and we see that there is something else, something deeper. This can happen during meditation when everything “real” can seem to disappear for a moment, or when the body is being supported by a yoga mat at the end of a practice and feels like it is suspended and weightless. Or when you’re watching your kids grow and it seems like no time has passed, and simultaneously that eons have elapsed, crunching and expanding time in ways our minds can’t understand. It can happen when we gaze at the stars and feel the concept of space and time changing as we try to picture what “everything” really entails. I think that not being myth blind is about being able to lift the veil for a moment, experiencing another way of seeing the universe.
I don’t need my kids to believe in the tooth fairy. I don’t think I did, even as I carefully placed my teeth in a special white tooth-sized pillow someone gave me. I commend my 7-year-old for being confident and bold enough to come to his own conclusions and challenge what he hears around him. But someday both kids will learn that most of us would place ourselves somewhere between these poles rather than identifying wholly with one category or the other, seeing the nuance and challenge of complex philosophical ideas. For now, it’s an interesting way to start to make sense of their stories in relation to who they are becoming. I do hope that as they grow up they will be critical, but also that they might feel comfortable stretching their minds and being open to mystery.
Often couples come from different backgrounds and it can be difficult to find common ground. But usually, if people have similar value systems, couples can work out compromises in their relationship. There are a variety of differences that affect a relationship. These differences make life interesting but sometimes differences cause conflict (and hopefully resolution). My family often says “That’s why there are so many different flavors of ice cream!” Here is an overview about some of the types of differences couples may face.
Religious Differences: In my large family, each of us siblings observe our religion in a different way. Many people remark that they can’t believe we were raised in the same house. As each of us has gotten married, we have evolved so that we have similar practices to our spouses. In fact, now that our society moves around so much more than people did 50 years ago, it makes sense that altering one’s religious practices to suit our spouse is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, the proximity to one’s parents may affect the level of practice. For example, if you are hundreds of miles from your parents but around the corner from your in-laws, your household’s religious practices are likely to evolve toward the practice of your in-laws. Sharing holidays with extended family is going to change your practices as well.
I remember my brother saying that his decisions should not be affected by the decisions of his brother-in-law. The reality is that once the in-laws moved to the same city, celebrations were modified. He adjusted and the family holidays look a bit different. I think my brother’s anticipation of what potential modifications might be was much scarier than the reality. I once told my kids I didn’t just marry Daddy, I married his whole family: his mom, his sister, his dad. If you have any concerns about your future in-laws, think carefully. Especially if kids are in the picture, any differences are magnified.
Geographic Differences: Being from different parts of the country can be another area where a couple needs to find compromise. East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Deep South—finding common ground can be challenging in this area as well. As a Southerner, I have lived in the Northeast most of my adult life. Yet, during a recent cold snap, I mentioned that I wished I lived in the South. A friend commented, “Shouldn’t you be used to the cold by now?” I responded, “I guess the novelty has worn off.” Celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah in a snowy climate when you are used to never wearing a coat can be an adjustment. Similar adjustments include city vs. suburbs vs. rural living. My husband loves the city and I would be quite happy living in a rural environment. Suburb is the obvious compromise but not all issues can be resolved as easily.
Nationality Differences: For one couple in my extended family, the parents were from Europe and the daughter was born in Israel. She moved to the U.S. when she was a child but always called herself an Israeli. Her parents always referred to themselves as European. She married an American but always made comments referring to her Israeli pride. I think that this difference was a point of contention for the woman and her husband. Attitudes, manners, celebrations were always an issue for them. Both partners were Jewish but the nationality differences were a struggle for them. Ultimately, the couple divorced for a variety of reasons but nationality differences definitely caused some of their disagreement.
Cultural Differences: Some families have a sit-down dinner every night. Other families never eat together because the parents are always working. Some families believe that there should be a stay-at-home parent while other families prefer a live-in caretaker. Differences of opinion regarding parochial school or public school or even boarding school can exist in the same family. Some issues such as school can be worked out with relative ease but other issues can be a huge hurdle in a relationship. Do both partners intend to work? Do you believe in daycare or nannies or neither? Differences in attitudes can rise up. If one parent stays home for a while, will there be resentment? If one parent travels for work, will there be resentment?
Financial Differences: Some people like to spend money, others like to save it. If one partner wants to travel to the Caribbean every winter but the financial situation does not allow for that, there should be some discussion. Does one partner want to eat out four nights a week at a sit-down restaurant? Do you agree on savings? Financial issues can be a major point of contention after several years of marriage. It is important to discuss what you and your partner expect regarding savings and debt. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but do have these discussions.
While you are dating, “what if” scenarios are helpful (but not binding because circumstances always change). It is good to discuss these issues to assess whether you and your partner can compromise. As they say, “Vive La Différence!” but keep your eyes open. You should be thinking like a team. If you find that you are feeling “alone” in your thinking, it might be good to seek counseling. Entering a marriage with confidence is paramount.
As the new year approaches, I’ve been thinking back over the past year—particularly about certain terms I’ve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.
NON-JEW: While “non-Jew” is an easy short-hand term and it’s clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what they’re NOT. For example, I identify as a “female,” not a “non-male;” and in my family I’m a “wife and mother,” not a “non-husband and non-father.” At InterfaithFamily, we’re concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about “non-Jews” in interfaith relationships, it sends the message—even if it’s interpreted subconsciously—that the person who isn’t Jewish is somehow “less than” by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her “outsider” status.
Granted, not using the term “non-Jew” can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think it’s better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I don’t know of an ideal term to describe someone who isn’t Jewish. One suggestion I’ve heard is PDF (“person of a different faith”), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isn’t Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesn’t have a “faith.” Do you have any suggestions?
And for the record, I’d love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, “a woman who is not Jewish” and “people who are not Jewish,” are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.
HALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now I’ve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was “half-Jewish” I would probably have said something like: “You’re fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isn’t Jewish doesn’t make you ‘half-Jewish.’” (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: “which half, left or right?”) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as “half-Jewish” it’s not my place to tell him otherwise.
While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel “whole” and to know that he is “authentically” Jewish even if one of his parents isn’t Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that he’s “half-Jewish.” Perhaps that’s his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parent’s family. It’s not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.
Yet while I now wouldn’t “correct” someone who identifies herself as “half-Jewish” because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as “half-Jewish.” In my—admittedly liberal—understanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a child’s mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as “fully Jewish” as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a “half-Jew” can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohen’s blog “Don’t Call Me a Half-Jew”) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.
Which brings me to the third term I don’t like…
PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a person’s mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized “patrilineal descent” (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parent’s gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of “Who is a Jew?”
Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isn’t Jewish as a “matrilineal Jew”—such a person is simply a “Jew.” Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldn’t refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a “patrilineal Jew.” The modifier “patrilineal” is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.
My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual lives…and a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone else’s.
Are there terms that you’d like to leave behind in 2014? I’d love to hear what they are.
Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know it’s not “our” holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values I’m trying to instill.
I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. I’m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.
So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?
The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.
I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.
Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organization’s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.
Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.
I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.
One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.
My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.
My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.
On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.
During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.
After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.
Rabbi Ari is the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. She also has children who will not eat matzah ball soup or a bagel and lox and is continually surprised and dismayed at their culinary preferences. She was inspired by this story because of how culturally astute the grandparents were to how their grandchildren were being raised and how quickly they made a bridge between the familiar to the new and exotic (the world of the matzah ball!).
A woman recently told me the story of her grandchildren who live out of state and aren’t being raised Jewish.* They come to visit for a week each summer. This past summer they went right from the airport to the deli. Not that there isn’t Jewish deli where these kids live, but the grandparents wanted the experience of eating Jewish foods with their grandchildren at one of their favorite spots. This is one way they share their love of Jewish culture with their grandchildren.
These grandchildren have been raised on sushi and other international cuisine. When the youngest grandson looked at his bowl of matzah ball soup, he did not want to eat it. He said that he is used to more “normal” food (like sushi!). The grandparent telling the story said that her husband turned to the grandchild without missing a beat and said, “It’s just like miso soup…” and the child dove in. Once that broth touched his lips, he was sold! He even liked the matzah ball.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are partners with the JUF (our Federation) and Grandparents for Social Action on a new program for grandparents called GIFTS: Grandparents, Inspiration, Family, Tzedakah, Sharing. We are offering a five-session class at 15 congregations and Jewish organizations around Chicagoland taking place now through the spring (to find a class, go to www.juf.org/gifts).
The classes consist of interactive lessons about how grandparents can pass on their values and deepen their engagement with their grandchildren. The fifth session is specifically geared toward talking about grandchildren raised in interfaith homes as well as any family situation that you might not have planned for or anticipated. The session is called “Changing our Narrative” and it is a hopeful session about what continuity means to us.
We just had a meeting for grandparents who are alumni of the classes that were offered this past year to talk about how to improve the program and to help plan an exciting city-wide Grandparent Conference to take place this spring (more information to come). One of the grandparents shared that fantastic story with me.
Our kids and grandkids have different cultural references than we have. They are growing up on different foods, their “normal” is nothing like what our life was like at their age and we have to constantly translate for ourselves and them as we bond and communicate. Is eating matzah ball soup with Jewish grandparents going to make these children Jewish? That’s not the point or the goal here. Feeling closeness, sharing our soul food, hearing the names of the foods in Yiddish, making connections, expanding one’s repertoire and experiences and creating memories of things only done with one’s grandparents is meaningful, impactful and important. Who these kids will be will happen over time. The closeness they feel with loving, open-minded, insightful, aware grandparents who know what their lives are like and who are willing to translate and help them relate to new things is priceless.
*We often hear this phrase. It means different things to different people who say it. For some it means that the family isn’t a member of a synagogue. For others it means that the parents do not articulate that the children are being raised with a Jewish identity—the parents want to raise them without specific religious references. Some say it means that the children are being raised “nothing.” This is one I particularly dislike as many children who are not raised with Jewish holidays or going to synagogue are raised with lots—not nothing—when it comes to values, for example. “Nothing” portrays such an empty, void and negative image.
Surprisingly, many children whose parents did not participate in Judaism and Jewish living affirm their Jewish identity as adults and seek avenues for engagement then because of relationships with grandparents, and other connections made along the way. Just knowing the cultural and religious heritage they inherited, even if it has been latent for some time, may mean something to one’s identity.
So, when you read or hear that children aren’t being raised Jewish, it is often an overly simplistic statement that may not capture a whole picture. As well, it hints at but doesn’t fully capture where the parents may be with their own religiosity, spirituality or communal ties. The parents’ own background and Jewish baggage may be coming in to play here and it may be complicated and messy in terms of how to raise children. Or, it may be that the parents are just not religiously, culturally or communally inclined even in the most open senses of Jewish expression. It’s not their thing, but it’s in their family and so a confrontation (whether warm and inviting or stressful) with Judaism occurs every now and then for their family.
Several years ago, my son’s 4-year-old classmate Sara was diagnosed with cancer. All of the families at our pre-school were devastated by the news. It could have been any of us, but it was sweet little Sara. We wanted to help. We were desperate to do something—ANYTHING—to help. We knew they had tons of toys, food and prayers. My friend Robyn Cohen and I spent hours on the phone trying to process the horror of it all and we knew we needed to do something for the family. Yet, there wasn’t much to be done.
Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, Robyn and I had an idea. We attended a pre-school where every week there was a “Shabbat Star” (even though many families at the school were not Jewish). We decided that this was our excuse to do something for Sara and her family. Because of the 40 minute drive to the hospital, we needed to pace ourselves. Each family in the class would sign up to drive to the hospital and bring Shabbat to Sara and her family. Since it was already Thursday, I raced to the bakery and got a challah and Robyn found candles. I gave the goodies to my husband whose office was a little closer to the hospital. He would be the first of many “deliverers” of Shabbat.
“Hi Sara! Guess who is the Shabbat Star this week? YOU are!” My husband announced to Sara and her parents. Sara beamed at the sight of the Shabbat kit and challah. And that was the beginning of our new ritual. The parents took turns each week. The school provided the challah and Sara’s family knew that every Friday there would be a Shabbat visitor. I vividly remember one of my visits. Sara wanted to know what was going on at school and was so happy to receive the latest artwork from her classmates.
We were fortunate to realize that Shabbat was good for Sara and her family. It guaranteed a visitor on a steady basis. It gave Sara a familiar structure from preschool. But, in retrospect, it benefited ALL of the families that stood by praying for Sara. It gave us an excuse to stop by and a way to feel useful. It united all of the families by discussing who would be the “deliverer” next week. We were delivering challah, but really it was so much more. We were delivering Shabbat. Another week of chemo was complete. Another hurdle had been jumped. We were honored to be able to deliver a challah and a smile to Sara and her family.
Sara survived another 10 months and her family made sure that every day had a positive experience. There is now an organization called “Sara’s Smiles” through which Sara’s family strives to help other families “Lift the cloud and inspire the joy.” Shabbat was a small piece of this quilt of positivity in the face of tragedy. If you want to learn more, check out saras-smiles.org. This non-profit currently delivers “inspiration kits” of positivity and support to 14 pediatric hospitals in six states, and the number is growing every month.
If you know of a family struggling, I’d recommend the “Shabbat excuse.” It is an easy way to support a family going through a rough time. A little challah and a little ritual can go a long way. And if you know of a family dealing with childhood cancer, check out “Sara’s Smiles.” It is a wonderful legacy to a very special little girl and her family.