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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
August 1, 2017 is the publication date for the new version of Jim Keenâ€™sÂ Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partnerâ€™s Journey Raising a Jewish Family. I was honored to write the foreword to this one-of-a-kind book: the warm, personal, light-hearted but very serious story of a Protestant man raising Jewish children together with his Jewish wife.
When Jim Keen and his fiancĂ©e Bonnie were planning their wedding, her Jewish grandmother wasnâ€™t sure she would attend, because she disapproved of intermarriage. But she chose love, and danced with Jim at the wedding, saying â€śyouâ€™re my grandson now.â€ť That story brought tears to my eyes, and it and others in this book might to yours.
Interfaith couples like Jim and Bonnie who care about religious traditions face what I call â€śeternalâ€ť issues. Not in the sense that the issues canâ€™t be resolved, because they can be, as Jimâ€™s story vividly demonstrates. But all interfaith couples who want to have religion in their lives have to figure out how to relate to each other and their parents and families over religious traditions; they all have to resolve whether and how to celebrate holidays, to be spiritual together, to find community of like-minded people.
This book follows Jimâ€™s journey through all of those issues. From dating, falling in love, meeting the parents, deciding how children will be raised religiously, considering conversion, to getting married; from baby welcoming ceremonies, to celebrating holidays, finding community, and meeting his own needs in a Jewish family. Itâ€™s a deeply moving story, told with humor, and itâ€™s an important one.
Jim Keenâ€™s example of one interfaith coupleâ€™s journey to Jewish continuity is reassuring. Interfaith couples who are or might be interested in engaging in Jewish life and community can learn from Jimâ€™s story how doing so can add meaning and value to their lives.
Along his journey, Jim shares extremely helpful insights. For example: His and his wifeâ€™s feelings and attitudes changed over time, with him moving from feeling different, â€śstanding out,â€ť â€śnot belonging,â€ť to feeling â€śpart of.â€ť For another: Interfaith couples, no matter what path they follow, have to make a conscious effort to work out their religious traditions, which can lead to more thoughtful and deeper engagement. And another: Interfaith couples arenâ€™t alone, and itâ€™s very helpful to become friends and work through issues with other couples.
Interfaith couples follow many paths, and Jim Keen doesnâ€™t say his path is right for everyone. He continued to practice his own religion; some partners in his position donâ€™t practice any religion, or practice Judaism, or even convert. Jim and his wife chose one religion for their children; some couples decide to raise their children in two religions, and many couples havenâ€™t decided, or havenâ€™t yet. The clear advice Jim does give is that there are solutions to the issues that interfaith relationships raise, and that the key to resolving them is early and ongoing respectful communication. How Jim spells out the negotiation and communication he and his wife had over many issues will help couples facing the same issues, no matter what paths they may be thinking of taking.
Jim expresses deep gratitude for finding very warm and welcoming JCC preschool and synagogue communities, and especially a rabbi by whom he felt genuinely embraced. It is essential that more interfaith couples experience that kind of welcome. Most Jews have relatives in interfaith relationships now, and many Jewish professionals are working with people in interfaith relationships. This book promotes better understanding not only of the eternal issues interfaith couples face, but in particular the perspective of the partner from a different faith background.
Jim Keen doesnâ€™t promote interfaith marriage, but he does recognize its positive impacts, including an appreciation for tolerance and diversity. He writes that being in an interfaith relationship has broadened his perspective and enhanced not only his life, but also his parentsâ€™ and in-lawsâ€™ lives too. He still enjoys â€śbelonging to [his] Scottish-American, Protestant group, but itâ€™s a warm feeling being able to see the world through Jewish eyes, as well.â€ť He also rightly recognizes his and his familyâ€™s contribution to the Jewish community: â€śI am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.â€ť I love it, and I think you will, too.
Today, with intermarriage so common, Jim Keenâ€™s perspective is more important and valuable than ever. Jim Keen and his family â€“ on both sides â€“ are heroes of Jewish life. They are role models for how a parent from a different faith background and a Jewish parent, together with all of the grandparents, can support the Jewish engagement of their children and grandchildren. They all deserve deep appreciation for this utmost gift, Jim especially for shedding light on the journey.
You can order the bookÂ here.
Two years ago, I was sitting at a table on a warm summer evening with five young couples. They were the newest cohort of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphiaâ€™s â€śLove and Religionâ€ť workshop for interfaith couples.Â None of the couples had ever met before, and everyone listened quietly as we went around the table and each couple introduced themselves, sharing how theyâ€™d met and what had originally attracted them to each other.
Then I asked each couple to share when the issue of religion first came up in their relationship. Sarah (all names have been changed) said: â€śIt was the first December. Weâ€™d just moved in together. He really wanted to have a Christmas tree and I made it very clear that I would never have a Christmas tree in my home.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m with you!â€ť said Joan, who was sitting across from Sarah. â€śIâ€™d never allow that!Â Itâ€™s just wrong for a Jewish person to have a Christmas tree in their home!â€ť And with that, Sarah and Joan high fiveâ€™d across the tableâ€¦ newly bonded by their refusal to let their significant others have Christmas trees.
Meanwhile, I watched another couple, Amy and Dan, squirm uncomfortably in their seats.Â It was Amy and Danâ€™s turn to share next and I happened to know that after much discussion Dan had agreed to Amyâ€™s request to have a Christmas tree in their home the prior December, even though it made Dan, whoâ€™s Jewish, uncomfortable. Realizing that I needed to jump in as facilitator, I reminded the couples of one of the â€śground rulesâ€ť of our group: That we werenâ€™t discussing what was â€śright or wrongâ€ť or judging each other, but creating a safe space for discussion for all of the couples to communicate openly and figure out what was best for them. Fortunately, we were able to move on, and the five couples bonded over the following weeks, sharing openly about the challenges and blessings of their interfaith relationships.
Iâ€™ve been thinking back to that summer evening a lot in recent weeksâ€”as the topic of Christmas trees has come up multiple times in my meetings with interfaith couplesâ€¦ even though itâ€™s July!
What is it about Christmas trees? Why are they so often such a big source of conflict for interfaith couples? Hereâ€™s some of what Iâ€™ve learned from working with many Christian/Jewish couples.
For the Christian partners:
-Some of their best childhood memories are of Christmas. Christmas trees remind them of family togetherness and warmth. They often want to have a Christmas tree not just for their own sake, but so that their children can experience the magical feeling that they had when they woke up on Christmas morning and found lots of presents under their tree. So many families have special traditions and rituals for decorating their trees, opening presents, etc. Parents who have wonderful memories of Christmas as a child often want to be able to re-create their experiences for their own children, even if their children are being raised as Jews.
-Many (though certainly not all) parents who grew up celebrating Christmas say that they donâ€™t think of a Christmas tree as â€śreligious.â€ť They canâ€™t understand why their Jewish partner is uncomfortable having something in their home that to them is all about family togetherness and fond memories, and doesnâ€™t have religious significance.
For the Jewish partners:
-They often see having a Christmas tree as â€śselling outâ€ť their Judaism;Â the final step to full assimilation into the majority Christian culture. No matter what Jewish practices they do or donâ€™t follow, they view having a Christmas tree in their own home as a boundary that theyâ€™re not comfortable crossing.
-Many Jews are concerned about what other Jews (often their own parents) will think or how theyâ€™ll feel coming into their home if it has a Christmas tree.
Recently, Sue and Mark, an interfaith couple, shared with me the frustration theyâ€™re both feeling as they discuss whether or not to have a Christmas tree in their home this December. Sue lamented: â€śItâ€™s July, and we find ourselves sitting on the beach arguing about Christmas.â€ť She said that every time they start to discuss whether or not theyâ€™ll have a Christmas tree, they both start talking over each other and just shut each other out. Mark looked at me and wondered: â€śWhat should we do? Whatâ€™s the right solution?â€ť
Of course only Sue and Mark can determine whatâ€™s right for them as a couple, and whatâ€™s right for them this December may not be whatâ€™s right for them next Decemberâ€”and it certainly may not be whatâ€™s right for a different couple.Â But thereâ€™s one thing I could tell them is right for sure: to take the time to truly listen to each other and to each try to understand the emotions behind what their partner is saying.
Whether or not theyâ€™ll have a Christmas tree may be something that they finally resolve and come to agree on over time, or perhaps the issue will be a source of conflict for years.Â But if they can each respect where the other is coming fromâ€”and discuss the issue from a place of love and respect rather than anger and intoleranceâ€”then their relationship will be much healthierâ€¦ in Julyâ€”and in December.
If you are an interfaith couple where one partner is Jewish and one is Christian, do you plan to have a Christmas tree? Has having/not having a tree been a source of conflict in your relationship?Â Do you have other reasons than the ones Iâ€™ve mentioned above for having/not having a Christmas tree?
Like all Jewish holidays in my family, Passover with my family is an entirely interfaith affair. There are Catholic adults and kids, Jewish adults and kids, Christian adults and kids and one 92-year-old Russian Orthodox (Christian) grandma.
But the emphasis is on the kids: Between my brothers and me, we have 10 children. My brothersâ€™ are Catholic and Christian and mine are Jewish, and so, itâ€™s important to me that the Passover seder is interesting and fun and meaningful for them.
For as long as I can remember, our family has used the Maxwell House Hagaddah. The old oneâ€¦from 1932â€¦which I love and have fond memories of. But I wanted something different, something more accessible for the under-18 crowd and for a group that is mostly not Jewish.
I never thought about creating my own until my friend and colleague, IFF COO Heather Martin, told me about the one she created for her family, and shared it with me. I was hooked. I wanted our own personalized haggadah with silly Passover songs sung to the tune of â€śMy Favorite Thingsâ€ť and â€śTake Me Out to the Ballgame!â€ť You see, while this may not constitute a very traditional haggadah, whatâ€™s important to me is creating a seder in which family members who are not Jewish feel comfortable and connected, and in which all of the kids participate and enjoy.
And so, using Haggadot.com and JewishBoston.com and some of Heatherâ€™s haggadah as a jumping-off point, we made our own. We cut and pasted and pulled bits and pieces from different sites, including a quiz for the older kids at the end.
It was a big hitâ€”the seder was fun and silly (vital for the under 7 crowd) and accessible and interesting (important for everyone else). Most importantly, it was relevant to our familyâ€”it made sense for the people sitting around the table, who mostly werenâ€™t Jewish but were there to celebrate Passover in a way that was meaningful. We left a lot out in order to create an abridged version that worked for my family, and I made sure to include the pieces that were most important for me to share the meaning of the holiday. Yours might look completely different, but youâ€™re welcome to use this as a starting off point, or even to bring into your seder if you wish.
Here it isâ€”take a look. Like it? Hate it? Iâ€™d love to hear what you think.