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 friend’s daughter is dating someone from a different faith and her grandparents are upset. The daughter called me and asked for advice. We talked about how people often participate in religion because of guilt or shame. For today’s society, guilt or pressure from families no longer works. In America, where everything is marketed so that you “need it now,” my philosophy is to make sure that the Jewish family is as welcoming, interesting, educational and inviting as possible. The family should be welcoming, not just because the new boyfriend or girlfriend is at the table, but for everyone. If a person has miserable memories associated with the family, they are not going to be inclined to practice Judaism when it is their turn.
If there is a new (or potential) family member at the table, make sure that the newcomer is having a positive and enjoyable experience. The family’s goal with any guest should be to put on their best version of themselves. In short, every parent’s goal should be to make the new family member fall in love with the family—its rituals, customs and craziness! Grandparents can tell stories of how important Judaism is to them and why they love it. Keep it positive, appreciative and most important, non-judgmental.
Maybe new family members will understand why the Jewish family has worked hard for so many years to maintain the beauty of Judaism. Maybe it’s the silliness. Maybe the bonding or the joy of special foods. No matter what, make it pleasant. Make it a wonderful memory. And if it gets awkward, just smile and plan to laugh about it the next day. We all have at least one annoying relative—just smile because they aren’t going to change just because you wish they would.
Talk to your parents and grandparents and tell them to show off a bit. Tell them to keep all interaction inviting. Tell them that you love them and you have so many positive family memories. Tell them you want your new (potential) family member to have these great memories too. For instance: “Grammy and Pops, I love you. I hope that he falls in love with you too. It will be easy since you are so loveable! And please get to know him. Ask him questions so you can learn how wonderful he is.” A positive tone with a little flattery should go a long way toward new wonderful memories.
Good luck and keep us posted! We want to hear about your family experiences, questions and advice.
I remember the day I introduced our kids to The Prince of Egypt. I loved this movie, and I was excited to be sharing it with them. Then my partner entered the living room: “How can we teach our kids these stories?!” The slavery, the plagues, and worse, God as a killer of babies. Suddenly, I felt the need to defend Passover, the Exodus story and Judaism as a whole. I know the Exodus is a tough story, but I also felt passionately about it.
It was not the first time my partner, who did not grow up Jewish, has challenged Judaism in this way to me. It began many years ago, before having children, at a Shabbat service. We were nearing the end of the liturgy, singing the “Aleynu” prayer. She nudged me, whispering, “Do you know what you’re saying?” Startled out of my rote recital, I looked at the page. “You [God] have not created us like them, you have not made our lot like the families of the earth.”
Eek! Honestly, I had never read the English, and didn’t know enough Hebrew back then to have parsed it out myself. I had grown up with translations of this prayer that lessened the “chosenness” aspect. I didn’t know what to say. So I stopped saying it. Not based solely on the Aleynu, I ended up choosing to become a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement which deletes notions of chosenness from the liturgy.
It was a great example of someone with fresh eyes pushing me to think more deeply and critically at my own tradition. I had to resist a knee-jerk reaction and listen. This kind of dialogue, I believe, is an interfaith relationship at its best. Since then, my partner has pointed out countless issues to me, shaking me out of my complicity to call out where Judaism needs to evolve and transform.
But it also raises the issue: Who gets to criticize? It’s a common interfaith scenario: An issue comes up around a holiday, or a rabbi or pastor says something during services that rubs someone the wrong way. Suddenly, one partner feels responsible for defending an entire tradition spanning thousands of years. But something else happens as well. Often, the “defender” gets worried. What if my partner is so angry about this that we can’t have this tradition alive in our home?
The truth is that every one of us has gripes with our own religion. And in Judaism, criticizing from within is built into this tradition that loves to hold many opinions as equally valid. But something different happens when a person of another faith criticizes your own, and when that person is your partner, different dynamics can arise. Perhaps at another point in your life, such a critique may have been the entrée into an interesting interfaith dialogue about why a tradition does this or that. But in this moment it can feel threatening.
Interfaith couples keep a lot of our religious or cultural issues swept nicely under the carpet. We fear that if we really explore what we want our lives to look like, or what we really believe or don’t believe, we could threaten our relationship. So we tuck issues away because it seems to go just fine if we do. That is, until they come up again. And they always do.
I would like to offer some tips for getting through “critique” moments:
1. Everyone picks at the little things. Get past the “Oh no, he is going to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater!” mentality. Discuss long range, overarching plans for spirituality and religion in your home. Then you will be freed up to discuss the details of how those broad decisions will play out in your everyday lives. The little things can be merely interesting, philosophical conversations instead of “make it or break it” moments.
2. Use those critiques as opportunities to learn together. What does Jewish tradition say about that ritual? Was it always observed in that way? Do other movements in Judaism see it differently, and is there flexibility in how the practicing partner executes it?
3. Take a deep breath. If you do feel the need to defend a ritual, a piece of liturgy or a theological stance, ask yourself why you feel aligned with it. Is it nostalgic? A deeply held belief? Or because “that is the way it has always been?” Do you feel the need to present a “perfect” version of your tradition to your partner? What is coming up for you?
4. Judaism holds that all Jews were standing at Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God according to the Book of Exodus). That means that everyone heard the revelation of the tradition, and everyone has equal allowance to interpret it for themselves. But there was also an “erev rav”—a mixed multitude of fellow travelers who left with the Israelites from Egypt. They heard it as well and, therefore, get to weigh in on this evolving tradition. That means that by bringing a partner into a Jewish life who isn’t Jewish, she or he gets to have a say. Listen carefully to each other’s critiques—there is often great wisdom and insight when someone is coming from another perspective.
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.
When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passover afikomen hunt. The prize for finding the broken pieces of matzah throughout the house was the hot toy of the day (I vividly remember the year of the Beanie Baby craze). She also created an elaborate Easter egg hiding game in which one rhyming clue (starting on our pillows in the morning) led to another, with a big basket filled with eggs as the grand finale. What is the allure of the hide-and-seek element of both Easter and Passover? Do they have anything in common?
As early as the age of peek-a-boo, hiding and finding is a huge part of our development of object permanence. Dad leaves the room but it’s OK! He still exists and will come back in a minute. Just because we can’t see or hear something doesn’t mean it’s gone. Then, as we grow, the basic game of hide-and-seek excites us for an amazingly long stretch of years. I have to imagine, as my kids are playing hide-and-seek with me at the park, that the moments when I can’t see them—while panicky for me—are exhilarating for them. A sweet taste of future independence. Perhaps our spring rituals capture the excitement and expectation of these early forays into mystery and autonomy.
Both Passover and Easter share a theme of rebirth in springtime. For Christianity, Christ’s rebirth is symbolized in the egg. On the seder plate we place an egg as a symbol of hope, recalling the Israelites’ escape from slavery and birth as a free nation. Although in Judaism, the egg isn’t hidden, both rituals harken back to celebrations of the bursting forth of life at this season that far predate either religious tradition and are shared by many peoples around the world.
But when did people start hiding Easter eggs? Legend has it that the Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, held egg hunts in which men hid the eggs for the women and children. Some Christians have claimed the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb, symbolizing his rebirth, and the hunt for eggs was likened to the hunt for Jesus in the tomb. There are images of Mary Magdelene with an egg as well. The Easter bunny didn’t enter the picture as the deliverer of those eggs until the 17th century.
The afikomen ritual clearly has very different origins, and there is no evidence that the hide-and-seek rituals are linked. Afikomen means “that which comes after” or “dessert” in Greek, and the hunt for it is a clever ploy to keep kids engaged in the often lengthy seder until the end. The kids’ elevated role is in keeping with the entire Passover experience; the holiday ritual is an elaborate scheme to pass the story of enslavement to freedom onto children.
How does it work? Early in the seder, the leader breaks the middle matzah on the table and leaves half of it as “dessert” to be eaten after the meal. Then after everyone has eaten, the leader cannot close the seder until the dessert matzah is found and eaten. Families enact this in myriad ways, but here are two popular options:
Either way, the ritual empowers children. It’s always fun to put one over on your parents. But the kids also learn that while they often feel less important than adults, at this moment they are powerful!
What about bringing these overlapping spring rituals together in an interfaith home? This is a matter for each family to decide. But some might find it comforting to know that egg painting in springtime is a tradition older than either Judaism or Christianity and it celebrates rebirth, hope, life and fertility. In fact, some Israelis even remember growing up decorating eggs for Passover, and might find it surprising that American Jews don’t generally approve of it on the grounds that in the United States, it is associated with Christianity. There are important historical reasons why some customs have become considered off limits in order for Jews to retain their particular status as separate from the dominant culture around them. But if you end up with a colored egg on your seder plate, you are far from alone. It is common enough that a great guidebook for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren is called, There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.
How will you celebrate this year? Do spring traditions overlap or collide in your home? When planning a seder or Easter rituals, think about what you want to convey through the games and symbols you share. Think back with your partner or other family members about the rituals you each grew up with around the spring holidays and share what was meaningful—or confusing—about them. Articulate what you need out of the experience to feel personally and spiritually fulfilled. Together, explore the messages you hope your kids will take away from this season.
And while you’re thinking about Passover and Easter, take our 2015 Passover/Easter Survey for a chance to win $500!
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 brothers’ are Catholic and Christian and mine are Jewish, and so, it’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 one…from 1932…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 “My Favorite Things” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame!” You see, while this may not constitute a very traditional haggadah, what’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 Heather’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 hit—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 family—it made sense for the people sitting around the table, who mostly weren’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 you’re welcome to use this as a starting off point, or even to bring into your seder if you wish.
Here it is—take a look. Like it? Hate it? I’d love to hear what you think.
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.
I love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I haven’t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parent’s new congregation. I don’t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.
I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and
For many years, interfaith families in congregations felt or still feel that extended family and parents who are not Jewish are not fully embraced. Some express that their cultural and religious lives have to be dormant or invisible inside the realm of synagogue. Children in interfaith homes report that religious school teachers or other members of the congregation make off-handed comments which make them feel less than fully Jewish or different or other. When people feel close to clergy members who can’t officiate at their life cycle events, it can deeply sting. So even though the majority of American Jews are partnered with someone who is not Jewish and congregations are by and large welcoming and want interfaith families to be part of the community, it can take some convincing to encourage interfaith couples and families to try again, so to speak, when a negative experience has already occurred.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago have created a new offering (which I explained in this previous blog post) to encourage interfaith families to take a chance with a synagogue for their family because we feel that being part of a community is so intrinsic to our ability to live and pass on Judaism. We have asked congregations to designate an interfaith family that is active at their synagogue to be listed as a “connector” on their Temple’s profile on our website. You can email this person to ask them to share their honest experience at the synagogue. They can tell you about how the parent who isn’t Jewish feels there. They can tell you about the vibe at the religious school and how the diversity of the community is celebrated.
As well, each of these congregations has a link back to InterfaithFamily on their temple’s website as a show of support for the interfaith families in the community and as a sign that they want to be supportive with resources to help pave the way to exploring Judaism however they can.
The following is a list of synagogues that we endearingly call our Super Orgs!
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.
When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: “The lovers, the dreamers, and me…”
On our family’s winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didn’t think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.
However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dog’s collar and the peace of sleeping children.
What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of God’s covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.
The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was present—even those who were yet to be—at that most awesome moment in our shared history and “memory.” So, what about people who aren’t Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?
I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.
As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.
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.