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“I feel I’m Jewish not just because I’ve chosen Judaism but because Judaism has chosen me.”
You might recognize David Gregory from his time as NBC newsman or as Meet the Press moderator. But he visited Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Boston Federation–a supporter of InterfaithFamily/Boston and leader in interfaith issues–this morning in the role of author, husband and father. He was joined by Dr. Erica Brown, an extraordinary Jewish author and teacher. Gregory and Brown were interviewed by CJP President Barry Shrage about interfaith relationships and Jewish life.
Brown made a good point early on in the conversation: So often, it’s not Jewish ritual or prayer or the organized Jewish community that puts off people who are not Jewish. To a newcomer, it’s the inside jokes, that “tribalism” about Jewish culture—the very thing that makes many Jews feel pride—that can be so isolating.
Many of us have seen this play out, whether you are the Jewish one, joking about a Jewish stereotype or using insider lingo, or you’re the one hearing it and not quite feeling part of the conversation.
Gregory is in a unique position to speak on the pulse of interfaith relationships having felt like both insider and outsider. He is the product of an interfaith family (he was raised by a Catholic mother and Jewish father) and it was his wife’s strong Protestant faith that inspired him to explore his own faith and religion. After a great deal of religious and spiritual exploration, he said, “I feel more Jewish than I ever have in my life.”
It’s time for Jews to change their thinking, Gregory said. As his wife Beth put it: “I know what you are but what do you believe?”
Unfortunately, he points out, the idea of appreciating Judaism for its vibrancy, community and spirituality is an “elective.” The more powerful conversation on the table is still the endurance of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, so it can be difficult to steer the conversation toward the richness of what Judaism has to offer; the “what you believe” rather than the “what you are.”
Gregory is by no means saying that it is futile to embrace and share the notion that Judaism has a great deal to offer those who are not already engaged, however. He challenged those in the room from Jewish organizations to think about creating inroads to the Jewish community that have authenticity for interfaith couples. Brown also pointed out that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work, as every person and couple is unique.
What was most compelling about the conversation was hearing Gregory talk from experience. He does not claim to have the answers for anyone else, but he has been on quite a journey with his personal relationship with Judaism. Its importance has the power to bring him to tears and to propel him forward on this intellectual and heartfelt journey with his family.
Two of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory’s main characters, Howard and Bernadette, announced that they are having a baby. Mere moments after hearing the news, the father-to-be was fretting about how they would raise their child since they come from different religious backgrounds. “How’s this all going to work? You’re Catholic, I’m Jewish. What religion do we raise it?! And if it’s a boy, do we get him circumcised?”
While their different backgrounds have bubbled up in past episodes, I imagine that Wolowitz’ rant in this scene hit home for many interfaith couples. Navigating two distinct backgrounds is often quite simple…until someone is holding a positive pregnancy test in hand.
When does the topic of religion usually come up in interfaith relationships? Some begin talking about religion before anything gets serious, especially when a faith background is very important to one or both people. But the reality for many couples from different religious or cultural backgrounds is that they only start to discuss these potential differences well into their relationship. For those who plan to have children, conversations about raising children often occur only after having them. Bringing a child into the world can rouse religious questions for the first time. In fact, the least religiously connected time of many people’s lives is young adulthood, so when they meet a partner, religion may be the last thing on their minds.
My advice is to talk early and often. Try introducing the topic with these conversation starters—either before having kids or when kids are young:
1. Talk about your respective backgrounds. Do you both come from a religious heritage that is significant to you? Or just one?
2. Imagine your life about 5 or 10 years down the road. Do you picture particular religious rituals occurring (ie. baby namings, baptism, bris/Jewish ritual circumcision, bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation, etc)? Religious education? Explain to each other what is important to you and why—even if you never had to articulate it before.
3. Talk about holidays and milestones. Which will you celebrate? Why are they important to you? With whom will you spend them? How will you explain your decisions to your child so they feel pride and ownership over their identity or identities?
4. How will you include family members who don’t share traditions and celebrations you choose to observe?
5. You don’t have to have it all figured out right this minute, but setting the stage will help tremendously. You will develop a shared language and a better understanding of what is important to each of you. When issues do arise, it won’t be the first time you’ve thought about religion together.
The clearer you are about the decisions you are making, the clearer you can be with your kids, in-laws and other extended family and friends. Don’t shy away from talking about religion. You will actually become stronger as a couple when you learn to communicate about delicate subjects without fear of threatening the relationship between the two of you or extended family. Plus, as you learn more about one another’s backgrounds, hopes and desires, you could actually be uncovering stories that allow you to know each other on an even deeper level. If you feel more comfortable having a guide with you as you broach these questions, the InterfaithFamily staff is here to help.
Are Bernadette and Howard too late to figure out the logistics of an interfaith family? Not at all. But better to not be taken by surprise.
Last Friday night, I watched as my kids lit Shabbat candles and said the prayers at our table with my in-laws standing by. My partner’s parents are not Jewish, and I felt a deep appreciation for them in this moment. When we all met, none of us could have imagined this scene. Nearly two decades ago, I stayed at their home for the first time. My partner and I were graduate students on the East Coast and we headed west to see her folks at their ranch in central Oregon over break. Like many people, Jewish or not, they really aren’t into religion at all. Here we were, a rabbinical student and a PhD candidate in religious studies. We pretty much ate, drank and breathed religion.
I wanted to be careful not to overwhelm them with Jewish talk or Jewish practice. That was tough because I was starting to observe Shabbat and other rituals for the first time. I chose carefully which ones I absolutely had to do. One of my new, favorite Shabbat rituals was baking challah. As Friday morning rolled around, it felt strange not to make it. I started to get the ingredients out, and the implications ran through my mind:
1) This kitchen is going to be really, really messy.
2) It would feel weird to me if we ate challah on Friday night without saying the prayer over it. But saying it will feel really weird too.
3) Oh no…it will feel weird to do the prayer over the bread without doing all three Shabbat blessings. Now it’s a full ceremony and it’s going to be awkward.
In the end, I did it anyway. The result? Wow, these people love challah. I know most people like it. What’s not to like? My recipe includes eggs, flour and tons of sugar and butter which make it more like a Shabbat dessert. It’s always a crowd pleaser. But I have never seen anyone so overtaken by it. Seeing how excited her parents were and knowing how worried I was about engaging in Jewish ritual in their house, my partner made sure they knew that getting to the challah meant that there would be Jewish prayers at their table. For people who really disagree with religion as a whole, don’t believe in the God we are thanking in these prayers and have no context for the foreign language being spoken at their table, this could have been a huge deal.
It’s been almost two decades, and I’m still making challah for my in-laws. Now when we visit, our kids help bake and decorate. We do the entire Shabbat ceremony consisting of all three prayers: lighting candles, saying kiddush over wine and grape juice and the motsi over the challah, my partner’s parents stand by, knowing that challah is coming.
I am greatly appreciative that my in-laws have been able to witness our family’s rituals and other religious choices. Clearly, some of these rituals have been easier to stomach than others. My mother-in-law enjoys the challah far more than she did the bris (then again, I’m with her on that one). It’s not easy when your kids choose a lifestyle so different from your own. In one sense, I credit the challah. It was one of the first moments when we came together around a Jewish custom, and unlike lots of other Jewish foods that are acquired tastes, challah was the one that could allow them to see into a completely new religious framework and even allow for it to happen at their family table. In a way, it’s just bread. But “breaking bread” together is also the way people from many cultures have traditionally and symbolically expressed that they can cross a difficult boundary. So maybe it’s no accident that this openness was instigated by a couple of loaves of home-baked bread. But at a deeper level, I credit my in-laws for demonstrating incredible openness to new ideas and most of all, for embracing us. That, and helping me clean the kitchen.
Sweet Egg Bread (Challah)
5-6 cups of flour
As the new managing editor at InterfaithFamily, I want our blog to be a place where our readers can find out about the “interfaith conversation” that’s happening when it happens in the Jewish and secular media. Yesterday, 21-year-old Rachel Cohen wrote an informed piece on The Daily Beast, “Why Jews Should Stop Worrying About Intermarriage,” challenging Jewish communal leaders to essentially, be less offensive. She speaks to the inclusion we at IFF are working toward much more succinctly than I could, and she speaks directly for her generation:
Cohen is getting clear messages from the Jewish community. But they’re not the ones she wants to hear: We support you, as long as you marry another Jew.
Interfaith marriage is not the problem, as Cohen sees it. Alienating America’s Jewish youth from Jewish communal life is.
Read her whole essay here.