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I had the privilege to sit on a panel Monday night, May 20th, joining other clergy in expressing our views on interfaith marriage. This discussion was sponsored by the Winnetka Interfaith Council. The panelists were: Jena K. Khodadad, Bahai Faith; Rev. David Lower, Winnetka Presbyterian Church; Rabbi Samuel Gordon, founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette; Rev. Christopher Powell, Rector of Christ’s Church in Winnetka; and Herb White, from the First Church of Christ Science. It was moderated by John Lucas, MAPC, a counselor with the Samaritan Counseling Center.
Interestingly, the other clergy on the panel from Christian faiths and from Bahai had little problems with a Christian marrying a Jew. In fact, they emphasized Judaism as the root of Christianity and the parables of Jesus often mirroring narratives from the Hebrew Bible. They are not worried about the continuation of Christianity; they feel children in such families are doubly blessed. Interfaith marriage for Jews is so much more complicated, both theologically and because of the relatively small size of our community. However, when the progressive Jewish world thinks creatively, lovingly, openly, honestly and respectfully about how to make room for interfaith families exploring all aspects of religion, the Jewish community is indelibly strengthened and enriched.
The following questions generated some interesting discussion. I’m sharing my responses here. Let me know what you think.
In your experience, what challenges are there in trying to raise children of an interfaith marriage in both religions and what recommendations do you have to those who are trying to decide this issue?
It is theologically impossible to be both Jewish and Christian. If one accepts Jesus as divine and savior, this belief takes the person outside the realm of Judaism. However, I do feel it is possible to be enriched by two faiths. I do think children can benefit from being exposed to the faith, traditions, customs, narratives and cultures of both parents’ current religious identities or affiliations.
This belief is very controversial within the Jewish world. Many worry that children who grow up with two religions in the home will end up confused and angry. They may not come to affirm a strong Jewish identity. They may feel mixed-up and not know where they belong or fit in among mainstream religious organizations as adults. They may feel resentful of the need to “choose” a religion and feel that they will hurt one parent or another by “choosing a side.”
However, this need not be the case. A Pew study reported that 60% of adults practice a religion other than the one of birth. Identity is fluid today. People go in and out of faith communities. Children who have been passed literary and a love of two heritages by their parents may feel blessed and whole.
The challenges to raising children with an appreciation of two faiths is that they will be denied access to some Jewish organizations and other communal aspects of the religion, such as synagogue religious schools. These families will have to find welcoming synagogues, alternative havurot (Hebrew for fellowships, from the same root as the word for friends, this is a term used when families come together to learn and celebrate Shabbat and holidays together) and other avenues for being part of religious communal life including worship and learning.
Other challenges will arise in how to understand the theology of both religions and how to involve extended family who may have strong opinions about what children should and should not be exposed to religiously. These kinds of religious decision-making may add stress to a marriage or may enrich both parents as each one seeks to get in touch with what he or she really believes and wants to pass on to the children.
In doing premarital sessions with couples, what do you say to interfaith couples and what issues do you suggest that they discuss?
InterfaithFamily/Chicago offers a workshop called Love and Religion which helps couples learn how to talk about religion in their lives. In a group setting, couples begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion. If you are engaged or newly married and would like to join in the next session of Love and Religion, email me at email@example.com.
In your experience, what are the keys to making an interfaith marriage work?
Interfaith marriages need support and resources which are specifically designed for couples that come to a relationship having grown up in two different religions. InterfaithFamily.com seeks to offer content to interfaith couples through narratives written by others in similar situations about how they handle certain things, and literacy about the meaning of different Jewish traditions and observances so that both partners understand aspects of Judaism. As well, the Network enables couples and families to “meet” each other online and discuss challenges they may share. Parents and couples blog about their experiences as well. We offer free, downloadable booklets and other articles which can be shared with extended family so that everyone can feel part of the religious lives’ of the couple. Both partners may feel that they have been challenged to be open, honest, flexible and giving in ways they may not have anticipated… but many say that their respect and love for each other is deepened through navigating an interfaith relationship.
We just finished an online class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Participants came to their computers on their own time and read essays, watched videos, read narratives written by other interfaith families and discussed with each other the content and meaning of the eight sessions. The sessions were about major aspects of parenting, from bedtime to meals to raising ethical children, and the wisdom Judaism can provide about these areas.
An interesting discussion arose about Shabbat family worship. Parents said that Friday evening services were too late for young children. Tot Shabbat was fun for the children but didn’t fill the adults with spirituality or insight. Parents who were raised Christian said that they had warm memories of attending Church as a family on Sunday mornings: adults were able to participate in communal worship and children could join in or attend the nursery program. The whole family had an enriching experience that grounded their week and brought them together.
Why did this not exist within liberal Judaism, they wondered? It seemed as if Reform temples had essentially private bar or bat mitzvahs on Shabbat mornings, with no childcare for young children. Some Conservative synagogues had more options on Shabbat morning for the whole family, but parents who aren’t Jewish worried that they wouldn’t know enough Hebrew and would feel out of place somehow. I encouraged all of the participants to try both Reform and Conservative worship to see how they felt in reality, as assumptions and apprehensions may or may not come true. But the frustration was clear. Parents spoke about how their Jewish neighbors were taking the kids to soccer and swim lessons and anything other than Shabbat family worship.
I can relate to this frustration. I have worked at different Reform congregations around the country, and at least once a year it seems the senior staff would get together to talk about what to do with Shabbat! Were there ways to meet for earlier Friday evening family programs with dinner? If it was too early, parents who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. Every idea for Shabbat morning family worship would be put forth: musical services, services with crafts and projects at the end for the children, services ending with lunch, and other ideas to make the service more “attractive” or “appealing.” However, time and time again no matter how Shabbat morning got programmed, few families would attend. Even when rabbis preached about the need for this gift called Shabbat, the gift of time, of joy, of changing pace if only for an hour or two, of re-connecting… nobody seemed to bite.
Some rabbis explain this by saying that Judaism is a religion of the home, and it is not cultural to feel a pull to attend congregational worship. Families often do the Shabbat blessings over their own special dinner and have friends over. The kitchen table is referred to as the mikdash m’at (a miniature temple) in rabbinic writings because what goes on around the Shabbat table is worship. But that still does not answer our questions.
Perhaps this challenge can help bring positive changes to our Jewish communities. Maybe interfaith families will take the lead in bringing Shabbat family worship to liberal Jewish families who may not even realize what spending an hour or two on a Saturday morning together in song and peace would do for their family. Imagine if it became the cultural norm for families to come to synagogue from 9:30-11:00 on Saturday mornings in order to ground their week in hope, love and community. It will be exciting to see what ideas congregations can come up with for participatory, inclusive and engaging family worship with nursery options and learner’s services so that the whole family can come together in making meaningful memories.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago is currently offering an online/in-person hybrid class called How to Raise a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. We have 21 families – raising young children – from all over Chicagoland participating.
The participants come to their computers in spare minutes to access the content of each week’s session. They can read essays and watch slide shows about the theme of the session, gain ideas for family projects, respond to discussion questions, write in their journals, watch videos, learn blessings, read narratives written by other interfaith families, and more.
The families in this class are diverse. Some have one partner who is Jewish and another who either was born into and practices another religion or was born into another religion but does not practice that religion now. For some families, both partners are questioning elements of the religion of their upbringing and thinking about what feels comfortable in terms of the religious observance of their new family.
Parents talk about understanding elements in Judaism and coming to feel at ease reciting prayers in Hebrew. Discussions have involved how young children perceive different prayers and how they process who they are religiously. We have discussed, online and in-person, which traditions have enduring meanings and which rituals are realistic to bring into the rhythm of the family’s life. For example, during the first session we grappled with the Shema prayer. We spoke online about wanting a peaceful and spiritual bedtime routine with our children and wondered if prayer is part of that experience. If it is, is the Shema that prayer or would it be something else? Do both parents say it, or just the Jewish partner?
This past Friday evening, we also met up in-person to connect comments written on a screen to actual faces. At the Board of Jewish Education in Northbrook, IL , we ushered in Shabbat together as a new community.
We were meeting for the first time, and some young children who had been in the car for an hour were understandably antsy, energetic, and curious, while others were apprehensive.
We started with three Shabbat blessings. We spoke about light in the face of the dreary evening weather and the light in our children’s eyes. We sipped wine and thought about which sweet moments we were looking forward to this Shabbat. We ate challah and thought about the goodness of being together.
In order for these parents to get to Northbrook, some of them left work early, ran to get children from daycares and nannies, faced traffic and stress. Yet they showed up. The message that we all felt is that Shabbat means honoring traditions, being with friends and loved ones, focusing on singing and playing, and stepping out of the norms of the week for a chance to experience time in a different way. This gift that is Shabbat is one we open in our own ways and with our own spirits.
The families also made placemats that said either Sabbath Peace or Shabbat Shalom. The children pasted on pictures of their homes and images of peace. They wrote the names of those they love all over their mats. They decorated their mats with their handprints and stamps. When they use their laminated mats at meals or on Shabbat, maybe they will look at the images and think about their role in bringing peace to their home, peace to their playdates, and peace to the playground… This eternal message of Shabbat will be realized in new ways by the children of this new generation.
This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom.
Who are the “half Jewish?” Or is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant” – either you are, or you are not? For more than two decades, half of marriages involving Jews have been intermarriages. Today on college campuses, there are likely more students with one Jewish parent than with two. Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, and Holocaust memorial observances could be full to overflowing if the Jewish community could learn who these “heirs of intermarriage” really are and how to encourage them to explore the Jewish side of their family heritage.
The problem is that the organized Jewish community has been too slow to face this reality. This goes deeper than a welcoming approach to intermarriage ceremonies, which could start off these intercultural families on a note of welcoming rather than a feeling of rejection. Telling young adults, “I wouldn’t have married your parents” implies there is something wrong about what made them who they are. Too many still see the question of “who is Jewish” as either/or: either your mother is Jewish and thus you are, or you are not (without conversion). What if you want to be, what if you feel, what if you simply are “Jewish and…”?
We all live in many identities. I am Jewish, and a Humanistic Jew, and a rabbi, but I am also male, and a parent, and I grew up in Michigan, and I now live in the Chicago area. All of these identities exist in me simultaneously, and I cannot choose whether I am male or Jewish or Midwestern. An individual with a Jewish parent and an Irish/Italian/Latino/African American/etc. parent is unlikely to choose one or the other identity if it means they must deny, reject, or forget the other “half” of their family. These questions are not simply issues of individual identity; there are real live (and deceased) parents and grandparents and family traditions and heirlooms and memories at stake. There are almost as many varieties of “half Jewish” experiences as there are individuals. Some embrace the term while others reject it, but we all know what it means, even without Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.
This April 20-22, 2012, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism will be exploring this crucial issue at its Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Held on the Northwestern University campus in partnership with Fiedler Hillel of Northwestern University and Newberger Hillel of the University of Chicago, speakers and panelists will explore the “half Jewish” experience through qualitative and quantitative research, personal stories, and passionate debate. Voices from academia, Jewish outreach (including Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago), the arts, Hillel, Birthright Next, and Israel will discover who this population is, in all of its diversity, and how we can speak to them as they are rather than as we imagine or wish them to be.
The truth is that the question of “half Jewish” is really a question of “what does it mean to be Jewish?” I vividly remember a conversation with a Reform rabbi friend who was strongly opposed to the concept of “half Jewish.” He asked, “How can you be two religions at once that believe different things?” I responded, “Can you be half Jewish and half Korean?” And that changed the discussion. While there are some who are raising children as “both religions” (and that experience will be part of the Colloquium discussion), for many heirs of intermarriage, their connection to both sides of their family, Jewish and other, is as culture and heritage more than religious belief and practice.
In this, they are not very different from most other Jews, who do not believe everything they are supposed to believe, do not avoid the foods they are supposed to shun, or do not perform the rituals tradition commands. Large numbers of American Jews connect to Jewish culture, history, and ethnic identity more strongly than to traditional Jewish religion and religious law; they may go to synagogue twice a year, but they feel Jewish all year round because it is who they are. Why should the heirs of intermarriage be any different?
Our hope is that Colloquium 2012 – “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage is the beginning of a wider conversation that will help determine the future of the Jewish community. Will we have the courage to be open and welcoming, the courage to change our expectations for the chance of success, or will we continue the self-inflicted losses of recent Jewish demographics? Will the heirs of intermarriage find Jewish homes, and create Jewish homes with their own families, even if their homes are “Jewish and…”? The choice will be theirs, and ours.More information on the Colloquium, including registration forms, can be found on the IISHJ website.
This is a guest post by Rabbi Evan Moffic on the topic of a new book that examines Jewish identity. It is partially in response to another review, “Jews, Damned Jews, and Sociologists”.
What is Judaism? At first glance, this question seems simplistic. Judaism is, of course, a religion. Yet, what religion has its own language (Hebrew)? What religion has generated hundreds of cookbooks? Well, we might say, Judaism is a culture. Culture, however, is an inherently vague word, and how does one create schools and synagogues around a culture? The truth is that Judaism does not fit into traditional sociological categories. It is a religion, a culture, a philosophy, and much more. Its many dimensions have made Judaism a subject of serious exploration in a variety of scholarly fields, including those centered on identity formation. Scholars and rabbis have sought to address the issue of what establishes and creates Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish?
A recent volume brings together a variety of voices on this question. Edited by three eminent sociologists, and including essays from a variety of disciplines, Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities offers few answers. It does, however, offer some new insights into the contemporary Jewish community. For those of us who work with and in the field of interfaith families, we can take comfort in knowing that scholars better understand that Jewish identity does not fit in fixed categories. Marrying someone who is not Jewish, for example, does not mean a personno longer has a place in the Jewish community. Judaism, rather, has a deeply subjective aspect to it. It is not something externally imposed by a traditional authority. It is a faith, a people, an approach to life that we embrace, and through which we can find both personal meaning and vibrant community.
This view is not without opposition. Those who study the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as differences between Jewish life in America and in Israel, have identified the issue of authority as a core tension. Many in the Orthodox community and in Israel identified Judaism as defined within a larger communal framework of authority. For Orthodoxy, that framework is Jewish life. For those in Israel, it is the Jewish national culture.
Those in America, and in non-Orthodox communities around the world, tend to see Judaism as an autonomously chosen way of life. It is something more fluid than fixed. It changes and evolves over time, and we look at differently depending on where we are in the journey of our lives. WE are our own primary authorities.
Both approaches have their dangers. For those in the camp of communal authority, Judaism can easily become frozen. It can appeal to a smaller and smaller subculture of the Jewish world. For those in the individualist camp, Judaism can become so subjective that we lose any sense of boundaries or communal cohesion.
These are questions we address every day. This book helps us understand and appreciate our own story.Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.
We just finished our first Love and Religion Workshop in Chicago, a four-session workshop developed by Dr. Marion Usher in D.C. and offered at JCCs across the country. The workshop, for interfaith couples who are seriously dating, engaged or newly married, seeks to engender discussion about the role of religion in their lives. Couples can begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion.
Four interfaith, Chicagoland couples, all of whom are getting married this summer, participated in our workshop. They logged into their computers with multiple video conferencing on Wednesday evenings so that we could see and hear each other from the comfort of our own homes. For the last session, we met in person at a Jewish deli on the North Shore.
Having tried to get a glimpse into these couples’ lives over the past month, here are my thoughts:
1. These couples (and many of the couples I marry) have not had backlash, ill-feelings or negativity from their parents and extended family at the thought of marrying someone from a different religion. There are, of course, exceptions. Some parents do find it hard to speak to their children about their disappointments and concerns. Not surprisingly, these issues often get exacerbated when grandchildren come into the picture. However, couples often share that their parents are happy for them: happy they found a partner who brings them joy and support.
2. Couples are interested and eager to plan their interfaith wedding ceremony and to unpack the meaning of the traditions. For couples who want to bring aspects of both religions into the ceremony and their lives as a married couple, they may feel that they are dancing on eggshells to make sure that both sides are represented in the ceremony. They want their ceremony to feel Jewish and yet honor the other partner’s religion as well in real ways. Couples are concerned that their family members who are not Jewish will feel part of the ceremony. Partners who are Jewish worry about the mention of Jesus as possibly alienating Jewish family members. Many of the couples printed out our wedding guide for help deciding on readings; gaining understanding about the meaning behind traditions; and to begin envisioning what their ceremony would look, feel and sound like. An interfaith ceremony has to present both religions’ traditions in ways that affirm the other. The wedding shouldn’t feel like two totally different ceremonies have been placed into one whole, going back and forth and back and forth with no connections being made and with ideas that conflict. As with many other aspects in Judaism, interfaith relationships are compelling us to look at liturgy and traditions with a new lens, with a new openness and with creativity to understanding the spirit behind the words and rites.
3. It is not a far leap from talking about a wedding ceremony to talking about how couples will raise their future children. Before we could talk about what role religion would play, we tried to articulate what each partner believes about major aspects of their own religion. This is where I got a lot of blank stares. For some people who grew up Jewish, they never heard a rabbi or teacher ever talk about theology. For many, what Jews do or don’t believe about God, about life and after death, about sin and other major life questions are mysteries. A lack of our own Jewish knowledge and literacy makes it more difficult to figure out, in thoughtful and purposeful ways, what we want to pass on to our children. Some say they just want to celebrate holidays in secular ways. However, if there is interest in infusing deeper meaning, both cultural and religious, couples may need guidance. How does one begin to fill in some of these holes in their own religious education? I highly recommend participating, as a couple in, an introduction to Judaism class. They are held regularly, throughout the year, in various congregations around Chicagoland.
Talking regularly with our partners about different aspects of religion helps both people sort out what is important to them, what questions they still have, areas they want to explore more and where similarities and difference lie. The way couples experience religion will no doubt look different from what either partner grew up with. That can be liberating and exciting or challenging, frustrating and even sad. Yet being willing to actively grapple with these issues can lead interfaith couples to find a new religious vibrancy and identity.
The next session for Love and Religion starts soon. Join us in May!
From the moment I left the Kallah that we co-lead with the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.
I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.
Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:
If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?
Friday, January 13, we hosted a JCC Makor Shabbat for Interfaith Families with Young Children, a community dinner organized by the JCC Shure Kehilla. The guidelines for the dinner we hosted were that participants need to be 21-39, and some of the parents who came to our house were pushing this, but everyone loved the idea of a program whose aim is to connect this cohort with great Jewish happenings all around Chicagoland. The night we held our interfaith family Shabbat, there were three other community Shabbat dinners organized by the Kehilla happening in the city (blue-line Shabbat, travelers Shabbat, music and arts) and another taking place out in Wheeling.
For this Shabbat, however, we were having four other couples with their combined eight children to our home for blessings, dinner, schmoozing and playing. I started by getting the whole house organized and cleaned up (which actually felt really good to do). Then I went to Taboun Grill to pick up the food the JCC had ordered. When I got there, I met Genia who runs the Russian Hillel. I have known Genia in name for years through the work I have done in and around Odessa, Ukraine, but she didn’t know me. I was so excited to learn that she had become a Jewish professional in Chicago. I got to connect with her in person over some tea while we waited for our orders to be packed. (Genia was hosting the Wheeling Shabbat for Jews in the ‘Burbs, another of these community dinners organized through the Kehilla.) We talked about interfaith couples in the Russian community and what she is seeing in terms of identity and interests of her students.
InterfaithFamily/Chicago is offering our first two classes this year, which I am excited to be facilitating.
The first class is for interdating or newly married interfaith couples, offering the chance to think through how they want to bring religion into their lives. The second class is for interfaith families with young children, trying to figure out how to bring aspects of Judaism to their home (more than just Hanukkah!). This class with help the parent who isn’t Jewish gain knowledge about major aspects of Judaism that directly impact parenting and to see which of these traditions they feel comfortable embracing and making their own.
As I have been talking to different people about both of these classes, a couple of interesting things have come up. Here are two scenarios I have heard:
To these families I say, you don’t think you want the rubrics of religion in your lives but your children, like you, crave rituals and order, meaning and purpose. Every Jewish tradition and holiday has an ethical message or undertone to it. Lighting the Shabbat candles is as much about the spiritual as it is about the ethical, bringing family together for a special meal and time to share once a week. The Hebrew and blessings will come as you feel comfortable, but there is room within authentic Judaism for you to “do” Judaism in your own way, with your own language and your own interpretations, filling you in ways you may not yet be able to imagine.
To these couples I say, there is no such thing as “traditional” Judaism. You can connect to authentic Judaism, which is so richly spiritual that hearing the words of old told through a modern lens will fill you with awe, wonder, inspiration, joy and connectedness (that perhaps you never felt growing up at synagogue!). You can connect to Judaism today through nature, through yoga, through meditation, through study, social justice, and just hanging out with other interfaith couples and talking about what’s really important in your lives and families.
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If any part of either or both of these scenarios resonates for you at all, join us for the Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family course or Love and Religion workshop.
Love and Religion – Online is a four-session workshop for interfaith couples who are seriously dating or newly married, on exploring the issue of religion in their relationships. This workshop offers a safe environment for couples to work on creating religious lives together. The sessions will be each Wednesday for four weeks, starting February 1 in person, and then online February 8, 15 and 22. Each session runs 7:00-9:00pm and includes online resources including facilitation via videoconferencing. The cost is $36 per couple.
Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family is a one-of-a-kind, eight-session class for interfaith parents thinking about whether and how to bring Judaism to their home, their lives and their parenting. This class runs February 27 through April 27. Participants will learn one session each week online, with two additional in-person meetings for the whole family: a Shabbat experience on March 23 and a wrap-up session on April 22.
The stuff of identity (childhood memories and experiences, what works for you today, what’s important to you right now) is so complicated and can’t be summed up or wrapped up neatly in a scenario. But these are all of the kinds of things we can explore more deeply in these classes. I look forward to learning with you!
This is a guest post by Dr. Steve Moffic (my father-in-law, a Milwaukee psychiatrist). It was originally posted on his blog which deals with ethics.
How did a Jewish psychiatrist end up playing Santa Claus for his daughter 35 years ago? Is it possible that this could connect in any way to this same daughter now being a Sunday school teacher? And, even more of a possible stretch, even connect to her younger brother becoming a Rabbi and who also married a Rabbi? A blog just written by this psychiatrist begins to consider how Christmas, self-disclosure, and cross-cultural respect all come into play in trying to answer these questions. God, indeed, may work in mysterious ways.
The idea to play Santa for our young daughter was not mine. I was early in my career as a psychiatrist. Being a psychiatrist at that time would have led me in the other direction. At that time, the view of Freud, who of course came from a Jewish background, was that religion was like an opiate for people at best, a neurotic belief at worse. He could have been called an ethnic Jew, though we don’t for sure know if he turned more to religious beliefs as he was dying of cancer.
However, my wife wanted to do this and I wanted to please her. Moreover, it seemed like fun and I was just getting interested in masks, so I put on the mask and clothes of Santa. It worked, at least in its deception and enjoyment of our daughter. We later did this with our son, who was 8 years younger, though by then our daughter knew of the deception, so this time it wasn’t the same.
My wife recollected wanting to do this because it was a family tradition on her side. She felt it fulfilled a desire of her family to adapt to American values and traditions, while at the same time remaining strongly Jewish. She and her sisters all ended up marrying Jewish men and having long marriages. All of their children have married other Jews to date.
As I learned more about being a psychiatrist and how to help patients, I found out that self-disclosure on my part was filled with complexity and, despite any temptation, had to be done with utmost care and concern for how this would benefit my patients, not me.
In the field of psychiatry, the analysis of religion seemed to mature beyond Freud over the years. Religion could later be seen as a sound and normal social and cultural activity. At its best, at least in my opinion, it could not only complement the mental understandings of psychiatry, but take up where psychiatry left off and probe into the deeper questions of spiritual sustenance and the meaning of life. Psychiatry also didn’t have thousands of years of helping people cope with the challenges of life; we could certainly learn from religion.
I tried to apply this knowledge as best I could with being a parent as these same years went on. So that when my wife began to have thoughts and desires that our son should become a Rabbi, I didn’t tell her (or him) that she was “crazy”. Now that it happened, I think this, as well as our daughter teaching in a Jewish Sunday school, is one of the most wonderful legacies imaginable of being a parent.
Much later, after our son became firmly dedicated to becoming a Rabbi, I became more interested in Jewish religion and history. I finally succumbed to my wife’s request for us to attend weekly Torah study at our Reform synagogue. And, lo and behold, what did I find is that the Torah depicted human nature in all its successes and failures, that it could be analyzed in a depth even greater than Freudian interpretations, and that it left questions for us to ponder for the rest of our lives.
Self-disclosure in Torah was a prominent theme. Just consider God. God only reveals the qualities of God slowly and depending on circumstances. We are never allowed to see the “face” of God directly. God has an eternal mask of sorts, at least for us.
Jacob, with the direction of his mother, deceives his father by trying to disguise himself as his brother Esau. Was that really necessary to obtain the birthright? Did it lead to problems with Esau’s progeny over history all the way up to today? Interestingly, Jacob later is very open with his own children, conveying obvious favoritism to Joseph and somewhat berating all his children on his deathbed. Not what I would recommend as a psychiatrist. You may naturally have favorites as a parent, but that is best kept to yourself and try to treat all the children as having equivalent value in the image of God. And, before dying, it is psychologically best to resolve old animosities, if time and illness allows, rather than to disclose without time for discussion and better resolution.
Of course, Jacob’s father Isaac had already been subject to – a psychiatrist might say traumatized by – his father Abraham’s getting all set to sacrifice him. Was that what God really wanted, for Abraham to keep this from his son? Why not let Isaac argue with him, just like Abraham did with God once upon a time? Psychological trauma tends to repeat over family generations unless processed, reframed, and mistakes admitted and forgiven.
Then there is Moses. What is self-disclosed to him about his origins by his sister and other family? Perhaps all that can be concluded is that he likely learned of his background at the right age, at the right time, and with the right explanation for being “given up” for his own benefit.
As I specialized in treating patients from many different cultures, I learned that several things were essential for success. I had to respect other cultural values, even if I didn’t believe in them and even if I thought they were harmful. There were there for a historical reason. I had to not only empathize with the values of other cultures, but sometimes experience them directly, whether that be visiting those from other cultures or attending many of their cultural events. And, I had to be careful as to when I revealed my own cultural background and values. Timing was – and is – essential, for psychiatrists and parents. It needed to be when, as best as I could ascertain, and sometimes with the consultation of colleagues, that it should benefit the patient. Fantasy, imagination, and transference (what we call the projection of feelings to parents onto the psychiatrist) are all important – and inevitable – for a patient to experience in their relationship to a psychiatrist. Treatment, of course, had to be consistent with what their cultural identities valued. Over time, I developed multi-cultural holiday events for patients and staff at this time of year. I brought the Menorah and information about Hanukah.
An essential part of the development of any child is for them to know that they are a separate person from their parents, and that they have control over how much they may reveal of their own thoughts. Too much or too little can prove costly.
So, clearly, playing Santa Claus many years ago did not harm my Jewish identity. Nor did it not harm that of my children. And, who knows, could it have paradoxically helped? Surely, it is impossible to tease out the influence of this one activity over 35 years. But, now, as I write this, our adult children are most capable of considering the reasons I did this, the complexity and even anguish of our parental decisions over time, and how they can do better. Someday, when our four grandchildren seem ready, we will tell them this family Santa story.