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
In early May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the JCC‘s of North America Biennial Conference in New Orleans. Most of the conference sessions I attended were about leadership, community and the future of the JCC movement – all very interesting and meaningful to me as a JCC professional. However, the best workshop I attended was the one presented by David Ackerman of the JCC Association and Karina Zilberman, creator of Shababa at the 92nd Street Y in New York City focused on celebrating Shabbat at JCCs. If you live in Manhattan and you have small children, my advice is to RUN, not walk, to the 92nd Street Y for Shababa Fridays and Saturdays. If your kids like music and you like to feel inspired, this is the place. In a room full of 40 adults, Karina was able to create an atmosphere of joy that I haven’t experienced really since summer camp many moons ago. Her spirit, creativity and unique enthusiasm had a way of making everyone feel good, and in essence, make everyone feel good about being Jewish. That’s a pretty big and important task.
This experience really got me thinking about joy and Judaism – are my husband and I making Judaism joyful for our boys? We try to make it fun by bringing them to the JCC and synagogue Purim carnivals, by taking them to see Mama Doni concerts and by celebrating Passover with their cousins. We try to make it part of our lives by going to religious school on Sundays and participating in the family service each week. We try to make it social by setting up playdates with Jewish friends. But do we make it joyful? How do we really do that?
I think I can see and hear joy when our boys are singing Jewish songs in the car and reading books from the PJ library – but how can we take it to the next level? Overnight camp is one way for sure – Friday night services outside with all of your friends, singing the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) with all of the “campy” traditions – but until they (and we) are ready for that, what can we do now? How can we ensure that they feel great about being Jewish and that they feel joy when they are doing Jewish things?
When I go to the library at the Jewish Community Centre, I tend to browse and just grab whatever book catches my fancy. A few weeks ago, I couldn't find anything, so I asked the librarian if she had any recommendations. I was in the mood for a memoir or something historical. She recommended Harry Bernstein's memoir The Invisible Wall.
Mr. Bernstein wrote his memoirs (a series of 3 books) in his late nineties after his wife had passe away. He paints an amazing picture of England in the early twentieth century. He lived on a small street where the Jews lived on one side and the Christians on the other side. Antisemitic remarks were commonplace and something they lived with constantly.
I hadn't realized that the book would actually include the issue of intermarriage. The eldest sister Lily, married a non Jew, a boy who lived across the street. They had a secret romance and eventually "eloped" to the country side where they were married. Mother Bernstein was heartbroken. They mourned her "death" and sat shivah. Lily even came to the house to show she was very much alive, but her family ignored her.
Eventually they accepted the marriage, when a grandchild was born. In fact the street became united to celebrate the birth of the child of intermarriage.
I could certainly relate to what Lily went through. After I started dating my first non Jewish boy, my parents were disappointed and our relationship was severed for a long time. After the birth of our son, my parents have come around themselves, accepting my husband. I know it can't be easy for them to put aside their own upbringing and ingrained beliefs, but they are doing it and showing amazing love and grace to my husband.
Historically, Jews who intermarried were trying to shed their Jewish spirituality. They felt that religion and spirituality were the cause of antisemitism, and by being "like everyone else" they would be more accepted. This was the case for Lily and her husband.
Today, people have many reasons for marrying "out"; religion may not be as important, or it can be as simple as they fell in love with that person, who happens to not be Jewish (the latter is what applies to me). More importantly, many intermarried couples still want their children to have some kind of Jewish upbringing.
Lily didn't even want her son to be circumcised. I felt a bit sad that she could not see anything beautiful about her Jewish spirituality, only the ugliness of the antisemitism.
I thought that as a society, we have moved forward and intermarriage would be more accepted, but from my experience of forming a parenting group, I am hearing otherwise. Intermarriage rates may be high, but it does not necessarily imply that Jewish communities are welcoming.
When I first graduated from my MBA program a lot of important things happened in my life. I got a new job, I got engaged to a Jewish man and I was called out in a lawsuit for being anti-Semitic. This is not something I think about much anymore, but I was specifically named in the lawsuit for my anti-Semitic ways. I remember the day I was served I thought, but I am marrying a Jew, how can I possibly be anti-Semitic? I am raising my kids as Jews. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me.
The woman who served the company with the lawsuit took what I did and said out of context, and the lawsuit was eventually ruled on in my favor. But, what she said to me has in some part stuck with me. She told me that the numbers of Jews are decreasing. By marrying a Jewish man I am in fact aiding in decreasing the number of Jews in the world. Her final conclusion was that I was so dedicated to ending the Jewish religion that I was giving my life to marry a Jew in my attempt to lessen the numbers. She called me some not to nice names as well, but I won’t repeat them. She was a little crazy.
I have been thinking about this a lot, as I have been trying to formulate a response to Steve’s comment regarding my recent post about not wanting my kids to intermarry. Is my reticence to allow my kids to do what I did rooted in my desire to prove her wrong? Or at least not let her be right. I think that there is more to it than that, but there is probably a small amount of truth there. I don’t want to contribute to the decline in numbers.
Being intermarried is not super easy, especially when the spouse does not convert. Right, wrong or indifferent, I was inaugurated into the Jewish faith with “a don’t ask don’t tell policy.” I look Jewish enough to pass muster at temple. No one questions me. I don’t correct people. While everyone at our temple is really friendly and I doubt any of them care, there is still a sense of not belonging that is hard to shake. My peers in this situation have responded by either converting or not being involved. There is a small stalwart group of us that is involved and not converted. We meet for coffee under the cover of darkness.
Again, the people at our temple are really warm and welcoming. What I am talking about is not a specific issue, but rather a general feeling. There is so much written and discussed about not wanting Jews to intermarry. There is still an underlying current of disapproval for making that choice. Just look around and see how easy it is to find a rabbi that will marry an interfaith couple, or a mohel who will perform a bris for a baby born to a non-Jewish mother, even if the non-Jewish partner is fully and wholly committed to raising the children as Jews.
Being a clueless optimist, it really never occurred to me that it might be hard when I made these choices. But, I am less pie-eyed about my decision, and I realize that it is not something most people can do. I do not want my kids to find themselves in a place where they forced to choose between their religion and their potential spouse. One way to eliminate that is to not date out of the faith. Old-fashioned, archaic one might say, but also avoids the potential for conflict.
Bottom line, marriage is hard work. The fewer areas of potential conflict you have with your spouse the better. I want my kids to be happy and successful, and as such, it seems marrying a Jew would be easier. That said, my husband and I make a good team. I don’t know that I could have found a better partner in my own faith.
I have a confession. I love the events posted on InterfaithFamily.com’s Network.
I am jealous. I wish we had similar events here. So I went on a mission. I wanted to find some kind of local support group for interfaith families with one Jewish parent.
I didn’t have any success finding anything established locally. The programs I found were beginner level designed to teach basic concepts of Jewish spirituality and culture, which wasn’t what I was looking for.
Naaleh offers a series of lectures on making Jewish holidays and life events meaningful to children. I have listened to a couple and Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller does present some great ideas for making Jewish spirituality come alive to children of all ages. I am looking for the ideas but put into the context of an interfaith family — when one parent isn’t Jewish.
Thankfully, Benjamin from right here on IFF helped me get some things rolling. He met up with some of the local Jewish Federation people at TribeFest. He pitched my idea and they loved it. He got me in touch with the right person and we’re trying to set up an introductory event, mostly to get people in the room and figure out where to go with this idea.
Benjamin suggested I work on articulating the goal of this support group: The goal is to help parents of interfaith families with parenting skills and decisions within a partial or fully Jewish household. For example, there are the winter holidays — do you celebrate one or both and how would you explain it to the kids?
Here are some of the questions that have crossed my mind:
– How do we keep the non-Jewish parent involved and not let them feel like the odd wheel?
I am trying to find practical answers to these questions. How do you answer the questions without sounding like you have joined some kind of cult? (“Yeah and then on Yom Kippur we swing a chicken around our heads…”)
I know there is no right answer, and in fact it’s the mixture of answers I would love to hear.
They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and I am trying to find a village! I keep hearing about the 50% interfaith marriage rate and assume some of these people have children — where is everybody?
Do you have any experience with a similar kind of support network? Do you just rely on your local shul for support or do you have a parent group you meet with regularly? What do you talk about?
I would really appreciate if you would share your experiences or even what you would look for in a support group.
Our schedule is crazy lately. I know, I know, whose isn’t? My two big boys are both playing baseball this spring, and will soon be starting up select basketball. Both sports run concurrently (so, 2 boys playing 2 sports = NO free time, really) through early July. This schedule, plus a 30-minute drive to synagogue means we don’t get to services nearly as often as I’d like. And while there are nights I could go on my own, or just the baby and I could go, it just doesn’t happen. Much as I love our congregation and rabbi, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to go (and wrestle my munchkin into some form of quiet-ness for an hour) on my own.
Lately, with some stuff that’s been going on, I’ve NEEDED a reconnection with something bigger than myself. I’ve needed something to remind me that some of the pettiness and general sometimes-it-stinks-to-be-a-grown-up crud I’ve been dealing with is, really and truly, small potatoes. I don’t really have a church home anymore, and, honestly, Sunday mornings are one of our FEW quiet times as a family, so I enjoy them at home. So, what’s a (gentile) girl to do?
I’ve found great comfort in us lighting the Shabbat candles lately. It’s not always right at sundown, and I don’t always get to rest or study or simply enjoy their gentle glow. But I do get the reminder that there’s something bigger out there than me and my daily struggles and joys. I get to share the blessing with my boys. Most times, Daddy lights the candles and says the blessing. One week, I did it. I loved doing it. Bubba found one of the baby’s books that has the transliteration of several Shabbat prayers (I’ve mentioned it here, before, My Shabbat) and pulled it out on his own to try to sound through some of the other simple blessings. Bear got in on that, too. It’s still all “fun” for them, but I like that they’re curious enough to try, and to ask.
More recently, I’ve lit the candles on my own, when Daddy and the big boys were out, and it was just Baby Boy and me. I even braved last week’s Tot Shabbat (once a month at our synagogue) – just Baby and me. (He loved it, by the way, danced and sang and wanted to go “up dere” on the bimah, and cried and cried when it was time to go home.)
So, while I continue to work on my own spiritual journey, I hope to continue at least lighting the candles on Friday nights to bring me back out of myself and the myopic view of life I tend to develop during our hectic weekdays. And even if my journey doesn’t lead me to any kind of conversion, I think I probably will always need Shabbat.