Here we go again

It is that time of year again.  The leaves haven’t fallen off the trees.   Halloween pumpkins are still un-carved.  Thanksgiving seems like a million years away.  But the conversation about Christmas has already started.  Like the ornaments and holiday music in the stores, it seems that I start the conversation about December, earlier and earlier with my kid’s public school teachers.

In October, our temple does a program for teachers about religious sensitivity.  They talk about how Christmas-themed everything is sort of insensitive to kids that aren’t Christian.  That kids that aren’t Christian have to suck it up every year because it is being done in a fun festive spirit.   I send the letter out to the kids’ teachers and say, hey, if you want to go to this you not only get continuing education credits, but I will pay for it.  (It is only $10 so it isn’t like I am breaking the bank, but I want to leave no stone unturned.)

Usually, I get no response.  This year, my letter seemed to trigger something in one of my son’s teachers.  She emailed me and told me about a project that they do every year.  The parents send in $5 and the kids make Christmas trees out of foam and fabric.  I remember this from when my older son was in 4th grade.  What they end up with is cute, BUT, you cannot imagine how irritating it is to have my money go towards something that is religiously insensitive.

I understand the Supreme Court ruling that states that Christmas Trees are secular.  I understand that technically what they are doing isn’t illegal.  But, logically it is nonsensical to make a Jewish kid give his parents a Christmas Tree for Hanukah.  What about the Muslim kids?  Yes, my kids have an out, they can always give it to Grandma.  But somewhere, deep in my heart, it bothers me.  Why do we have to do this?  I can think of about eleventy billion other projects that the kids could do that are cute, easy and NOT a Christmas Tree.  Heck, I just saw a very cute snowman doorstop made out of a key shaped paver.

So, I haven’t even bought Halloween candy yet, and already I am having the conversation about Christmas with my kid’s teachers.  I used to get fired up about it.  Stand solidly on my soap box and denounce all the religion in the schools.  But, I have gotten exactly nowhere with that.  I guess I am tired of trying.  Or maybe this year I am taking the chicken exit, but we are just not going to go to school for a week and I have asked all the teachers to hold off on the Christmas stuff till we skedaddle out of town.

There are many reasons why we are leaving town when we are leaving town, and the stuff at school isn’t the driving force, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am relieved to not have to worry about it this year.  (Something in my head says that those are famous last words and that Christmas is still going to rear its ugly head, but hopefully I will be on the beach by the time it happens.)

Why I’m Blogging

Hi, my name is Suzanne and as this is my first blog post I thought I would start out by introducing myself. I am a Conservative/Reform Jewish woman (not sure where I really fit yet as I was raised Conservative but do not keep kosher anymore or follow many other rules so maybe I’m Reform?) married to my Catholic husband, Alex. We have two daughters, Kaitlyn, almost 9 (born Christmas Eve, what better day for an interfaith family?), and Megan, who is five. We live in Staten Island, New York, where we are raising our daughters in the Jewish faith, but we also celebrate the Catholic holidays as we love and respect my husband/their father.

My older daughter is in the Bet class (second class) at our Conservative synagogue but we started out at a Reform synagogue for her with Sunday School. I didn’t switch because of my personal confusion; I switched synagogues because I couldn’t get my daughter to Hebrew School on Wednesdays at the Reform temple but the Conservative temple had an arrangement with our JCC for busing if you are in their after-school program. This was being practical, not spiritual. It turned out to be a good fit for my daughter as she has more girls in her class that also attend camp with her and the boys are pretty great too (as my 5 year old would attest to with her first crush on an older man, another interfaith child who is 9 like my daughter). I miss my Reform temple, not for the spiritual way it conducted itself but for the friends I had made there. I have made some great friends at my new temple but you can’t help looking back, can you?

I’m hoping by blogging that I can help myself sort out what is going through my own mind spiritually. I feel very torn and confused at times and at others feel like I am in exactly the right place. I love being Jewish and sharing it with my daughters. I love that they are the ones who make sure we go to temple on Friday nights (which my sister and I never did with two Jewish parents!). I love how they identify themselves as Jewish, not half-Jewish. I’m torn at times when my girls ask questions about their dad’s faith or assume that all males are Catholic and all females are Jewish since their mom is Jewish and their dad is Catholic and we have no sons to show that their brother would be Jewish too (I am not Nellie from Little House on the Prairie who chose how to raise her kids by gender).

By blogging and almost forcing myself to have a conversation in my head maybe I can sort out how to continue teaching my daughters about our faith and how to respect everyone else’s too. I look forward to hearing from other parents who have handled similar situations as well.

Sammy Sings the Shema

As I’ve posted on here before, our bedtime routine is pretty typical – bath, pjs, stories, songs, lights out. While the pjs and the stories chosen might vary each night, the songs never do.

Each night, the request is the same: first, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (no, I’m not kidding; he actually wants to hear this EVERY night); second, the Shema; third, “La La Lu” (the lullaby from Lady and the Tramp).

Lately Sam has started to sing the songs with me. I know he doesn’t fully understand it yet, but I love that Sam is already starting to “pray” with me at night. I hope his “bedtime song” helps to open the door for him to easily talk to G-d as he grows.

If you incorporate prayers into your evening routine, when did your kids start saying them with you? When do you think they started to understand that they were more than just words or pretty tunes?

Jew Camp

I just loaded my baby on a bus and sent him away for a month.

Ok, I realize it isn’t exactly a month.  It is 4 weeks.  Ok, I realize that it is 2 days shy of 4 weeks.  Yes, you are right, my baby isn’t a baby really… he is a big boy of almost 12.  But, still, I loaded my baby on a bus and sent him a way for a month.

He is going to, what we call, Jew Camp.  We laugh about Jew Camp, because we are the only family in our general area with a kid going to Jew Camp.  We aren’t going to Happy something camp, because we aren’t Christian.  All the kids in our area go to the Happy something camp.  The parents talk to me endlessly about it.  You would think I would be able to remember the name.  I always tune them out and smile sweetly and say, we got camp covered.  One parent persisted in knowing exactly what our plans were, and my daughter looked up at her and said, “We go to Jew Camp.  You can’t come.”  End of conversation. 

As I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I know that for many reasons it is the right thing.  First, he loves it.  He loves the activities, the kids, the counselors, everything.  Second, he will come home referring to most things in Hebrew.  He will sing the prayers every night.  He will come home from this experience feeling entirely Jewish.  He will feel like he is part, of as my daughter implied, an exclusive club and it is a pretty awesome club.

My oldest son has many things about him that aren’t like the other kids.  Aside from the fact that he has some special needs that separate him from the others, he is a Jew in a sea of Christianity.  For a month this summer he will be just like everyone else.  When he makes a joke in Hebrew the kids will get it… well if they don’t at least it won’t be because they don’t understand.  When he references Torah and his Bar Mitzvah it won’t be like he is speaking a foreign tongue.  He will be surrounded by other kids and some will understand what it is like to be a Jew in the sea of Christianity.  Many come from a family where one parent is not Jewish.

I am certain that these kids don’t really talk about that sort of stuff.  But, I think they know that the other kids “get” them.  They know that no one is going to give them a hard time because they are not going to see Santa or celebrate Easter.  These kids will all embrace Shabbat and celebrate it as it was meant to be celebrated.  There is a party going on right here and it is all about being Jewish.  Mac comes home from camp feeling love for his Jewishness.  What more could we ask for? 

As I watched my somewhat socially awkward child board the bus without a care in the world, laughing with his friends, I knew in my heart I did the right thing.  He was confident, happy and full of joy.  I realized that I was in fact doing a good job.  We will miss him.

Shabbat Dinner Conversation

I decided that the Shabbat table would be a good time to speak of the good things we have experienced during the week.  First I asked my husband if he was grateful for anything specific (other than the nice meal he was about to eat).  Then I asked my husband if anything inspired him over the week.  I answered the same questions.  One day, G-d willing my son will also answer these questions, and I hope he can add a few more. 

What do you talk about around the Shabbat table?

Bed Time

Lori Palatnik recommended that I start saying the Shema with my son in the morning and in the evening before bed. 

After nursing my son, I would sing to him this song I learned in a play group (to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Litter Star):

Twinkle Twinkle Cochavim (stars)
High up in the Shemayim (sky)
When we say the Shema today, everything will be ok
When we say the the Shema tonight, everything will be alright. 

Then I sing the Shema.  My son is too young to understand, but I am hoping somewhere in his soul, these words will soothe him.  I say my own prayers for my son's welfare and I daven (pray) for those needing prayers of health. 

As my son gets older and has a better understanding, I am hoping that bed time will become a nice time to talk to G-d

What do you do for bed time ritual?

Joy

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? 

Book: The Invisible Wall

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. 

Why I Do Not Want My Children to Intermarry

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.

Interfaith Parenting Support Group

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? 
– How do we answer questions the children might have about the non-Jewish parent’s religion? 
– How do we answer the in-laws questions about Jewish practices like keeping Kosher (“what do you mean Junior can’t eat here?”)? 
– How do I choose a synagogue?  Does it have to be Reform just because my husband isn’t Jewish?   

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.