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
Earlier this week, Ruthie, her friend, and I had a heart-warming (for me) conversation about my work in affordable housing. We were talking about an event I had for work that night, and I asked Ruthie to explain my job to her friend. Of course, she started with the story of the dog that lives in one of our buildings and how he might have to find a new home because he’s peed in the hallway one too many times (they both thought this was hilarious), but she ended with really explaining (in 4-year-old terms) about how some people need help finding and affording decent housing. So I had a proud moment of feeling like I am doing a good job in teaching her about the importance of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.
And then this morning happened. Ruthie refused her nighttime bath, for fear that we’d sneak in a stealth hair-washing, but slipped into the shower with me this morning. When she was done washing, and I reached over to turn off the faucet, she embarked on a mini-tantrum, yelling at me that she just needed 3 more minutes. As much as I have modeled good behavior, and dragged her along to volunteer events, charity walks and my own work, I am stumped when it comes to conservation. Raising kids in the era of hand sanitizer, it feels harder than ever to teach the tension between the value of cleanliness and the need to protect the earth’s resources.
There was a father in our parenting class who is an environmentalist by trade, and in the session where we discussed teaching Tikkun Olam, I asked him how he taught his three kids about conservation. He told a sweet story about how he taught his kids to turn the tap off so that they could save water for the fish (meaning the fish in the sea). He made it sound like it was a pretty easy sell. So the next time Ruthie started to protest the shower ending, I tried it.
“Ruthie, sweetie, we need to be careful with the water and not use too much of it, so that we can save water for the fish.” She looked at me, turned off the water frantically, and ran out of the bathroom. I followed the pitter patter of her feet and found her in the living room, standing infront of our fish tank.
“Look, Mommy,” she said, “the fish have plenty of water.” I am guessing my classmate didn’t have a fish tank in his house.
So we keep trying. As we edge closer to her fifth birthday, she is beginning to get the idea of resource conservation a bit more (huge thanks to her schoolteachers on that one!), but we still have a ways to go before the “3 more minutes” pitch is over. The saving water for the fish story isn’t working. Anyone have a better idea?
Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.
The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammy’s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.
Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.
The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.
Prior to one of Sammy’s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. “Absolutely!” I responded, “Join us for dinner and Sammy’s birthday celebration.”
We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammy’s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.
During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.
With Gilad’s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of “our Israelis” and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. “Yes!” he said with a celebratory fist pump.
It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.
No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.
I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child – help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that camp’s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.
There was a time when Eric and I shared a love for The O.C. In the days before OnDemand, one of the most romantic things that my future husband ever did was to take copious notes of the 2004 season premiere when I was stuck at a community meeting that night and couldn’t watch it myself. It was a nighttime soap opera filled with hyperbole and totally unrealistic situations, the kind of show that I should be embarrassed about loving. But I admit it proudly, we were serious fans.
Even though I think that the prominence of the Cohens, the lovably complex interfaith family at the center of The O.C.’s drama, probably helped gain some ground for Jewish/Christian partnerships overall, I cringed when Seth Cohen asked the world to embrace Chrismukkah in the Winter of 2003. I’m going to show my cards here: I don’t believe that the answer to “The December Dilemma” is to combine holidays. Its not because I want to deny either Christmas or Hanukah – its quite the opposite. I love both holidays – and I love how marrying into a Christian family means I’ve had 14 years to get an inside view of how joyous Christmas is. But the holidays are so profoundly different – especially in their level of import to the religions of which they are a part – that to me combining them feels like a disservice to them both.
I have been reminded of my conflicting love of The Cohens and unease for the Chrismukkah they popularized as a new combination of holidays is coming up this year. With the first night of Hanukkah occurring on Thanksgiving, everyday folks, community leaders, and yes, makers of merchandise, have begun to proclaim 2013 the year of “Thanksgivukkah.” I first started hearing about the “holiday” via a mouthwatering post of Thankgivukkah recipes on BuzzFeed. It’s hard to object to a holiday that boasts sweet potato bourbon noodle kugel and pecan pie rugelach. From that first post, it seems to have caught on like wildfire….there are t-shirts, limited edition menorahs, a website (put up by Manischewitz), a Facebook page, and even a block party in LA. Not to mention a piece on this site about navigating the convergence of both holidays with Jewish family and those who do not celebrate Hanukkah.
So am I ok with it? Its growing on me….this idea that it is phenomenally rare (read this article to see just how rare), that there are totally great menu possibilities, and that my family will conveniently all be together to light the menorah for the first time (like many interfaith couples I’m sure, we usually spend Thankgiving with our Jewish family and Christmas with our Christian family, so Thanksgiving is already kind of a Jewish family thing). And part of my objection to combining Christmas and Hanukkah is that it forces an importance on Hanukkah that isn’t consistent with the rest of the religious calendar – making it easy to breeze over a true understanding of either Christmas or Hanukkah.
But Thanksgiving and Hanukkah might fit better together – they are both based on lore that don’t necessarily create something new (like a whole new religion!) but allow people to pause in a time of turmoil to consider new hope. And since we usually eat well before sundown but don’t light the candles until sundown, hopefully they’ll be a moment to pause in between and talk to our kids about each holiday, separately. And, finally, now that I have kids and am navigating life in a multi-generational, multi-faith family where the absolutes of my pre-kid 20’s seem a little fanciful, maybe I’ll soften up on Chrismukkah, too. No promises, Seth Cohen.
The PEW Research Center published a study this month, A Portrait of Jewish America. And like most Jews, I was fascinated, alarmed and proud by what it said.
When I first made the decision to formally convert to Judaism, one issue that I really worried about was how to convert; Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. One of the deciding factors behind my decision was that I was raising Jewish children and technically, according to Jewish law as interpreted by my Conservative rabbi, they weren’t Jewish.
We had “synagogue shopped,” like a lot of young families, and the one that we loved the most, the one that we felt was the best fit for our specific family was the one where my husband had grown up, the one his family attended. I know that Reform Jews would say that my children were Jewish already, they had a Jewish dad and were growing up in a Jewish home. But we weren’t Reform. And I never wanted their identity to be questioned – I didn’t want anyone telling them that they weren’t Jewish because of me. For me, for us, my husband’s impact on our children was as valuable as mine, and they inherited Judaism because he’s Jewish. I took the added steps of going through a formal conversion with a Conservative beit din, not just for myself, but also so that their Judaism would be just as valid.
Even with all of that, my kids are still somewhat different from most Jewish kids. We still celebrate Christmas and Easter, and half of their extended family isn’t Jewish. Their ancestry and culture is Jewish, sure, but not just Jewish. I was surprised and somewhat disconcerted to see that more than sixty percent of all respondents think that Judaism is mainly of ancestry and culture. Respondents of the survey were able to decide if they were a “Jew by religion” or a “Jew of no religion.” There was no discussion of matrilineal descent, if you self identified as Jewish, it was good enough. But there was that qualification, either you were Jewish by religion or Jewish with no religion, just a cultural/ancestral association with Judaism.
For me, this raises some really interesting questions about the future of Judaism. If the majority of Jews believe that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, then how is it possible to welcome a convert to the religion? How does a child, growing up in a home where half their ancestry and culture is NOT Jewish, feel welcomed and a part of that religion? When the intermarriage rate for Jews is still holding steady at roughly 58% (in marriages performed since 2000), how do we, as a religious community, support and encourage young Jewish families to feel a part of the culture, a part of the community?
In many ways, according to the study, my family is an anomaly. I’m a convert to Judaism, and my husband was raised in a mostly secular Jewish family. Our children are growing up in an interfaith household, in a lot of ways. And yet – we’re most definitely a Jew by religion family. In many ways, and not in spite of, but because we started as an interfaith family, being Jewish is a choice we make every day. We’re very deliberate about it, everything from the foods we eat, to where we send our children to school, to the after school activities they participate in – our Jewish identity is a part of all of that. And like 94% of all respondents, we’re proud of our Jewish identity.
I don’t have any answers. I only know what works for us. I believe that we must do more, as a community, to welcome interfaith families. To encourage conversion but not pressure those non-Jewish parents who are willing and eager to learn more about raising Jewish children. We should make our synagogues more child centered and more family oriented. Let’s try harder to get to know each other, reach out to new and potential members and encourage those who are not affiliated with a synagogue to join us. Because that’s what works – Jews who are religiously connected are more likely to raise Jewish children. Judaism is more than just gefilte fish and Jewish comedians. If we want our children to be active and involved members of the Jewish community, we have to be that ourselves. We have to continue to learn and question and think and discover, if we want our children to do it as well.
I’m grateful every day for the opportunities I’ve had, for the spiritual and religious community that I’ve found as a mother, as a wife, as a woman. Being Jewish is a part of who I am, and it’s a part of who my children are. And like all Jewish parents, I want my children to grow up knowing that they are a part of a much larger community, with the responsibilities and privileges that go along with that. I want my children to be pushed and encouraged and taught to think, to be intellectually curious, and spiritually connected.
The Pew study has been analyzed and debated and discussed in a lot of different forums. But the take away from it, for me, is for the vast majority of Jews love Judaism. The majority of Jews feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. I’m proud to be a member of that 94%, proud of Judaism; what it has represented in the past, and what it is today and what it’ll be in the future.
(a version of this post will appear in the Jewish Voice www.jewishcentralvoice.com)
According to the new Pew Center survey of Jewish Americans, 45 percent of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish by religion. That is great news since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that only one-third of intermarrieds choose Judaism in some way.
But simply knowing that that the number of us living Jewishly has increased is not enough for me. I want to know why. Is it because of outreach efforts, changes in policies that have made some organizations more accepting of interfaith couples or a larger number of clergy who will officiate at interfaith weddings? Is it that more mixed faith couples are finding relevance in the history, culture, values, beliefs and observances of Judaism? Maybe the driver is something else.
Whatever it is, inquiring minds in the Jewish community should want to know. Why? Because if we want to build meaningful relationships with interfaith families or develop initiatives that entice families to explore Jewish life than we must understand what excites families like mine about Judaism and what attributes make religious connection important to us.
So in the interest of creating a better understanding of what drives intermarrieds to engage Jewishly, I want to share why Cameron and I have chosen a Jewish identity for our family. I recognize that our home is a sample size of one. But I hope that by sharing the drivers of our engagement that it will encourage other interfaith families to join the conversation and make their voice heard.
So here are the reasons we chose to be Jewish:
1. Community: A large part of why we decided that we would have a Jewish identity is because of community. When Cameron and I were dating we would often discuss how we should approach faith in the context of intermarriage. I wanted a Jewish home; Cameron wanted to celebrate both traditions. I needed to make a case for Judaism. While I could not provide a spiritual reason for having a Jewish family except that I did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, I did feel strongly about Jewish peoplehood.
I explained that there is a bond that unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. This connection is expressed in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.
Cameron accepted the idea that there is more to being Jewish than faith and on the night he agreed to raise our children as Jews he said, “In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. We could do nothing in our home and our children would think they were Christian. There is more to being Jewish than just religion. For our children to be Jewish they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”
2. Deed vs. Creed: Modern Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief is another reason we chose a Jewish identity for our family. While I believe that there is something larger at work in the universe, Cameron is less certain that a divine presence exists. Since Judaism teaches that doing good deeds is more important than believing in a certain idea about God, there is no pressure to conform to or accept a specific religious belief.
Cameron was raised in a home that took its responsibility for serving the larger community seriously, so the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was attractive to him. Regardless of what we each believed about God, we shared a view that our purpose is to make the world a better place. Judaism provided us a framework to teach this idea to our children.
3. One Family, One Identity: Before Cameron and I got engaged we struggled to resolve our faith in the home dilemma. We read books that presented various interfaith arrangements from pursuing one to conversion to raising children in two religions to joining the Unitarian church. But it was a class on interfaith relationships at the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City that helped us to find a solution. A rabbi and a rector taught the course, and one evening they impressed upon us the importance of choosing one religion.
“Your child is asked to make a winter holiday art project. She can make only one,” said the rector. “She must choose red and green paper to create a Christmas theme or blue and white for Chanukah. It appears that this is a simple choice, but for a child being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between colored papers, it is a choice between mommy and daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.”
The story shocked us into thinking about our situation from a very different point of view. Rather than focusing on the compromises and feelings of adults, it made us see a child’s perspective and asked us to consider how our decision would impact our future children. Neither one of us could think about putting our child in the position described. After the discussion Cameron told me that he was comfortable with raising our children as Jews because being Jewish was about more than faith.
I would love to know why other 45-percenters chose a Jewish identity for their family. I would also like to know why 55 percent of intermarrieds made a different choice. I believe that we need to go beyond the numbers to learn what is driving behavior so that we can more effectively engage interfaith families. Because let’s face it, with almost 60 percent of recently married Jews choosing a partner from outside the faith the future of Judaism depends on bringing more families like mine into the tent.
As I prepared to publish this post, I hesitated for a second, as hopefully many of you who read my posts also read Jane Larkin’s musings, and we were both moved to write about Jewish learning this month. But I’m sticking with it, because our coinciding themes must mean that it’s important, right? With all of the emphasis on back-to-school for our kids, it seems like a good idea to think about the possibility of back-to-school for us grown-ups, too.
I sit on the alumni advisory committee for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a fantastic program offered by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish Federation). At our kick-off meeting for the year, we did an icebreaker where we all answered the question, “What is the best kept secret about PTJL?” We shared lots of ideas, but the thing that stuck with me was the comment of the woman who spoke after me: “Its better than date night,” she said, “because unlike on date night, when you feel pressured to have a great time, to not be tired and to think of fun and interesting things to say, the curriculum is filled with interesting things to talk about, the babysitting is free, and you can easily connect with your partner without any pressure.”
Now, I love date night, and I won’t go so far as to say that a Sunday morning class is better than a night out on the town…and I even think that my friend from the committee might admit to a little hyperbole in her comment. But having had two Jewish learning opportunities with my husband, the most recent one two years ago with one kid in (free) babysitting and another on the way, I get what she’s saying. First, because there always is a little more pressure to make the most of every minute of a date than there was before kids, and second, because taking Parenting Through a Jewish Lens with Eric was really great.
When we signed up for a Jewish parenting class, I imagined it would include some aspect of a rabbi telling us “the rules” of being a Jewish parent (this sounded helpful enough to me). Once we started, though, I realized that just telling us “the rules” wouldn’t be very Jewish. Instead, the class was about studying direct texts, trying to understand who we are as individuals, co-parents, and children ourselves, and hoping that doing that would help us to be better parents. It is so hard in our every day journey to not just be parents, but to think about how well the parenting we are doing lines up with our hopes about the kind of parents we want to be. We were lucky in that the structure of our class supported just that kind of thinking.
That in and of itself was pretty great. But here was the icing on the cake: with Ruthie in babysitting down the hall, we had 90 minutes every week to be grown-ups together, to learn new things and talk about stuff that really matters. And it turns out we really like learning together. To hit a pause button every week and do something totally different…it would be pretty special no matter what we were doing. And all the luckier that it was about the intersection of parenting and values, two things about which we share a passion.
So here’s my multi-pronged pitch. First of all, if you live in the Greater Boston area, sign-up for PTJL this fall, or at the very least put it on your to-do list for next year. If you don’t live in Boston, or PTJL’s not your thing, ponder the idea of studying something new with your spouse. It doesn’t have to be something about your parenting, but anything that stretches your brain a little bit will probably ultimately benefit not just you, but your kids as well. [For those of you who live in areas where IFF has offices, you can take advantage of parenting and relationship classes and workshops in Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.] So I hope everyone’s had a good back-to-school month for your kids. And I hope you get back-to-school, too.