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
This year, we won the lottery. The school lottery. We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthie’s last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.
When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthie’s second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’s nowhere near
As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.
Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’clock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.
I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.
I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him – to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).
As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though “regular” life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’s not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.
As the High Holidays approach, I’ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when I’ve been my best self and those when I haven’t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As I’ve gone through this psychological housecleaning I’ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.
I’ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are well…minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?
As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holiday’s food restrictions. Sammy said, “We’ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Some years I’m good at making sure we keep it, and others years I’m not. It’s always easier when we’re home. Since we’re away I’ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.”
“I don’t think God cares,” replied Sammy. “I don’t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I don’t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.”
At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point – eating matzah instead of bread on Passover won’t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.
Then I found an article, “A Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,” that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless “universal spirit.” Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, “I’ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of God… I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.”
After re-reading Pitts’ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy – care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if we’re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.
So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year I’ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I don’t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.
We’re enrolling my seven year old in second grade for his religious school. Even though he’s in first grade in public school during the day, I’m pushing a year ahead in his Hebrew classes.
It’s a big decision, and not one that I came to lightly. Sam has separation anxiety issues, and they were severe enough to warrant keeping him back in kindergarten last year. But while he was scared and anxious and really struggled in his first year of public school, he has always felt comfortable and safe at our synagogue. For whatever reason, whether it’s just that we’re there a lot, or he picks up on the general sense of peace, or the fact that it’s so much less chaotic, he’s completely relaxed and happy when we’re at the synagogue.
Our Conservative synagogue merged religious schools last year with two Reform synagogues to create one cohesive school, and there was so much chaos and confusion for him that we ended up pulling him out of class (actually, we couldn’t get him to go in the first place) and letting him attend the toddler services with our younger daughter. Classes were meeting at the other synagogue, and he wasn’t going unless I dragged him in kicking and screaming. While I could and did force him to go to regular school, I couldn’t bring myself to do it on Shabbat.
Even though he’s entering first grade at regular school, and even though he missed all of last year, and even though second grade is when religious school starts meeting on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, in addition to Shabat, I think it’s the right move for him.
This year, classes are going to be at our home synagogue. And his two best friends are going to be in second grade with him. Two of our family’s closest friends have kids his age, and they’ve been best friends since they were infants. That’s his community – these are the kids he’s grown up with, the ones he’s gone apple picking every year for Rosh Hashana, the ones who come over our house and light Hanukkah candles with us, the ones that ate peanut butter and matzoh with him when he was barely old enough to understand why.
When I look at my older daughter, with her
I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.
My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.
I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.
For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.
Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.
Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.
This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)
But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.
This week we marked my mom’s birthday. She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration. Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.
One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning. The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times. When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless. When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.
I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday. The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself. It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.
Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax. As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday. But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything. Birthdays are very special in our family because of her. Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me. I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get. And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.
I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller. It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself. It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma. I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me. And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:
I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma. In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life. Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real. She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan. The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.
But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me. Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me. She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring. She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make). She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow. She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity. I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.
While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind. So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.
My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogue’s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when we’re on vacation. In fact, when we’re away we don’t celebrate Shabbat at all.
My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, “Mommy, its Friday.”
“I know, one more day of skiing,” I responded.
“No, it’s Friday,” he said. “It’s Shabbat!”
“Oh yeah,” I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.
“How are we going to celebrate?” Sammy asked.
“Well, we don’t have candles or matches and even if we did, I don’t think it’s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while we’re out or asleep,” I answered. “We’ll celebrate next week when we’re at home.”
“We can still say Shabbat Shalom,” Sammy replied.
“You’re right, we can do that,” I said.
“Shabbat Shalom,” we said together and gave each other a kiss.
It wasn’t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.
After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.
I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.
Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is very…un-Shabbat. It’s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phone’s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.
I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to “light” the candles by dragging a “flame” to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles “burned” over a two-hour period.
With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.
We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.
When you are a mixed-faith couple, you loose the ability to assume from the get go. The question is not when we celebrate Yom Kippur, with whose family will we break fast? We need to start from more basic questions: Will we celebrate Yom Kippur? Will we both fast? And now that we have kids, how will we celebrate with our kids?
This inability to assume, and therefore the need to have an intention about our practice, is one of the greatest things about being from different faiths. In my marriage and co-parenting, I think this sometimes gives us a leg up, and its something that I wish was celebrated more.
When my husband and I were first thinking about marriage, we went to meet with a rabbi who ran a course for interfaith couples. Before he told us about the class, he asked us if we thought we’d have a Jewish home. We told him we thought so, but we hadn’t figured everything out yet. With this in mind, he recommended that rather than taking his interfaith class, we take his Intro to Judaism class, to figure out if we were going to be an interfaith family or a Jewish family (he had marriage classes for both).
So we took the class. It was a great class. We learned that we loved to study together. And the class triggered a long series of conversations, about what holidays we wanted to celebrate, and how, about how we imagined marking life cycle events, and, at the core, about what it meant that we would create a home and life together, a nuclear family that melded the two individual histories we brought to the coupledom.
[As an aside, InterfaithFamily has a great online workshop for interfaith couples called “Love & Religion” that you can learn more about here.]
This is where the “leg up” comes to bear. All pairings, whether you were raised next door to one another or in different countries, bring two separate perspectives on life to the table when they marry. In an interfaith pairing, the separation between the perspectives is pronounced, highlighted by the difference in two easy to identify components of family history. This can be a gift – a gift in that the differences shout out to us, and demand attention. For Eric and me, it meant the dialogue about how “he” and “I” would become “we” started before our engagement, before we were thrown into trying to make a wedding that was fun for everyone (it was!), building a home together, and raising kids. It demanded a way to talk about things, to identify difference, and to navigate it.
I’m not saying we’re perfect at it, but sometimes in same-faith couples, the differences are subtle, and they whisper until they need attention, often coming as a surprise. While our life together is not without our share of these surprises, I am thankful, particularly as we try to parent a 4-year-old who is as strong-willed and self-determined as I know I was at 4, that the interfaith dynamic of our relationship made negotiating differences a part of our life and commitment from day one.
Being interfaith is often talked about as a challenge, a barrier that separates you from the rest of the community. While I won’t deny the challenges, I think perhaps we have a few positive things we can teach to those who “in-marry.” Can you name some others?
My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Greene Family Camp. While Sammy is glad to be reunited with his puppy, he misses his other home.
I know how Sammy feels. I was a diehard camper too and I’m so happy that he thinks camp is as magical as I did many years ago. But having a deep attachment to camp is not unique to campers attending Jewish institutions.
I spent my summers at a YMCA camp, and as I watch the videos for religious and secular institutions alike I consistently hear children describe what makes their camp stand out with the same words I used almost 30 years ago – lasting friendships, great activities and a place to forget your worries. All of these endorsements are of course tied to images of beautiful settings and examples of camp spirit.
But even though there are universal aspects to camp, I always suspected that there was something special about Jewish camp.
As a teen, I envied my fellow youth groupers who spent their summers at the URJ’s Camp Harlem not only because I longed for a Jewish camp experience, but also because their camp connection seemed richer in way that I could not explain.
Now that I’m seeing Jewish camp through adult eyes, I feel that there is truth to my teenage suspicions – there is something special, something different about Jewish camp. Call it an X factor, an indefinable quality that we recognize when we see or experience it, but can’t easily describe.
My husband thinks what makes Jewish camp different is personality and soul. He sees the experience that Sammy is having as one imbued with life and character beyond the rah-rah kind of spirit depicted in shots of color war competitions and heard in the lyrics of official camp anthems.
An acquaintance of mine thinks the uniqueness comes from the experience of being with all Jewish kids, regardless of whether or not their parents are both Jewish, and engaging with Judaism in a way that makes being Jewish cool.
I think the specialness comes from the incredible sense of community that is embodied in the phrase “Welcome to camp” that greets you as your car enters the gates and is repeated continuously by staff and campers alike. Immediately you know that you are part of the larger camp family. You belong.
Curious to get a camper’s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, “It just is. It’s sacred ground.”
Maybe that’s the best description of all. What do you think?
My name is Jessie and I am very excited to have my very own blog on InterfaithFamily. My bio will tell you some of the following: I live in Boston with my charming husband and my two (fascinating, and almost always charming) daughters. I was raised in a Reform Jewish home, and my husband was raised Protestant. We are raising our children Jewish.
I look forward to sharing some thoughts about our life as a family for two reasons. One is because we are always retooling, reassessing and renewing our path, and I hope to explore that with others who might be doing the same. Second, I think that the fact that we were raised in two faiths has strengthened our relationship and spirituality, and is generally a plus – an often-unsung bonus of being “interfaith” (more on that in future posts, which I hope will be helpful to you).
Today, though, I wanted to start out by reflecting on this concept of being an interfaith family, something that I have been pondering for a few years now. Because of the two reasons I just described, I love the idea of blogging here. But I almost didn’t answer IFF’s call for bloggers, because after 8 years of marriage, interfaith doesn’t fit right for me.
In common definition, I guess “interfaith” is a category we inhabit, but it doesn’t feel like it tells our story. Eric and I agreed early on that as parents that it was our responsibility to choose one religion, and to partner in weaving that tradition into our family life (something I also hope to talk about with you). So we are Jewish, but of course nothing is straightforward.
I think the best explanation of my family is that we are a Jewish home in a loving multi-faith family. I am lucky that my husband and I have come from two great families with strong values and dedication to being families, and maintaining those connections has always been at the forefront of our decision-making. Our extended family includes a multitude of spiritual practices, both within Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), and Christianity (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Christian). We have family members who don’t practice any religion. And we have some family members who practice more than one faith in their home. So the bottom line is that we deal with lots of questions that are often categorized as “interfaith,” but I don’t use that term for my nuclear family.
Because our story is multi-layered (whose isn’t?), so is my goal for my children. I hope that they will grow up as Jews with a deep respect and curiosity about the faiths of our family members, an ability to help grandparents and cousins and friends celebrate religious holidays with joy, and an understanding that all people of faith are struggling with the same questions – what it means to be a good person, how to find purpose in life, and how to connect with others. I’m looking forward to reflecting on that with you.
My name is Jane Larkin and I’m excited to be one of the new writers for InterfaithFamily’s parenting blog. I’m the Jewish half of an interfaith couple creating a Jewish home. I live in Dallas, TX with my husband Cameron and eight-year-old son Sammy. Cameron lives Jewishly and is actively involved in raising Sammy within Judaism. But this isn’t my whole story.
As a Jewish young adult, I always assumed I would marry a Jew and I did. But after two years the marriage ended in divorce. The relationship failed because I married for religion, not love. I wanted to prove to my family that I could in-marry, which is not the best criteria for choosing a mate.
The fact that in-marriage was important to my family was ironic since I came from a family in which intermarriage and Jewish continuity had co-existed for generations. My subsequent intermarriage was just following in my family’s footsteps.
My maternal great-grandmother was not Jewish when she married my great-grandfather in the 1920s. She never converted, but lived her life as a Jew within Conservative Judaism and raised Jewish children – one being my maternal grandmother.
My grandmother was married to the son of an Orthodox cantor by a prominent Conservative rabbi in the 1940s when no denomination recognized patrilineal descent. My grandmother’s religious lineage was kept secret since it was known that neither she nor her future children would be accepted as Jews. Still, my grandfather’s Orthodox parents accepted the match recognizing that inclusiveness was a good investment in a Jewish future.
My father also came from an interfaith home. His mother was not Jewish, but she too created a Jewish home and supported Jewish family life. My dad became a
What all of this interfaith family history means is that technically, my family is not Jewish even though we have practiced and identified as Jews for generations. I often wonder how many other Jews have interfaith DNA in their genealogical closet. I suspect that there are others that choose to keep their religious lineage a secret even though families like mine are now recognized as Jewish by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.
So this is my family’s interfaith and Jewish story. I hope that by sharing it that you will be encouraged to share yours too.