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When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an â€śall inâ€ť model for a Jewish household. For our future childrenâ€™s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one. Â It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.
It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Ericâ€™s personal history celebrating those holidays.
This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.
The â€śall inâ€ť model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our familiesâ€™ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Ericâ€™s parentsâ€™ and sisterâ€™s homes. Â
On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.
So hereâ€™s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We donâ€™t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Ericâ€™s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together. Â
For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I canâ€™t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something â€śall inâ€ť and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there canâ€™t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.
Spring means color. Splashing greens and yellows. Purple tulips cascading over front porches and red robins bustling in the trees. Spring also means Easter for Christians, with blue and violet painted eggs. It means Passover for the Jews. For South Americans and Mexicans it means Semana Santa (the days of Jesusâ€™s crucifixion). For me, it is a season shrouded in black. It is the green/grey eyes of my father, his brown hush puppies scuffling across the carpet. It is the ivory keys of his baby grand piano.
My father loved the spring. He loved it for three reasons. The first is that he could smoke outside again without freezing his fingers off. The second is that he could go fishing and play golf in the same day and still get home in time to practice playing his Chopin. But mostly my father loved Passover. Purim came and went in our neighborhood but Passover was an event to be reckoned with.
Every year my mother would slowly begin changing the dishes from our regular meat and dairy dishes to the â€śPassover dishesâ€ť (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10Â full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmotherâ€™s heavy black roasting pot. Ancient silverware passed down from our ancestors was in one box along with glasses, cups, a traditional seder plate and a tray for matzah. In another box there was a cup for Elijah (a biblical prophetÂ who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helenâ€™s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosieâ€™s potato peeler.
When these boxes came up from the basement my mother would begin the preparations for the first seder night and the days to follow. She would make her menu and call the cleaning lady to ask her to come the day before.
My father would sit regally at his piano. He would sneak pieces of matzah from the boxes my mother had put aside and dip them in cream cheese or tuna. Then he would bang out Beethoven on his Steinway or he would ask us to sing.
â€śBaby Faceâ€ť was a song I knew all the words to because my grandmother would sing it to me. My father could play that song by heart and make our house sound like a ragtime bar. He also loved musicals and ballads. There was one song called â€śCome Josephine in My Flying Machineâ€ť which was first published in 1910 but was popular in the late 1930s. I loved to sing that song sitting next to my father on his piano bench, while my mother changed the dishes and my brother roamed around outside.
My father would start, â€śOh, say, let us fly girlâ€ť and I would say, â€śWhere dear?â€ť and Pop would smile and say â€śTo the sky dear,â€ť and we would sing for days. Sometimes when Passover would finally arrive we would do the whole duet for the guests while my mother was roasting the brisket and adding cinnamon to the kugel.
And what I remember is the smell of our house during those spring days. Onions, garlic, rosemary and cumin wafted up the stairs and out the front door. There was the metallic hint of chopped liver, the eye-piercing strength of horseradish and the kosher wine fumes mixed with my fatherâ€™s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my motherâ€™s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brotherâ€™s yarmulke.
Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my motherâ€™s seder table to read the story of how the Jews escaped Egypt, how Moses parted the Red Sea so that our people could cross over to the other side.
In Brooklyn, we sing songs and read this story. My father, who was big in every way (he had been an actor and had a voice that bellowed through the walls) would shout this story in Hebrew. Then he would point to me and say, â€śAnd now Anna will say the four questions.â€ť It is a Jewish tradition that the youngest person at the seder table asks four questions. And there are so many traditions that accompany this holiday. Elijah the prophet has a cup placed for him in the middle of the Passover seder table. The front door is opened for him and it is said his spirit passes through each house and he drinks from the cup. Elijahâ€™s cup is called the â€śsilent cupâ€ť and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closedÂ itÂ I would run back to the table to see if the wine had a ripple in it or if it was less full.
There is also the tradition of the afikomen. This is the middle piece of matzah andÂ each year in my family, in the middle of the service, my uncle hides it and the youngest child has to find it. When it is found, the child can ask for money in exchange for returning the middle matzah. Since I was a girl, my uncle has always hidden the matzah in his inner suit jacket pocket. When he takes his jacket off to eat I steal it.
Last year on Passover I was pregnant with my little Helen Rose. No one knew except for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His soul went to G-d on August 23,Â 1994. I was almost 13. My uncle is his older brother. I turned 34 last year and was the youngest at our seder table. When my uncle took his jacket off to begin eating his meal, I stole the afikomen.
I have a Mexican Catholic partner. I am not married. I am Jewish. These three facts do not define who I am. I am much more than that.
Last year as my uncle reached into his jacket pocket to take out the afikomen I held it up with a shaky hand at the other side of the table. My uncle went to Crown Heights Yeshiva, as did my father. We come from a long line of Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions and schools of thought. I desired one thing for the afikomen and it wasnâ€™t money.
â€śThis year,â€ť I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, â€śthis year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I donâ€™t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. Iâ€™m pregnant and the baby is due in October and Iâ€™m so happy.â€ť
My Aunt Claire jumped out of her chair. My brother and his wife looked down at the table; they were expecting twins in August. My mother looked at the wall. My cousin Arnoldâ€™s mouth fell open. My uncle, who fought in Korea and jumped out of planes, who married my aunt when she was 18 and moved to Long Island and raised a traditional Jewish family, turned to me with his eyes that look so similar to my own fatherâ€™s and said, â€śMazal Tov kid. Congratulations.â€ť
My partner Adrian and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment with our little Helen Rose. We keep the traditions of my family. We go to Rockaway and fish every summer. Adrian smokes Marlboro Reds or Camels. On Passover, my motherâ€™s house still smells like roasted onions. On Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey and on Hanukkah we light the menorah. When spring arrives we buy Helen painted eggs and stuffed bunnies. For Christmas we make traditional Mexican holiday food. This year at Helenâ€™s first seder we will place a cup of wine in the middle of the table and when I open the door for the prophet, perhaps my father will walk inside as well. Maybe heâ€™ll steal a piece of matzah, sit at the piano bench and watch the new generation celebrate its new customs and its old ones. Maybe heâ€™ll whisper â€śCome Josephine in My Flying Machineâ€ť into Helenâ€™s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.
Purim in my neighborhood is an extravaganza. Limousines crowd the streets and rabbles of teenagers run in and out of houses dressed up as the main characters in the Purim story.
A quick summary for those who are not familiar: There is Vashti, who is dethroned by the King Ahasuerus. Then Esther becomes the new Queen after she wins a beauty contest, which she doesnâ€™t even dress up for (sheâ€™s THAT beautiful). Mordechai is her cousin (probably equally beautiful) and he figures out that some people are trying to kill the king. Then Haman (the evil one in the story) gets promoted to be the head official by the king, but he hates the Jewish people. Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman and then in turn Haman makes it his life goal to destroy the Jewish people. Mordechai asks Esther for help. She invites the King and Haman to a banquet and when they attend she invites them to a second banquet. At the second banquet she asks the King to have mercy on her people and accuses Haman of his wrongdoings. Haman is then sentenced to death on the very same gallows he had himself made to kill the Jewish people.
The more daring ones in my neighborhood dress as Haman. The more beautiful dress as Esther. Occasionally, a Vashti costume will be thrown into the mix. But most popular are Mordechai and the King.
My partner Adrian and I live three blocks away from my mother with our newborn girl, Helen Rose. Last year, we remembered to call my mother on Purim to heedÂ the warning: â€śListen Ma, remember if the doorbell rings donâ€™t answer it. Itâ€™s just the kids who like to dance around everyoneâ€™s living room to celebrate Purim.â€ť
My mother ignored us as usual.
â€śHoly cow!â€ť The phone call came from her at 9 p.m. She yelled over the tooting of horns and the rattling of groggers. â€śThe doorbell rang and I thought it was you guys,â€ť she screamed. â€śNext thing I know thereâ€™s about twenty Orthodox Jewish boys dressed as biblical characters dancing around my living room! I gotta go before someone breaks something.â€ť She hung up.
Thatâ€™s how Purim goes in Midwood, Brooklyn.
Adrian, who is Mexican-Catholic, asks me, â€śIs it like Halloween?â€ť
I laugh, â€śWell sort of but we really put Halloween to shame.â€ť And we do. Forget about goblins and ghouls. We make hamantaschen, triangle-shaped cookies thatÂ symbolize Hamanâ€™s death. (Haman wore a hat shaped like a triangle.)
â€śWell, what did you wear for your first Purim?â€ť Adrian enquires. I laugh again and think back.
The first official Purim I celebrated was at the Orthodox Yeshiva I attended as a girl. It was first grade and every girl wanted to go as Esther. Itâ€™s like the newest Disney character but sheâ€™s thousands of years old. I wanted to be different and I hated wearing dresses even though I had to wear one to school every day. Here was my chance to break out! Instead of going to school dressed as Esther like every other girl I went dressed as the castle.
My mother walked me to The Variety Store on Avenue M and Mr. Miller showed me where the colorful oak tag was. I bought two pieces of hot pink oak tagÂ and punched holes in the top of each piece. Then I used string to tie the pieces together and put them over my head. I drew windows and a door and that was it. I was the castle. It was funny but not as funny as Stephen, a boy in my class, who dressed up as Vashti the banished Queen. I think I saw him on Ru Paulâ€™s Drag Race a few years ago.
â€śWeâ€™re not dressing Helen as a castle,â€ť Adrian says.
Â â€śNo kidding,â€ť I answer.
Traditionally speaking, the kids in my neighborhood usually only dress up as characters from the Purim story. I suppose we could put Helen in something different and I suggest this to Adrian.
â€śHow about a piece of challah bread?â€ť he asks.
Â â€śWhat?â€ť I say pretending not to hear him.
Â â€śChallah bread,â€ť he continues, â€śItâ€™s kosher, itâ€™s traditional and itâ€™s my favorite!â€ť
â€śYeah, because thatâ€™s not embarrassing at all,â€ť I add.
Adrian smiles, lifts up the baby and says, â€śChallah por favor!â€ť
Trying to explain Purim is not easy. For starters G-dâ€™s name is not mentioned once in the entire book.Â Does this mean G-d is not present? It actually means the opposite, that G-d is ALWAYS present and for this reason Esther and Mordechai are able to save the Jewish people. Also, thereâ€™s the part about the Megillah. The Megillah is the scroll of Esther and tells the Purim story. This scroll is read on the evening Purim begins as well as the next morning. In Midwood, young Orthodox Jewish boys of about 10 and 12 years old stop people on the street to ask:
â€śAre you Jewish?â€ť
Â On my walk to my motherâ€™s house every year I answer, â€śYes.â€ť
Â Then the boys say, â€śHave you heard the Megillah this year?â€ť
Because I do not attend synagogue on Purim I say no and they ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to me standing on the corner of East 23rd Street and Avenue M.
The scroll of Esther can take some time and there is even a Jewish saying, â€śItâ€™s like he read the whole Megillah,â€ť referring to how long something can take. But, every year I say, â€śYes, boys, please read.â€ť
And this is the most beautiful part of Purim. That two boys who are 10Â and 12Â years old know it is a good deed to read the story of Esther to a wandering Jew on the streets of Brooklyn. And because they are Yeshiva boys they speed read their Hebrew out loud as if to prove the â€śwhole Megillahâ€ť saying wrong.
This year I canâ€™t wait to take the baby on a walk through the streets of Midwood during Purim. I wonder what those boys will say. â€śIs she Jewish?â€ť
Â â€śYes,â€ť I will answer.
Â â€śHas she heard the Megillah this year?â€ť
Â And because she does not attend synagogue with her mother on Purim I will say no and they will ask to read the entire scroll of Esther to her. Then they will ask, â€śWhat will you dress her up as?â€ť and I will smile and say, â€śChallah bread, we were thinking challah breadâ€¦or a hamantaschen cookie.â€ť
Happy Purim, everyone! From the Mexican-American-Jewish-Newborn and her family.
As my son and I watched coverage of Super Tuesday, I mentioned that regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders got the Democratic nomination or won any states on this big voting day, he made history as the first Jewish presidential candidate to win a primary. As the results rolled in, I amended my comment, “He’s the first Jewish presidential candidate to win more than one primary. That’s cool.”
My 11-year-old responded in a sarcastic voice, â€śOf course, no one knows Bernie is Jewish.â€ť
I was surprised by my sonâ€™s remark. In his younger, pre-tween days, he would have thought that a serious presidential contender who was Jewish was â€śawesomeâ€ť and would probably have been pro-Bernie just because he was Jewish.
Now, on the cusp of teen-hood, he was more discerning and shrewd and often offered sharp analysis of situations and eventsâ€“all good things. But his comment made me wonder if he was bothered by the fact that Sanders didnâ€™t wear his Jewishness on his sleeve.
â€śDoes it bother you that Bernie doesnâ€™t talk about his Jewish identity more?â€ť I asked.
â€śNo,â€ť my son said.
I wasnâ€™t convinced. â€śDo you think that because he doesnâ€™t talk about being Jewish on the campaign trail that his Jewish identity isnâ€™t important to him?â€ť I probed.
â€śNo. Iâ€™m proud to be Jewish, but I donâ€™t talk about being Jewish all the time at school. But still, everyone knows Iâ€™m Jewish and if they have questions about Judaism or Jewish rituals they ask me.â€ť
â€śOk, well, maybe Bernie feels the same way,â€ť I suggested. â€śMy guess is that he is proud to be Jewish and would acknowledge heâ€™s Jewish if asked, but feels he doesnâ€™t need to talk about his Jewishness all the time. My sense is that he wants to talk about the issues facing our country and not about his faith or religious identity.â€ť
My son didnâ€™t respond. As I watched him think about what I said, I felt that while he agreed with it, there was something that bothered him about Sandersâ€™ minimal display of his religious identity, but he couldnâ€™t put into words what rubbed him.
It is likely that there are other Jews who, like my son, want Sanders to identify more strongly as a Jewish American. And there are probably many, who like me, are OK with Senator Sandersâ€™ seeming choice to identify as an American Jew.
It was 56 years ago that a Democratic presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy asked the nation to see him as an American Catholic, not a Catholic American. In September 1960, at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was high, Kennedy delivered a major speech to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston on the issue of his religion. An excerpt follows. You can read the full transcript here.
â€śWhile the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: the spread of Communist influenceâ€¦the humiliating treatment of our president and vice president by those who no longer respect our power; the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, and too late to the moon and outer space. These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues â€” for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers. But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscuredâ€¦So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in â€” for that should be important only to me â€” but what kind of America I believe inâ€¦I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that officeâ€¦But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholicâ€¦â€ť
For me, the fact that Bernieâ€™s religious identity is a non-issue is as historic as his primary wins. Unlike Kennedy, Bernie can talk about the issues and not his religion. And that signals that even though there have been recent incidences of anti-Semitism and there are still country clubs and other organizations that excluded us, Jews have achieved the kind of acceptance that our ancestors who fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe, Russia and other areas of the world dreamed of.
After our conversation, I shared Kennedy’s speech with my son. After reading it, he said it gave the religious identity issue more context and he understood how it laid the groundwork for a candidate like Sanders. He said it didn’t bother him that Bernie didn’t speak about his Jewishness more often and he saw why it’s important to celebrate the success of this Democratic candidate for president, who also happens to be Jewish.
In post-divorce life, it occurred to me that it had been over 13 years since the last time I went on a date. Not only did I have no idea what I was doing in this new life, but the rules had changed. Online dating was the norm, and as a busy mom of two who still didnâ€™t have a very large network here in Maine, it was the reality of meeting people and getting back out there. I fully intended to find love in my life again with a significant other and didnâ€™t rule out the possibility that one day maybe Iâ€™d even remarry, but in the meantime I wanted to have FUN, boost my confidence a little and learn about myself in the process.
I signed up for myriad online dating sites, and even allowed my mom to convince me to join JDate, knowing that the prospects of meeting a Jewish man where I live were pretty slim, and even laughable when my 100 percent match on the site was my ex-husband. After my Jewish/Jewish marriage ended, I wasnâ€™t focused on finding a lifelong mate â€“ and honestly never thought twice about interfaith dating. After all, most of my past boyfriends werenâ€™t Jewish, and besides, I didnâ€™t want to close myself off to the possibility of meeting someone great who might not share in my religious beliefs.
So my dating adventure began. It was sometimes downright disastrous and funny, often thought provoking, and even yielded a handful of friendships. Some of these dates turned into short-lived relationships; others etched their way into my heart and stuck around for a long time. But through it all there was one constant: My children come first and they will not be part of my dating life.
Itâ€™s not that the kids were clueless and thought that Mommy sat home every night that they werenâ€™t with me. (I share residency with their dad 50/50 so the idea of having time to go out was new to ME too!) But their concept of mommy having a boyfriend was that I loved listening to Adam Levine sing on the radio. Roxy, being almost 9, was a little more intuitive, realizing that just maybe I was going on dates and was sometimes even brave enough to ask me about it. Everettâ€™s 6 and cares more about playing Legos and avoiding girls with cooties, so with him it was a non-issue. My answers to Roxy were always vague, even when I was in a relationship with someone, because I had no intention of crossing that line. I didnâ€™t want the kids to feel threatened that my affection was going elsewhere, I didnâ€™t want them to be freaked out that there could be another male figure in their lives knowing they were still dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and quite honestly, they are the center of my universe. No man was going to be remotely part of their lives unless I knew he was â€śthe oneâ€ť and not going anywhere for a long, long time. My separate dating life remained that way and it was perfect.
Until the day I met Matt.
Thereâ€™s that whole clichĂ© of when you meet your person, your future, your soulmate and you just KNOW. Thereâ€™s no explanation, thereâ€™s no magic formula and sometimes it just happens. Usually when you least expect it. In Yiddish thereâ€™s a term for this, called finding your “bashert.” And when I met Matt, well, just like that the rules changed. Because I knew. And he knew. But weâ€™ve both been there, done that, so thereâ€™s no rush for something sparkly on my ring finger, even with the knowing.
We treaded carefully with the kids â€“ both with his son and my two kids. I told them he existed, and their questions were: Does he make you happy and treat you nice? My thoughtful children made their first meeting easy and fun, as we joined friends at a major league baseball game. Everett conned Matt into buying him a giant ice cream and Roxy wormed her way into being his bestie. Relief and easy banter between the three of them over the months since has become the norm, with all three kids getting to know one another, Matt meeting my family, the kids and I meeting his family, and daily life has gone on without missing a beat. They accept each other fully and the kids donâ€™t even think twice about Matt not sharing the same faith.
Itâ€™s more than I could have hoped for, finding a love like this and learning what makes us family. We made the decision that over the next few weeks, Matt will be moving in, because the reality is that being together, in the same place, just makes sense. It wasnâ€™t an easy decision to come to, because first and foremost this is where THEY live. I sat them down and talked to them about it last week, letting them know about this new plan. I was nervous to tell them, but shouldnâ€™t have been as they simultaneously cheered and when I asked if they had any questions about this new living arrangement, their only concern was: Please tell me heâ€™s bringing his TV because itâ€™s bigger. We can get more channels now, right?!? Oh my cable-deprived children will be quite all right with this transition, but as I look around my house, Iâ€™ve come to some realizations.
As I write this post, today is two years since I bought this house, built from the ground up with decisions made by me AND the kids on what color the roof should be, what kind of countertops, what flooring. I made this house happen somehow on my own, one of the scariest, bravest things Iâ€™ve ever done. Yet up until this point it has never felt truly like home. We live here, it has our stuff in it, but the thought of Matt moving in and us decorating and rearranging furniture truly excites me. Being able to share in the process with someone is special and turning this space into warmth and family and comfort? I have no words to describe what that means to me. Iâ€™m ready for this next phase but also know thereâ€™s going to be plenty of questions and discussions as we start this part of the journey.
I have always had a Jewish house. The kids and I are Jewish and I worked professionally in the Jewish community for a long time, so I guess it makes sense. Thereâ€™s a mezuzah on the front door. Thereâ€™s a whole shelf in the living room filled with Jewish ritual objects, from menorahs to Kiddush cups to Havdalah sets. I have a pile of artwork, some in Hebrew that I still havenâ€™t gotten around to hanging up. There are wall hangings and wooden camels brought back from trips to Israel. There are yarmulkes and Siddurs (prayer books) on bookshelves in several rooms. Thereâ€™s no question when you walk in that Jews live here. And I never questioned it before now.
I canâ€™t think of even one of my friends of another faith, especially here in Maine, who have homes that Iâ€™d walk into and immediately be able to identify them as Christian. I donâ€™t know many people who keep crosses on their walls or Buddhist altars in their mudrooms. Yet I have a Jewish house, one that my Irish Catholic boyfriend will soon move into. I know that we will find a balance with his comfort zone, andÂ that come December, where the Christmas tree will go. My Jewish home will morph into something that will reflect all of us, with each of us adding pieces of ourselves to the blank canvas of the rooms and walls that surround us.
Matt and I might not share the same religion, but Iâ€™m hopeful that as we continue to grow as a couple, the one thing people will notice when they walk into my house a month from now, six months from now, is that itâ€™s really a home, filled with joy and love and understanding.
Where do Jewish-Christian interfaith families turn to find a community of like-minded souls? A church and a synagogue? A third-space option such as Unitarian Universalism, or an interfaith Sunday school that includes both traditions? What about muddling through without religious community, either due to living largely secular, busy lives or an inability to find out what might work best?
These questions have been on my mind lately as my family has participated in a tiny, fledgling interfaith group in Chicagoâ€™s North Shore. The group started enthusiastically last summer with a planning meeting and several families, only to see attendance decline over the course of the fall.
What happened to the initial enthusiasm? The group met monthly, alternating between a local synagogue and Episcopal church, both of which congregations had histories of friendliness to intermarried couples and families. We gathered for an hour once a month, with crafts for our children and conversation about holidays for the parents.
The ideaâ€”to learn about holidays based on the liturgical years of Judaism and Christianityâ€”seemed promising at the start. Holidays offer one of the easiest entrees into an unfamiliar religious community, so the topic held promise.
Yet over the course of the fall, participation drifted away. My family attended eagerly at first, but at the second meeting, and then the third, my children wondered where we were going. Who would we see? Which church was this again, and had they been there before? Why couldnâ€™t they stay with their parents, and why did they have to go off and do crafts with a babysitter they couldnâ€™t remember? I sympathized with their questions: Even with nametags, I didnâ€™t feel confident that I remembered the other participants from month to month.
One afternoon in December, both of my kids had colds and felt exhausted from their swimming lessons earlier that Sunday morning. My husband wanted to stay home and cheer on his favorite football team in their run for the playoffs, and knowing how he felt about his team, didnâ€™t want to drag him away from the important event.
As it turned out, only one family attended that afternoon, a new family looking for an interfaith community. No one else, except the clergy, were in attendance to greet or welcome them.
What had happened? The group started with perhaps a conflicting set of goals. Would the group offer a â€śthird optionâ€ť for interfaith families along the model of The Interfaith Union School in ChicagoÂ or Washington, D.C.,â€™s Interfaith Families Project? What would be the role of the two clergy who offered so generously of their time? Certainly, they each welcomed all the families to their own congregations, a Reform Jewish congregation and a liberal Episcopalian parish.
The success of groups like this require families like mine to think about these questions, even if obliquely. What kind of interfaith community do we want? Do we want a third space option through which our children can learn about both traditions? And wouldnâ€™t this option be convenient: we hardly have the time or clarity to set down roots in one congregation in one tradition, much less in a third?
For families already involved in other congregations in the area, the idea that they could also find both time and emotional energy to invest in a new â€śthird spaceâ€ť option alongside other religious commitments boggled my mind. If any family can find time for possibly three religious groups, plus the myriad other activities with which modern family life consumes itselfâ€”from work to school, friends, sports, extra-curricular activities and other options unexploredâ€”my family wasnâ€™t one of them.
In fact, my familyâ€™s consistent participation in organized religion remains a question mark. While our daughters dance on Saturday mornings and swim on Sundays, what sometimes seems to be a slippery slide into being religious â€śnonesâ€ť dances around the edges of our schedule. As much as we love our children, we parents long to do other things with our mornings: visit museums, go on bike rides when the weather warms, and as we make this list, finding religious community slips farther down on the list. Our dance steps falter and we crash headlong against the difficulty of doing even most of what we would like to do, much less doing it all.
I donâ€™t know what will happen to this particular fledgling interfaith religious community. So many variables come into play as each family decides what to do with their own lives, schedules and priorities: to participate in religious community, or not participate at all? How to fit in what can seem like just one more activity, one more commitment among the many deserving possibilities that need our time?
No one familyâ€™s answer will fit for all, but perhaps, with luck and effort, enough similarities will emerge and a way forward will coalesce for a critical mass of interfaith parents and children.
How has your interfaith family answered the challenge of religious community in a busy world?