Choosing an identity for our children, and watching them choose it themselves

Passover table

Emily’s 19-person seder brought enjoyment to a gathering of 19 friends and family

Recently, my older daughter Laurel was pretending that her father and I were guests at her house, and we were helping to take care of her while her parents were out at a meeting. She showed me the kitchen, and suggested I might want to make mac n’ cheese for her and her baby sister. Over dinner, she decided to talk about her family.

“I am Jewish, and my daddy is Jewish, so we just celebrated Passover,” she said.

“Oh, that must have been fun,” I replied.

“Yeah, it was tons of fun!”

“What other holidays do you celebrate?” I asked, curious to hear how she might answer.

“We also celebrate Hanukkah, of course,” she continued, “but we have Christmas too,” she said, “because my mommy is Christian.”

“Oh, really?” I replied. “That’s interesting. I think your mommy told me once that she actually is more of a Unitarian Universalist,” I clarified, thinking fast. Well, UUs historically were Christian, but today, many UUs wouldn’t call themselves Christian, for a variety of reasons, not least because they can’t quite accept some of the central tenets of Christianity. Oh, ack, what do I say! I’m much more of a cultural Christian, I suppose, since I was raised in the Episcopalian church, but, but, but… how do I explain this in one sentence, to a 5-year-old! 

I continued to play along with the conversation. “I suppose your mommy is sort of Christian. She’s a very, very liberal Christian,” I added. “And she celebrates Christmas, yes.” Perhaps it would be best to save explanations of nineteenth-century doctrinal changes for a few years, I thought.

When my husband Ben and I first started dating, one of our first outings as a couple was to hear Harvey Cox speak on his book about raising a Jewish child, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year. We’d only been dating for a few weeks, so attending this event seemed kind of significant, and definitely nerve-wracking. What I learned, though, was that Cox and his wife, who is Jewish, decided to raise their son Jewish because of matrilineal descent. When it came to Christmas and other Christian holidays, they would simply tell him that those were his father’s holidays.

This sounded like simple enough advice, and something to think more about.

I now know that this suggestion is hardly quite so simple, and that questions of identity will look different for different children as they age.

When Ben and I started to discuss marriage, it also seemed simple to decide that our children, if we were blessed with any, would be Jewish. Or at least that’s how I remember the conversation going. We’d just gotten engaged a couple of days earlier, and were sitting on the old green futon that functioned as our first couch back in the grad-school days. I told Ben, “I’ve been thinking about this, and since Judaism has an ethnic component to it, as well as a religious one, I think our kids should be raised Jewish.”

I remember the surprise, and the happiness, that I saw in his eyes. “Really? You’d do that? Because Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent,” he told me, “meaning that Judaism can pass through the father as well as the mother. I’m so glad you’re open to this!”

Our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves almost a year after getting engaged, seems to imply a different intention. I’ve just looked at it hanging there in our living room now, and it clearly expresses our desire to create a home that honors our Jewish and Unitarian Universalist heritages, one that, should we be blessed with children, would “honor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.” This phrase rather nicely sums up what Ben and I hold most dear, theologically speaking, but nowhere does it say we’re going to raise our children as solely Jewish!

That’s funny, I find myself thinking. I thought we’d agreed to raise our kids Jewish? Didn’t I tell Ben that I agreed that we should raise Jewish children?

Or did I mean that I wanted to be sure they had a Jewish identity, even if that identity is only one of the labels a child might choose? After all, we have two Christmas-celebrating Jewish children, children who receive Easter cards each spring from still-confused relatives, children who this year participated gleefully in their first Easter-egg hunt.

How confusing!

At least, it sounds confusing to me. I’m not sure it’s confusing to our older daughter. It’s simply who she is. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was proud to share a box of matzah with her class at school, and on the way home that day, she told me, “I’m the only Jewish kid in my school.” I’m not sure that’s quite numerically true of the school, even if it is of her classroom. However, what rings more true than a statistic is the extent to which, at this point, Laurel clearly considers herself to be Jewish—and whether she’d say it this way or not, she knows, too, that it’s not quite that simple.

Ma Nishtanah: Why are Jewishly Engaged Interfaith Families Different from Other Jewish Families?

Passoverseder

There are times in life when we’re in the zone. We’re so involved in performing or participating in an activity that we get lost in the experience. Other times, we’re more of a participant-observer. We’re engaged in the action or event, but we have enough distance from what is happening that we can study or reflect on what is going on at the moment.

I had a participant-observer experience at the Passover Seder we attended this year. We celebrated the first night of the holiday at our friend’s house. We met this family when we first moved to Dallas. The wife and I were in a Mommy & Me class together at the JCC. We were kindred spirits and both intermarried Jewish women raising Jewish children with the support of our not Jewish husbands. We became close friends quickly and navigated the joys and challenges of intermarriage and observed holidays together.

Over the years, our families had celebrated Passover with each other so many times that we had a holiday routine. We read a Haggadah for young families. The adults and kids ate at separate tables. The same friends and family filled the seats. But this year there were several changes to our typical ritual. We graduated to a Haggadah for families with elementary and middle school age children. The adults and kids sat together at one long table in my friend’s living room. There were new faces seated among the usual suspects.

Maybe those changes made me listen more carefully and observe more closely, or maybe I was simply more attentive on that particular evening. Whatever the reason for my heightened awareness, I saw several things that made this Passover different from others. I noticed that a regular Seder attendee, who brought her new boyfriend, was more relaxed and contented than she was in years past. I noted the good behavior of a usually mischievous young guest. I marveled at my husband’s and my friend’s husband’s Hebrew skills.

It was this last observation that grabbed me the most. How had I not noticed before how well both of these men pronounced and enunciated Hebrew words? Was this facility with Hebrew new or had it been there for a while, and I missed it?

After more than a decade of living a Jewish life, I knew that my husband and my friend’s husband could recite, in Hebrew, most of the Friday evening Shabbat blessings. And I knew my husband had participated in Havdalah enough times that he could sing the prayers. But the Hebrew words that were part of their assigned Haggadah readings weren’t familiar. Yes, there was transliteration. But transliteration was a pronunciation, not enunciation, tool. These guys pronounced the Hebrew clearly and crisply with the right emphasis.

Maybe the language skills of my husband and my friend’s husband stood out to me because of how different they were from many of the Jewish guests. Both husbands read the transliterated Hebrew with confidence. Many of the Jewish participants read the Hebrew hesitantly, mispronouncing words and using incorrect articulation. Several times during the Haggadah reading, these guests acknowledged that they had not done much Jewishly since their bar or bat mitzvah.

The scenario demonstrated how repeated exposure to Hebrew and frequent involvement in Jewish life can positively affect Jewish fluency regardless of someone’s religious background. It also highlighted why the usual rhetoric about intermarrieds—they are less likely to raise Jewish children or associate themselves with Jewish practice—isn’t universally true. Rather, it illustrated how a focus on engaging interfaith families benefits Judaism.

As the children at our Seder recited the Four Questions, a fifth question came to mind. Ma Nishtantah? Why are Jewishly active interfaith families different from other Jewish families? The answer: regular engagement with Judaism.

Why We Aren’t Having Children

The following is a guest post by Stephen Richey

Father leaving sonReading over the posts on InterfaithFamily’s Parenting Blog, I have come to the realization that a decision Kat and I made has allowed us to avoid some of the issues facing families that are blended from two distinct faiths or cultures. We know we do not want children and it was one of the easiest decisions for us to make. It also eliminates many common areas of disagreement in interfaith families such as religion in which to raise the kids, education and discipline.

How can deciding not to have kids—a watershed moment in most people’s lives—be so easy for us? If you take a step back and look at the facts critically and without playing to the emotions so often tangled up in it, the matter becomes a balancing of the positives and negatives of what parenting would entail in our family. Admitting this out loud often raises people’s ire because “How can one put a price on the joy that children bring?” I can imagine what some readers are thinking, because we have heard it all before. Folks most often respond with stares of horror or confusion or with comments about how we are young and will change our minds as we “grow up” (I am 33 and Kat is 29).

The most practical reason for our decision is simply this: Neither Kat nor I want a lifestyle that is suitable for raising children. Kat is an EMT and works weird hours. My schedule is not much better and is not likely to improve as we move forward with our efforts to expand my research overseas. When that happens, it is likely that Kat will move over to working with me at our non-profit full time. There’s a decent likelihood that one or both of us will be out of town over a hundred days per year. That is just not a good situation to bring children into and we do not wish to give up our careers.

Another factor in the decision to not procreate is that we do not wish to give up or change our own identities and lifestyle to raise children. This may seem a very selfish reason on its face but stop and think about how many of your friends drifted away when they had children. If it makes someone else happy, that’s spectacular but we know that it isn’t for us. I am thrilled to live vicariously through someone with regards to their children so long as they agree to do the same with regards to our lifestyle.

One of the common rebuttals that folks (often older folks) have is “But won’t you miss having children around?” And we might, but perhaps not as much as you would think. Our take is that kids are great in small doses. And we’ll be able to get those small doses with our nephew, thanks to my younger sister and her husband.

The other common question is “But who will take care of you when you’re old?” Once again, this is usually something that comes from people the age of my grandparents because people tend to ask about things that are sources of concern to themselves. While having children is one way to try to ensure your wishes and needs are taken care of, it is no guarantee. Grief does screwed-up things to people and clear thinking is usually one of the first things to go. So having someone who is closely tied to you make end-of-life decisions may end up causing additional problems.

As I mentioned, people most often try to persuade us with the argument that we will come to want children as we “grow up” is the most common one we encounter, and it is often done in a rather patronizing way. It is also frankly one of the most insulting things one can say to a person. Saying such things about someone’s core beliefs about their life is akin to criticizing their religion. To say such things to us is to imply that we are wrong, though it is more likely that the people judging us do not fully understand our circumstance. If a lifestyle choice makes a person happy and they are not harming anyone else with their views, why should it be a concern of yours? Just as Kat and I do not judge others and may not understand fully their desire to have children, we respect and support their decisions. All we ask is the same courtesy.

Having children can be a beautiful blessing, and a continuity of the Jewish community, however, there is also sometimes strife that child rearing causes in relationships—including interfaith marriages. We cannot help but ask whether more people should be taking a critical view of whether having children is right for their situation rather than trying to make their relationship fit having children.

The social and religious expectation that a couple will produce children is so overwhelming that many do not stop to think about the reality of it in any concrete way. Maybe it is time that such matters be given more consideration and not simply be treated as a given. If it works for you, great! But the responsibility of parenting should be a rational and sober decision and not one made simply to please cultural, social, religious or family expectations.

Stephen is a secular humanist Jew and a trauma biomechanics/crash survivability researcher from Indianapolis, Indiana. He and his loving fiance Kat will be married this September in an interfaith ceremony.