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Recently, the membership director at my synagogue asked me if I would reach out to a young woman who was the Jewish half of an interfaith couple and a new temple member with her husband. She was also expecting her first child. Knowing the importance of a warm welcome, especially for intermarrieds, I said I would be happy to reach out.
I assumed my conversation with this Jewish intermarried would be similar to the discussions I’ve had with other intermarried partners looking for a Jewish home. She would feel grateful and relieved to have found a welcoming, inclusive community that dedicated resources to interfaith-specific programming.
When I called the woman, I told her about my involvement over the years in the congregation’s Interfaith Moms group and its evolution into Interfaith Families. I discussed how the group was a great way to meet other intermarrieds and build community at our large synagogue. I said I would add her name to the group’s distribution list so she would receive information on future activities.
At this point, the conversation took a strange turn. She told me that she wasn’t sure she wanted to be involved with an interfaith group because she needed to be “very strategic” about who her family associated with. I wondered what that meant.
The interfaith mom-to-be explained that she was raised in an active Conservative home that kept kosher. She had a Jewish wedding and her children would be raised Jewish. So far, a common story.
Then she made a few statements that started to help me understand what “very strategic” meant. She said interfaith groups were not comprised of families like hers where the mother was the Jewish parent. Instead, they “were mostly non-Jewish women, who really weren’t interested in raising Jewish children.”
What?!?! I’d never heard another intermarried use the same (old) stereotypes still peddled by some segments of the Jewish community or held by older generations.
She added that since the female partner controlled the religious upbringing of children and the identity of a home the families in our interfaith group would never be Jewishly active. “Besides,” she said, “Their children will never really be Jewish anyway.”
At this point, I had enough of the outdated rhetoric regarding intermarriage and decided it was time to dispel a few myths and explain what type of community she had joined.
In a friendly but firm tone, I explained that our interfaith families group was diverse. It included families with a Jewish mom and a not Jewish dad, a Jewish dad and not Jewish mom, a parent that converted, and same-sex couples with one not Jewish partner. Since the group was synagogue-based, regardless of family composition, the participants were all raising Jewish children and creating singularly Jewish homes, or moving in that direction.
I shared that many of the not Jewish partners were the ones reconnecting their Jewish spouses to Judaism. She interjected with another generalization, “Isn’t that always how it is? The convert becomes more zealous about practicing than the one born Jewish.”
I didn’t want her to have the impression that all of the not Jewish partners had converted or were in the process of converting. I said, “Some convert, some maintain their identity but aren’t practicing, and some are active in and fully committed to raising Jewish children but remain connected to their individual faith.” I also explained that we were a Reform congregation, which meant that we welcomed, recognized and accepted children as Jewish if they had one Jewish parent–regardless of the gender of the parent. The woman got quiet.
I asked her if she had any questions or if I could help her in any way. She asked about baby naming ceremonies for girls. As she shared her questions, I empathized with this young woman. I remembered the early years of my marriage when I was also unsure of how my and my husband’s choice to be Jewish would play out.
I also thought that I needed to direct our Jewish life and worried about the influence of interfaith couples making different decisions. I didn’t start feeling more relaxed about being Jewish and interfaith until we found an inclusive and welcoming community. Only then did I realize that sharing a commitment to create a Jewish home was what was important, not how each couple implemented that decision. In fact, the diversity of approaches became an opportunity to learn, rather than something to be feared.
This woman and I spoke for another few minutes. It was a nice conversation. When I hung up, I hoped that after her initial hesitation wore off, she and her husband and baby would try an interfaith families activity. Because if they tried it, they’d realize that there is nothing to fear and much to gain from having a vibrant community of interfaith families to navigate the joys and challenges of intermarriage with.
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The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (CJPE) is a resource and catalyst for developing education about collective Jewish belonging, often focused on the areas of Jewish peoplehood and Israel. Through its blog and Peoplehood Papers series, the organization generates dialog about the meaning and importance of Jewish peoplehood and how to nurture it.
Recently, I wrote an essay for the CJPE blog about the significant influence peoplehood had on the decision to have a Jewish home by inmarrying and intermarrying couples in a pre-marriage class that I taught at my synagogue. I discussed how we created a curriculum that showed how Jewish engagement could deepen connection to the Jewish people regardless of whether or not both partners were Jewish.
While the following piece addresses engaged couples, it applies to any family interested in building a Jewish home, regardless of life stage. The questions my co-teacher and I ask students–why is being Jewish significant to you, what does it mean to have a Jewish home, how will you go about creating one–are relevant to us all. They are questions we should continually ask ourselves because as we journey through religion, spirituality and life, the answers may change.
I hope you’ll share in the comment section below why you chose to be Jewish, what having a Jewish home meant when you got married, why being Jewish is important to you today and how your idea of a Jewish home has evolved.
This essay is reprinted with permission.
Six months ago, I began teaching a premarital class to intrafaith and interfaith couples being married by clergy at my synagogue. The impetus for the class was the increasing disaffiliation and disconnection of Jewish young adults from Jewish life.
Regardless of whether couples were endogamous or interfaith, we believed that marriage presented an opportunity to influence their religious engagement. We felt that this relationship stage provided us with the chance to effect faith related choices, something especially important as we sought to encourage more interfaith couples to participate in Judaism.
We recognized during premarital counseling that we asked inmarrying and intermarrying couples to make a Jewish home, but that many of these couples didn’t know how to go about creating one. Most of the Jewish partners were raised in progressive Jewish households, either wholly Jewish or interfaith, and grew up practicing Judaism episodically. Their upbringing focused on the High Holidays, Passover, and Hanukkah and few participated in Jewish education post-b’nai mitzvah or remembered anything from religious school.
We wanted to push these often Jewishly illiterate and religiously disconnected couples to think about why being Jewish was significant to them and help them understand how to honor their commitment to have a Jewish home. So, we created a two- to four-week learning experience for engaged partners.
At the start of each session, we asked the couples how they decided to have a Jewish home and why having one was important to them. Interestingly, regardless of whether the Jewish partner or partners grew up secularly Jewish, episodically Jewish, modestly observant or very observant, the reason having a Jewish home was important was the same. All had a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
We used our curriculum, which focused on Shabbat and community building, to show the couples how ritual and communal involvement, could deepen their feeling of Jewish peoplehood. We discussed how rituals, whether viewed as divine commandments or social customs, were a means to transmit Jewish heritage, beliefs, and values. We explained the importance of Shabbat and ways to embrace it. We talked about using the holiday to bring sacredness into the couple’s relationship and home.
These classroom discussions provided a foundation for what was in my opinion the most significant component of the class–experiential learning. Over a Shabbat meal at a congregant’s home, the students experienced the power of Shabbat in a communal setting. Since many of the couples didn’t grow up with a Shabbat home ritual because their families weren’t observant or they weren’t Jewish, we wanted to demonstrate and demystify the holiday. The more relaxed social setting of a home also provided couples the opportunity to deepen the connections they were forming in the classroom demonstrating how Shabbat could be used to build community.
Forging relationships between students was high on our priority list because community was a significant predictor of Jewish engagement. Since we knew that adults with more densely Jewish social networks were more likely to engage in Judaism and raise Jewish children we added a second non-classroom learning experience. At the end of the program, we brought the couples together for Havdalah in a member’s home. This endpoint allowed us to expose participants to another ritual and gave students an opportunity to deepen their connection to each other.
When endogamous and interfaith couples make the decision to be married by a rabbi, it opens the door to a Jewish conversation. It gives us the chance to encourage Jewish choices. Using classroom and experiential learning plus premarital counseling, we can help Jewish and not Jewish partners see how Judaism can help them feel part of something bigger and connect them to Jewish life.
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Despite being part of a Jewish family for the past decade, I have never celebrated Shavuot. After the excitement of Passover, it’s never been a holiday that I’ve experienced. I am, admittedly, embarrassed to say this. However, in the spirit of blogging about my interfaith family, I announced to the family that this year, we should do something differently! I promptly looked at Ben for suggestions. He said, “Well, let’s see,” and walked over to the bookshelves, coming back with a big stack of Jewish cookbooks. Laurel grinned in excitement and fascination, and I could see her thinking, “Yay, another holiday! More good food to eat! This is so exciting!”
For any holiday, my husband (a self-confessed foodie) usually thinks first of the foods one eats for the holiday. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s explained that, for him at least, “Jewish holidays are all about food!” This fact is, I expect, a major link to tradition for him as a modern Jewish person. I have learned not to start with “what do we do at the holiday?” but with “what do we eat?”
To my delight, though, one of our favorite cookbooks (Olive Trees and Honey, a vegetarian cookbook with recipes from around the Jewish world) described not just the foods of Shavuot, but the other practices and traditions as well. As we prepare to celebrate our first Shavuot, I expect we’ll be thinking about the three things this book mentioned: first, sweet dairy foods, second, the Torah, and third, the Book of Ruth. I don’t know if we will go to a synagogue or celebrate at home, but I know we’ll be focusing on these three things.
First, sweet cheesy foods, which in my husband’s culinary lexicon apparently means blintzes. For a second embarrassing admission, I have to admit I’ve never eaten a blintz. My friend Scott in college loved them, and piled them onto his plate whenever the dining hall served them. To me, those dining hall blintzes looked like they were swimming in water, or grease, or something else even less desirable, and they therefore lost much of their appetizing appeal. Ben, however, swears that all I need to do is make a crepe and put a sweet cheese filling in it, and we’ll be set. After all, I can make a crepe-like pancake, and since I can make a mac ’n’ cheese sauce, I can probably make a cheese filling. Shavuot part 1, check!
For Shavuot part 2, staying up all night reading Torah and studying, I doubt we’ll stay up all night. There are bedtimes to observe, after all, with cranky-child consequences. But I do think we’ll take the opportunity to tell our children—likely while eating our blintzes!—the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after leaving Egypt at Passover. We’ll show them our various paperback and hardback translations of the Torah. I wonder what questions Laurel will ask, in her entertaining 5-year-old way. Will she ask what a sacred text is? (Will that even be the language we use?) How will we answer? Will we talk about sacred texts beyond the Torah or the Hebrew Bible? About writing and literature as hallowed activities for the transmission of human knowledge, emotion and experience? Or will those questions come later? I’m looking forward to finding out.
Finally, there’s the book of Ruth. If ever there were a story to celebrate in an interfaith family, this would be it. The story has a personal connection for me because my grandmother’s name is Ruth, and it’s my middle name as well. I love that the Hebrew Bible includes a story of a woman choosing to live a Jewish life with a Jewish family. I love that even in a religious tradition that’s passed down from generation to generation, the tradition itself preserves a tale of an outsider choosing to become an insider. Ben and I already mentioned the story to Laurel when we first described Shavuot with the stack of cookbooks. We’ll tell it to her again on Shavuot (probably over blintzes). As the years go by, I expect that both of our children will find many layers of meaning in this story of extended families, the relationships we choose for reasons of love, and the traditions around which we consciously choose to shape our lives.
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Last week was my mother’s yahrzeit, the observance of the anniversary of her death. For someone who wasn’t raised in a Jewish household, or in a Jewish-but-luckily-not-bereaved household, yahrzeit is one of those traditions that you don’t really know about until you have to. There are public parts of observing yahrzeit, but the most powerful and probably widespread component is a private ritual in the home – a tiny glass candle burning for 24 hours, commemorating a day that you need to study up to remember, since it is the Hebrew calendar anniversary of a person’s death, not the Gregorian calendar date. It is traced to Talmudic times, and references a biblical verse about the human soul representing the lamp or flame of God.
When I light my mom’s memorial candle, there is a part of the ritual that is about bringing her into our home through the candle’s flame. Even more than the reminder of her spirit that the candle symbolizes, what is meaningful to me is the act of yahrzeit. When I light the candle, and watch the flame climb down the wick, placing it in a window, I bring my mom into myself, going through the steps I watched her take as a daughter who lost a parent early in her adult life.
I have very vivid memories of my mom lighting the yahrzeit candle for her father when I was a girl. I never knew my grandfather, but I knew the sacred moment when my mom was by herself with the flame of the candle every year, and felt the spirit of the candle flame holding court in our house for 24-hours every spring. Over time I have learned the ways that this act was one way she expressed her duty and gratitude as a daughter. Lighting the candle on her father’s yahrzeit expressed her obligation to remember, to make space for him and their relationship on the same date every year, and to keep the reminder of loss alive for 24 hours.
The obligation was also uniquely her own. While we shared many aspects of our Jewish practice and our emotional lives in my household, my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was an individual tradition. Following in her footsteps, I make it my own, too. With my mom’s memorial anniversary within days of Mother’s Day each year, I spend lots of time with Eric and the girls talking about my mom, visiting her grave, and doing special things that remind us of her. But lighting the candle is my own moment. It is my own personal obligation, and I think there is a power in holding it as an individual tradition, and having my girls understand that it is a part of remembering their grandmother that is my responsibility.
Last week, I snuck a moment to myself just after the girls’ bedtime, lighting the memorial candle in its small glass jar. I took the moment not only to reflect on my loss, but more importantly on my mother, and on what it means to be a daughter. I remember all of the life she breathed into me, all of the ways she made me into the person I am. I remember that it is my obligation to hold onto her spirit in this world, and to weave her memory into the ways I live my life.
I’ll never know know how important it would be to my mother that I light the candle every year. What I do know is that when I do it I am honoring her in the way I watched her honor her father, which means something to me.
Several months ago, I read Jennifer Senior’s All Joy No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Senior’s book is one of the few that examines the effects of children on their parents. How does parenthood affect our marriage, our work, our lifestyle, and our happiness?
Much of the book resonated with me, especially the chapter about the lengths parents go to develop their children so they can compete for spots at top colleges or athletic scholarships. Senior writes how this concerted cultivation has resulted in overscheduling and excessive parental involvement and contributed to the decline of real family activities such as meals.
One mother explains to Senior that, “homework has replaced the family dinner.” The reason for dinner’s displacement is that kids “tell you stuff” when you sit and create something together, and many parents don’t cook anymore. Given the amount of time they spend schlepping kids to activities it’s easier to do takeout. Senior wonders if the time spent in family study hall might not “be more restorative and better spent” doing things that create family bonds, “the stuff of customs and stories and affectionate memories.”
When I read this, the first thing I thought of was Shabbat. Shabbat is all about restoration, connection, rituals, stories, and creating warm memories. On Friday evenings, we give thanks for time together and the food we eat, we remember through stories–Jewish and personal–our connection to community and heritage, we take a break.
But even though Shabbat is a simple solution to the problem Senior describes and only requires a once a week commitment, many of us still struggle to do it. We’re busy with work and after school activities. We don’t have time to set a nice table or cook a meal. Our children would rather attend a high school football game or professional sporting event. I can relate.
When my son Sammy was in preschool, Shabbat was magical. On Friday afternoons, he and I baked challah. In the evenings, we gathered as a family, sat at a nicely set table, and said the prayers. Following the blessing for boys, my husband and I each whispered a special message in our son’s ear, and we shared with each other our favorite part of the week.
But as my son has grown, my family’s once magical Shabbat has lost some of its glow. We no longer sit down for a family dinner every week. When we do, our once carefully set table now looks like the one we eat at every weeknight: papers and magazines are pushed to a corner, and nondescript placemats and napkins decorate the surface. Our challah is store-bought, and my family who is starving and a little grumpy, requests the fast version of the blessings.
Because our Shabbat practice no longer seems special, it would be easy for us to surrender to our hectic schedule, to say we can’t celebrate, to abandon our flawed observance. But each week, we find ourselves trying to honor our ritual in some way.
During football season, if Sammy’s school is playing at home, we light the candles and bless the challah before we go as a family to the game. In the spring, if we have tickets to see our local minor league baseball team on a Friday night, we wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” as we enjoy America’s pastime.
But it’s when we do enjoy a real Shabbat dinner, even a thrown together one, that we remember the power of this ancient ritual. Over long discussions of the week’s
Whether spent at the dinner table or the ballpark, these few hours help us to recharge, bond and create memories. That’s the magic of Shabbat.
At the end of the chapter on concerted cultivation, Senior suggests that parents make dinner the new family dinner. I love the idea but know that in my home, family dinner isn’t going to happen every weeknight. But I can make family time happen on Shabbat.
So, stop saying, “You can’t,” or “You’re too busy.” Find a way to celebrate Shabbat. You might just find that it becomes your new family dinner even if dinner is a hot dog at the ballpark.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husband and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that we’d need to bring in a mohel from who-knows-where, if we happened to have a baby boy. Would we have to ask someone to drive in from Atlanta, three hours away? Or perhaps Charlotte, a mere two-and-a-half?
When we found out that the baby would be a girl, we breathed a sigh of relief on that score, at least. Understanding what happened at a baby naming, though, seemed much more complicated than the task assigned to a mohel.
I had dozens of questions for my husband, though, about baby namings for Jewish girls. What happens at them? Did it require synagogue membership, or a rabbi? Were there set prayers or actions to follow? The lack of clear guidance on what to do in such a ceremony baffled me, given my greater familiarity with baptism and the UU baby-welcoming tradition which often feature a rose in addition to water. Our nearest local Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led by a retired cantor and an active layman who served as the group’s unofficial rabbi. We attended Friday night services sporadically in the fellowship hall of the local Catholic church. The Jewish community had just celebrated a milestone by purchasing a Torah, housing it in an ark-on-wheels in the priest’s personal study.
When Laurel was born several months later, the community was thrilled to host her baby naming. I seemed to think that a naming needed to happen soon after a baby’s birth, so we scheduled ours for a few weeks after she was born, despite her somewhat premature arrival. Relatives from both sides of the family poured in from across the country to celebrate the arrival of their first grandchild, first great-niece, and newest second cousin once-removed (etc).
We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the community’s oldest member, and everyone’s eyes were alight with wonder at this dual celebration of someone at the very start of their life, and someone else whose life had lasted for a remarkably long time, and who remained quite spry besides.
The ceremony opened with an affirmation of our choice to raise Laurel in the Jewish tradition (see, I didn’t think I was mistaken), as well as our identity as an interfaith family. In the ceremony, we expressed our desire to welcome Laurel into the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. The congregation said the Shehecheyanu, and Ben and I said a Brachah for bringing her into the covenant. We wrapped Laurel in her grandmother’s tallit as L’Dor v’Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurel’s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her father’s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her mother’s side.
After the formal blessings, we brought out one of our menorahs, a brass, silver, and bronze affair with arms that could be arranged in a row, or in a circle. We arranged the arms in a circle, and relatives from all sides of the family read pre-assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible about light coming into the world, as if to emphasize the new light that shines with the birth of any baby.
Several years later, our second daughter was born, even more premature than the first. We didn’t hold a baby naming ceremony for her until almost six months after she was born. We were not yet affiliated with any synagogue in the area, so we held Holly’s naming at home, and conducted the ceremony ourselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that a rabbi could come to our home to do the ceremony, but my Jewish other-half assured me that really, we could just do it ourselves – say words and prayers that would enter her into the wider Jewish community of the covenant. Relatives who lived far away “attended” via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic church’s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. I’ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sister—“I-love-you-Holly-I’m-so-glad-you’re-my-sister”—in front of her assembled relatives. The main difference was that we asked each guest to say a few words of welcome to Holly as they lit a tea light, rather than the pre-arranged readings using the menorah. We also chose a version of L’Dor v’Dor taken from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.
Looking back on it, I am glad we held the ceremonies in the way that we did. Both ceremonies upheld our decision to give our children a Jewish identity, and I did not feel too strange about not doing something ritualistic to include each baby in Unitarian Universalism. After all, it was difficult enough to coordinate the schedules of so many scattered relatives for one ceremony, that I cannot imagine how we might have tried to fit in a second baby-welcoming ceremony in another tradition as well!
As someone with an enduring academic interest in ritual, it feels right that we held ceremonies for welcoming our children. If learning about Jewish baby-naming ceremonies taught me anything about ritual, they gave me an appreciation for the flexibility of tradition. Our ceremonies reminded me of the ways in which something (like religion or ritual) that can seem hallowed by time can actually be quite ad-hoc, adapted to the moment, while still feeling like something time-honored.
As the end of the school year approaches, my family is actively planning our summer vacation. This year we’re traveling to Santa Fe for art, culture and hiking.
As I’ve done since my husband and I began traveling together before we married, I’m researching the various landmarks, historical sites and things to do at our destination. I’m also looking at how we can incorporate Jewish heritage into our trip.
Often we think that we must travel to Israel in order to explore Jewish life and history. But, Jewish heritage, like the heritage of other faiths especially Christianity, exists the world over.
For example, when my husband and I traveled to Europe, we visited many famous churches and cathedrals, but we also stopped at Jewish cultural sites. In Paris, we visited the renowned French Gothic cathedral Notre Dame on the same day we walked through the nearby Jewish Quarter in the Marais district.
While walking the streets of the Pletzel, the Yiddish name of the Jewish district, we stopped at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. The museum, housed in the 17th-century mansion known as the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, presented the 2,000-year history of the Jewish community in France and positioned French Jewry in the broader context of Judaism as a whole. It featured magnificent ritual objects from across the ages, tombstones from the Middle Ages and Judaic art from various periods, and it depicted Jewish life in Paris during Emancipation and at the beginning of World War II.
In Rome, we toured the Vatican and the remains of the Jewish ghetto, Great Synagogue, and Jewish Museum. We viewed Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel and discovered that it wasn’t the only magnificently painted ceiling in a Roman religious institution. The ceiling and interior of the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue of Rome) were magical. The inside of the square aluminum dome had a rainbow and trees, and the ceiling was a rich blue with gold stars that looked brilliant against the massive 50-foot free-standing ark.
In Prague, the Jewish Quarter with the Jewish Museum, Ceremonial Hall, Old-New and Spanish Synagogues, and the old Jewish cemetery, captivated us while the Church of St. Nicholas dazzled. In Budapest, we spent time at St. Stephen’s Basilica and investigated my ancestral roots at the grand Dohany Street or Great Synagogue.
This summer, in Santa Fe, we plan to investigate the Jewish influences in the city from iconic churches to art. We look forward to finding the Hebrew inscription for the name of God above the entrance to St. Francis Cathedral. Some people believe the engraving is a tribute to a Jewish benefactor who helped finance the construction of the church. We are also excited to learn how Judaism mixed with local culture.
Travel provides a wonderful opportunity for interfaith families to explore the Jewish and not Jewish religious and cultural traditions of an area. It shows us how Judaism intermingled with general culture offering new insights and context to the Jewish experience. It reminds us, and our children, that there is more to Jewish history than persecution and Israel. When we mix in stops at synagogues, Jewish museums, and other venues with visits to sites important to other faiths, we get a fuller picture of the world. We also develop a richer sense of Jewish heritage.
This summer, as you travel with your family, bring some balance to your sightseeing. Visit breathtaking cathedrals and churches as well as Jewish points-of-interest. Before you go, check out the travel website Jewish Discoveries to find lesser-known areas of Jewish culture. Use your trips to learn more about your family’s background and deepen your family’s connection to Judaism.
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.
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.
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
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.
This year, I’ll be celebrating my 13th Passover with my husband. As a way of introducing myself as a new InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, I want to reflect back on what’s become many years of shared Passover meals. I was happy to share some reflections on the December holidays in a post late last year, and I’m very glad to be starting a regular blog here with InterfaithFamily.
When I mentioned it to my husband, Ben, he was surprised to hear that we have shared 13 Passovers together. We met in graduate school for religious studies in 2001, and were married in an interfaith ceremony in 2005. I was raised Episcopalian, but have been involved with Unitarian Universalism for about 15 years; Ben grew up in Reform Judaism. We had our first daughter in the fall of 2009; at 5 1/2 she is a delight, and full of questions. Our younger daughter is just shy of 2 years old, and looks just like her older sister.
For my first Passover with my then-boyfriend, we traveled from our graduate school program to North Carolina, where Ben’s brother lived at the time. I would be meeting his family for the first time, and I worried endlessly about what to wear, what to say, what to do, and how to help. The mood at that first Passover was at times both joyous—as when my boyfriend’s family got out of their chairs and started to twirl each other in circles during “Dayenu”—and nerve-wracking, when the conversation turned to the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I remember sitting through that conversation, terrified to say anything, lest whatever I said be the wrong thing to say. We used a homemade haggadah that my boyfriend’s father had created and recreated over the years, photocopying, cutting and pasting together his favorite versions of songs, poems, stories, and images. The obvious love that went into preparing the text for the meal impressed me, and gave me an early window into why Passover had always been my then-boyfriend’s favorite holiday.
For several years, I enjoyed learning about the Passover tradition Ben had enjoyed with his friends from college. Every year, a large group of twenty-somethings descended on someone’s vastly rearranged living room for a raucous seder involving jello Manischevitz shots, “death-by-matzah” (matzah covered in butter, brown sugar, and melted chocolate), plenty of good food and excellent camaraderie.
The year after we married, Ben and I hosted a large Passover seder at our new home in New Jersey. My mother’s siblings and some of their children lived in the area, creating a 13-person seder at which the only Jewish attendees were my new spouse and his parents. Thankfully, I am blessed with in-laws whose company I enjoy greatly, and the two mothers also like each other, which went a long way to create a joyous, rather than stressful, occasion. Ben adapted his family haggadah to be intelligible and approachable for the seder’s many gentile participants.
Two years later, Ben and I found ourselves living in rural North Carolina, in a town where the tiny Jewish population consisted almost entirely of retirees. We started hosting annual seders with some of our friends, all of whom were not Jewish and unfamiliar with the Passover seder. Ben had fully embraced the idea of the seder as a time when all people should experience the feeling of freedom that the ancient Israelites experienced in the Exodus, and I entered into that spirit gladly. Some friends came back year after year, looking for another taste of Ben’s family recipe of Sephardic charoset, or amusing renditions of songs like “Clementine” translated into verses about Passover. Perhaps, like me, they waited for the hilarity of these songs to die down, so that the peace offered by singing “Oseh Shalom” at the end of the seder could rise to the surface, and giving the evening with a sense of tranquil wonder. If peace is a type of freedom, that moment of peace always set my heart free to celebrate as a fellow traveler with the Jewish people.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, I announced my pregnancy to our friends by drinking non-alcoholic wine at the seder, preferring that to the overly sweet taste of grape juice. Once Laurel was born, she added an increasing level of chaos to a meal that seemed, to her, to drag on for too long before real food appeared. Suddenly, matzah crumbs were everywhere, and one year, a haphazardly-thrown plush pull-toy plague ended up in someone’s water glass. We moved our seder from the dining table to the couches, allowing our increasingly mobile child, and our friends’ children, to enjoy themselves as we attempted to stay on track with the haggadah. Each year, Ben streamlined the haggadah more and more to make up for her small attention span and growling stomach.
When Laurel was three, we moved from North Carolina to the suburbs of Chicago, and our seders changed yet again. Some of Ben’s extended family live nearby, and and the past two seders became family affairs, painted with memories of too much pepper in the gefilte fish, or the year the power went out and the seder became a candle-lit night to remember.
Now, after over a decade of attending and hosting seders, I pitch right in. I know the recipes, and I know the main prayers. Last year we attended a seder at the home of some of Ben’s extended family, and I found that I know the traditions well enough to feel comfortable at someone else’s seder. It reminds me that even within families who celebrate the same holidays, traditions vary and the emotional tenor of an event can change with the hosts.
This year’s seder will present perhaps the biggest challenge yet. We’re hosting, and we expect to have 19 guests. Between my 22-month-old baby and my husband’s great aunt, who is in her 80s, our seder runs the gamut of ages and experiences. I am not quite sure if all of the guests will have chairs to go with the pillows on which they will recline, but I do know that I am excited to once again be a beloved stranger within the gates for a night that truly is like no other.