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Making friends as a grown-up isn’t always easy. When I look at my “mom” friends, we’re mostly bonded through our kids. We spend countless hours at cheerleading, football or any of the myriad extra-curricular activities our kids are involved in, and our friendship is based on the relationships of our children with one another. But sometimes, I feel the need to step out of the comfort zone, try to meet people based on interests *I* have, because even though I’m momming 24/7, there needs to be a chance for ME to connect with, well, me, even when doing the mom thing.
So I decided to bring my 1-year-old to a Sukkot event, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to participate in making a sukkah out of pretzels, but with the hope that maybe, after five years of living in Maine and still feeling slightly isolated and disconnected Jewishly, that I’d meet some other moms and families. I felt awkward walking into a situation where I knew no one except the group leader (who greeted me warmly), but I was determined to enjoy this new experience and bond over the commonality we all shared. After all, I was walking into a Jewish event, the kids were Jewish, I was Jewish, we were there to celebrate a Jewish holidayâ€”AND we were all clearly parents of small children. I was encouraged; I had hope; let the bonding and mom-friending begin!
Except I left friendless. And feeling even more disconnected than before. It wasn’t a failure of lack of effort. I think I introduced myself to almost every grown-up there, and there had to be at least 30 people between adults and kids. I tried to strike up conversations as I followed my blond-haired blue-eyed toddler around with his monster-like walking (a new trick for his first birthday!). The conversations usually went like this: “Hi, I’m Amy! This is Finn!” (as he would carefully saunter up to a new grown-up to check them out). Said grown-up would respond with their name and ask me if he went to the daycare at the JCC. In my head I responded, “Is that a requirement to talk to me?” but I was there to make friends, right? So instead I gave my canned response, “He’s on the waiting list,” which is a truth, but I wasn’t going to tell them it was because when I was looking for daycare I couldn’t find a place that DIDN’T have a waiting list and it’s possible he’s on a few at this point. The conversation would end each time, almost as if it was a prerequisite for him to be there in order to communicate with me.Â Talk about frustrating.
I wanted to scream at all of them, “If you only knew! If you only knew anything about me! If you only knew my own Jewish connections, my own history, that on Yom Kippur the other day I stood in front of my congregation and chanted Torah, would I be acceptable to talk to then?” I looked around at the group, self-conscious of my blonde toddler in the mix of all the brown-haired kids, with biblical and Hebrew names. Is this what it’s going to be like for him as he grows up? My Jewish, Irish child who has interfaith parents? My Finnian, fitting in with standard white-bread Maine, but not so much in the Jewish community? I found myself surrounded by talk of day school that apparently most children in attendance go to, this rabbi, that rabbi, kids calling their parents eema and abba (Hebrew for mom and dad). And Finn? Oblivious to it all, walking around the sukkah like he owned it, waving and laughing at the kids who mostly ignored him, and picking up brightly colored leaves that had fallen to the ground.
Making mom friends is hard, but I didn’t think being Jewish was also hard. I walked away from the experience wondering if it’s always been like this, that certain status was placed upon you by how you connect Jewishly. And the reality is that in some communities, it truly is. I realized that I used to be one of the “elite” as someone who not only was actively involved in the Jewish community but also WORKED in the Jewish community. I took it for granted that it WAS easy because I was in the mix. But I’m no longer in the mix. And I’m no longer in a Jewish-Jewish family. I’ve now experienced the harshness of being judged based on perceived participation in the organized Jewish community with my blonde-haired kid, and it makes me sad.
As I tucked him into bed when we got home and pulled the green glowstick from the event out of his clenched hand, I wiped schmutz off his face, kissed him and said laila tov (goodnight). If that’s not connecting Jewishly, I don’t know what is. We have a long road ahead of us and I’m just starting to discover howÂ this whole being Jewish thing won’t always be easy, but I’m confident that Finn will grow up knowing whoâ€”and whatâ€”he is.
The other day, Ruthie and I were talking about one of her favorite topicsâ€”her cousins. She ticked off each oneâ€™s name, and talked about something special about them, or what they did the last time they were together.Â Then she started talking about some friends who are like familyâ€”she often brings up this topic of what to call her friends who are like family but who arenâ€™t blood relatives. In speaking about two sisters in particular from a family that we often celebrate Jewish holidays with, she changed the subject a little bit.
â€śSo,â€ť she asked me, â€śwhich one of their parents wasnâ€™t Jewish when they met, the mom or the dad?â€ť
â€śActually,â€ť I told her, â€śthey both were Jewish when they met.â€ť
â€śOh,â€ť she said, and kept talking.
This was not a monumental question to her, but it gave me pause.Â Neither good nor bad, but it gave me pause.Â To her, the question was completely logical.Â First of all, there was no judgment in it. It wasnâ€™t good or bad if they were or werenâ€™t Jewish, it was just a normal question to her about families.
In Ruthieâ€™s Jewish family (my side), most of the pairings in my generation are interfaith. In fact, of my three siblings and six first cousins, only one person has married someone from a Jewish background. This does not stand in the way of our lighting Hanukkah candles together or sharing the Passover seder. Whatâ€™s more, an openness to mixed faith couplings has brought seven fantastic people into our family, seven more adults who nurture and support our foursome.
Because of this, Ruthie really hasnâ€™t been exposed to the idea that being Jewish necessitates having two Jewish parents. It is just not part of how she understands her identity.Â While I spend time every month blogging about navigating a somewhat new path in embracing multiple forms of Jewish identity, Ruthie thinks our family is completely ordinary within our religious community.
When she asked the question, my mind started embracing the 21st century outlook for interfaith families. I went to an exciting place: That maybe because ofÂ the work of community leaders, generous rabbis, individual families who choose love and acceptance and, of course, InterfaithFamily, our girls wonâ€™t ever know to feel different.Â They will know that we are Jewish through our actions.Â As they grow up they will understand that they have a choice about spirituality and connection to a religious community.Â If we are successful, the girls will understand that our goal as parents was to show them our choice, in the hopes that theyâ€™ll love it, but also in the hopes that they understand the benefits of choosing to make space for these connections in their adult lives.
Another interpretation might be that Ruthie is 6. I wasnâ€™t raised in an interfaith family myself, so for all I know every 6-year-old thinks that all families must be like their own, religiously or otherwise.Â Perhaps 6-year-olds with interfaith parents have been asking this question for generations; I have just never encountered their stories.
So, earth shattering or not, I have a new inspiration.Â To hold onto the kernel of celebration that I felt in that moment. To hold onto the idea that I can raise my girls in an environment where their Jewish identity is about our actions, and not about a rule that would prohibit the loving home Eric and I have created as a couple.Â To create a place where they can relish the heritage they carry on through the multiple traditions from both sides of their families, but also firmly choose a path of spirituality and connection that is personally fulfilling to them.Â And, ideally, to imagine a time that feels not that far off when being interfaith will be an important part of how we understand, respect and love our extended family, but wonâ€™t be a significant facet of our Jewishness.