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By Sheri Kupres
When my Catholic husband and I decided to participate in a dual baby-naming/baptism ceremony for our firstborn, it was not warmly accepted by my Jewish parents. The ceremony, while wonderful for the three of us starting our journey as a dual-faith family, was fraught with tension. So when we had two more children, we didn’t invite my parents to these baby-naming/baptism ceremonies.
Fast-forward seven years later, and we were again embarking on a religious milestone as my oldest was about to take his First Communion through the dual-faith Sunday school we enrolled in. The First Communion ceremony was to be officiated by both a priest and a rabbi. The service itself, while being a Catholic ceremony, weaved in elements of Judaism, including Jewish prayers and stories.
In the time between the two sacraments, my mom had died from cancer and my dad and I were forging our own relationship in the absence of the strong force that was my mother. We started having more conversations about the religious education we were giving our children. While I knew he didn’t agree or believe we could educate our children in both religions, my dad was less likely to escalate his opposing views into full-on arguments. And while we weren’t necessarily getting to common ground, we were at least talking. Additionally, my dad had started visiting us more often. During these visits, he often came with us to our Sunday school’s adult-education sessions.
I remember at one of our sessions, we had a Humanist rabbi speak with us. He spoke quite honestly about how the Jewish faith is resistant to interfaith couples unless the couple is willing to raise their children solely as Jewish. This lit a fire in my dad, and he was quite upset that there is a whole interfaith community that wants their children to have a Jewish identity but the Jewish religion is turning us away. This frustration was the catalyst for us to begin talking more about the challenges we were facing as a dual-faith family.
My dad started sending me articles he found in the Jewish Journal about Jewish acceptance of interfaith families. He even went so far as to send in an op-ed piece explaining his views on why Judaism should be more open to accepting dual-faith families who wished to raise their children in both religions.
I felt like we were moving in a good direction, but I was not expecting to invite him to the First Communion ceremony. My husband, however, was adamant that we should include him. He felt this was an important event in our son’s life and that all of his family should be there; it would be my dad’s prerogative to refuse to come, but it was our responsibility to make sure he knew he was welcome.
After much trepidation, I finally asked my dad to come. I was surprised by the angry reaction I got. He told me that I was trying to make him feel guilty and forcing him to come. I explained to him that he was an important part of our family and welcome at the ceremony, regardless of whether he decided to come. My dad calmed down and told me he would think about it.
A few days later, he called back and said he would come. I was glad, but after our experience with the baby naming/baptism, I was also apprehensive.
The night before Sam’s First Communion, my dad and I had some time to talk. He told me that growing up in the late ’40s and ’50s, there was much anti-Semitism in the U.S. While there was a good-sized Jewish population in his town, it was very segregated. The Jewish kids stuck together and were told not to walk alone for fear of being harassed by the Catholic kids. Understanding this was very insightful for me and made me see things differently. His apprehension wasn’t entirely a religious issue; it was also based on negative experiences he faced as a child. This cultivated his protection of the Jewish religion, as well as his fear and disbelief in understanding how the two religions could meld together.
The next day was the ceremony. It was sensitive and inclusive of both religions. Sam was proud of himself and thrilled to have his family in attendance. My dad didn’t say much about the ceremony itself, just that he was glad he was there for Sam. I knew he still wasn’t comfortable, but the fact that he attended the service was certainly a positive step.
This set my dad up for the next First Communion, which came one year later for my daughter, Sarah. At Sarah’s ceremony, the rabbi had a scheduling conflict, so the Jewish parents led the Jewish prayers and stories. No one wanted to say the Yevarechecha (priestly blessing), so I asked my dad if he would do it. He agreed and came up to recite the prayer with the priest, who repeated each line in English. I joked with my dad that he had probably never said a prayer with a priest before.
It was special to have my family at this celebration and even participating. I know that we are still not in the same place, and likely won’t ever be exactly on the same page, but I think we have come a long way. We have one more First Communion coming up next spring, and my son is starting to prepare for his bar mitzvah next summer. We are continuing on our interfaith journey, and I now feel much more positive and hopeful about the path that lies ahead.
Before Jack was born, I thought I prepared as much as I could for his bris. With the help of my mother-in-law, Pennye, we compiled a list of invitees, researched kosher caterers, and created to-do lists. Pennye bought paper goods, readied the room with tables and folding chairs, and lots of gauze pads. She also explained the ceremony to my parents so they would know what to expect. (I also had to do some research myself, as I had never been to a bris before.)
Once Jack was born, we were able to set a date for the bris (which takes place on a baby’s eighth day), and she and Sam created the order of the ceremony, finalized the details with the mohel, and gathered RSVPs. Everything was prepared, except me. Nothing could have fully prepared me for that day.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to be one of the centers of attention just three days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth. My brain was mush after a week of not sleeping and trying to adjust to this new lifestyle. All I could think of was whatever Jack required at the moment. Why is he crying and how do I make him stop his crying? Is he hungry? Why is he not eating? Should I swaddle him? Rock him? Change his diaper? There was minimal spare room in my brain to make small talk with the 60+ guests during the bris.
I also wasn’t spiritually ready to hear the mohel (the Hebrew word for someone who performs a ritual circumcision) explain that our son was to be raised Jewish. Part of me knew that our son was to be raised Jewish. I had even said these words out loud. Sam and I had discussed this at length. We came to the conclusion that Jack was to be Jewish and I was comfortable with that decision. But, when the mohel started talking about how this ceremony physically marks Jack as a Jew, for first time it finally sunk in. Our child will not be Catholic; he will not be receiving the sacraments (baptism, first holy communion, etc.). He will not share my spiritual journey or that of my parents. Rather, Jack will be on a similar spiritual path as Sam, one that, despite many discussions and much private study, is still somewhat foreign to me.
Finally, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear those painful screams of my first born, as the mohel performed the physical act of Jack’s circumcision. At that moment, I had escaped to the darkness of my bedroom, and was convulsing in tears, wanting it to end. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to hold him, feed him and tell him that I would protect him from all the harm and dangers in the world. I wanted to create a protective bubble around him, so that he would never ever get hurt again. Instead, the experience made me feel alone and helpless. My body felt like a wreck after the birth, my mind was mush, and now my heart was breaking.
After the mohel finished, Sam brought Jack to me so I could feed him. The three of us shared a quiet moment together before I wiped my tears away, mustered up a smile and brought Jack back to the party, where he was passed around and photographed like a prized possession. I spent the rest of the party making small talk with whatever space was left in my brain.
Looking back, the ceremony was beautiful. Sam’s extended family was there to celebrate, including Jack’s great grandmother, great grandfather and great-great aunt. Jack’s namesake’s daughter spoke wonderfully of her father and wished all of Uncle Jack’s best qualities to be passed on to little Jack. My parents and some of my siblings were in attendance, supporting our decision to raise Jack as a Jew. We even honored both sets of parents during the ceremony. It was wonderful to have everyone here upholding the oldest Jewish tradition, and I have no regrets about our decision to do so, though I wish I could have been more prepared.
By Sheri Kupres
Thirteen years ago I married a Catholic man from Chicago. I was raised as a Conservative Jew north of Boston. We met through mutual friends when I moved to Chicago. Prior to getting married, my husband and I agreed that we would pass along both of our religious beliefs to our children; we both had strong ties to our religious traditions and wanted to share these with our family. We had joined an interfaith couples group, based in Chicago, to help us discuss and navigate issues that come along with building a dual-faith family. We weren’t sure how this would all turn out but we were committed to this plan.
While we have achieved a lot over the past 13 years, it has been a long road filled with challenges, doubt, guilt as well as learning, joy and celebrations.
When my husband and I decided to marry, my family was less than thrilled. They had always wanted me to marry someone Jewish and I know they felt they had failed when I chose someone outside of my religion. My husband’s family is not very religious and didn’t pose any objections to our interfaith union.
During our wedding planning, the interfaith couples group provided resources. Through these resources, we were able to create a wedding ceremony which incorporated both Jewish and Catholic prayers and traditions and reflected our decision to celebrate both of our faiths. We originally wanted to have both a priest and a rabbi co-officiate at our wedding, but when the rabbi couldn’t be at the ceremony until 30 minutes after sundown, my mother put her foot down and was insistent that our ceremony start right at sundown. In actuality, I know that she was uncomfortable having a priest at the wedding and knew we wouldn’t have the priest if we didn’t have a rabbi. She was right—we couldn’t find another rabbi.
We ended up having my uncle and a good friend of my husband’s family officiate at the service. We had a very beautiful and personal wedding and still achieved our goal of incorporating both of our religions. In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing.
The wedding planning gave us our first taste of the challenges we were about to experience as we embarked on this dual-faith path. This became obvious after we had our first child, Sam, nearly a year later. We decided to welcome Sam into our lives and into our faith communities through a baby naming/baptism ceremony where Sam would receive his Hebrew name and be baptized. There would be a rabbi and a priest officiating. Again, the interfaith network in the Chicago area provided us the resources to participate in such a ceremony.
Our excitement to take this first big step to being a dual faith family was overshadowed by my parents’ outspoken objections. My parents viewed this as a solely Catholic ritual despite the fact that Sam would also receive his Hebrew name. Their reasoning was that a baptism in the Catholic faith is a much more important event than a baby naming is in the Jewish religion; the two didn’t hold equal weight. They couldn’t see that we were participating in the ceremony as a way to have Sam welcomed into both of our religions. They could only see that my son was being baptized by a priest.
I tried having the officiating rabbi speak to them before the ceremony but that proved unsuccessful. They were struggling to understand what we were trying to do and didn’t think that it was even possible to give a child both religions. They thought that the children would be confused and I think they feared that because Catholicism is the more prominent religion in our country, my children would naturally gravitate toward that and wouldn’t identify with Judaism at all. At that point, I wasn’t yet confident about how this would all turn out either, so my arguments were less than compelling.
We had planned on giving my son a Hebrew name after my grandfather but my parents refused to let us do this as they felt it would be an insult to my grandfather (in their eyes—giving Sam a Hebrew name at a Catholic ceremony). So, two days before, we changed the Hebrew name we had picked for him.
Needless to say, there was definite trepidation going into the weekend of the ceremony. My parents were coming to stay with us for the weekend and I was extremely nervous about how this was going to go. My one saving grace was that my brother came in as well, so I had some support on my side. My brother had also married someone Catholic and they had just had their first child shortly after we had Sam. He wasn’t sure at that point how he was going to raise his children, and while he has since made a different choice than ours, I knew he understood that we were trying to do the best for our family.
Despite all the chaos, the ceremony was wonderful. It was so warm and welcoming with a strong emphasis on making family from both religions feel welcome and recognized. The clergy talked about how lucky these children were to be raised in the very best of our two faiths and traditions, and my husband I agreed wholeheartedly.
I was so proud of our decision to be a part of this rite. Naively, I thought for sure that witnessing this would soften my parents’ opposition. It did not and I was crushed. We made it through the celebration back at our house where I had a cake that only said “Congratulations” with no religious symbols or references. And I cringed every time my husband’s family unknowingly referred to the ceremony as a baptism. I knew my parents had noticed, too.
That evening was tense and we had words. We each gave our points of view and couldn’t see eye to eye. My parents left the next day on a sour note and I felt very guilty that I wasn’t pleasing them and for pursuing a path that they disagreed with. I didn’t know how to appease them and still follow my belief that providing a dual-faith family for our children was the right choice.
We have since had two more children: Sarah who is 10 and our youngest, Rachel, is 7. We had baby naming/baptism ceremonies for both girls and we didn’t invite my parents to either of these celebrations. We wanted these moments to be happy and special without the tension that we had experienced at Sam’s ceremony.
In the end, I realized that I couldn’t appease them. This was going to be a journey that we were both going to go on. Our paths will not be the same—they may split, join, cross, and maybe sometimes converge. It will be a journey with hills and valleys filled with more hard times and more joys but we will all have to learn and grow at our own pace. I hope that somehow we will come to an understanding, even if we never agree.
“But you’re not really Jewish right?” This has been a question I have been asked since I was big enough to walk. My family celebrates all of the big holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover to name a few. The women in my family don’t wear long skirts and the men don’t wear black hats. But, yes, we ARE Jewish.
“But you’re not really Jewish, right?” is an insulting question. First of all, what does that mean? That’s usually my response: “What does that mean?” And people respond by changing the subject because they know they’ve offended me or they keep asking questions that further insult me. Since I live in a very religious neighborhood, these are a few of the questions I get: “You don’t wear a wig right?” “You don’t keep kosher, right?” (wrong), “It’s so strange that you’re Jewish,” they say, “You don’t look Jewish.” Again, what does that mean?
This year I had a baby with Adrian, my lifelong partner. He is Catholic from Mexico and I am Jewish from Brooklyn. We decided before we had the baby that ours would be an interfaith family. We wanted the beauty of both cultures and both religions to be a part of who our child was and who she would become. She is a Mexican-American-Jewish-Catholic child.
Adrian and I live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. The stores are kosher, on Saturday none of the stores are open and on Jewish holidays women in pretty dresses and men in ironed suits walk in the middle of the streets because there are hardly any cars around. Our kitchen is kosher. Adrian eats pork but not in our home. Does this make me less Jewish? Does loving a man from another faith make me less Jewish? Is my daughter less Jewish because she’s also Catholic?
The challenge so far has been trying to live a balanced life. When our daughter was first born these questions nagged at me. Would someone one day ask my daughter, “But you’re not really Jewish, right?” What would she say? What should I teach her to say? How would I explain to her a double faith? An interfaith? The more these questions loomed over me the more I decided to challenge the ignorance of these interrogations.
I found myself in the lobby of a large synagogue next to my apartment building where I was to inquire about a baby naming for my daughter. This was when my daughter was just 2 months old. The woman who ran the functions at the synagogue was all smiles when I walked in with the baby strapped to me in my ergo carrier. She asked me the baby’s name. “Helen Rose Castañeda,” I said. She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to spell it. I wrote it out in both Hebrew and English.
“Oh, you write in Hebrew,” she said surprised. After all, I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and I was not in a skirt or dressed up at all. I had only gone to inquire. I had not gone to pray. As I filled out the rest of the information on the sheet I realized I had to write Adrian’s name in Hebrew and my daughter’s name. Her Hebrew name is Chaya Rachel but how was I to write “Castaneda” in Hebrew? I sounded it out.
The woman stared at the paper. I was waiting for the question, any question. I was waiting for her to say, “Well that’s interesting,” or “Is this a Jewish name?” I was waiting for the insult. It never came. Instead, before she could speak I said, “Miss, I’d like to tell you, before we begin the process of setting up this baby naming event, that my family is an interfaith family. I am Jewish and my partner is Catholic. We are not married and our daughter is both. Is this going to be a problem?”
Her reaction was not what I expected. She was calm and smiled. She said, “That’s absolutely OK.” There were no insulting questions, no asking if I was really Jewish. We had a beautiful baby naming ceremony at the synagogue and I felt at home. I felt accepted and my family felt accepted. But, I had also for the first time accepted myself.
I am a Jew always in my heart and I live my life according to Jewish law, meaning I treat others with compassion, I speak to G-d, I meditate and I try to do good deeds. I don’t always succeed at all of these laws but I try my best to abide by them. I was born Jewish and I celebrate Judaism. I come from a long line of prophets and strong biblical women. This is what I will teach our daughter who has Jewish and Aztec blood in her. I also understand that people will always question my “Jewishness.” I’ve learned now to respond in a different way. Now, when someone approaches me with the question, “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” my answer is always a flip of my hair and a long laugh.
By Hila Ratzabi
He’s not even 3 months old, but already three people have commented on my newborn’s name: “That’s not very Jewish!” And if our experience is anything like the one described by Keren McGinity in her blog post on what counts as a Jewish name, we can look forward to a lifetime of judgment.
As McGinity notes, people make a lot of assumptions about a person’s Jewish identity based on their name. This often comes to the forefront when you’re part of an interfaith family, where names can reflect a variety of identities. My baby’s first name is Emilio, and he has his dad’s last name, which is also “not very Jewish” (unsurprisingly, because my husband isn’t Jewish). Yet I am Jewish, and according to traditional understandings of Jewish identity, the mother passes down religious identity, so my son is also Jewish.
Even so, I don’t believe being a Jewish mother gives my family a free pass: If you choose to raise your child as Jewish, it doesn’t matter which of the parents is Jewish. I believe that behavior trumps bloodline. It shouldn’t be taken as a given that having one Jewish parent, or even two Jewish parents, automatically guarantees you Jewishly-engaged children—that takes active commitment on the part of both parents. In our case, I made clear on our third date that should we ever get married and have kids, that we would raise them Jewish, not just in name but in practice.
So why does it make me uncomfortable when people comment on my son’s “not so Jewish” name? Maybe I’m already sensitive to judgment of intermarried couples; the notion that intermarriage is a threat to Jewish continuity is still prevalent, though waning. My son’s supposedly non-Jewish name brands him as “other.” But what makes a Jewish name, really? Haven’t Jews always been a global people, influencing other cultures while absorbing their flavor? While many Jewish names traditionally come from Hebrew, others represent the intermingling of languages in the places where Jews found themselves (and even Hebrew substantially borrowed from other ancient languages!).
Another assumption people tend to make is that Jews are white and predominantly Ashkenazi. Organizations like Jews in All Hues and the Jewish Multiracial Network exist in order to shatter that stereotype. In fact, I’m not totally Ashkenazi, even though I’m quite light-skinned. While my mother is Ashkenazi, my father’s family has both Yemenite and Sephardic lineages, and I am Israeli. My father’s mother spoke Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and while we searched for baby names, we came across some very “exotic”-sounding Ladino names, many with Spanish influences.
So far, it’s been other Jews who have commented on my son’s “not so Jewish” name. But for the general (white) population, I expect a different issue to emerge. To non-Jews, my son’s name reads not as “non-Jewish,” but as Hispanic. In this way he is doubly “othered”: not Jewish enough for the Jewish community, and not white enough for everyone else.
What will my son’s experience be like as a minority within a minority? Neither my husband nor myself share this distinction with our son. Each of us comes from our own minority community (Jewish for me, Mexican for him), but neither of us is both.
Our son’s name is the surface others will have to look beneath in order to discover the multiple layers of identity hidden there. After all, his middle name, Maor, is Hebrew, but one wouldn’t know that until probing further.
While I worry that Emilio will have trouble being accepted in Jewish communities, I appreciate the fact that people will need to make an effort to change their assumptions about who counts as Jewish. They will have to look below the surface and meet the person behind the name.
Hopefully we will raise our son to wear his Jewish identity proudly, so when people say, “That’s not a Jewish name,” he’ll be able to reply with confidence, “Actually, yes it is.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Hila Ratzabi’s nonfiction has appeared in the Forward, Zeek, Freerange Nonfiction, and other venues. Her poetry has been published in Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Linebreak, and other journals, and in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Philadelphia where she founded the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop.