Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Before I had daughters, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to raise them. I had been raised with what I considered exceptional feminist ideals, and I planned to do a knock-out job of solidifying my future daughters’ self-image as strong, powerful human beings who could do anything they wanted, for whom gender would be an afterthought.
Of course, as many women more prolific and eloquent than I have written, this is unfortunately still very difficult work and, as I have now found, a lot easier in premeditation than in implementation with actual living daughters. Still, I am trying my very best to both be a model for my girls and to intercept the stimuli coming at them to help them interpret it toward positive self-image development.
I share this as a context for my thinking about this year’s spring holidays. Our family had a very fun Purim. It can be a wonderful holiday, full of jubilant storytelling, costuming and fun. After all, it is a holiday in which we are instructed to party. It celebrates a great triumph – the salvation of our people – with a strong female hero.
But the Purim story is also complicated, and this year I felt these complications as I dwelled on how my girls will learn the story as they grow. There is so much for them to learn from Esther about her great courage, her strategic thinking and her triumph. Simultaneously, there are some real doozies in the story. Esther wins her place by the king’s side not through a respectful, loving courtship, but through a beauty contest. To varying degrees, King Ahasuerus, Haman and Vashti are all sizably complex and challenging for children and adults alike.
I couldn’t take it all on this year, but I tried to start with Vashti. When I was growing up, Vashti was portrayed as a villain, but her primary villainous act was refusing to entertain her husband’s guests on demand. Regardless of what more dynamic layers were beneath the surface in their relationship, on its face this is a pretty bad precedent for my girls’ future empowerment. So how was Ruthie learning about Vashti, and how could I help her reinterpret the traditional storyline?
Ruthie’s class spent three weeks studying Purim. I asked her what she thought about Vashti. She said she thought she was OK. She just didn’t want to dance for the king, which wasn’t a big deal to Ruthie. She told me that King Ahasuerus and Vashti didn’t agree, so they decided to live in different places. That’s pretty good for a start. Later in life, we can talk about how if Ruthie and a future partner have a disagreement, they should try to talk about it and work it out together. But as a baseline, we got a chance to explore together that a woman never needs to do something just because her partner tells her she has to, and that it is OK to leave if you don’t feel safe.
Purim is not unique in its depth of complexities. The ability to interpret, reinterpret and struggle with these stories is part of what makes Judaism so rich. This year’s processing of the Purim story has emboldened me as I approach Passover, the ultimate story-telling holiday. The Passover story orbits around Moses and Aaron, but there are some very dynamic and important women in the story. I am looking forward to sharing Miriam’s story with Ruthie, for having Chaya be the one to put the orange on our seder plate, and for trying to get to know Pharoah’s daughter a little better this year.
I plan to have a lot of years to explore these stories with my daughters, both for the parts which we will carry with us and which we will leave in the Biblical past. I’m looking forward to our next stop, sitting around the seder table together.
It is wonderful and important to honor this special milestone for the harvest and for the earth. It is great to have a joyous holiday with yummy foods (like this or this). But as I look out my window, and the snow continues to pummel the New England landscape, causing Ruthie’s fifth snow day in less than two weeks, it is a little hard to say thank you sometimes.
It is lovely to close my eyes and imagine a grove of almond trees in Israel, budding anew under a desert sun. Unfortunately, this feels so far away from the slush on my commute and the hours indoors trying to come up with a new way to entertain the girls.
But Tu Bishvat comes anyway, and this week I have found a small way to celebrate the earth and what it provides. When evening sets in, and the kids and the wind are both settling down, I meet my dog at the top of the stairs. When the storm brought all of the white stuff, we both wrinkled our noses. Me because of the cancellations (and rescheduling), the shoveling and plowing out, and the challenge of keeping my extremities warm. She because she is a nervous pup, and she hates the way the wind makes the old windows shake, the unsettling changes in human routine, and the roar and bright lights of the snowplows.
We meet at the top of the stairs, and I greet her with her bright red leash. I zip up my coat, and we walk out into the quiet night. Of all of our outdoor adventures, I love these nighttime snow-filled walks the best. As much as she cowers inside at the storm outside our windows, she loves being out in it. She finds the biggest mound of snow she can find and jumps in, her tail up in the air. She walks on sidewalks that spook her without snow cover, and sniffs to her heart’s content.
Her amazement is infectious, and I find a peace that I lose during our stormiest New England winter-iest days. In the snow, my neighborhood glows. A street that is dark and mysterious on a normal winter’s night is bright and enchanting in the snow. A windy day that ends in a cool calm is like no other, for the quiet feels hard-earned and deserved.
On these walks, I am reminded that nature is more powerful than the city created by man-made sidewalks and buildings, and of how quickly the sky can transform the ground. The snowbanks in my neighborhood are a far cry from the warmth of a desert sky, a warmth I long for for much of my day. But if I can get out at just the right moment, I can achieve a special wonder about the cycle of the year, the cycle of life and the power of the earth.
Tu Bishvat starts on Tuesday night. It is a really beautiful holiday; a new year for the trees. It is a time to think about the earth, and to celebrate the many ways it nourishes us. It is also a good time to think about Israel, a place where it might actually be reasonable to plant a tree right now (as opposed to my snow-covered backyard).
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about trying to teach Ruthie conservation, and the importance of saving water. I am happy to report that a year later, Ruthie has developmentally hit a place where when we tell her to turn off the tap because she is wasting water, she seems to understand, and will usually oblige. But just as Ruthie has turned this corner, Chaya has entered the age of “I do it.” While I have one daughter on board with conservation, I have another entering the era of the uphill battle to conserve.
In my unscientific observation of children Chaya’s age (2.5), they are fascinated by running water. Turning the faucet gives them a power to create, at a time in their lives when they are both dependent on bigger people to do most things for them and also discovering their own power to interact with the world. A light switch provides a similar fascination, especially as an activity where you make the lights go on and off for minutes on end. And paper goods, the kinds that as an adult I try to use thoughtfully, sparingly when possible, provide endless possibilities for creativity and creation.
There are reasons for using these things that I want to encourage as a parent. It is flu season, for goodness sake, and it is great if Chaya can learn how to make hand-washing a part of her routine. I would like to engender a habit where Chaya is turning on lights when they are needed, and turning them off when she is done. And while I don’t want the whole roll of toilet paper on the floor, I sure do want her to use it in moderation when she needs it.
If taking care of the world weren’t a huge concern of mine (which it is) and these commodities were in endless supply, I would have a different take on all of this. I want Chaya to feel comfortable exploring her independence and to learn to do a few things for herself. I understand that sometimes you need to experiment, to use a little more or a little less of what you need in order to figure out the best way to do something. But because there are limits to the commodities that we take from the earth, I cringe when I see Chaya trying to perform this experimentation with a running faucet. This can be confusing for both of us, since often times, just a minute before I may have complimented her about using the same amount of time and thought to experiment with how to put on a pair of pants by herself or complete a puzzle.
I think the answer is to give her a chance at a conserving behavior, and then take over and redirect her when it is clear she is not going to make an earth-friendly choice. But I also know that toddlers like the safety of reliable rules, and so even though I may do that, I feel a little badly about sending a complex message about when experimentation is OK. So I don’t have an answer, only a lot of mixed feelings. And a hope that she will learn this lesson by watching rather than doing, so that the earth can be in better shape for the generation that proceeds hers.
The other day, Ruthie and I were talking about one of her favorite topics—her cousins. She ticked off each one’s name, and talked about something special about them, or what they did the last time they were together. Then she started talking about some friends who are like family—she often brings up this topic of what to call her friends who are like family but who aren’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.
“So,” she asked me, “which one of their parents wasn’t Jewish when they met, the mom or the dad?”
“Actually,” I told her, “they both were Jewish when they met.”
“Oh,” she said, and kept talking.
This was not a monumental question to her, but it gave me pause. Neither good nor bad, but it gave me pause. To her, the question was completely logical. First of all, there was no judgment in it. It wasn’t good or bad if they were or weren’t Jewish, it was just a normal question to her about families.
In Ruthie’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. What’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 hasn’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. 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 of the work of community leaders, generous rabbis, individual families who choose love and acceptance and, of course, InterfaithFamily, our girls won’t ever know to feel different. They will know that we are Jewish through our actions. As they grow up they will understand that they have a choice about spirituality and connection to a religious community. If we are successful, the girls will understand that our goal as parents was to show them our choice, in the hopes that they’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 wasn’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. 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. 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. 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. 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 won’t be a significant facet of our Jewishness.
A very, very Happy New Year, everyone. Hopefully your New Year’s Eve comes on the heels of a lovely holiday season – more joy than travel hassle, more love than overwhelmedness. My family had a really, truly lovely one, complete with a jam-packed friend- and family-filled Hanukkah in our home, a Hanukkah party at my Dad’s, a beautiful last night of Hanukkah celebration hosted by Eric’s sister (and topped off with her homemade rugelach!) and a wonderful, joyous Christmas celebration with Eric’s family. (In the interest of honesty in blogging, all of this joy swept over some rough spots, like a loss that we continue to feel for my sister-in-law’s family, and a bout of flu that swept over both the four of us and a lot of our extended family). All in all, we are feeling very blessed.
Looking to 2015, I have a proposal to make for a resolution for all of us interfaith families. Long ago, I scaled back on the big ticket resolutions – I have found much more success in the years I vowed to be really good at a small step than in the years I failed to break down life-changing goals into smaller pieces. While I long to be as sharp as Eric and be able to do the Sunday New York Times crossword, the year I vowed to just get smart enough to do the Friday Metro crossword I did pretty well.
So here is a resolution to try on for 2015. Talk more. And listen, too. However you have decided to incorporate faith into your family life, talk about it. Talk about it with you partner. Talk about it with your families. Find friends with whom you can talk about it. If it suits your path, talk about it with clergy, or within your faith community. When your kids start conversations about it, follow their lead and talk about it with them, too. Talk about things that are clear, talk about things that are joyous, talk about things that bring you comfort. And talk about things you don’t know the answers to, the things that are difficult, the things that make you doubt a choice you’ve made. See if you can have one conversation about a part of your faith you have not talked about, or see if you can have one conversation about something about blending faiths that is really hard.
As I understand my own path, being a Jewish household in a multi-faith family is a lifelong journey. What it means to be Jewish to each of my family members, and to our household, will change as the years come and go. Our relationships with Judaism and with our family’s Christian roots will change too. What it means to be “interfaith,” or part of our multi-faith family, will also change. Most important, our relationships with one another, and with the parents and siblings and grandparents and extended family we love, will continue to blossom alongside these changes. Nothing is absolute. What we have the most control over is how we can influence these changes. I think our best shot at doing this is to have a lot of great conversations. They don’t all need to happen in 2015, but in 2015 we can decide to be more deliberate about how we talk, and how we listen. So here is to a new year filled with honesty and understanding, some good conversations, and all of the happiness and good health the year can hold.
Last year, Hanukkah came early (remember that once in every 77,000 years Thanksgivukkah Celebration?). Back then, I blogged about how the early Hanukkah was a special gift for interfaith families, allowing those of us who are a union of Christian and Jewish traditions to more easily separate the December holidays and focus on each individually.
This year is a bit more typical, with Hanukkah starting on December 16 and ending on Christmas Eve. With six weeks to go before we dust off the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), I think we have just enough time to keep December from being a dilemma. Like many things in parenting, and life, your best chance to make this happen is to start planning now.
The December holidays are a wonderful time. The lights, be they candles in our windows or lights around our trees, are beautiful. The music is joyful, and the food is both plentiful and sweet. Families and friends are together in celebration, filling homes, street corners and hearts with love and togetherness. The themes of our holidays remind us about some of religion’s most important lessons – faith, hope and the potential for miracles.
The December holidays can also be challenging. Expectations are high, and as parents we are often harried in our attempts to make magic for our children. Feelings of loss sting a bit more strongly for those of us missing a loved one, or out-of-touch with someone with whom we’d like to be in touch. With Christmas movies at the box office and schoolyard chatter a flurry with talk of gifts to be received, there can be a special tension for those of us whose families try to integrate multiple traditions.
I imagine that even if you and your spouse grew up next door to one another, going to the same house of worship and marrying after a long high school courtship, you can find yourselves mismatched in your expectations for December. For interfaith couples of any stripe, these mismatched expectations can be amplified. And for parents for whom being of different faiths doesn’t feel like a big deal from January to November, December puts their different backgrounds front and center. Even if you stand firmly grounded in your personal choices about religion, your kids are bound to throw you off base with a question about why you do or don’t do the same thing as another family they know.
Today, I would like to advocate that you make a plan. It does not need to take up all of November, but better an hour of planning in November than four hours of frustration in December. Here is what I propose.
Buy a bottle of wine. Or better yet, call a sitter. Carve out an hour of time with your partner to talk about what your Hanukkah through Boxing Day calendar will look like, and what you’d like it to be. If you’re not sure, look around your community or online for articles, classes or friends who can help you plan to make the time a period of fun, giving, relaxation and maybe even a little learning.
Some questions that I have seen come up for our family and others during this time, in case you don’t know where to start:
Do that, and then call your own parents. Talk to them about what they hope for, and share what your own hopes are. If you can’t do that, at least share your feelings with whomever will help make the holiday spirit bright for your family.
And then have fun. Eradicate the dilemma from your December, and bring on the holiday cheer. And let me know how it all works out.
My memories of religious school are pretty varied. I remember visiting the sanctuary in first or second grade, a room whose enormity overwhelmed me, watching a few old men daven in the corner while our teacher pointed out the ark and the eternal light. I remember great conversations in our Jewish Studies sessions in later elementary school, reading coming-of-age stories about Jewish children and discussing them together. I remember lots of bagel cafe sessions, too many, if I recall, designed to drill down on how to order cream cheese in Hebrew.
I also remember a few teachers who seemed old-fashioned and way too strict. I remember some social dynamics between middle school students that hardly seemed to reflect the Jewish values we were learning in class. I remember some unfortunately contentious conversations during Confirmation class with a rabbi who didn’t seem to understand us teenagers. Like my secular school experience, there were things I liked, and things I didn’t. When all was said and done, I think I would say religious school was important, and I learned things that have stuck with me. There were people and things I loved about it, but I am not so sure I would ever say I loved it.
We are only two months in, but Ruthie loves Sunday School. I didn’t expect that. I hoped she’d like it. I hoped she’d learn some things that would stick with her. The big surprise of this school year is less about her Monday-Friday school experience, and more about how much she loves Sunday School.
There are a few reasons why Sunday School had a step-up in the likeability scale before she even started. She has a Sunday School best friend, who she met last spring, who not only clicks with her beautifully but even shares her name (another Ruthie!). Unlike many of her peers, Ruthie started in public school in pre-kindergarten, so her Monday-Friday school is old hat, but this is her first year in Sunday School, so there is a shiny newness to it. And Sunday School is something that only Ruthie does – Chaya isn’t old enough for it, so her Sunday morning obligation also solidifies her position as a more mature sister.
But that alone isn’t enough to create love. I give the majority of the credit to the reality that her Sunday School is loveable. The temple where we are sending Ruthie is one of many where I have seen a commitment to make religious school awesome, recognizing that a lot of the parents dropping off kids on Sunday morning did not love Sunday School. The curriculum is varied and current. Once the kindergarten crafts are done, Ruthie’s class engages in Hebrew Yoga to connect themselves to Jewish concepts and spirituality. Learning about Torah is so fun that we have overheard Ruthie bragging to her non-religious friends about how cool it is that she is learning about it.
A friend with older kids assured me that Ruthie’s love is likely to wane, that I can expect an adolescent girl at some point that I’ll have to drag to temple on Sunday morning. I don’t doubt that that may lay ahead. But for now, Ruthie loves Sunday School, and it is a pretty great gift.
By now hopefully you’ve had a moment to read about Jane Larkin’s Rosh Hashanah parties, which I plan to crash if I am ever in Texas for the Jewish New Year. This year my family started a new Rosh Hashanah tradition, too, although we hardly invented it; it was just new to us. At a family program at Ruthie’s Sunday School, the Rabbi taught us about the Sephardic tradition of the Rosh Hashanah Seder (which you can read about here on InterfaithFamily). I had never heard about this tradition, but figured it was worth a whirl. It was not only fun, but it brought with it a great chance to explore our hopes for the New Year in a new way. And it had the added bonus of being a very tasty addition to the celebration, as well.
The Rosh Hashanah seder is a seder of word plays, so the order is a series of foods that you eat, each of which has a word play that expresses our hopes for the New Year. For example, the Hebrew, or Aramaic, word for beet is related to the Hebrew word for beat, so when we eat it we can think about beating our swords into plowshares, or beating a path to free ourselves from our enemies. They are word plays that force a chuckle or a smile but also beautifully represent hopes for a sweet, peaceful and fulfilling year.
The spirit of the Rosh Hashanah seder is lovely, and the eats are good (more details on what we ate at the end of this piece). But it also offered something else to my family. As a parent of young kids, it is hard to find space to connect to the holiday. I derive joy and spiritual connection from watching my girls discover their Judaism, but sometimes it is hard to find time to remember my own Judaism. My time in the synagogue is a mix of reading, reflection, and making sure Chaya is coloring only on her coloring sheet, and not the synagogue furniture. The chance to extend the day’s observance to the intimate setting of our own home, where my kids can vacillate between the table and playspace, gives us all another inlet for observance. So our first Rosh Hashanah seder was a wonderful addition, and hopefully the first of many.
And in case this all sounds nice, but like too much to coordinate, here’s a shortcut to our seder:
Here’s what we ate:
Happy Labor Day weekend! Every year, I anticipate Labor Day weekend with both a smile and a bittersweet taste in my mouth. It always brings some kind of fun celebration, but in so doing it marks the end of summer (a particularly big deal for those of us who live in New England). Unlike last year, when the Jewish New Year collided with the start of the school year, we still have a few weeks to go before Rosh Hashanah. But for parents of school-aged children, Labor Day marks a transition into another kind of new year. A new year of earlier school day wake-ups, school uniforms to keep clean, and new groups of teachers, parents and children to get to know.
We have had a lot of fun this summer. It was Ruthie’s first summer at real “big kid” day camp, and a huge developmental period for Chaya. We had a great vacation in Maine, and a lot of weekend adventures. We made wonderful memories with family and friends.
As I prepare to for this last summer weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to count some of the blessings of the summer, and think about how I might carry them into the next three seasons. Here are some things I’ll remember:
Those are a few of the gifts from our summer. What are yours?
The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister. In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan. Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat. It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year. It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment. It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.
When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn. The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags. There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint. When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake. There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.
But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much. There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present. The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on. My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake. I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could. My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.
And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends. Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character. While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities. They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car. And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.
One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future. Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.