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
The following is a guest post by Emily R. Mace
My Jewish husband and I (a Unitarian Universalist) might not have known what we were getting into when we decided to raise our kids Jewish—but keep celebrating Christmas—my favorite holiday. That was ten years ago. Fast forward five years, to this past January. We took our then-4-year-old daughter to a
I’ve since realized that, at the still-tender age of now-5 years old, our daughter is still learning what “religion” is, or to be more precise, what religions are. She knows what holidays are, and her memory is now good enough that she can recall many dazzling and exciting details about both of the upcoming exciting winter holidays: Hanukkah (lighting the menorah! Presents! The dreidel!) and Christmas (Santa! More presents! A pretty tree!).
But in her life, these two holidays are part of what’s still a continuous cycle of celebrations, which in our secular-religious American culture involves everything from Thanksgiving, Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day to St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th and Columbus Day. That list doesn’t even include Easter and Christmas, or Passover, the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, but they too belong on her exciting list of yearly liturgical celebrations.
As the not Jewish spouse in our family, I share—but feel ambivalent about—our older daughter’s excitement about Christmas, which she proclaims as happily as she does her Jewish identity. I don’t really want her to want to sit on Santa’s lap, but I know she wants him to bring her presents, just as she wants a present each night when we light our menorah. I’d like to honor the promise I made to my husband before we got married that we’d raise our children in the Jewish tradition, but I don’t think I understood how children’s own expectations and perspectives about, say, something as pervasive as Christmas, might put an interesting twist on those well-meant decisions. As she gets older (and as her toddler sister grows, too), I know my husband and I will somehow help our children figure out why they shouldn’t mention the Christmas tree at a Tu Bishvat celebration. They will eventually learn that holidays can be secular, national or religious events and that they have different and distinct traditions of origin.
For now, I’m just glad that our daughter is eager to celebrate both traditions. Popular winter holiday books for interfaith children promote this “more the merrier” perspective on the winter holidays. In Blintzes for Blitzen, by Elise Okrend, a hungry reindeer enjoys a tasty Jewish treat during a break in Santa’s annual rounds. In My Two Holidays, by Danielle Novack, a confused schoolboy learns that although his friends celebrate one holiday, he gets to celebrate two. The more the merrier.
Neither book offers a clear perspective on what it means to celebrate two holidays: two distinct religious traditions practiced by one family. Nor do I believe that should be the primary goal of these books. My daughters, even our toddler, experience the wonder and joy of light in a dark time of the year. If they choose to celebrate either holiday, follow either tradition, in their adult years, it will likely be in part because of memories from childhood. If celebrating two holidays creates strong and hopefully happy, memories, then more is merrier indeed. Understanding that these two holidays are from two traditions will come as they each grow older and learn more about the world into which they were born. For now, I look only for the wonder in their eyes.
Emily R. Mace lives outside Chicago, IL, where she is the director of the Harvard Square Library and the co-parent of two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @lemilym.
I just loaded my baby on a bus and sent him away for a month.
Ok, I realize it isn’t exactly a month. It is 4 weeks. Ok, I realize that it is 2 days shy of 4 weeks. Yes, you are right, my baby isn’t a baby really… he is a big boy of almost 12. But, still, I loaded my baby on a bus and sent him a way for a month.
He is going to, what we call, Jew Camp. We laugh about Jew Camp, because we are the only family in our general area with a kid going to Jew Camp. We aren’t going to Happy something camp, because we aren’t Christian. All the kids in our area go to the Happy something camp. The parents talk to me endlessly about it. You would think I would be able to remember the name. I always tune them out and smile sweetly and say, we got camp covered. One parent persisted in knowing exactly what our plans were, and my daughter looked up at her and said, “We go to Jew Camp. You can’t come.” End of conversation.
As I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I know that for many reasons it is the right thing. First, he loves it. He loves the activities, the kids, the counselors, everything. Second, he will come home referring to most things in Hebrew. He will sing the prayers every night. He will come home from this experience feeling entirely Jewish. He will feel like he is part, of as my daughter implied, an exclusive club and it is a pretty awesome club.
My oldest son has many things about him that aren’t like the other kids. Aside from the fact that he has some special needs that separate him from the others, he is a Jew in a sea of Christianity. For a month this summer he will be just like everyone else. When he makes a joke in Hebrew the kids will get it… well if they don’t at least it won’t be because they don’t understand. When he references Torah and his
I am certain that these kids don’t really talk about that sort of stuff. But, I think they know that the other kids “get” them. They know that no one is going to give them a hard time because they are not going to see Santa or celebrate Easter. These kids will all embrace Shabbat and celebrate it as it was meant to be celebrated. There is a party going on right here and it is all about being Jewish. Mac comes home from camp feeling love for his Jewishness. What more could we ask for?
As I watched my somewhat socially awkward child board the bus without a care in the world, laughing with his friends, I knew in my heart I did the right thing. He was confident, happy and full of joy. I realized that I was in fact doing a good job. We will miss him.
When I first graduated from my MBA program a lot of important things happened in my life. I got a new job, I got engaged to a Jewish man and I was called out in a lawsuit for being anti-Semitic. This is not something I think about much anymore, but I was specifically named in the lawsuit for my anti-Semitic ways. I remember the day I was served I thought, but I am marrying a Jew, how can I possibly be anti-Semitic? I am raising my kids as Jews. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me.
The woman who served the company with the lawsuit took what I did and said out of context, and the lawsuit was eventually ruled on in my favor. But, what she said to me has in some part stuck with me. She told me that the numbers of Jews are decreasing. By marrying a Jewish man I am in fact aiding in decreasing the number of Jews in the world. Her final conclusion was that I was so dedicated to ending the Jewish religion that I was giving my life to marry a Jew in my attempt to lessen the numbers. She called me some not to nice names as well, but I won’t repeat them. She was a little crazy.
I have been thinking about this a lot, as I have been trying to formulate a response to Steve’s comment regarding my recent post about not wanting my kids to intermarry. Is my reticence to allow my kids to do what I did rooted in my desire to prove her wrong? Or at least not let her be right. I think that there is more to it than that, but there is probably a small amount of truth there. I don’t want to contribute to the decline in numbers.
Being intermarried is not super easy, especially when the spouse does not convert. Right, wrong or indifferent, I was inaugurated into the Jewish faith with “a don’t ask don’t tell policy.” I look Jewish enough to pass muster at temple. No one questions me. I don’t correct people. While everyone at our temple is really friendly and I doubt any of them care, there is still a sense of not belonging that is hard to shake. My peers in this situation have responded by either converting or not being involved. There is a small stalwart group of us that is involved and not converted. We meet for coffee under the cover of darkness.
Again, the people at our temple are really warm and welcoming. What I am talking about is not a specific issue, but rather a general feeling. There is so much written and discussed about not wanting Jews to intermarry. There is still an underlying current of disapproval for making that choice. Just look around and see how easy it is to find a rabbi that will marry an interfaith couple, or a mohel who will perform a bris for a baby born to a non-Jewish mother, even if the non-Jewish partner is fully and wholly committed to raising the children as Jews.
Being a clueless optimist, it really never occurred to me that it might be hard when I made these choices. But, I am less pie-eyed about my decision, and I realize that it is not something most people can do. I do not want my kids to find themselves in a place where they forced to choose between their religion and their potential spouse. One way to eliminate that is to not date out of the faith. Old-fashioned, archaic one might say, but also avoids the potential for conflict.
Bottom line, marriage is hard work. The fewer areas of potential conflict you have with your spouse the better. I want my kids to be happy and successful, and as such, it seems marrying a Jew would be easier. That said, my husband and I make a good team. I don’t know that I could have found a better partner in my own faith.
I just read Teaching the Why? by Rabbi Ari Moffic, which appears on the Networking Blog here at InterfaithFamily.com, an intriguing piece posing some very interesting questions. Is it possible to teach culture and meaning? As we teach the “what”—make challah, make latkes, create the most beautiful tzedekah boxes—when does the “why,” the deep-rooted meaning come in? Do we take for granted that it is there? Do we take for granted that personal connections are being made?
I want my children to make those personal connections and integrate what they do Jewishly with who they are as people. As their mother, I take responsibility for making the connections possible and supporting their success. I do not believe this can be outsourced by sending William and Sarah to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp and other Jewish activities. I do send them to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp as wonderful supplements for Jewish infusion, but I don’t rely solely on them to make them feel Jewish. My children feel Jewish because of the home we have created. Mezuzahs don our doors. The Sabbath bride is a welcome guest in our home each week. We sing songs and pray together at religious services in our synagogue each week. In other words, we live Jewish lives.
When I made the commitment to raise our children in the Jewish tradition, I realized that I would be making a commitment to live a Jewish life. Not knowing exactly how that would play out at the time, it was a pretty big leap of faith. One that meant I would look pretty Jewish for a long time. I do this to support Jewish fluency in my children, as Rabbi Moffic talks about in her piece.
I think about the mitzvah in Judaism that commands you to teach your child to swim. On a practical level, it is a good skill to have. But I think its deeper meaning calls parents to do everything they can to make sure their children can swim on their own and lead responsible, productive lives. Ensuring our children are well-equipped to go out on their own takes a great deal of personal commitment over many years. We don’t just throw them in the deep end and hope for the best. Learning anything—riding a bike, playing the piano—requires dedication and practice, lots of practice. Supporting my children’s spiritual development goes hand in hand with teaching them how to take care of themselves and others.
My job is to provide the context for the content. Sometimes I am a student. I read a lot. I have taken classes in Judaism and attend seminars and workshops. Sometimes I am an educator. I have taught two challah-making events at our synagogue. (The irony of a Catholic teaching Jewish people how to bake their special bread is lost on no one.) Something that I always do at my challah-making events while the dough is resting is to give a talk about the wonderful gift of Shabbat and how leading a Jewish life translates into leading a balanced life. I always tell the story of the book. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as the People of the Book. How many sides does a book have? You may say six—a front, back, top, bottom, and two sides. But there is one more side, the inside, where the important information for the book lives. We spend all week being busy, living our lives on the outside of the book. On Shabbat, we are called to go inside.
When I started my Jewish journey, I felt it was important. Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the Jewish people have a special covenant with God that will never be broken. I was impressed that my husband is part of this historic tradition. Abraham was the first Jewish person, and here is my husband 5,000+ years later keeping that tradition alive. Wow. It is amazing to think about. But it doesn’t mean I think less of the tradition I was raised in. So why did I make that leap of faith? Because I was raised by a mother who dedicated her life to make sure her children had a developed spiritual maturity as adults. She knew we would be swimming on our own one day and making our own choices. She gave me the skills to learn another language.
I was never able to come up with a cohesive post about Passover, but below find a few of my musings.
Did a little last minute Passover shopping today, and, for the first time in almost 20 years, I found a lamb shank bone in the meat section. I was so over-come, that I considered buying all of them so that they would have them next year. Usually we have to order them from the butcher many, many, many moons in advance. I am not that organized. I generally live in a state of Passover denial, until the very last minute I don’t do anything and then it is a mad rush to get it all done.
I decided to just buy one, surmising that I couldn’t possibly be the only last minute shopper and I didn’t want to deny another last minute Jew the excitement of finding a lamb shank in the meat department. How thrilling would that be?
I texted a few friends about my amazing find. I call my husband. This year, sweetie, we are having a REAL lamb shank bone, I gleefully tell him. No plastic one. No marrow bone pretending to be a lamb shank. No pictures of one from the internet. This year we get the real thing.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that her car was chomtez free. It got me thinking, it NEVER in a million years occurred to me that I should clean my car of leavened products. I mean, face it, my van is a trash can on wheels. While we generally do not eat in the car, the reality is that food is consumed in my car periodically. When we go on long road trips the kids have snacks in the car. So, there are crumbs and what not on the floor. I remember my husband joking about people who light their houses on fire as they try to burn the last crumbs of bread in their cabinets. Could you imagine what would happen if I tried that in my car? It wouldn’t end well. My response back was, the only way that could happen with my car would be if I got a new car.
The great tortilla debate is about to fire up. I already see research being conducted. A brief look at our browser history shows a few google searches on tortillas during Passover. The argument is, if a tortilla is made from flour and water, just like matzoh, why are they forbidden? Of course, why is corn not ok, if Sephardic Jews allow corn, rice and lentils? The debate rages every year. The Talmud is quoted, interpreted, articles are referenced. It has become part of our tradition. Of course, no one has ever really come up the answer to how a cat can eat a kid.
I once heard that time does not exist. It is only a concept that we, the people of the world, agree to for organization. I was thinking about this as I moved Shabbat up a night this week. My mother, who lives out of town, came in on Monday to spend the week with us. When my daughter, Sarah (age 6), heard Gramoo was leaving on Friday afternoon, she told Gramoo she couldn’t leave before Shabbat. Shabbat is the most special time of the week and she can’t miss it.
When I heard that, it took about two seconds for me to move Shabbat to Thursday evening. Our Friday observance is to have family night at home. We go to services at our synagogue on Saturdays. On Thursday, I set the table with our Shabbat dressings, the silver flatware, crystal glasses, the good china. We opened a bottle of wine (and grape juice for the younger set). I made matzo ball soup and challah. My husband roasted chicken. I made chocolate chip cookies for dessert. We enjoyed them warm from the oven. We picked up my husband’s mother and brought her over for dinner, too, so we had both grandmothers with us, a special night indeed!
We blessed the candles, the food, and the kids, and spent the evening together. It was a wonderful evening and one we will remember forever, I hope. My mother (Catholic) asked why we light two candles. Great question! They represent two forms of the fourth commandment Zachor (Remember) the Sabbath and keep it holy and Shamor (Observe) the Sabbath and keep it holy. And that is just what we did. We remembered and observed the Sabbath. So what that it was Thursday. Time is a concept open for interpretation after all. This week we welcomed the Sabbath bride twice. On Friday it was sans grandmothers, though the memory of the night before was still with us burning as bright as a third candle.
Shabbat Shalom, friends!
Sometimes I think what will be written on my headstone when I die is She had a lot of faith. As Roman Catholic raising Jewish children, I spend a lot of my time in houses of worship—three hours in the synagogue on Saturdays and an hour at Mass on Sundays—preparing for and celebrating holidays, and talking about God and religion with my friends and family.
The truth is I love it. I love being Catholic and I love that my family is Jewish. I am by no means a religious expert or theologian. I have studied Judaism for the past twelve years since I met my husband and as much as I have learned, I do feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Once when I was talking with a (Jewish) friend, trying to understand the differences between the Jewish denominations, he finally said the different denominations are about five minutes old in the span of Judaism, and I should not worry about the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reconstructionist Jew. He told me to study the Jewish holidays, interpret them for my family, and all will be well.
I am sure some would take exception to that advice, but it has worked for me all these years. I cannot expound on all facets of Jewish religion, tradition, and customs, but I have found my way living a Jewish life with my family. I am grateful for all of my teachers along the way, my children’s preschool, their Jewish summer camp, our synagogue, great friends, and resources on Interfaithfamily.com. And I cannot forget the secretary at my church who recommended the mohel we used for my son’s
My son is eight years old and my daughter is six. I am happy to share that they are thriving in all aspects of their humanity, they are healthy, they are socially agreeable, and self-identify as Jews. They know I am not Jewish and love me anyway. Last year when William was seven and Sarah was five, we took them to our local mikveh to be officially converted. Of course some lines of Judaism recognize patrilineal descent, but it was important to us to have them officially converted for their Jewish legitimacy to be recognized by most modern denominations.
On the appointed day, William and Sarah went through the ritual immersion for Jewish conversion at the Community Mikveh in Wilmette, Illinois. One at a time, they entered the small holy pool and immersed their whole bodies under the water three times. After each immersion, a prayer was said by the beit din (rabbinic court officiating the ritual) blessing them into the Jewish religion.
William and Sarah loved the experience. My husband and I prepared them for it in advance. The mikveh is a special place. The water is the most special water you will ever feel on your skin. You will be sealed with God’s grace in a very special way. Enjoy it; savor it because it will be a long time before you can go into a mikveh again.
Enjoy it they did. Sarah went first and made us promise she can come back again one day. William dunked himself at least six times. He treaded water. He swam around. He stayed in as long as he could.
I just learned yesterday that if you text a member of the opposite sex the word “Heyy” with two “y’s” you are in a relationship. Three “y’s” means you are married, one is only friends. I guess my husband and I are only friends because he only gets one “y.” While there was a certain amount of awkward joking about the subject, what I was learning was that my oldest son (in middle school) was starting to think that girls didn’t have cooties and that he might want a girlfriend, at some point, not now he quickly reassured me.
The girl he has a crush on is cute and she seems nice enough. I am pretty sure she is not smart enough for him, but she has enough spunk to put him in his place. I like her sense of humor and her unique style. BUT, you know there had to be a but, she is not Jewish. Talk about talking out of both sides of your mouth, but I don’t want my baby to date a non-Jew. I think it is so strange that I, of all people, am upset that he might want to marry a non-Jew. I actually sort of have this vehement need to demand that he does not marry a non-Jew. There might be a little foot stamping and room sending as well. Guess I have more in common with my Jewish elders that I thought.
I asked Mac about how he felt about dating a non-Jew. His response was that he was not likely to marry this girl. True. That there are not a lot of Jewish girls running around here in the epicenter of Christianity. True. That his father didn’t think it was important enough to marry a Jewish girl and their kids have turned out alright. True. That said, I feel like all the hard work and sacrifice I have made is really for nothing if it does not go further than my own kids. These kids need to create more Jewish kids. (This raises a whole issue of what sort of Grandma I will be, but I am too young and sassy to address that.)
We talked a bit more about whom he might want to marry. He said that he didn’t really care what religion she was, but he did want the kids to be raised as Jews. While this was marginally comforting, it did drive home the point that we do need to be extra vigilant in making sure that being Jewish is something important enough that our kids want to pass it on to their kids. This conversation is not over. Mac is just starting to think about girls and he is still really young. I am sure that we will have lots of opportunity to talk about the girls he likes and does not like. I hope that he makes good choices.
I am not sure what we need to do exactly about this, but I continue to try and create as Jewish a household as I can. We celebrate Shabbat weekly, we go to temple on a regular basis and the kids view themselves as Jews. I realize that I cannot make them “love being Jewish,” but I hope that they do. Cuz this non-Jewish mom wants some Jewish grandkids, or else you can just march yourself up to your room.
Can we tolerate one more post about the December Dilemma? I promise to be short. I just want to share with you what my oldest child (he is in 6th grade) did at school recently.
The district has a program called Christmas Sharing where they collect clothes and food for families in our area who are less fortunate. Great program! At our elementary school they call it Holiday Sharing. When our oldest went to middle school we learned that the program is actually called Christmas Sharing. As part of the program they ask the kids to donate money and then they can create an ornament to hang on the Christmas tree. If they donate enough money, food, and clothing Santa will visit the school. Yes, this is middle school.
For obvious reasons my son was upset that all other religions were being excluded. He took it upon himself to write the Principal about the issue. He detailed his concerns. He said that he was uncomfortable donating to a Christian program. That some of the Muslim or Buddhist families in our school might feel the same way. He had questions about who benefited from the program. Was it only Christian families? There might be families of other faiths that need help too.
He told the Principal that he did not have an issue with the motives behind it, but would like to have the public school be more aware that not everyone is Christian and offer more inclusive activities. He detailed some ideas that would be more inclusive. Rather than creating ornaments, perhaps the kids could create holiday/winter pictures that could be hung on the walls in the cafeteria; instead of Santa, how about homework passes or a day with no homework?
Our Principal is great. He asked Mac to participate in the newly renamed committee, Holiday Spirit. It was Christmas Spirit until Mac brought up the issue. He will be the only student on the committee, until now it was compromised entirely of teachers and staff. He will be able to talk about ideas that will make things more inclusive. The Principal has invited Mac to attend a meeting with the Superintendent and the local churches to discuss renaming Christmas Sharing to Holiday Sharing.
Mac is beginning to work towards creating a world that is more tolerant and understanding, more inclusive to people who are not Christian. Not only is this a proud parenting moment, it proves that in spite of everything, our child is a Jew.
Spin the dreidels, light the menorahs, it is Hannukah time. When we announced that Saturday was the first night of Hannukah, the kids dropped their electronic gadgets, stopped texting their friends, and cleaned the table off. Everyone was so excited to start the celebration.
What, your calendar says that Hannukah is still a couple of weeks off? Well, because Hannukah coincides with our trip to California to celebrate Christmas with my family we are doing it early. We have always played loose with the dates for Hannukah. When our kids were really small we made the decision to celebrate each holiday on its own. We felt that by making each event stand on alone, it would eliminate the competition between the two.
The agreement Bob and I reached before we got married was that we would celebrate Christmas with my family but not in our house. We have violated this one year when we didn’t have the time or resources to go to my family’s home. We had a very low key celebration at our house. I am not sure what we will do when my mother is no longer with us, and I don’t like to think about that.
At first I was disappointed about this. I fought it, and tried to put up a tree and decorations. Now, I love that we don’t have to worry about putting up lights and decorating a tree. It is one less thing I have to do. When we go to my mom’s the kids can do all the Christmas stuff. I don’t have to try and squeeze it into our schedule. When we are there we can do it without all the other stressors of our lives. The kids get the full experience and I have less work, win/win!
But, back to Hannukah… it was great to watch my kids get over-joyed by lighting the menorah. To actually want to sit down and play dreidel with us, we sure don’t have this response when we suggest family game night. They immediately started in on determining when we would have latkes and who we would invite. Because of the schedule, the idea of donuts for dinner was met with squeals of excitement.
My youngest who is 6, asked about presents. We told her, that because we were doing it early that the only gifts they would get during our Hannukah would be the ones from us. They would still get gifts from everyone else, but they would just come later. We reminded them that they will just get the usual gifts from us. We give money, clothing and an experience. That is it. Last year we swapped out a material gift for an experience. The experiences were a trip to a baseball game, a pony ride and a professional soccer game. It was something each kid got to do with their father, alone. It was very well received.
So, while for most people Hannukah has not started, for us it is almost over. That is ok, because we will leave the “coldest place on earth” and head home to California for two weeks of Christmas. It works for us, what works for you?