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My mother-in-law’s email about Christmas gifts for her was simple: “Have composed an extensive ‘Wish List’ on Amazon for those who might be looking for ideas!” When I logged onto her list, I found her typical requests for puzzles and small housewares mixed in with requests for items such as “a picture of the three Dallas people” (that would be my family).
As I scrolled through her requests deciding what to purchase, I came across one item that puzzled me: “Jewish prayer book like in the temple.” I wondered why my mother-in-law wanted a copy of Mishkan T’filah; the prayer book my Reform synagogue used. I knew she loved to talk religion with me and I knew she was very spiritual but I was curious as to why she wanted a Jewish prayer book. My best guess was that she wanted to familiarize herself with some of the prayers before my son’s bar mitzvah in October.
I purchased a copy of the prayer book at my congregation’s gift shop, wrapped it and shipped it to my in-laws in Vermont so it would arrive well before Christmas and our arrival at their home for the holiday. I was eager for my mother-in-law to open the gift and to find out the reason for her very Jewish Christmas request.
On Christmas Day, I watched as my mother-in-law unwrapped the prayer book. Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, I’m so happy to get this!” I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer, and I asked her why she wanted a copy of the prayer book we use in our Dallas synagogue.
“Well, whenever we’ve gone to services with you I’ve always noticed how similar the liturgy is to our Episcopal church. I’ve enjoyed the services and wanted to read more of the prayers,” she answered.
I smiled. My mother-in-law’s generosity of spirit when it comes to religion never ceases to amaze me. Her openness to and curiosity about Judaism was present from the moment I met her. She always accepted my Jewishness and my husband and my decision to raise our son Jewish. She was involved in our Jewish life and educated herself about Judaism. She celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah, participated in our son’s bris and will be a part of his bar mitzvah. She has never said, “No,” or “I won’t” or even “I’m not comfortable” to any Jewish thing we asked her to do.
I know I hit the jackpot in the in-law lottery. I know I’m lucky. Not all parents or in-laws of intermarried children are willing to bridge the religious divide or be so accepting.
About a week after we arrived home from our Christmas visit, I received an email from my mother-in-law with the subject line “Your Gift.”
Dear Jane, Want you to know I spent all yesterday dipping into your prayer book and being vastly impressed both with the lyricism of the prayers and the frequency of the liturgical elements exactly matching some of our Christian customs and events–perhaps if one studied all religions one would find common themes like that. I’ve got to dig out my “Judaism for Dummies,” and I’m trying to figure out some of the Hebrew–I make up my own pronunciation, of course, but it’s like I’m beginning to understand it a bit! Especially liked the Kaddish prayers and the post-Shabbat resolutions. Was talking with my friend Kathy at church today, and she wants to come over to the house to examine it, too. Thank you so much for adding depth to my spirituality!
The appreciation is all mine. Thank you for choosing love, for being a powerful example of how parents can navigate their relationship with intermarried or interdating children, and for modeling how to welcome and embrace the stranger.
My parents and extended family have always supported my own interfaith family. There are many ways they have said or shown this to me. When I think about when I knew it would be OK for me to bring home a partner who wasn’t Jewish, I always remember one specific conversation. I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but if I had to guess I would say it was during my Hebrew school confirmation year. The class curriculum, about understanding our Jewish identity as emerging adults, would have been an easy opener to summon up the courage to ask how my parents felt about me dating people who weren’t Jewish.
My mom knew her answer right away.
“I want you to find someone you love,” she said, “and if you really love each other, then you can figure out the rest.”
My mom was a clinical psychologist. Outside of her practice, she was a great friend, an excellent advice giver, and shared the role (with my dad) of #1 life advisor to our extended family. In other words, she had the inside track on a lot of relationships.
Wearing her many hats, my mom had seen successful marriages of all stripes, and she had witnessed the pain of marriages that ended in separation and divorce. She had seen same-faith and interfaith couples who thrived, and couples who had struggled to make their relationships work, regardless of religion.
My mom wanted her three children to find love, the kind that sustains life’s ebbs and flows and would encircle her future grandchildren (who were always in her plans, I suspect) with love and stability. She wanted to be sure that no matter who we ended up with, she and my dad would be a closely connected part of our lives. And more than anything in her life, she wanted to protect her children from pain.
She wasn’t saying “Being Jewish doesn’t matter,” nor was she saying “Your partner’s religion, and their family’s religion, don’t matter.” What she was saying was that she wanted us to learn how to love, and how to be loved. When she said we’d figure out the rest, she really did expect that. My parents always modeled a kind of loving partnership where being married meant you worked through things, not around them. When we had partners, we would need to figure “it” out, whatever it was.
Ultimately, my parents wanted us to be happy. I believe my mom was concerned that if she put limitations on our choice of partners, we might not endeavor on a truly full exploration of what we wanted in a partner. It was most important to her that we learn how to both love and “figure things out,” with either a Jewish person or a person who was not Jewish. My mom understood that religion was important, but not necessarily the magic key to a successful marriage.
I am thankful that my parents opened the door for me to find my right match, and gave me confidence that they would support my relationship based on its merits. This week would have been my mom’s 67th birthday. As my dad, sister, brother and I celebrate her and remember how much we miss her, I am lucky to have my husband and his family watch over me and hold my hand. On her birthday, I will pause and thank my mom for the ways she embraced my husband, and for not missing a beat in telling me to #ChooseLove first, with faith that the rest would follow.
There are many ways we all #ChooseLove in our lives. See the gallery and share your story!
Driving home from school the other day, Ruthie began singing “Ma Tovu” to herself in the back seat. She repeated it a couple of times alone, and then I decided to try to sing it back to her. But after I got the first two lines out of my mouth, she stopped me.
“No, Mommy,” she said, frustrated, “You sing it like this!”
And she began again, more confidently, singing something that sounded very much the same to me as what I had sung, but was clearly different to her. Her tune, her way.
This interaction felt powerful as I reflected back on the end of Ruthie’s first year of Sunday School. Up until last September, most of the influences on Ruthie’s religious identity had come from, or at least occurred in the presence of, Eric or me. But in September, when we dropped her off with Morah Naomi for the first time, what being Jewish means for Ruthie began to happen on her own, in a way that is connected, but miraculously independent, from us.
Ruthie is a child who generally enjoys school, and she has relished in getting new knowledge at Sunday School each week. She loves the chance to share our family’s practices with her class, and to learn her own things to bring home to us. This spring, she particularly enjoyed her class “trip” to Israel (not an actual trip!), and is still slowly doling out tidbits about the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea or even the way that Israelis take a midday break for lunch and family every day.
Exploring her Judaism in this way has also encouraged her to articulate her interfaith identity independently, too. She knows that not all of her friends from Sunday School celebrate Christmas with their families, and she thinks she’s pretty lucky that she gets to do that. She asks lots of questions about the faith of our family members and close friends, trying on different ways of fitting herself into the world.
A few weeks ago, we had a conversation that went something like this:
“Mommy, when I am a grown-up, and I get to pick if I am Jewish or Christian, well, I’ll probably be Jewish but I am not sure, anyway, I am going to have a cat.”
Ruthie has only taken her first steps on a lifelong journey of self-discovery and understanding. At this moment, I am so grateful that it started off with a zeal for learning, an open heart, and curiosity about what it means to make her way in the world with a loving family that includes different faiths. I hope that we can both continue to choose love and embrace the learning journey. As always, I am glad to be along for the ride.