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A few weeks ago my family had a hard day. It seemed that both my Jewish and my husbandâ€™s Mexican/Catholic faith were being tested. A 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico. The epicenter of the quake was in Puebla where my husband, Adrian, is from and where his immediate family still lives. We were at the laundromat with Helen, our 2-year-old. All of a sudden breaking news of the quake flashed across the two flat screens above us.
Both Mexico City and the small, unknown villages of Puebla suffered. What was even more striking was the undeniable factor that the same earth shook on the same date in 1985 when 10,000 people were killed in Mexico City. Adrian grabbed his phone immediately. But then, so had the rest of the world. There was no connection to his village and the phones seemed dead or the lines were all busy. We grabbed our laundry from the dryer, put it in the trunk of the car and drove home to fold it.
The 19th of September this year also marked one day before the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I wondered how we would be able to celebrate in the wake of such a tragedy.
As the day moved on, Adrian kept getting Facebook updates from friends in his town who had some access to the internet via their phones. Photos started being uploaded of demolished buildings. Another mutual friend of ours who was in Mexico City said 46 buildings had collapsed and there was chaos on the streets. Adrian went somewhere deep inside of himself with worry. I tried to play with Helen in the living room and not say too much. There was nothing to say, there was only waiting.
News came from Adrianâ€™s brother that the church in their village had collapsed. The front was cracked down the middle and still standing but everything inside had fallen. Adrian started to cry. His mother went to that church every Sunday, every holiday and at every opportunity she had. He still hadnâ€™t heard from her. I wondered what it would be like if my synagogue fell down, the same one I had been going to since I was a child. I couldnâ€™t imagine the feeling. He went into the bedroom and prayed to his Virgin of Guadalupe.
At 6 oâ€™clock Adrianâ€™s sister got through to him. That was mostly due to the iPhone he had sent to her a year ago. She said that the town was a mess but that luckily the family was OK. However, a lot of the neighbors were left homeless and there were huge cracks in the earth. One wall in his motherâ€™s house was cracked and the stove had fallen killing three live turkeys that had been running around the kitchen. I could see the relief on Adrianâ€™s face even before he hung up with his sister. I could see his sadness but also his faith, that unshakable faith when you believe in something hard enough that it changes the outcome of your worst fears.
We found out later that one girl in the village had been rushed to the hospital after a house collapsed on her. We also heard later on about how money from the government was not reaching the pueblos and that people were forced to rebuild without help. Then someone in the village started a donation page and raised enough money for bottled water and supplies.
The next night was Rosh Hashanah. Adrian was still reeling from the destruction of his village and he had to work so he didnâ€™t join Helen and me at the table in my motherâ€™s house. But, my brother said a special prayer for his family and he was present even in his grief. Adrian was actually happy to go to work so that he could take his mind off of things.
As the Jewish New Year progressed I looked at Helen. I remember when Adrian and I decided that she would be of two faiths. It was way before she was born. We said that whatever she wanted to be, she would be part of both of us. So far she eats my motherâ€™s chicken soup, jalapeĂ±os, challah and tacos. She smiles like her mother and looks like her father. She says â€śhello,â€ť â€śholaâ€ť and â€śshalom.â€ť
When Helen was just a year old I received an angry email from an irate woman asking me how I could raise my daughter in an interfaith household. She accused me of being a â€śbad Jewâ€ť and told me I was making my daughter into a â€śguinea pig.â€ť The email had me in tears. I couldnâ€™t believe someone would say such a thing. It took me weeks to realize that a voice like that is not a voice of strength but a voice of true weakness, full of misunderstandings. After the earthquake happened I thought about that womanâ€™s email and how absurd it was. After all, Helen goes to the synagogue I went to when I was a child and she will help rebuild the church that her abuela cherishes. We have already asked when we can make a donation in her name.
This year on Yom Kippur I will wear black, say the Kaddish (the mournerâ€™s prayer) for my father and for the people of Mexico who suffered during the earthquake. I will teach my daughter a Jewish prayer and a Catholic prayer. I will teach her that being part of an interfaith family does not make you less of one thing but more of both. After all, we have work to do. There are synagogues that need renovations and churches that are waiting to be rebuilt.
My mother-in-lawâ€™s email about Christmas gifts for her was simple: â€śHave 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: â€śJewish prayer book like in the temple.â€ť 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 sonâ€™s bar mitzvah in October.
I purchased a copy of the prayer book at my congregationâ€™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!â€ť I couldnâ€™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, â€śNo,” or “I wonâ€™t” or even “Iâ€™m not comfortableâ€ť to any Jewish thing we asked her to do.
I know I hit the jackpot in the in-law lottery. I know Iâ€™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 â€śYour Gift.â€ť
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 Iâ€™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.
Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families â€“ and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the firstÂ FridayÂ “family service,â€ť but at most Shabbat services at Samâ€™s synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” programÂ on SundayÂ mornings.Â In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parentsâ€™ synagogue earlier this month.Â Upon arriving, I noticed that JackÂ was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services.Â We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year.Â I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which isÂ much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only.Â Even duringÂ FridayÂ nightÂ services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like familiesÂ with young children are always present at Catholic churches.Â During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass.Â During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families.Â Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass areÂ anything but distracting,Â saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogueÂ match what youâ€™ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faithâ€™s continuity for the next generation?
Hello again. Anne and Sam here. You may remember us from the InterfaithFamily Wedding Blog. A few years have passed and we have a 5-month-old son, Jack. As new parents we may not know how to handle teething or potty training yet, but we would like to share some of our experiences with you, especially those having to do with raising a child in an interfaith household.
Sam is Jewish and I am Catholic. Growing up, religion has been a very important aspect in both of our families and our faith will continue to be at the core of our growing family.
When we were planning our wedding, the topic of children came up frequently in conversation. We decided that our future children would practice only one religion. We thought it would be very confusing to send children to Hebrew school and Catholic school, believing in Catholicism on Sunday and Judaism on Shabbat. The question was which religion should we choose?
When I got pregnant, the conversations about religion became more frequent. We came to the conclusion we would raise our children as Jews. Below are some factors that fed into our decision.
Despite choosing Judaism for our children, I will still practice Catholicism. My religion willÂ notÂ be hidden or kept a secret from our children. Sam and our children will be able to celebrate the Catholic holidays with my family and me, but Catholicism will beÂ myÂ religion, not the religion of the household.
I will be able to keep my Catholic faith while maintaining a Jewish home and teaching our children about Judaism. I feel as though I don’t have to believe all aspects of the religion in order to keep a Jewish home. I can practice the cultural aspects of Judaism by cooking traditional holiday foods, hanging mezuzot, building a sukkah, lighting the HanukkahÂ candles, reading from the book of Esther during Purim, keeping leaven out of the home during Passover and celebrating other Jewish holidays, all while staying true to my beliefs.
It is much easier for me to teach our children about Judaism than for Sam to teach them Catholicism. SinceÂ Catholicism is partly rooted in Jewish scriptures,Â IÂ believe in most of the teachings of the Torah, as it is the first five books of the Catholic bible. By raising our children as Jews, we can embrace the similarities of our religionsÂ by teaching our children the stories and traditions that we both believe in.
Sam is more active at his synagogue than I am at my church. SamÂ is very active with the synagogue’s Men’s Club, frequently reads from the Torah, has established a tight-knit, faith-based community within his synagogue and will become the Chairman of the Rituals and Practices Committee. Unfortunately we do not have these same strong ties with my local church.
When we found out that we were going to have a boy, there was a certain level of tradition that we wanted to uphold.Â Jack is our first-born.Â Sam is the first-born in his family; Sam’s dad is the first-born and Sam’s paternal grandfather is the first-born in his family. We wanted to ensure the future patriarch of the Goodman family continues to be Jewish.
Should you have any questions regarding how we came to this conclusion, or any other topic related to raising children in an interfaith household, feel free to ask away! Weâ€™ll be happy to address your questions in future blog posts.
Easter and Passover, in my experience, donâ€™t create the same kind of difficulties as their winter counterparts, Christmas and Hanukkah. The Easter/Passover question fails to inspire the same degree of emotion as questions over the presence or absence of a Christmas tree in an interfaith familyâ€™s home. Still, each spring my family finds a new Easter/Passover balance, emerging from the little details of each celebration.
At the first PassoverÂ sederÂ I celebrated with my then-boyfriendâ€™s family, I remember the welcome in my future in-lawsâ€™ eyes as they told me that they hoped that all participants at their table would feel as if they, too, that very night, had been liberated from bondage. Although I came from a different background and different tradition, a seder in their home became a universal event, open to all who would experience the mystery of moving from suffering to joy.
Through the years, I learned that the seder at my in-lawsâ€™ house emphasized Earth Day, springtime, rebirth, reawakening and the joy of a new life, manifested in this world, here and now in this life. My spouse and I carried these themes into our own seder celebrations that welcome both family and friends. Like the wedding couple that breaks the glass as a reminder that even at a time of joy, brokenness remains in the world, each year at the seder my family recallsÂ tikkun olam,Â Judaismâ€™s message of healing the worldâ€™s broken places.
Although Iâ€™d been raised in a liberal Episcopalian environment, for me Easter had by then come to mean a springtime celebration of rebirth. Some years I attended Unitarian Universalist Easter services, singing â€śLo the Earth Awakes Againâ€ť in place of â€śJesus Christ is Risen Today,â€ť and thinking of my much more devout friends who mocked this seemingly watered-down springtime sentiment.
Passover, though, was anything but watered-down, especially after four cups of wine. It remains my husbandâ€™s favorite holiday, and as the better chef in our household, he delights in planning the menu, doing and re-doing theÂ haggadah and making sure that we have to extend our dining room table past its maximum capacity for the celebration to feel complete.
As Iâ€™ve experienced Passover with my extended family for the past 14 years, Passover makes a certain kind of sense. Each year,Â matzahÂ still tastes good for at least the first five days.Â Matzah breiÂ with smoked salmon and maple syrup, matzah served with leftoverÂ SephardicÂ charosetÂ (a delectably mortar-like concoction of dates, figs, nuts, spices and honey) and matzah granola liberally doused with honey and maple syrup, seem like the foods of heaven for the first few days. The leftover bottles of wine help wash the crumbs down when the matzah starts to lose its once-a-year appeal.
Beyond the food, Passover promotes a message of rebirth and liberation that aligns with both the anticipated return of springtime as well as good solid social justice.
Given all of this, each year I happily ceded the springtime holiday sensibilities to the Jewish half of my interfaith family (something Iâ€™ve never quite been able to do in December).
Passover became a rebirth I could sink my heart, and even my teeth, intoâ€”at least, until I provided grandchildren for my Easter-celebrating parents.
Once grandchildren came on the scene, suddenly my parents and grandparents wondered about chocolate bunnies, Easter eggs, gifts in pastel wrapping paper and other secularized symbols of the springtime season (and sometimes, even, if weâ€™d be attending church that year).
My childhood celebrations of Easter started pajama-clad as my brother and IÂ hunted for our Easter eggs, finding them in the closet, the dryer, the washing machine or other odd locations. We changed into fancy pastel clothing and drove to church, where the sweet smell of flowers and the triumphant sounds of trumpets and organ greeted us, after which we returned home to a fancy Easter dinner. We ate chocolate bunnies, dyed pastel eggs and I gave all my much-detested jellybeans to my brother in exchange for a few more egg-shaped Reeseâ€™s Peanut Butter Cups.
It shouldnâ€™t have surprised me, then, when my daughters looked forward eagerly to our neighborhoodâ€™s egg hunt. Even my husband, whoâ€™d initially and understandably balked at the idea of a Christmas tree in his home, wasnâ€™t alarmed at our children participating in what he called a â€śpagan celebration of springtime,â€ť as out the door they ran, baskets in hand, eggs and chocolate on their minds.
So, Iâ€™ve adjusted each year to a new balance between a childhood tradition that has come to mean considerably less, and an adult tradition that has come to mean so much more. My children happily accept Easter gifts when given, and look forward gleefully to matzah right around the corner (they love matzah!).
Still, I wonder, what does your family do when Easter and Passover overlap? Is it a dilemma in your house? If so, how do you handle it?
If youâ€™re a parent, thereâ€™s always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like â€śwhere do babies come from?â€ť â€śWhatâ€™s sex?â€ť and â€śHave you ever tried drugs?â€ť I think over the years Iâ€™ve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly donâ€™t know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: â€śHey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?â€ť
Me: â€śUm, no, not really.â€ť
Kids: â€śBut isnâ€™t he supposed to go to church? Isnâ€™t that like the opposite of temple? Like people who arenâ€™t Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?â€ť (Yeah, my kids still donâ€™t get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they havenâ€™t paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Letâ€™s be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: â€śWell yeah. I guess heâ€™s *supposed* to go to church. If youâ€™re part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesnâ€™t belong to a church and he doesnâ€™t go. We donâ€™t go to Shabbat services every week either, so thatâ€™s OK, right?â€ť
Kids: â€śYeah itâ€™s OK, but did he EVER go to church?â€ť
Clearly they werenâ€™t letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Mattâ€™s connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: â€śDoes Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?â€ť
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? Itâ€™s a subject that Iâ€™m not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: â€śUhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. Itâ€™s really hard to explain guys.â€ť
Kids: â€śWell remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?â€ť
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me heâ€™s converting, but the longer weâ€™re together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections â€“ yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with lifeâ€™s experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and Iâ€™m proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Mattâ€™s family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.