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 other day, as the Halloween candy was being eaten and costumes were being put away, I saw a house decorated in Christmas cheer. It had a large wreath with balls covering one side of the home, and the frame was lined with bright red and white lights. I sighed and thought, “Is it really that time again?”
It seems that each year the holiday season starts earlier. What used to happen after Thanksgiving – holiday decorations in neighborhoods and stores, and merchandise on retailers’ shelves – now appears before Halloween, drawing out the seasonal cheer in a way that leaves many of us feeling exhausted before the holidays even arrive.
For Jewish families, the elongated season and ever increasing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated in the public sphere can leave us feeling more than a little Grinch-like. What to people who are not Jewish are non-religious symbols and accessories (trees, garland, lights, dancing Santas), are reminders to Jews that we are different. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the commercialization of the winter holidays can make them feel particularly stressful and drag us into a competition between traditions that we all want to avoid.
In my house, we try to take the holidays in stride and treat them like any other celebration. We work to make our observance about family and tradition. But it is hard not to be lured in by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, and every now and then, I find myself longing for a credible Jewish alternative to elves, and reindeer, and snowmen and Santa in order to add a little more sparkle to the Festival of Lights.
My friend Abra can relate. Abra, describes herself as a nice Jewish girl who, as a child, loved latkes, delighted in dreidel and coveted Christmas bling. At age 6, she started secretly decorating her closet with homemade boughs of holly and began purchasing Christmas ornaments. She says it was never about not wanting to be Jewish, it was just that she wished that Hanukkah came with more tinsel.
Now, as an intermarried adult raising two Jewish children she wanted to make being Jewish fun and the Jewish holidays enticing, while instilling in her kids a deep love of Judaism. Not an easy task at a time of year when the merry and cheer of Christmas abounds.
So, Abra created The Maccabee on the Mantel so that her children, and all Jewish children, could have something to call their own during this season of Frosty, Rudolph, and Old St. Nick. The Maccabee on the Mantel is a children’s book and snuggly toy solider doll that connects kids to the rich history and traditions of Judaism.
Mac, as we like to call him in our house, is not a Jewish Elf of the Shelf. He is historical rather than mythological. He does not possess magical powers. He does not report to a large man in a red suit. And he is not related to Hanukkah Harry.
Mac is a reminder that Judaism is full of human heroes who have achieved great things through courage, bravery, and sacrifice. He encourages us to retell our stories, and explore who we are and where we come from.
Mac does not twinkle and he does not make our mantels shine. But he does provide a more lasting radiance by reminding us to believe in miracles. To me, that is real sparkle and that is the kind of holiday tinsel I want my son to embrace.
According to the new Pew Center survey of Jewish Americans, 45 percent of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish by religion. That is great news since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that only one-third of intermarrieds choose Judaism in some way.
But simply knowing that that the number of us living Jewishly has increased is not enough for me. I want to know why. Is it because of outreach efforts, changes in policies that have made some organizations more accepting of interfaith couples or a larger number of clergy who will officiate at interfaith weddings? Is it that more mixed faith couples are finding relevance in the history, culture, values, beliefs and observances of Judaism? Maybe the driver is something else.
Whatever it is, inquiring minds in the Jewish community should want to know. Why? Because if we want to build meaningful relationships with interfaith families or develop initiatives that entice families to explore Jewish life than we must understand what excites families like mine about Judaism and what attributes make religious connection important to us.
So in the interest of creating a better understanding of what drives intermarrieds to engage Jewishly, I want to share why Cameron and I have chosen a Jewish identity for our family. I recognize that our home is a sample size of one. But I hope that by sharing the drivers of our engagement that it will encourage other interfaith families to join the conversation and make their voice heard.
So here are the reasons we chose to be Jewish:
1. Community: A large part of why we decided that we would have a Jewish identity is because of community. When Cameron and I were dating we would often discuss how we should approach faith in the context of intermarriage. I wanted a Jewish home; Cameron wanted to celebrate both traditions. I needed to make a case for Judaism. While I could not provide a spiritual reason for having a Jewish family except that I did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, I did feel strongly about Jewish peoplehood.
I explained that there is a bond that unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. This connection is expressed in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.
Cameron accepted the idea that there is more to being Jewish than faith and on the night he agreed to raise our children as Jews he said, “In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. We could do nothing in our home and our children would think they were Christian. There is more to being Jewish than just religion. For our children to be Jewish they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”
2. Deed vs. Creed: Modern Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief is another reason we chose a Jewish identity for our family. While I believe that there is something larger at work in the universe, Cameron is less certain that a divine presence exists. Since Judaism teaches that doing good deeds is more important than believing in a certain idea about God, there is no pressure to conform to or accept a specific religious belief.
Cameron was raised in a home that took its responsibility for serving the larger community seriously, so the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was attractive to him. Regardless of what we each believed about God, we shared a view that our purpose is to make the world a better place. Judaism provided us a framework to teach this idea to our children.
3. One Family, One Identity: Before Cameron and I got engaged we struggled to resolve our faith in the home dilemma. We read books that presented various interfaith arrangements from pursuing one to conversion to raising children in two religions to joining the Unitarian church. But it was a class on interfaith relationships at the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City that helped us to find a solution. A rabbi and a rector taught the course, and one evening they impressed upon us the importance of choosing one religion.
“Your child is asked to make a winter holiday art project. She can make only one,” said the rector. “She must choose red and green paper to create a Christmas theme or blue and white for Chanukah. It appears that this is a simple choice, but for a child being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between colored papers, it is a choice between mommy and daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.”
The story shocked us into thinking about our situation from a very different point of view. Rather than focusing on the compromises and feelings of adults, it made us see a child’s perspective and asked us to consider how our decision would impact our future children. Neither one of us could think about putting our child in the position described. After the discussion Cameron told me that he was comfortable with raising our children as Jews because being Jewish was about more than faith.
I would love to know why other 45-percenters chose a Jewish identity for their family. I would also like to know why 55 percent of intermarrieds made a different choice. I believe that we need to go beyond the numbers to learn what is driving behavior so that we can more effectively engage interfaith families. Because let’s face it, with almost 60 percent of recently married Jews choosing a partner from outside the faith the future of Judaism depends on bringing more families like mine into the tent.
As I prepared to publish this post, I hesitated for a second, as hopefully many of you who read my posts also read Jane Larkin’s musings, and we were both moved to write about Jewish learning this month. But I’m sticking with it, because our coinciding themes must mean that it’s important, right? With all of the emphasis on back-to-school for our kids, it seems like a good idea to think about the possibility of back-to-school for us grown-ups, too.
I sit on the alumni advisory committee for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a fantastic program offered by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish Federation). At our kick-off meeting for the year, we did an icebreaker where we all answered the question, “What is the best kept secret about PTJL?” We shared lots of ideas, but the thing that stuck with me was the comment of the woman who spoke after me: “Its better than date night,” she said, “because unlike on date night, when you feel pressured to have a great time, to not be tired and to think of fun and interesting things to say, the curriculum is filled with interesting things to talk about, the babysitting is free, and you can easily connect with your partner without any pressure.”
Now, I love date night, and I won’t go so far as to say that a Sunday morning class is better than a night out on the town…and I even think that my friend from the committee might admit to a little hyperbole in her comment. But having had two Jewish learning opportunities with my husband, the most recent one two years ago with one kid in (free) babysitting and another on the way, I get what she’s saying. First, because there always is a little more pressure to make the most of every minute of a date than there was before kids, and second, because taking Parenting Through a Jewish Lens with Eric was really great.
When we signed up for a Jewish parenting class, I imagined it would include some aspect of a rabbi telling us “the rules” of being a Jewish parent (this sounded helpful enough to me). Once we started, though, I realized that just telling us “the rules” wouldn’t be very Jewish. Instead, the class was about studying direct texts, trying to understand who we are as individuals, co-parents, and children ourselves, and hoping that doing that would help us to be better parents. It is so hard in our every day journey to not just be parents, but to think about how well the parenting we are doing lines up with our hopes about the kind of parents we want to be. We were lucky in that the structure of our class supported just that kind of thinking.
That in and of itself was pretty great. But here was the icing on the cake: with Ruthie in babysitting down the hall, we had 90 minutes every week to be grown-ups together, to learn new things and talk about stuff that really matters. And it turns out we really like learning together. To hit a pause button every week and do something totally different…it would be pretty special no matter what we were doing. And all the luckier that it was about the intersection of parenting and values, two things about which we share a passion.
So here’s my multi-pronged pitch. First of all, if you live in the Greater Boston area, sign-up for PTJL this fall, or at the very least put it on your to-do list for next year. If you don’t live in Boston, or PTJL’s not your thing, ponder the idea of studying something new with your spouse. It doesn’t have to be something about your parenting, but anything that stretches your brain a little bit will probably ultimately benefit not just you, but your kids as well. [For those of you who live in areas where IFF has offices, you can take advantage of parenting and relationship classes and workshops in Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.] So I hope everyone’s had a good back-to-school month for your kids. And I hope you get back-to-school, too.
I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.
My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.
I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.
For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.
Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.
Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.
This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)
But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.
My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogue’s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when we’re on vacation. In fact, when we’re away we don’t celebrate Shabbat at all.
My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, “Mommy, its Friday.”
“I know, one more day of skiing,” I responded.
“No, it’s Friday,” he said. “It’s Shabbat!”
“Oh yeah,” I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.
“How are we going to celebrate?” Sammy asked.
“Well, we don’t have candles or matches and even if we did, I don’t think it’s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while we’re out or asleep,” I answered. “We’ll celebrate next week when we’re at home.”
“We can still say Shabbat Shalom,” Sammy replied.
“You’re right, we can do that,” I said.
“Shabbat Shalom,” we said together and gave each other a kiss.
It wasn’t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.
After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.
I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.
Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is very…un-Shabbat. It’s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phone’s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.
I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to “light” the candles by dragging a “flame” to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles “burned” over a two-hour period.
With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.
We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.
My son just returned from his second summer spent at the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Greene Family Camp. While Sammy is glad to be reunited with his puppy, he misses his other home.
I know how Sammy feels. I was a diehard camper too and I’m so happy that he thinks camp is as magical as I did many years ago. But having a deep attachment to camp is not unique to campers attending Jewish institutions.
I spent my summers at a YMCA camp, and as I watch the videos for religious and secular institutions alike I consistently hear children describe what makes their camp stand out with the same words I used almost 30 years ago – lasting friendships, great activities and a place to forget your worries. All of these endorsements are of course tied to images of beautiful settings and examples of camp spirit.
But even though there are universal aspects to camp, I always suspected that there was something special about Jewish camp.
As a teen, I envied my fellow youth groupers who spent their summers at the URJ’s Camp Harlem not only because I longed for a Jewish camp experience, but also because their camp connection seemed richer in way that I could not explain.
Now that I’m seeing Jewish camp through adult eyes, I feel that there is truth to my teenage suspicions – there is something special, something different about Jewish camp. Call it an X factor, an indefinable quality that we recognize when we see or experience it, but can’t easily describe.
My husband thinks what makes Jewish camp different is personality and soul. He sees the experience that Sammy is having as one imbued with life and character beyond the rah-rah kind of spirit depicted in shots of color war competitions and heard in the lyrics of official camp anthems.
An acquaintance of mine thinks the uniqueness comes from the experience of being with all Jewish kids, regardless of whether or not their parents are both Jewish, and engaging with Judaism in a way that makes being Jewish cool.
I think the specialness comes from the incredible sense of community that is embodied in the phrase “Welcome to camp” that greets you as your car enters the gates and is repeated continuously by staff and campers alike. Immediately you know that you are part of the larger camp family. You belong.
Curious to get a camper’s perspective, I asked Sammy what he thinks makes camp special. He replied, “It just is. It’s sacred ground.”
Maybe that’s the best description of all. What do you think?
My name is Jessie and I am very excited to have my very own blog on InterfaithFamily. My bio will tell you some of the following: I live in Boston with my charming husband and my two (fascinating, and almost always charming) daughters. I was raised in a Reform Jewish home, and my husband was raised Protestant. We are raising our children Jewish.
I look forward to sharing some thoughts about our life as a family for two reasons. One is because we are always retooling, reassessing and renewing our path, and I hope to explore that with others who might be doing the same. Second, I think that the fact that we were raised in two faiths has strengthened our relationship and spirituality, and is generally a plus – an often-unsung bonus of being “interfaith” (more on that in future posts, which I hope will be helpful to you).
Today, though, I wanted to start out by reflecting on this concept of being an interfaith family, something that I have been pondering for a few years now. Because of the two reasons I just described, I love the idea of blogging here. But I almost didn’t answer IFF’s call for bloggers, because after 8 years of marriage, interfaith doesn’t fit right for me.
In common definition, I guess “interfaith” is a category we inhabit, but it doesn’t feel like it tells our story. Eric and I agreed early on that as parents that it was our responsibility to choose one religion, and to partner in weaving that tradition into our family life (something I also hope to talk about with you). So we are Jewish, but of course nothing is straightforward.
I think the best explanation of my family is that we are a Jewish home in a loving multi-faith family. I am lucky that my husband and I have come from two great families with strong values and dedication to being families, and maintaining those connections has always been at the forefront of our decision-making. Our extended family includes a multitude of spiritual practices, both within Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), and Christianity (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Christian). We have family members who don’t practice any religion. And we have some family members who practice more than one faith in their home. So the bottom line is that we deal with lots of questions that are often categorized as “interfaith,” but I don’t use that term for my nuclear family.
Because our story is multi-layered (whose isn’t?), so is my goal for my children. I hope that they will grow up as Jews with a deep respect and curiosity about the faiths of our family members, an ability to help grandparents and cousins and friends celebrate religious holidays with joy, and an understanding that all people of faith are struggling with the same questions – what it means to be a good person, how to find purpose in life, and how to connect with others. I’m looking forward to reflecting on that with you.
Whenever we meet someone new, I always worry about the reaction they will have when I tell them that my husband isn’t Jewish. I keep having images of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof ripping his clothes in mourning when he found out his daughter married a non Jew. While that hasn’t happened, I have found that some people can be pretty opinionated on the issue of intermarriage.
I think we have found a fairly open community, open in that people are accepting of us, but in some cases it is very much a “don’t talk/don’t tell” kind of relationship.
So here goes, my top five things people assume when your partner isn’t Jewish:
1) You don’t care about Jewish spirituality. I admit, when we got married, I didn’t care that much about Jewish spirituality, but I cared enough that I wanted certain elements in our ceremony (breaking the glass, mentioning G-d…). We have grown and have learned there is a lot to Jewish spirituality, a lot of amazing things!
2) You probably belong to a Reform synagogue. I actually go to a Modern Orthodox synagogue. I don’t feel that the Reform path is for me. And that’s ok.
3) You probably don’t keep Kosher or Shabbat. Yes, we are kosher in this household. We don’t have separate dishes yet, but it is on the radar. My son and I keep Shabbat, no driving, using the phone, etc., etc. We have a beautiful Shabbat dinner and lunch. That being said, I do give my husband a “pass” every now and again, because I know he needs that space.
4) You celebrate non Jewish holidays. Every family is different. We are a full time Jewish household. Other families do some of the non Jewish holidays and some do everything.
5) You are the reason that Jewish continuity is threatened. Oy. Yes I know. It says in the Torah. When the time comes (after 120 years), I will have that discussion with G-d. I know plenty of Jewish people who are Jewishly married who don’t really care about Jewish spirituality. Yes, genetically they are Jewish and their kids are Jewish. From what I’m seeing it is getting harder and harder to guilt these types of families into marrying Jewish.
Ahad Ha’am has said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” What does this mean? It means that Jewish continuity occurs in the families that have shown some interest in Jewish mitzvot, ritual, and spirituality. I read a statistic that about 30-40% of intermarried families are raising their children with Jewish spirituality. (Not too bad!)
Is a kid in an intermarried family, raised with Jewish values, more likely to “stay Jewish” (for lack of a better term) than a kid in a fully Jewish family raised with no Jewish values?
What would you add to the list?
A family member of my husband’s, whom I’ll call Devorah, recently told me that although I may have converted, “you will never think like a Jew.” At the time I didn’t say anything. This woman is an elder and I respect her opinion. But later I kept running that sentence through my head, and I realized it struck a nerve. Is she right? As an adult convert, will I never “think” like a Jew? And by extension, will my children never think like Jews, either?
After ruminating for days, I decided to ask my husband about Devorah’s comment. He explained that Devorah believed that I converted out of a sense of duty to him, rather than on my own terms. I thought back to my conversion process and it struck me: I had kept the process intensely private, and I sat before the beit din (rabbinic court) and had my mikveh (ritual bath) only one week before my son was born. In Devorah’s mind, I was Jewish for the sake of my children.
Rather than being upset with an elderly relative with whom I had never explained my conversion process, I realized that I needed to work on becoming comfortable discussing my beliefs and my very real reasons for converting. And I needed to be discussing it with both my non-Jewish relatives and my husband’s Jewish ones. This will be difficult for me. I came from a family where we didn’t discuss faith or religion, and we certainly didn’t discuss individual belief in the context of religious doctrine. My discomfort with discussing faith is rooted in not having any prior experience talking about it, and I have to explore how to do that. Additionally, I need to learn to share my beliefs with my children and teach them to verbalize what they believe. Not because I want them to fit into any particular doctrine, but because I never want a comment like “you don’t think like a Jew” to silence them.
My first exposure to Purim came when my husband and I brought our then two year old daughter to the synagogue he attended through his childhood. I had her dressed as a fairy, and she was so stinking cute, waving her little wand and clutching her tiara. The rabbi jumped out from behind something and roared at her – he was dressed in a giant gorilla costume. He was delighted and happy, everyone laughed. My toddler was distinctly not amused, she was terrified. I was even less amused – I was just furious.
Fast forward a few years, and Purim didn’t really get any better. When my second child was born, Purim was a disaster. He wasn’t a fan of crowds anyway, and taking him to the Megillah reading, with all the noisemakers – he screamed louder than any of them. I’d pull him out of the service, but we could still hear the loud noisemakers and every time Haman’s name was read, not only would his name be drowned out, the noise of the noisemakers was drowned out as well, by the hysterical sobbing of a terrified boy.
The more I read about the Purim story, the less impressed I was. Queen Esther seems to be held up as a pinnacle of bravery. But she really didn’t do much more than be pretty and do as she was told. On the upside, discussion of it did inspire a lot of conversation around here about the role of women and generations of learned Torah scholars interpreting the story to highlight the qualities that were most conducive to keeping women in a submissive position in society. Esther was the king’s wife, not because she was smart or brave, but because she was beautiful. And she saved the Jewish people not because she knew it had to be done, not because she independently made the decision to risk her own safety by appearing before the king without being summoned, but because she listened to the male head of her family and did as she was told.
And I don’t like hamentaschen. Prune filled cookies are confusing to me, I’d much rather a nice chocolate chip cookie