Five Things People Assume When Your Spouse/Partner Isn’t Jewish

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?

Thinking Like a Jew

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.

I Don’t Like Purim

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 :-)

My Son’s Circumcision

When our second child, a boy, was born, my (Jewish) husband was adamant that he be circumcised. Everyone has their own baggage, and I’m far from exempt from that.  I grew up without a dad; I was dead certain that I wanted my children to have an active, involved and dedicated father.  I didn’t want them to have just one parent, so it was vital to me to respect him as a parent.  This was his son as much as he was mine, and it was that absolute for him.  He would be circumcised.

It’s one thing to blithely agree to something and then realize how incredibly hard it’s going to be.  Like daycare – of course, my kids would go to daycare and I’d work full time, right up until I actually HAD a child and the thought of leaving them for eight to nine hours a day was devastating.  It was the same situation with the circumcision.  Yeah, sure, we can do that, right up until I’ve got this tiny little boy – AND YOU WANT TO CUT OFF HIS LITTLE PENIS?!?!  And if I was struggling with the concept, explaining it to my non-Jewish family was even harder.  The whole idea of having a party where we’d cut off the tip of his penis and then have bagels was beyond their comprehension.

But cut it off we did.  I reminded myself over and over again that this was my husband’s child as much as mine.  That I had to respect Marc’s traditions and his right to make decisions for our child if I truly wanted him to be an equal parent with me.

First let me back up.  My son was a challenging baby.  To this day, six years later, I know of no other child who was as miserable as my little baby was for the first several months.  Colic and reflux were a part of it, but part of it was just who he was, he doesn’t like change – and the whole concept of starting his life here just made him furious.  He cried all the livelong day, unless he was nursing.  Or in the swing – he loved his swing.  But mostly he cried and nursed. He only slept when I held him, and only stopped crying when he nursed.  He was horrified if anyone other than me tried to hold him, screamed unmercifully if people looked at him for too long, and being the center of attention made him nuts.

So I was a wreck on the day he was going to be circumcised.  To put it mildly.  I was an experienced mom, he was my second baby, and I’d had literally decades of childcare behind me – but I was worn out, sleep deprived, and out of mind with confusion and frustration and this overwhelming love for this boy child.  Voluntarily hurting him (and that’s the only way I could see this) was so hard.  So incredibly hard. My mother, sister, stepfather and cousin had all come early to our house.   We lived in a second floor apartment, and it was literally the hottest day of the summer so far that year.   We had no air conditioner, and the apartment was wall to wall people.  I couldn’t stop crying.  The baby couldn’t stop crying (because the mohel didn’t want me to nurse for the two hours before the ceremony, and he was furious at the thought of a pacifier).

All of my husband’s female relatives assured me that I shouldn’t be there, the mothers never watch.  But I couldn’t NOT be there.  This was my child.  This was my baby, and if I was going to allow this to happen to him, I couldn’t let him do it without me there to support him.  So I sat in the room just off of the dining room, where everyone had gathered.  My father-in-law held the baby, and my poor confused stepfather gave him little bits of a sweet wine and it was over super fast.  They handed him back to me immediately, and he stopped crying the instant I touched him.  He nursed gratefully and went immediately back to sleep.

The man who performed the circumcision passed away a few months ago.  It wasn’t that I knew him well, I had never met him before and only saw him a few times since then.  But he was there, on one of the most challenging and painful and ultimately rewarding days of my life.  You know how sometimes you bond to your baby the first time you meet them, and sometimes it takes a bit? I loved my baby from the beginning, but on the day that he was circumcised, I knew absolutely and without question that I was his mother and he was my son, and that when he hurt, I felt it more than I could have imagined.  It was the beginnings of a relationship that, to this day, continues to shock and amaze me, to teach me and stretch me and astound me.  Rest in Peace, Stuart Jaffee, and thank you for your part in my son’s life.

That being said – when we found out that our next baby was a girl, the first thing I thought in the ultrasound room was thank God we don’t have to have her circumcised.

Why I still celebrate Christmas

I’m Jewish, and pretty happy about it.  I converted about four years ago, with our oldest two children.  But, yeah, I still celebrate Christmas.  I don’t celebrate it as the birth of Christ, but it’s still a tremendously meaningful and important holiday for me.  I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite holiday of the year – there’s too much other stress going on for that.  December is decidedly a challenging month for my husband and I.  Between the number of Jewish people who write articles that I can’t stop myself from reading that assure me that a tree has no place in a Jewish home, and worrying about whether or not people are judging me for putting up the tree anyway.  It’s celebrating a holiday that while it has never been particularly Christian to me – it is a Christian holiday to many people.  And either way, it is most definitely not Jewish.  It’s a hard month for my husband, who didn’t grow up  celebrating Christmas, but not celebrating it is almost a part of his Jewish identity – so it’s never an easy time of year.

But celebrate it we do, enthusiastically.  I’ve got stocking hung by the chimney with care, and a tree that’s lopsided, with way too many lights on it, and ornaments that are well loved and not particularly coordinated.  I’ve got pictures of all of my babies with Santa Claus, and tinsel and candy canes EVERYWHERE.  So why do I celebrate?  Why do I insist on participating in holiday that everyone keeps telling me is all about rampant consumerism and materialism?  If I strip away the Christian connotations to it, what exactly is Christmas all about?  And why exactly do I insist every year that we celebrate it?

I celebrate it because it’s wrapped up in some of my favorite memories from my childhood.  Caroling with my cousins, singing songs to my sister at night before we fell asleep.  Every Christmas Eve, my little sister would beg to sleep in my bed with me, and I’d tell her stories about Santa and swear that I could see Rudolph’s nose in the sky.  Baking Christmas cookies with my baby cousins, and taking my nieces and nephews out at night to look for the prettiest Christmas lights.  My mother has this one song – Mary’s Boy Child, and it’s this odd sort of Jamaican Christmas carol, and every time it comes on the radio, she’d turn it up as loud as it could go and rock out.  My mother doesn’t rock out as a rule, and watching her chair dance in the car while we drove anywhere in December was (and is) kind of awesome.

I celebrate it because I love the anticipation of Christmas Day.  I love that my kids talk about Santa Claus (despite the fact that both the older ones know it’s just a myth).  When I was a kid, I loved that sense, all month long, that we were building up to this one day when magically, just because, we’d wake up and find that someone had brought us presents, just because.  It’s not about the gifts, exactly.  Looking back, I don’t remember any specific Christmas gift that I ever got that made a huge impression.  What I remember is the magic, the excitement and the joy of it all.  I want that for my kids.

I celebrate it because I’m still my mother’s daughter.  And I’m raising her grandchildren.  Having a child convert to a different religion isn’t easy, and my mother supported me and stood beside me every step of the way.  I’ve never doubted her love or commitment, and I can’t imagine how hurt and disappointed she’d be if I didn’t give my kids the same opportunity to love Christmas as she gave me.  I won’t do that to her.  I won’t do that to her grandchildren.  It’s not that she wants them to not be Jewish, she loves listening to my two year old lisp out the Shabbat blessings, and makes sure that she’s a part of our holiday traditions as well.  She just wants to know that my family still a part of her family, celebrating her favorite holidays and traditions.  Like sleeping over at Grammy’s house on the night before Thanksgiving, and trekking up to Maine every year to camp at Hermit Island – celebrating Christmas, for my mother, is about spending time with her kids, and her grandchildren.  Passing along those traditions.  I’m not willing to tell them that it’s not their holiday just because they’re Jewish.  Yes, my children are observant Jewish kids but they’re also a part of my extended non-Jewish family as well.  Christmas is part of what they inherit from my side of the family, along with a crappy sense of direction and a gift for sarcasm.

I celebrate it because I believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards men.  And having a day to celebrate that is lovely to me.  I celebrate it because I feel a little closer to everyone else on earth during this time of year – it seems to me that it’s the one time when we all try a little harder to be nicer, a little harder to appreciate the blessings we have.   We don’t always succeed, and we aren’t all on the same page, but I sincerely think that the world is an amazing and beautiful and blessed place.  On Christmas, I think we all feel that way.

It’s not about the shopping or the wrapping or the stress.  And for me, it’s not about celebrating the birth of the Messiah.  It’s about joy and peace – it’s closer to a celebration that we’re coming into the light.  It’s no accident that the Solstice is on the twenty-first – we are literally getting a little more light, just a bit, every day.  I think it’s also an important theme of Hanukkah, that each night, we light just one more candle.  I think that’s worth celebrating.  I think having a day to stop and just celebrate the magic, celebrate the beauty of family and friends, to eat candy canes and drink eggnog, to watch your kids open presents and be absolutely delighted is awesome.  Christmas isn’t perfect, and it’s nowhere near as simple and as easy as it used to be for me, but it’s still an integral part of my year.  And my life.  I don’t want to miss it.  Being Jewish has added so much to my life, so much meaning and resonance, it’s given my kids a framework to build a spiritual life upon.  It’s given me Shabbat dinner, and Passover Seders and a community that I love.  But I still love Christmas.

My Girls Are 100% Jewish

So I’m at Thanksgiving last night with my husband’s family and religion somehow came up (does it come up as much with families that are all one religion, or do I just notice it more being from an interfaith family?).  I was discussing how my daughters actually like going to temple (have no idea what I’m doing right there) and my husband’s uncle mentioned that they are half-Jewish.  That got the hairs on the back of my neck to rise like a disturbed cat.  I don’t know about you, but my kids aren’t “half” anything.  They have a Jewish mother and a Catholic father but they aren’t half Catholic; they are 100% Jewish.  I didn’t even know how to respond without offending him (and more importantly my mother-in-law) and to top it off my mother was sitting right there too but thankfully it either went over her head, she didn’t hear it, or the filter between her brain and mouth was working (it doesn’t always work) and she kept quiet.  If she did hear I can’t wait to see if she comments next time we are together without my husband around, that’ll be a hoot.

It bothers me that I didn’t know how to respond.  I am so grateful that my mother-in-law is cool (or at least an academy award winning actress) about my girls being brought up Jewish and no one else from my husband’s family has ever said anything negative about it, but the 50-50 comments bother me.  Is there a way to address it or do I just let it go, knowing that my girls view everything correctly and that it will all get sorted out as they get older?

A Christmas Tree is always a Christmas Tree, If You Want It To Be

So I just read the post from Benjamin Maron about “When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?” I can say that I totally relate to this. My daughters are being raised Jewish and their father/my husband, Alex, is Catholic and yes, we do have the Christmas tree and stockings and decorations. We don’t go to Christmas Mass though (or any mass really except if it’s for a family event on Alex’s side) and we don’t tell the Christmas story. We do have Christmas dinner with my husband’s family and there have been times my Jewish family has joined in as my daughter Kaitlyn’s birthday is Christmas Eve and my family rightfully wants to see her. We also do Chanukah, visit with my family, have latkes, play dreidel, watch the Maccabeats on You Tube (and we are seeing them in concert during Chanukah this year, how cool is that?) and listen to Adam Sandler’s Chanukah songs(although the first version is the best!).

My daughters identify as Jewish and respecting their dad’s and his family’s religion is not going to make them any less Jewish. My older daughter last December actually announced it in the middle of class. Her teacher had given out a work sheet to play a game to fill in the missing letters of Christmas carols and my daughter got up and said “Mr. Galvin, I don’t know this because I am JEWISH.” She then had me come in to her class that spring and do a lesson on Passover so her friends would understand her holidays. Celebrating another religion’s holiday doesn’t make you less; it makes you bigger than the sum of your parts. I am so proud of my girls and how they understand that what they are is not necessarily the same as everyone else and that that’s ok.

Do your children understand the differences and how do you explain it to them? I am still working on my five year old Megan understanding that men and women can be Jewish since she thinks that because her dad is Catholic all men must be Catholic and since mom is Jewish that all women must be Jewish.

Here we go again

It is that time of year again.  The leaves haven’t fallen off the trees.   Halloween pumpkins are still un-carved.  Thanksgiving seems like a million years away.  But the conversation about Christmas has already started.  Like the ornaments and holiday music in the stores, it seems that I start the conversation about December, earlier and earlier with my kid’s public school teachers.

In October, our temple does a program for teachers about religious sensitivity.  They talk about how Christmas-themed everything is sort of insensitive to kids that aren’t Christian.  That kids that aren’t Christian have to suck it up every year because it is being done in a fun festive spirit.   I send the letter out to the kids’ teachers and say, hey, if you want to go to this you not only get continuing education credits, but I will pay for it.  (It is only $10 so it isn’t like I am breaking the bank, but I want to leave no stone unturned.)

Usually, I get no response.  This year, my letter seemed to trigger something in one of my son’s teachers.  She emailed me and told me about a project that they do every year.  The parents send in $5 and the kids make Christmas trees out of foam and fabric.  I remember this from when my older son was in 4th grade.  What they end up with is cute, BUT, you cannot imagine how irritating it is to have my money go towards something that is religiously insensitive.

I understand the Supreme Court ruling that states that Christmas Trees are secular.  I understand that technically what they are doing isn’t illegal.  But, logically it is nonsensical to make a Jewish kid give his parents a Christmas Tree for Hanukah.  What about the Muslim kids?  Yes, my kids have an out, they can always give it to Grandma.  But somewhere, deep in my heart, it bothers me.  Why do we have to do this?  I can think of about eleventy billion other projects that the kids could do that are cute, easy and NOT a Christmas Tree.  Heck, I just saw a very cute snowman doorstop made out of a key shaped paver.

So, I haven’t even bought Halloween candy yet, and already I am having the conversation about Christmas with my kid’s teachers.  I used to get fired up about it.  Stand solidly on my soap box and denounce all the religion in the schools.  But, I have gotten exactly nowhere with that.  I guess I am tired of trying.  Or maybe this year I am taking the chicken exit, but we are just not going to go to school for a week and I have asked all the teachers to hold off on the Christmas stuff till we skedaddle out of town.

There are many reasons why we are leaving town when we are leaving town, and the stuff at school isn’t the driving force, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am relieved to not have to worry about it this year.  (Something in my head says that those are famous last words and that Christmas is still going to rear its ugly head, but hopefully I will be on the beach by the time it happens.)

Thinking of Passover

With Purim now done, we look forward to pushing the clocks an hour ahead, spring and Passover (cleaning). 

What do you do for Passover to prepare?  Is there a massive clean up?  Do you plan a special menu or stick with tradition? 

I enjoy our Seders, which has been just my husband and myself.  We always have additional readings and talk about various themes of Passover (like freedom).  When we are elsewhere, people always want to zip through the Haggadah and get it all over with.  I guess since I’ve only been doing this with my husband for the last 3 years, it is still so novel and fun to me, and with all the preparation, I want to enjoy the Seder

I am looking forward to hearing my son ask the four questions, and adding games and activities that will whet his appetite for Seders. 

Merging the Jewish with the Non

I was discussing my son’s Brit Milah (Bris, circumcusion) with my spiritual advisor/mentor.  I was recalling my best friend asking about whether my in-laws, my son’s non-Jewish grandfather, aunts and uncles, would be coming to the ceremony.  She asked whether they understood the importance of the ceremony.  The answers to both questions were “no.” 

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure if I wanted them to come.  I didn’t think they would understand.  I wondered if they considered it mutilation.  I wondered if it would start an argument. 

My husband was changing our son’s diaper one morning when my father-in-law came to visit.  It was probably the first time my father in-law saw a circumcised boy.  He asked in his Italian accent, “Are you sure they didn’t take off too much?” 

The question seems funny enough, but already it seems obvious: my son doesn’t look normal in his eyes. 

My husband, who isn’t circumcised, defended our son valiantly.  “No Dad, he’s perfect and the circumcision was done properly.”