What (I Hope) My Interfaith Marriage Taught My Parents

  

diversity

I’ve been married for 14 years and with my husband who is not Jewish for 16. I’ve always wanted to believe that in that time my mom and stepfather have grown in their willingness to learn about, and be accepting of all kinds of differences introduced into our family through marriages, children and my siblings’ and my friendships. But repeatedly, I’ve realized that their tolerance doesn’t extend much beyond my husband and sister-in-law who is not Jewish.

My parents seem to inhabit this not-really-open space on the openness spectrum–they think that every race, creed, sexual and gender identity should have equal rights, equal opportunity and the full protection of the law. They just don’t want anyone who is not white, Jewish and straight in their circle of family and friends, or too close to their children and grandchildren. They’ve had to accommodate some Christians because of intermarriage in our immediate and extended family, but that seemed like as much as they were willing to tolerate.

I remember when my mother figured out that my friend Andy who is married to Greg was a man. Andy and Greg were very dear friends of my husband and mine. Our son adored them; they were like uncles to him. “Oh,” my mother said during a phone call. “Andy isn’t a woman?” A long pause followed, and I knew she was concerned that our son spent time with them and loved them so much. Even though intellectually she understood that being gay wasn’t a choice or a communicable disease, she worried that Andy and Greg’s sexual identity might somehow influence our son’s sexuality.

So, it wasn’t surprising that from the time my stepsister’s twin boys were born that they were worried about one of the children. One of the boys was a fitful infant and grew into an angry toddler who clung to his mother. From a very early age, he loved everything traditionally associated with girls: girls’ dress-up clothing, princesses, Barbie, sewing, makeup and more. His friends were all girls. He liked pink. He invited only girls to his birthday parties. He was very athletic but had no interest in sports. He made my parents, who were the paragons of heteronormativity, nervous.

Having worked with transgender individuals through my job at my synagogue, I thought that my nephew might be transgender. I knew it was one possibility my stepsister was exploring with the therapist he saw for various behavioral issues. Then my mother confirmed what I already knew when I was on the phone with her and asked how was a recent visit with the boys.

“E is happier than I’ve ever seen him. They have let him grow his hair long. He wears bright pink hi-tops and a pink hat with his name embroidered in purple, and he answered the door the other day in a dress and full makeup” she said. “Claire told him that when kids change schools that sometimes they adopt different identities. He will go to a new school for third grade in the fall, and he is excited about the move.”

I said I was so glad to hear this news and it was great that he was being allowed and encouraged to embrace his true self. I was also interested to hear how my parents were dealing with the situation.

When I was seriously dating, engaged and even throughout my marriage to my husband, my parents didn’t do anything that might help them navigate intermarriage in their family. They didn’t take a class, didn’t speak with clergy, didn’t read any books and they didn’t join a support group. They pretty much did everything that professionals who work with interfaith couples and their families tell parents whose children are in an interfaith relationship not to do. I hoped that my mother and stepfather learned from the experience of my intermarriage. I hoped they handled this situation differently for my stepsister’s (she needed all of our support) and for my nephew’s (he needed love and acceptance) sake.

*Note: My 8-year-old nephew has not yet adopted the “she” pronoun or changed names. My family is supporting this transition and is taking cues from my stepsister and her child. Currently, the child’s pronoun is “he” and he is using his given name.

I asked my mother how she and my stepfather were dealing with the situation during a phone call. “It’s hard, but we are trying to be as supportive as possible. We’re reading a lot of books and articles. Jack (my stepfather) has spoken to his therapist. We’re trying to learn as much as we can. We love this child. We want him to be happy.”

I hung up the phone. Maybe my parents did learn from the negative approach they took when I introduced someone different into the family through marriage. Or maybe it’s harder to react negatively with a young grandchild than it is with an adult child. Whatever the case, there was growth.

I sent my mom a text, “I’m proud of how you’re handling this.” Maybe this new attitude of acceptance will even extend beyond our family. Maybe this time, my parents are learning the importance of #ChoosingLove. That is my hope.

Using My Words

  

I type this while holding a squirmy, feverish 3-month-old in my lap. Shh, shh, shh, I tell him. It’s OK, just relax and rest bubbeleh. I rub his back and pull him closer, patting his head, whispering, “Just lay your keppe down on mommy’s shoulder.”

He has no idea what I’m really saying, but the words must be soothing because slowly he’s settling down and snuggling in as I type with one hand. I can feel his stuffy nose breathing against my neck and my arm is falling asleep but I hesitate to lay him down, knowing he doesn’t feel good. I’m talking to him quietly, telling him maybe we will FaceTime with Bubbie and Gramps later after he rests. Go schluffy, I say. It will make you feel better. Let’s move this wet schmatte off your face (as he lays his head on a particularly drool-covered burp cloth) and you’ll feel better in a little while.

3 month old Finnian sleeping on Mommy

Three-month-old Finnian sleeping on Mommy

Suddenly I’m channeling all of my great-grandparents. Did I always throw this many Yiddish words into the middle of everyday conversations? Last time I checked, I’m a 40-year-old from New Jersey, living in Maine and I can’t speak conversational Hebrew, let alone Yiddish. In the last ten minutes, I used five Yiddish words and didn’t think twice about it. And apparently my older children, ages 7 and 9, have either never noticed, don’t care or they are just so used to hearing random Yiddish words they don’t know any different. My boyfriend who is not Jewish (and father of said 3-month-old), has never once questioned me as to what I’m talking about, and until recently, I never considered how weird some of the things I say must sound.

A Lutheran friend of mine (who recently revealed to me that she’s learned of some Jewish roots in her family and is doing research to learn more, and asks me questions as her resident Jewish friend), went in on a group gift for the baby. They had a custom onesie made for him with the word “tuchas” (which means butt) and an arrow on the behind, because she knew I’d find it funny. Of course I did chuckle, and a few weeks ago while sitting in the waiting room during my daughter’s cheer practice, it led to a whole conversation about Yiddish words. The “cheer moms” started quizzing me, looking up Yiddish on Google to see a. how much I really knew and b. how many words I actually use in conversation. In a room full of mostly straight-outta-Mainers, we all had a good laugh at the strangeness of it all, and the realization of how much Yiddish I use truly emerged.

Yet the strangeness has sat with me, making me feel even more different living in a place not known for diversity. I’ve caught myself changing my language to fit social situations, almost unconsciously. I’ve never been one to worry about “fitting in” as I’d rather just be me, but I’m coming to the realization that my version of being me incorporates my Jewishness as a given. So when I throw Yiddish into a conversation, I have this unrealistic expectation that the people I spend time with just get it. My reality doesn’t exactly match up in a world where the dying language of my ancestors has either become standard dialogue for the rest of the population (helllloooo Cawfee Tawk!), or a symbol of what connects me–and my children–to the past.

The baby is stirring, as he burps and spits up on my shoulder. Time to go clean up the schmutz, as I take solace in the words and pass on yet another tradition in my blended Jewish family.

The Twelve Days of Interfaith Holidays

  

With not quite 12 days between Hanukkah and Christmas this year (depending on just how you count), I thought I would dedicate this post to that persistently ambitious Christmas carol (which also has more than one Hanukkah-themed version). In no particular order, here are some memorable moments from this December’s interfaith holiday season:

1.  Learning and sharing holiday baking traditions always crowns my list, from my spouse’s excellent latkes to Christmas cookies to the gingerbread people my spouse’s family favored at this time of year, and chuckling at his always-remarkable excitement over indulging in my family’s Christmas morning tradition of having pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.

2.  Learning and re-learning with my children the story of Hanukkah, from the Maccabees to the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), from dreidel to gelt, and learning and re-learning, how to share the stories of Christmas with them as well.

3.  Making a list, or two or three, and checking them at least twice, to make sure we have a good balance of gifts to spread across eight nights and one festive morning.

4.  Making sure that list of gifts includes opportunities to remind our children that the holiday season is as much about giving as getting (and this year, giving each daughter a tzedakah box as an opportunity to think about giving).

baking cookies5.  Baking “just one more batch” of cookies after we’ve already made four, this time chocolate peppermint buttons, because I am a compulsive holiday baker who likes nothing more than giving away platefuls of cookies.

6.  Answering the persistent queries from my children’s great-grandparents about what to send their great-grandchildren, and do they have to send gifts for Hanukkah, or is it all right to give them a Christmas gift, too, since they know we’re raising our kids Jewish? (Answer: gifts are always welcome, and we love you no matter how you figure this one out).

7.  Soothing my 6-year-old daughter’s tears as she mourns the eighth-night end of Hanukkah, by reminding her of all of the many holidays and festive days that we’ll enjoy between now and next December.

 

Holiday dishes8.  Worrying that hegemonic Christmas is overtaking Hanukkah in our home’s holiday decorations, as this year we brought Christmas-themed dishes onto our holiday table, and asking my Jewish spouse for what feels like the 50th time if he is sure he is OK with the Christmas-themed dinnerware, and all of the other Christmas-y things that have festooned our house, like the bough of pretend holly which now winds up our staircase, and gives great joy to our daughter who shares the plant’s name?

9.  Smiling as he reassures me that he really likes the new dishes, because the bowls have holly on them and the plates have a cute little village that reminds us of a favorite place where we once lived.

10.  Laughing with my spouse as I tell him that I think it would be fun to have special Passover plates too, not because I want us to be particularly frum, but because I enjoy holiday dishes, and wouldn’t it be fun to mark Passover with special dishes too (and throw a bit of kashrut into the mix without even meaning to)?

11. Continuing to read Hanukkah books to my daughters many nights after all nine candles have long since burned down to their holders, and smiling at my spouse over our elder daughter’s head as she insists on singing the song “Hanukkah O Hanukkah” all by herself.

12. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as Christmas Eve approaches, and realizing that somehow, again, I’ll have made it through another festive and yet frenetic holiday season.

Wishing all of you a happy, festive and joyful holiday season!

Parents: Your Actions Are Disingenuous

  

servicesIn this space, we typically address parents who are part of an interfaith couple creating a Jewish home. But this month, I want to address the parents of children who are intermarried or in interfaith relationships. Their actions and behaviors often affect the choices that couples navigating intermarriage make.

As an engagement professional at my synagogue in Dallas, I’m charged with helping to connect interfaith couples and families, and 20s and 30s to Jewish life. One of the things I frequently hear from young married and engaged couples is how uber Jewish the Jewish partners’ family has become. Suddenly, the frequency of attendance at Friday evening services has jumped and there is an intense focus on all things Jewish. Holidays that were once fairly laid back gatherings are now more significant affairs.

This story of parents acting more Jewish and dragging intermarrieds to more Jewish services and events is usually followed by the comment, “My family has never been this involved in Jewish life. They’ve suddenly become Super Jews because I married someone who isn’t Jewish.” Sometimes, it’s the partner from another background who says; “My husband/wife says that his/her parents rarely went to services before we got engaged. Now, anything related to Judaism is important.”

My reaction to these stories is always the same. I smile and nod. I tell the couple that their parents or in-laws behavior is common. Many Jewish parents, in response to a child intermarrying or interdating, think that if they up their level of Jewish engagement, that they can influence the decisions of interfaith couples. They believe their newfound connection to Jewish life will communicate how important Judaism and its continuation is to them.

I explain to the couples that their parents or in-laws behavior is a result of various emotions–nervousness, uncertainty, fear, and guilt to name a few. Parents worry that the intermarrieds won’t make Jewish choices or honor their commitment to have a Jewish home. They fear their grandchildren won’t identify as Jews, that Christmas will overshadow Jewish rituals and traditions. They feel guilty for not having been more engaged in Judaism when their son or daughter was growing up and wonder if they had done more would their child have chosen a Jewish partner.

Parents use intensified engagement as a surrogate for talking with their child and his or her partner about their feelings and why Judaism and Jewish peoplehood is important to them. The problem with this approach is that intermarrieds see through it. They know their parents’ or in-laws’ actions are disingenuous.

So how can parents influence the religious choices of intermarrieds in a way that is genuine?

  1. Be honest, be true to yourself. Practice Judaism in the same way that you’ve always practiced. Rather than “pump up the volume” to connote importance, explain to your child and his or her spouse, why Judaism and it’s continuation is important to you. Share why certain rituals are meaningful and why other traditions are not. Communicate your hopes that the couple will engage, in some way, in Jewish life.
  2. Be welcoming and appreciative. Warmly welcome your not Jewish daughter- or son-in-law. Tell them that you appreciate him or her being part of your family. Include them as much as possible in the preparations and celebration of holidays. Ask them to help in the kitchen or to read a blessing in English. Explain holiday rituals, symbols, and foods. Tell them why certain traditions are important to you and how you find meaning in their observance. Share family stories and memories. Ask him or her about his or her family celebrations, religious and secular.
  3. Be positive. Work to make Jewish experiences positive ones for the intermarried couple. That may mean setting boundaries with family and friends. Educate the not Jewish partner about Jewish life. Show the couple an inclusive religious community. Demonstrate that your daughter- or son-in-law from another background is an important part of your Jewish family.
  4. Be open to new experiences and traditions. Incorporate dishes or rituals from the not Jewish partner in your family celebrations. Understand that your child and his or her partner will create their own traditions as they build their home. Participate, be respectful, don’t judge, be supportive. Remember, you did things differently from your parents and in-laws too!

Disingenuous hyper involvement in Jewish life won’t guarantee that intemarrieds will create Jewish homes or raise Jewish children. But it will turn them off or push them away. Instead, remember that your family’s Jewish journey is still unfolding. A strong embrace of Judaism by the interfaith couple may not happen quickly. But by being honest and welcoming, and supporting the choices the couple makes, you can have a positive influence on the future.

Honoring my Promise to my Grandfather

  

Sammy and I with my 96-year-old grandfather in October. We had a special visit.

About a month ago, I visited my 96-year-old grandfather at his skilled nursing facility in New Jersey while in the area for a family event. It was Shabbat morning, my favorite time to go see him.

My grandfather and I have always been very close. As the oldest grandchild and the only girl, we share a special bond that is different from the one he has with my brother and male cousins. I make it a point to spend time with him whenever I go east to see my family, and I always bring Sammy.

It is important to me to visit with him, even though I am not certain that he knows me or that Sammy is his great-grandson. My grandfather has dementia. On some visits, he does not seem to connect our smiling faces to any name or person that he can recall, but is just happy to have some visitors. On others, I can see that he recognizes me when I walk over.

But even with the uncertainty of his response, I still go and I still bring Sammy. I do not do this out of obligation, or because Jews are commanded to visit the sick. The mitzvah Bikur Cholim, a concept I learned from my grandfather when I was a young child, and he took me to visit his infirmed and elderly parents, tells us to be with someone who is ill because the presence of a loving and kind person is a gift that can lighten the burden of illness.

No, I do not perform this mitzvah because I am told to. I go to visit him because I love him, and I have a deep desire for him to know Sammy as best he can and for Sammy to know him, even though the man he will know is not the vibrant grandparent I remember. But I want Sammy to have some connection to the person he hears about in stories and sees in pictures.

I also go with Sammy because I want my grandfather to hear about my son’s life and our home, our Jewish home. See, I made a promise to my grandfather 12 years ago when Cameron and I became engaged that my children would be raised as Jews, even though Cameron was not one. I remember the conversation.

“Janey, will your children be raised Jewish?” my grandfather asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Cameron and I have agreed to have a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews.”

“Oh, okay. Is he going to convert?”

“No, I didn’t ask him to.”

“Okay. Well maybe one day he’ll decide to,” my grandfather said.

“Maybe.”

I understood my grandfather’s questions and his hopes. He was the oldest son of observant Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father was a chazzan, a cantor, who grew-up at the Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohany Street Synagogue, in Budapest on the Pest side of the Danube. Judaism was a central part of his upbringing and identity, and Jewish continuity was important to him, especially given that intermarriage was widespread in my family.

He watched his son, my uncle; marry a woman who was not Jewish; as well as several of his brothers’ children. With my engagement, another generation was continuing the pattern. While some of my intermarried relatives raised children within Judaism, others had no connection to Jewish practice or community, or any other religion either.

As someone who was a young adult during World War II and the Holocaust, my grandfather understood that every Jewish child was precious to the community, and he did not want our family’s connection to the faith to disappear. He wanted some assurance that someone would pass on our tradition.

I know that he was glad to hear that Cameron and I would have a Jewish home, but I think that while he hoped for the best, he believed, like others in my family that our promise was empty and that little action would be taken to fulfill our commitment. Unfortunately, shortly after Cameron and I were married, my grandfather’s mental health began to decline. By the time Sammy was born, he had been moved from assisted living to the nursing facility’s memory unit.

He has never been able to experience or appreciate the central role Judaism has in our home. Yet, regardless of my grandfather’s mental state, I still want him to know that Cameron and I have kept our promise.

When we visit with him, I talk about the many things he and I have done together, and about my synagogue involvement and holiday rituals. I share with him Cameron’s commitment to and engagement in our Jewish home.

Sammy sings him Jewish holiday songs in Hebrew and tells him about his Jewish day school. He talks to him about his Jewish summer camp and his kippah collection that his not Jewish grandmother has crocheted for him. And because Sammy loves sports as much as my grandfather once did, especially tennis, he talks sports too.

I do not know if any of this means anything to my grandfather, but it is important to me that I demonstrate that I have honored the commitment I made to him, and show him, in whatever way possible, that his hope for a Jewish future is being realized through Sammy. So we will keep visiting, I will keep talking, and Sammy will keep singing Jewish songs.

My grandfather and me at my second birthday.

Remembering Mom (and Grandma) on her Birthday

  

This week we marked my mom’s birthday.  She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration.  Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.

Family photo

Grandpa, my girls and me at Halibut Point, one of mom's favorite places

One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning.  The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times.  When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless.  When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.

I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday.  The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself.  It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.

Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax.  As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday.  But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything.  Birthdays are very special in our family because of her.  Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me.  I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get.  And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.

I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller.  It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself.  It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma.  I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me.  And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:

I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma.  In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life.  Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real.  She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan.  The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.

But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me.  Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me.  She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring.  She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make).  She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow.  She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity.  I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.

Photo of my grandmother

One of many beautiful pictures of my mom

While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind.  So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.