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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.
In my previous blog post, I wrote about why choosing love did not mean choosing conversion for me; but for us, choosing love also meant choosing to raise our children Jewish. We didn’t know, initially, what that would look like, especially since we knew (well, I knew) that I wanted to keep celebrating Christmas. (According to my spouse, this makes my children interfaith by default, even if we tell them that they are Jewish.)
Right around the time when bomb threats to JCCs started becoming more frequent, we enrolled our 3-year-old and 7-year-old in Jewish religious school. We chose a wonderful synagogue whose children’s programs we already enjoy, and whose building doubles as my youngest’s non-religious preschool during the week. The thought that she could be evacuated for a bomb or some other emergency is on my mind every time I read of yet another wave of threats.
Our timing for enrolling them has everything to do with identity and with the current political climate of communities under threat. In order to know where you’re going—what choices you’ll make, what values will ground your actions, the ways you will choose to fight for those values in the world we live in—you need to know who you are. This is true for both adults and children, albeit in different ways. For myself, my desire to stand against religious bigotry means emphasizing the voices of light and love closer to the tradition which raised me. For my children, and for my husband and I on their behalf, that means finally making good on the promises my spouse and I made to each other: to raise them Jewish.
We’ve dabbled in and out of what that means, but with the kids asking to come to church with me, Jewish cemeteries being desecrated and JCCs receiving repeated bomb threats, I finally told my husband that the time had come to stop beating around the bush and enroll them in Jewish religious education. (He might remember the exact order of events differently, and that’s OK.)
We had resisted putting our kids into Jewish religious education. It costs money, which is admittedly no small stumbling block. It’s tough to add one more commitment to a weekend already studded with lessons, activities and play dates.
Our daughters have been attending for about a month, and so far, they love it. It’s amazing what starts to happen when you combine eager, interested children with access to friendly, open education that touches their minds and their spirits.
The school meets on Sunday mornings for two hours and what my kids learn there pepper their play and their song outside of the synagogue. My eldest, 7, has the tune of “Ma Tovu” down pat, but chooses to sing it in the child-friendly rhyme the cantor created for the children’s service during the morning. The mnemonic seems to work, if one doesn’t mind one’s child singing (to the tune of “Rose, Rose, Will I ever see thee wed?”), “My toe’s blue / Dropped a hammer on my shoe” as a way of working toward “Ma Tovu.”
Every week approximately 50 children, ranging from preschoolers to teenagers, gather to sing, pray and learn. The morning begins with a service in the main sanctuary with kids sprawled throughout. Some parents drop their kids off and go run errands; a few sit with their children for the Sunday morning havdalah service that closes Shabbat (a few hours late, but no one is counting).
A young girl, maybe a young teenager, passes out spice jars full of sweet-smelling cinnamon sticks. A dad, whom my husband tells me is converting to Judaism and learning along with his children, carries the havdalah candle around the synagogue. His face is alight and alive with joy. I think back to my recent blog post and feel a pang of some complicated emotion I can’t quite name.
As the dad walks around the sanctuary, all the children stretch their fingers out to the candle as the light reflects off their fingernails. It’s clear that many of them have seen plenty of movies where powerful superheroes or evil emperors wiggle their fingers and power shoots out of their hands. Here it’s the opposite. We wiggle our fingers and bring the empowered peace of Shabbat back into ourselves to carry into the coming week.
After their morning lessons, the kids return to the sanctuary for abbreviated, child-friendly morning prayers. My husband and I peek in the doors. Our daughters are sharing a chair up front. The cantor asks the kids what they are thankful for. “Sisters!” calls out my older daughter; “Owls,” her sister says. No mater the complexities, I’m glad to be there, with my kids and my spouse, singing hymns and choosing love.
By Judy Mollen Walters
My 22-year-old daughter is seriously involved with a wonderful guy. He’s smart, funny, kind, and they just click. He lives in England, so they only get to visit every eight weeks or so, and have been flying back and forth to each other’s countries since they met while my daughter was on a semester abroad trip a couple of years ago. Video chats and texting and phone calls have been their lifelines. I’ve spent time with them together, observing them, and they are very much in love.
Last week, I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store. I hadn’t seen her in a year or so—her children and my younger daughter had been in the same high school class. We chit chatted a bit, catching up on how the kids were all doing, adjusting to their first year of college. Then she asked me about my older daughter. How was she doing, what was she up to? I told her about my daughter’s graduate school work and how hard it is but how she is excelling. Her next question was, “Is she seeing anyone special?”
“Yes,” I responded enthusiastically. I told her all about the lovely boyfriend with the charming British accent and the incredible commitment each of them have made to keeping their relationship alive. She leaned down then (I am short!) and whispered, “But is he Jewish?”
This was a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband who had raised three kids with both traditions—b’nai mitzvot for her children one year, communions the next. The question she asked was not made in light or silliness or fun. It was dead serious.
“No,” I said, feeling uncomfortable.
“That’s OK,” she said, “since he’s a great guy.”
I turned the conversation back to her children and her life and left the grocery store quite disillusioned. But not shocked. Or even surprised. Because the fact is, I’ve been getting this question from Jewish friends—even if they had married someone of another faith or don’t care about being Jewish personally—for the entire two-plus years my daughter and her boyfriend have been dating. It is often the first question out of their mouths—before “Do you like him?” or “What does he do for a living?” or even, “How do you feel about him living in England?”
Then there is the inevitable pitying look they give me—as though I somehow screwed up in raising my daughter. As though my life is going to be terrible if my daughter marries this man who may be her beshert. And that feeling hurts.
So I’ve asked myself the question a dozen times, maybe more—am I uncomfortable if my daughter marries someone who’s not Jewish? I’m strongly Reform Jewish. I love the holidays and look forward every year to making Passover for 16 people with all of the classic dishes and a simple, short Haggadah. I enjoy toasting the Jewish New Year and take the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur very seriously. I enjoy lighting the candles and making latkes at Hanukkah and giving the children in my life gifts. I feel very Jewish. I use Jewish values in my everyday life and let them guide me when I feel I need guidance. Those values inform how I treat others, how I think about the world, and how I choose my political affiliations.
My husband is Jewish. We raised our children in a very purposeful, Jewish way. They started Hebrew school at the age of 3 because we wanted them to learn that Hebrew school was part of everyday life. They attended a private Jewish preschool where holidays were celebrated. When they attended public school, I fought for the school to stop bringing Santa Claus into their winter holiday party—and won. They were bat mitzvahed and my older daughter chose to go to Hebrew high school at our synagogue until her high school graduation. She actively participated in the temple youth group and spent a semester in Israel her Junior year of high school.
So we did everything we could to instill a love of Judaism in our girls’ hearts. We think we were successful.
But were we? Because now my daughter is seriously involved with a man who is not Jewish.
And people are questioning her choice.
And they are making me uncomfortable.
And all they seem to care about is whether he is Jewish.
And that’s not all I care about, but I get it.
And I wish they would stop asking.
Because in the end, what I want for my daughter is a lifetime of happiness with whomever she marries, Jewish, Christian, Muslim…I want her to feel Jewish in her spirit and heart and know who she is and what she stands for. But I also want her to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and atone at Yom Kippur and get excited about the Passover seder she might make for her own family. I want her to think and act Jewishly. I want my grandchildren to embrace Judaism, in whatever form, just like she did.
Can she do that with a non-Jewish husband? I like to think so.
But when these people keep asking, first thing, “Is he Jewish?” I feel like I failed. Maybe I did. But, then again, maybe I didn’t.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of five novels, A MILLION ORDINARY DAYS (March, 2017), START AT THE BEGINNING (2016), THE PLACE TO SAY GOODBYE (2015), THE OPPOSITE OF NORMAL (2014), and CHILD OF MINE (2013). She is also an essayist whose articles ave been published on the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, and ScaryMommy. She can be reached via her web site at judymollenwalters.com.
By Lindsey Goldstein
The other day my daughter said to me, “Mommy, you’re not the most special person in this family.” It was a pointed remark, out of nowhere.
I raised an eyebrow and said, “Is that so? Then who is?” Of course, I already knew the answer.
“Well, I am. You see, none of the rest of you daven [pray].” Without even a hint of humor she continued, “None of you know Hashem the way I do. I daven every day.” I tried very hard not to laugh because I could see she was being very serious and knew my laughter might hurt her feelings.
I was raised in a Reform Jewish family, going to synagogue twice a year on the High Holidays. We observed Passover with a seder at home. Initially, we celebrated Hanukkah until one day, when I was about 5 or 6, my mom asked me if I would rather get eight gifts once a year or gifts all year-round. Since that was a no brainer, Hanukkah morphed into just lighting the candles to observe and maybe making latkes. As an adult, I didn’t do anything to celebrate the holiday. That is, until we started having children.
My husband was raised Catholic, and I mean very Catholic. Mass was mandatory seven days a week in his household. Nowadays he observes nothing. Catholicism overload soured him on it, and he hasn’t expressed much interest in religion of any other kind. When we decided to get married, we talked about how we would raise our kids. My husband seemed skittish about flat-out raising our kids as Jews, but he admitted that “since they come out of you, doesn’t that make them Jewish by default?” We agreed that that’s Jewish law, but I have felt as though “by default” is what we’ve deferred to.
That is, until we decided to send our daughter to a Jewish preschool and kindergarten. It’s Chabad-affiliated, so Judaic studies are part of their everyday teaching. Now that my daughter’s in kindergarten, they study the Torah for an hour a day. The result? She has become a bit of a super Jew.
I have gotten used to conversations such as the following:
My daughter: “Mommy, who’s Elvis Presley?”
Me: “Oh, just the King of Rock and Roll.”
My daughter (with an admonishing tone): “Mommy. There’s only one King: Hashem.”
Once in a while, my husband seems nervous that he’s the odd man out. But I assure him that a lot of the knowledge she possesses far surpasses mine as well. I consider her a refresher course for me since she comes home from school on a regular basis and lectures me about the meaning of Purim or the true reason we celebrate Hanukkah, things I’d long forgotten about.
Lately, she lives by some sort of code of ethics that she believes will ensure her a place “in the new world.” I find it a bit worrying that she gives death any thought, but she tells me that as long as Hashem is happy with her, she’ll be able to advance to the new world. What is this new world? No idea. I think she’s referring to when the Messiah comes and carts us all off to Eden or something like that. See? I’m not the one with the vast knowledge of Hashem’s wheeling and dealing. When my beloved dog passed away recently, my daughter patted me on the back and said, “I know you’re sad, Mommy. But don’t worry. I’m sure Hashem will bring Zooey to the new world. You’ll see her again.”
Admittedly, I’ve used my daughter’s relationship with Hashem to my advantage a time or two. If she misbehaves or whines, I have asked her if she thinks Hashem would approve of her behavior. Maybe not the best parenting tactic, but she will stop and think about it, so maybe not all bad?
The other day my husband asked me, “Do you think Lilah is taking this Hashem thing too far?” And the answer is that her devotion makes me proud. I like hearing her identify herself as a Jew. At the very least, she will have some sort of a foundation of Judaism going forward that I may not have been able to provide for her due to my lack of Jewish knowledge. And I also think she’s 5 and deeply impressionable. I related an anecdote to my husband to give him some context for her obsession with Hashem.
When I was slightly older than Lilah, I was obsessed with Adam Ant. He was my Hashem. I told everyone I’d marry him when I grew up. I listened to his music every day on cassette tapes, wore t-shirts with his image emblazoned across, and hung posters of him on my walls. My brother made me a 20- dollar bet that my feelings for Mr. Ant would change in time. By the following year the posters of Adam Ant were replaced with posters of Patrick Swayze. And I was 20 dollars poorer.
And though I love the fact that right now, my daughter is in love with her Jewishness, I don’t know what her future holds. For now, I am tickled by the fact that when she thought I wasn’t listening, she was consoling her sobbing 1-year-old brother with the following utterance: “You don’t have to cry. Don’t worry. You’re a Jew, too.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
The other day, Ruthie and I were talking about one of her favorite topics—her cousins. She ticked off each one’s name, and talked about something special about them, or what they did the last time they were together. Then she started talking about some friends who are like family—she often brings up this topic of what to call her friends who are like family but who aren’t blood relatives. In speaking about two sisters in particular from a family that we often celebrate Jewish holidays with, she changed the subject a little bit.
“So,” she asked me, “which one of their parents wasn’t Jewish when they met, the mom or the dad?”
“Actually,” I told her, “they both were Jewish when they met.”
“Oh,” she said, and kept talking.
This was not a monumental question to her, but it gave me pause. Neither good nor bad, but it gave me pause. To her, the question was completely logical. First of all, there was no judgment in it. It wasn’t good or bad if they were or weren’t Jewish, it was just a normal question to her about families.
In Ruthie’s Jewish family (my side), most of the pairings in my generation are interfaith. In fact, of my three siblings and six first cousins, only one person has married someone from a Jewish background. This does not stand in the way of our lighting Hanukkah candles together or sharing the Passover seder. What’s more, an openness to mixed faith couplings has brought seven fantastic people into our family, seven more adults who nurture and support our foursome.
Because of this, Ruthie really hasn’t been exposed to the idea that being Jewish necessitates having two Jewish parents. It is just not part of how she understands her identity. While I spend time every month blogging about navigating a somewhat new path in embracing multiple forms of Jewish identity, Ruthie thinks our family is completely ordinary within our religious community.
When she asked the question, my mind started embracing the 21st century outlook for interfaith families. I went to an exciting place: That maybe because of the work of community leaders, generous rabbis, individual families who choose love and acceptance and, of course, InterfaithFamily, our girls won’t ever know to feel different. They will know that we are Jewish through our actions. As they grow up they will understand that they have a choice about spirituality and connection to a religious community. If we are successful, the girls will understand that our goal as parents was to show them our choice, in the hopes that they’ll love it, but also in the hopes that they understand the benefits of choosing to make space for these connections in their adult lives.
Another interpretation might be that Ruthie is 6. I wasn’t raised in an interfaith family myself, so for all I know every 6-year-old thinks that all families must be like their own, religiously or otherwise. Perhaps 6-year-olds with interfaith parents have been asking this question for generations; I have just never encountered their stories.
So, earth shattering or not, I have a new inspiration. To hold onto the kernel of celebration that I felt in that moment. To hold onto the idea that I can raise my girls in an environment where their Jewish identity is about our actions, and not about a rule that would prohibit the loving home Eric and I have created as a couple. To create a place where they can relish the heritage they carry on through the multiple traditions from both sides of their families, but also firmly choose a path of spirituality and connection that is personally fulfilling to them. And, ideally, to imagine a time that feels not that far off when being interfaith will be an important part of how we understand, respect and love our extended family, but won’t be a significant facet of our Jewishness.
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?