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By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff
Q:Â Recently, our twenty year old daughter called from college to announce that she is bringing home her first serious boyfriend for Rosh Hashanah. He is an A student, the leader of his a cappella group and involved in community service. Before she introduced him to us, she warned us that although he is a great person, he is not Jewish. We had always expected and hoped that she would date only Jewish guys, and we had talked about this ad nauseam before she left for college. The truth is, we were a little hurt that she rebelled against us. She had a strong Jewish education and continued Hebrew lessons throughout high school. We observe Shabbat weekly and celebrate all of the holidays. My daughter has been to Israel and remains an active member of Hillel on her campus.
From my daughterâs perspective, we did not react well. We lectured her on the importance of marrying someone Jewish and of raising Jewish children. She ended up in tears.
What should we do from here?
A:Â First, your daughter was probably not thinking about rebelling against you when she decided to date this young man. Just like we did not follow all of our parents expectations, we canât expect that our children will always obey our dictates. In our pluralistic society, it is unrealistic to expect our children to date only within the Jewish religionâunless, of course, we keep them in a totally Jewish world. The reality is that most Jewish Americans, other than the most Orthodox, send their children to secular colleges where they will meet people of other backgrounds.
Many Jewish parents feel that their commitment and effort in providing a Jewish education has been wasted, if their children choose to date outside the faith. I can assure you, the education is not wasted. Your daughter, no matter who she marries, has the knowledge to create a Jewish home.
Again, in America it is not unusual for young people to use their twenties to focus on their career. For many recent college grads, marriage is a distant plan. Too often, parents leap to the conclusion that the first serious boyfriend is the final âone.â He might be, but unless your daughter is bringing home an engagement ring, it is unlikely. However, because there is the possibility of marriage or a long term relationship, you want to have a good relationship with this young man.
Since she is bringing him home, be welcoming. Try to appreciate the fine person he is, while showing him the best of our culture. If he is here for Shabbat, offer him a yarmulke and explain that the yarmulke is a sign of respect rather than a religious declaration. Explain why we light the candles and why we bless the wine. Whatever customs your family practices, ask him if he would like to join, but donât force him. For example, the children might put their hands on the challah and recite the blessing. He could be included. If you bless the children, bless him too, with his permission.
As for Rosh Hashanah, again explain the customs and the history. It is helpful if you can provide him with reading materials about the holiday, as the service can be long and tedious to those who have no idea whatâs happening. You might also give him permission to walk in and out of the service. Whether you like it or not, many of our synagogues are crowded with young people socializing just outside the sanctuary.
If he is from a family that doesnât practice any religion, he may be receptive and curious about what religion adds to the family. Praise him for any interest or efforts he makes, however clumsily, to participate. Who knows, he might be looking for the community and acceptance that Judaism offers many.
If, however, he is a believer in another religion, you might show some curiosity by asking about his traditions and if he sees any similarities or any differences with Judaism. You are modeling the kind of interest you hope he will reciprocate. Be welcoming but not insisting that he participateâyou are not asking him to convert. After all, itâs a new relationship, and marriage is probably not on their minds right now.
On the other hand, it is possible that he is not open to learning or participating in your familyâs traditions because he is vehemently opposed to religion. You should celebrate as you always do. After all, it is your home. Once the kids have gone back to school, you might tell your daughter how much you enjoyed the young man but wonder how she would feel in the long term being with someone who is not supportive of something that is important to her.
No matter what happens between your daughter and this young man in the future, remember, that your behavior has the potential to make friends or enemies for the Jewish people. And goodness knows we need all the friends we can get.
The latest Jewish Population Survey shows that over 50% of our children are marrying people from other faith backgrounds. Our admonitions against marrying people from other faith backgroundsÂ are not working. However, interfaith marriageÂ does not necessarily mean the end of our people. Interfaith marriageÂ has been around and has been a part of our history from our beginningsâand we are still here. Moreover, most American Jews gave up celebrating Shabbat and keeping Kosher well before the interfaith marriageÂ rate climbed. You might better use your energy to continue to show your children the beauty and value of our traditions than continue your rants against interfaith marriage.
One of the strengths of Judaism has been its ability to adapt over the years. We moved from a sacrificial religion to a non-sacrificial one; from one centered on the temple to thriving in the diaspora. Â Perhaps we need to now focus on how to deal with multiple religions in our extended families. If we can figure out how to live together as families, we can truly be a model of co-existence. Besides, interfaith marriage brings new genes into our pool, which can have some health benefits.
I want to be clear here. I am not necessarily promoting interfaith marriage, but I am saying there can be an âup sideâ to it. It is up to us all to make sure that we increase our numbers by welcoming others, rather than decrease them by pushing our children away. The demographics are clear. Interfaith marriage is on the rise. We need to embrace it. Otherwise, we might be destroyed by it.
This post originally appeared onÂ The American IsraeliteÂ and is reprinted with permission.
By Judy Mollen Walters
My 22-year-old daughter is seriously involved with a wonderful guy. Heâs 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 otherâs 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. Iâve 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 hadnât seen her in a year or soâher 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 daughterâs graduate school work and how hard it is but how she is excelling. Her next question was, âIs she seeing anyone special?â
âYes,â 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, âBut is he Jewish?â
This was a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband who had raised three kids with both traditionsâbânai 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.
âNo,â I said, feeling uncomfortable.
âThatâs OK,â she said, âsince heâs a great guy.â
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, Iâve been getting this question from Jewish friendsâeven if they had married someone of another faith or donât care about being Jewish personallyâfor the entire two-plus years my daughter and her boyfriend have been dating. It is often the first question out of their mouthsâbefore âDo you like him?â or âWhat does he do for a living?â or even, âHow do you feel about him living in England?â
Then there is the inevitable pitying look they give meâas 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 Iâve asked myself the question a dozen times, maybe moreâam I uncomfortable if my daughter marries someone who’s not Jewish? Iâm 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 partyâand 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 girlsâ 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 thatâs 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, MuslimâŚI 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, âIs he Jewish?â I feel like I failed. Maybe I did. But, then again, maybe I didnât.
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.
Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather â after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxyâs birthday and my birthday. This year sheâs hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as itâs the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.
I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. Iâm in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, itâs more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9. Â I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebratingÂ four decades.
I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesnât feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and sheâs already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday â and oh yeah, Mommy â you have to come, too.
The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course â the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing âHappy Birthdayâ in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til itâs her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.
I guess it shouldnât surprise me that sheâs so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that sheâs so in tune with her Jewish identity that itâs a given to her that of course weâre going to get birthday blessings. But thereâs a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasnât so important to Roxy? Iâm not convinced I even would have thought of it.
The kids split their time between my house and their dadâs house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend â and next weekend â the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldnât dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).
I will meet them there, because if I donât show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, sheâd be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because itâs so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants âKeyn yâhe ratzonâ (be this Godâs will) in response to the rabbiâs recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with Godâs protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.
At the end of the service, weâll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings arenât a given, and we donât always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and Iâm grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.
If youâre a parent, thereâs always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like âwhere do babies come from?â âWhatâs sex?â and âHave you ever tried drugs?â I think over the years Iâve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly donât know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: âHey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?â
Me: âUm, no, not really.â
Kids: âBut isnât he supposed to go to church? Isnât that like the opposite of temple? Like people who arenât Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?â (Yeah, my kids still donât get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they havenât paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Letâs be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: âWell yeah. I guess heâs *supposed* to go to church. If youâre part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesnât belong to a church and he doesnât go. We donât go to Shabbat services every week either, so thatâs OK, right?â
Kids: âYeah itâs OK, but did he EVER go to church?â
Clearly they werenât letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Mattâs connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: âDoes Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?â
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? Itâs a subject that Iâm not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: âUhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. Itâs really hard to explain guys.â
Kids: âWell remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?â
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me heâs converting, but the longer weâre together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections â yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with lifeâs experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and Iâm proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Mattâs family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.
Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in North Jersey in the â80s, and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. Even though I was the âtokenâ Jewish kid in the neighborhood, I never struggled with my identity, in part to my parentsâ credit for creating a strong Jewish home life, and in part because of my close connection to the Reform synagogue at which I spent countless hours. Whether I was celebrating a Jewish holiday, marching in an Israel celebration parade or singing with the junior choir at Shabbat services, it was clear to everyone around me that this kid was on a path, and that my Jewishness was a huge part of who I was and who I was going to grow up to be.
The story could just end there, with the assumption that I stayed that kid and that I followed that path âŚ and the story wouldnât be totally wrong.
But itâs also incomplete, and sometimes even I find myself looking over my history and wonder if Iâm reading the story of me, or someone else. Iâm no longer that â80s kid who was so self-assured, and my connection to Jewish life doesnât always resemble the picture I imagined in my head. And Iâm sure by now youâre wondering why.
My name is Amy, Iâm a divorced mom of two (mostly) hilarious kids (ages 6 & 8 Â˝) and well, now I live in Maine. Wait, let me say that again. Iâm a divorced mom of two and I live in MAINE.
This place isnât exactly known as the center of Jewish life in these great United States. And while Iâm at it, I should also mention my Irish Catholic boyfriend. So begins my interfaith journey, one that I hope youâll join me on. I promise to fill in some of the blanks (like, are the kids Jewish? Is their dad Jewish? Yes and yes) on this blog, and to be real with all of you. Because for the first time in my life, identity and belonging isnât so simple for meâand if itâs not simple for ME, the complexities of raising Jewish kids while trying to navigate this newness? My brain hurts just thinking about it.
So as an introduction, Iâll leave you with this story, because I think it will start developing the Polaroids for you to get the picture. As I type this, Iâm looking at my Christmas tree. Yes, MY Christmas tree. Iâve never had a Christmas tree until this very tree that Iâm staring at. The idea was absurd as I donât celebrate Christmas. Iâve never had tree envy: even when my friends would invite me over to decorate theirs. It wasnât part of who I was and there was no question that I would never, EVER have a tree.
Remember the whole Jewish girl from Jersey thing? Yet for the first time in 39 years, Iâve got a real live one, and Iâm totally and completely enthralled with it. I could say it was the boyfriendâs tree since we were putting it in HIS apartment, but I went with him to pick out the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of MY car and I went to the store with him to pick out ornaments. I carefully decorated it, twice (because apparently trees have been known to fall over; I clearly have so much to learn), and added my own special touch: a blinged out Chinese takeout container, because up to this point thatâs what Christmas meant to me. After a third tree felling (followed by said tree being attached to the wall), my kids got involved in the action. My Jewish children, who had never touched a Christmas tree let alone decorated one, were about to experience something totally foreign.
The night they came to decorate coincided with the seventh night of Hanukkah and the kids were excited to light the menorah and exchange gifts. All that happened, and it was our normal Jewish life. Until they decided that what they really wanted for Hanukkah was to decorate the tree. By the light of the candles, they carefully chose ornaments and hung them with care âŚ not quietly. Instead, my amazing children, who only cared about making it look special for my boyfriend, decorated the tree while belting out as many Hanukkah songs as they could think of. There are no parenting manuals that tell you what to do, or how to react in a situation like this, so I did the only thing I knew howâI joined in.
I laugh thinking about it now as I look at the tree. My kids singing in Hebrew about dreidels, only wanting to spread love and joy. In that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe I can make this interfaith thing work. Their excitement was electrifying and for two kids who donât believe in Santa (I may have come up with some threats if they ruin it for their friends!) well, I think we all found a little magic that night.
So begins this chapter, as I try to figure out how to maintain old traditions and incorporate new ones that I (or the kids) never expected to be part of.