The Bar Mitzvah Brings Out the Big Questions


Bar mitzvah boy

Our son will become a bar mitzvah in about a year, and I imagine that this will be the first in a series of posts about our family’s interfaith bar mitzvah journey. Since he is our oldest and only child, the bar mitzvah and its planning are new territories.

Neither my husband nor I have ever planned a bar mitzvah. For my bat mitzvah, I was responsible for learning my Torah and Haftorah portions, and writing my speech. My husband grew up in an Episcopal home. But more than the planning, it’s that for the first time in 14 years we’re confronting big religious questions, and I feel that same uncertainty that I felt in the early part of my relationship with my husband.

It’s strange to feel this way because for the last dozen years, it has been relatively smooth sailing in the Larkin’s interfaith and Jewish home. Sure we’ve had issues with some extended family members (mostly my Jewish ones) and some challenges around Christmas, acceptance in non-Reform segments of Judaism and dealing with prejudice, but we haven’t had the difficulties that some mixed faith couples have to navigate. Mostly, our decision to have a singularly Jewish home, made before we were engaged, has guided our choices and parenting.

Maybe it’s the significance of the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that makes the questions we must address seem bigger than before. Maybe the questions themselves are more significant. Whatever the case, they weigh heavy on my mind.

Over the years, my husband has said on numerous occasions that if he decides to convert it will be around our son’s bar mitzvah. What always felt like a far off decision point is now upon us. I have never asked my husband to convert, and I don’t care if he does or not, but I understand the weight such a decision has at this moment in our lives.

There are rituals and traditions that my husband will be able to participate in if he does choose to convert before our son’s big day that he would not be able to be fully a part of if he doesn’t convert. For example, he will be able to hold the Torah. I get teary thinking about passing the Torah to my husband and then watching my husband pass it to our son during the service.

I wonder how my husband will feel if he doesn’t formally choose Judaism before the bar mitzvah. Will he feel excluded because he can’t fully participate in the service? Will he be angry and will his anger change how he engages in our Jewish life going forward? Will he regret that he didn’t convert before the bar mitzvah after he experiences the power of the tradition as a parent rather than a spectator?

I suggested that it was time for my husband to talk to one of our rabbis. He agreed but said he would wait until we find out which one will work with our son. Apparently, he is not yet ready to deal with these questions either, and I know that he will be more willing to discuss them with a clergyperson. Sometimes when a spouses poses a question, we feel there is an agenda. When a third party asks the same question, it is just a question.

I’m also concerned about how our Christian family members will participate in the service. I know our synagogue’s clergy are all experienced in working with interfaith families. I know they work to craft as inclusive an experience as possible. But I wonder if some family who are not Jewish will feel hurt, ostracized, excluded or left out? How will we make them feel a part of and the significance of the moment? I already sense a gap.

These are just some of the questions circulating in my mind. I’d feel much better if I knew the answers and could see the outcomes. Instead, I need to navigate these uncertain waters, work with my husband to make thoughtful choices, and let this part of our family’s story unfold. That’s a lot easier said than done.

Thanks for Giving Me Shavuot for Father’s Day


By Alex Schuh

Schuh family b'nai mitzvah

The Schuh family at their children’s b’nai mitzvah

One thing I love about being in an interfaith relationship is the seemingly endless array of religious holidays and celebrations of my wife’s and kids’ religion that pop up to surprise me again and again every season. Because the Jewish holidays are keyed to the lunar calendar, plus some other mysterious (at least to me) factors, the dates seem to shift widely throughout the year, which makes the whole thing a bit more exciting than planning around the Christian holidays (Christmas? It’s December 25 again this year! Hanukkah? I have no idea!). The surprise nature of the Jewish holidays revealed themselves to me again this year, when my wife announced what we would be doing on our wedding anniversary, which is June 11.

“Remember,” she said, “We’ll be going to the Havurah gathering that night.” I could feel my twin 14-year-olds leaning forward a bit from the back seat of the car to get more details.

“What for?” I asked.

“It’s Shavuot,” she replied, matter-of-factly. Hmm… Shavuot. Yes, I’d heard of it. In fact, Shavuot was instrumental in moving our Texas wedding date to the middle of June from early June. That was not an insignificant change, particularly since every additional June day in Texas adds another degree to the thermometer. Shavuot actually had an impact on my life and the start of our family, and the 100-degree weather of our wedding weekend (!), so I should have been able to call up some reference facts on it. I knew it had something to do with counting, but beyond that, I was clueless.

What’s Shavuot?” I asked. The kids were listening more closely in the back of the car, trying to discern what might merit a trip to the Havurah on a school night just before their final exams week, I suspect.

My wife hesitated for a moment. “I’m guessing it has something to do with a famous battle, agriculture or a feast of some kind—or maybe all three.” I offered.

“It’s, um, related to the Torah: when Moses received it.” She quickly checked Google on her phone, and sure enough, it is a commemoration of when God gave Moses the Torah. And, it did indeed involve counting: It occurs on the 50th day after 49 days of counting the Omer.

I remember our Rabbi in the Havurah explaining how it is determined when it occurs, although having never actually counted the Omer myself, I still don’t think I could have determined when it would occur that year. Because it doesn’t have any particular Torah commandments associated with it (unlike the other holidays) it can be celebrated in different ways, or without much fanfare at all (many Jews don’t give much attention to Shavuot, which explains why some Jews are not as familiar with it as they are with the other holidays).

It turns out that Shavuot is a very interesting holiday—most of them are interesting, but this one has some particular features that are worth noting. It’s known as the “Feast of Weeks,” as it is celebrated with a feast that gives thanks for the grain harvest (In Israel, not in Philadelphia, where we live). Shavuot means “weeks,” in Hebrew; it is actually a series of weeks (49 days) after Passover. Although it’s technically a grain-related holiday, it’s milk that gets the prime position in the food department, possibly because Israel is said to be flowing with “milk and honey” or because the Israelites abstained from eating meat before receiving the Torah. So, cheesecake is just as likely to make an appearance as cream of wheat (well, probably much more likely).

Shavuot is also one of three biblically based pilgrimages; the other two are Passover and Sukkot (another harvest holiday). Some people, like some of my Orthodox Jewish friends, stay up all night studying and teaching about the Torah on Shavuot. That would not work so well for my kids, who would be preparing for their final exams the next day.

On this wedding anniversary, I will be celebrating the beginning of “Father’s Day Week” with my twins and my wife during the festival of Shavuot. I am always grateful to have a reason to have a party with my family and friends, so Shavuot gives us the perfect reason this year. I am grateful once again to my children—my two wonderful Jewish kids—for their gift of a 5,000-year-old religion and all of the surprising, enlightening and tasty holidays that they give me season after season, year after year.

In Defense of Mother’s Day

My Mom and I on one of our many adventures.

My Mom and I on one of our many adventures

Mother’s Day is coming, in case you haven’t stepped foot in a commercial district recently. With it comes a whole host of emotions. You can hear them in casual conversations and read about them all over the blogosphere. Today, I want to put a stake in the ground in favor. In three strokes, let me try to convince you that Mother’s Day is worthwhile.

Reason # 1: It’s a freebie for most Interfaith couples (or maybe couples of any stripe).  

One reason you likely came to this website is because you are questioning how to make it “work” as an interfaith family. For all the joy of our religious holidays, building any kind of tradition different than the ones you grew up with can bring anxieties, bumps and challenges. Here’s a holiday that doesn’t belong to any religion, at least not in its observance today. It is a bunch of Americans getting together with families or friends and celebrating the mothers in our lives. For most of us, it will be a holiday both you and your partner grew up with, even if you grew up in different corners of the country with entirely dissimilar faith perspectives. So take this gift of a holiday that you hopefully can celebrate equally with all of your families.


Reason # 2: It’s not all about Hallmark.  

I get the sentiment that we shouldn’t orient ourselves (or our spending) to something created by a corporation. Or, I should say, I sort of get it. First, if you don’t like the Hallmark stuff, celebrate the amazing true stories of the women who gave Hallmark the idea—activists Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe. Second, perhaps less inspirationally, I ask you to consider this from my personal history. My mother took advantage of the opportunity to celebrate almost every holiday she could get her hands on. Having grown up that way, well, it’s not all that bad. For those of us who are lucky enough to have the means to afford the basics, is there really a better way to spend your spare change than on a small gesture for someone about whom you care? Is there any danger in heeding the calendar as a reminder to spend time with the person or people whose mothering means a lot in your life?  Maybe Hallmark popularized this holiday, but I hold them harmless. Sometimes we need reminders to do the most basic but important things.

Reason # 3: It takes a village to raise a mother.

Four years ago, my mother passed away just before Mother’s Day. There are no words for the awful of that week. I suspect that the confluence of these two dates will always bring me a little pain. I appreciate there are people who feel all kinds of loss on Mother’s Day. I understand some of it well—anger at losing a cherished relationship and frustration for the things you never had time to share. I also know there are some kinds of loss I can’t entirely understand—loss for unsatisfying relationships with mothers who are alive but aren’t in our lives, bereavement for mothers we never got to know, deep grief for children we didn’t get to parent. I grant all of those grievers license to feel through their Mother’s Days however they need.

My favorite Mother's Day card of 2016

My favorite Mother’s Day card of 2016

But for those of you still open to my treatise, I offer this. My success with my girls is in part due to how I have been mothered through my parenting journey. I cannot celebrate my mother how I wish I could. But I can celebrate mothers I hold most dear. My own list of people to celebrate includes my grandma, the glue of generosity and love that holds my family together; my mother-in-law, who has taken me even closer under her wing since I lost my mom; my mother’s dear friends, who have tried to lessen the pain of not having her around; and my aunt, who upon my insistence can be the grown-up when I fumble through a skinned knee. I applaud my sisters who are mothers, who are both just plain amazing people and are always teaching me new ways to approach motherhood.

There are a lot of other people I want to list, but you get the idea. Mother’s Day is a chance to recognize the hard work of mothering and give a high five to the people whose motherhood you applaud. However it works for you, I hope you have a wonderful Sunday.

Kitniyot at the Table: Why I Can’t Just Breath a Sigh of Relief


Matzah and beansRecently, two important Conservative rabbinic opinions came down that probably rang out strongly with their followers. For the rest of us,the announcement quietly gathered steam until it called out across the masses in the weeks leading up to Passover: the Rabbis declared kitniyot (Hebrew for legumes) as Kosher for Passover

In what felt like overnight to me, a group of Jewish leaders told us Ashkenazis (Jews of German or Eastern European descent) that it was no longer necessary for us to belabor the possibility that a farmer who wasn’t Jewish had mixed wheat in with the lentils, and that as long as we stay away from chametz, legumes are fair game. Much to my surprise, after 20+ years of label reading and black bean-shunning, I feel mixed about an easier Pesach.

I am not a Conservative Jew. I am a Reform-leaning Jew held in the warm embrace of a Reconstructionist community, so I am homing on two bases, neither Conservative. But this seems like a big deal, since I have owned this more “conservative” practice since college. Also, to have such a public overturning of a centuries-old practice feels like a challenge for everyone, Conservative or otherwise.

On one side of my emotional spectrum is the urge to listen. For almost as long as I’ve practiced the ban on kitniyot, I’ve known it to be based more on an abundance of caution than on biblical clarity. I’ve also known it to not be the healthiest choice for my body–I will never forget the time I had to have a blood test during Passover and the doctor’s dismay at my abysmal iron levels (made worse because I was a vegetarian at the time). I assured her they’d bounce back after the holiday, which they predictably did. So enough already–life without the kitniyot ban sure sounds easier, and the argument for it is thin at best.

On the other side, there is a part of avoiding kitniyot that I find adds even more meaning to the eight days of Passover. Perhaps I am too much of a glutton for punishment, but I like how additional rules increase my mindfulness about this time being different. I am not a huge bread eater, so avoiding kitniyot added another layer to the way I paid attention to what I was consuming, which, in turn, made me think even more about the why of the holiday. In incorporating kitniyot into my diet, I feel like I need to find a new way to ensure the same quality of mindfulness I have had in the past several years.

In the middle is the way I hold this change in my role as the Jewishly-raised partner in my interfaith marriage. There is something in this that feels a little funny.  Because our Judaism originated from my background, I often assume the role of leader or teacher. I can get my head around this when we observe Shabbat, fast on Yom Kippur or with almost everything related to Passover. But when a panel of rabbis picks something that I’ve suggested my partner do as a part of being Jewish and says “Oops, not really,” I feel a little like I tricked my family into something unnecessary. I know it is not that cut and dry (Eric assures me it isn’t), but I am reminded that advocating for the Jewish choice for our household comes with some additional responsibility to shine a good light down the Jewish path.

This week, with a little hesitation, I have decided to stop worrying about kitniyot. Halfway through the holiday, it turns out my belly feels better off without an additional layer of forbidding myself kitniyot. I am curious, though – what did you decide to do?

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.

Weddings Speak To All of Us…And We’re Listening


Ben and I signed our ketubah, now 10 years ago

Recently I attended a long-time friend’s Conservative Jewish wedding, and the event found me reflecting on my own interfaith wedding, now ten years in the past. The  wedding took place in the Conservative synagogue she’d attended since her bat mitzvah, a large, well-appointed synagogue outside a major East-Coast city.

The ceremony started in the traditional Jewish way, with the ketubah signing and bedecken, where the groom places a veil over the bride’s head and face, in a reference to Jacob’s being tricked into marrying Leah instead of her sister Rachel. As two rabbis watched, friends and relatives signed the ketubah, and I felt tears spring to my eyes as I remembered my own friends bending over our ketubah to pen their names in Hebrew characters. Today’s bride was one of those friends. My maid of honor was also present at this friend’s wedding. She is not Jewish, and had carefully transcribed her name in Hebrew onto my ketubah before also signing in English. Sitting next to me at our mutual friend’s wedding, she turned to me and smiled.

Other moments, though, emphasized the difference between this wedding and my own. We chose not to do a bedecken, for example, and our rabbi was all right with this. At my own wedding, my spouse and I each circled the other seven times, and then we circled each other simultaneously once. Yes, I felt dizzy in the ninety-degree heat! At my friend’s ceremony, she circled her groom seven times, as is traditional, but he did not circle her. Despite these differences, tears again sprang to my eyes as I saw the bride and groom make faces alternately amused and loving at each other. I remembered my gathered friends and family laughing at the funnier facial exchanges during our own circling.

These small differences, though, hardly bothered me, and in fact, served as pleasant reminders of my ceremony. I find that I cry more at weddings with Jewish elements now than I do at Christian or non-religious ceremonies: the distinctive elements of a Jewish ceremony have such a strong association in my mind.

During that day’s wedding ceremony itself, however, my mood shifted as one of the rabbis addressed the couple under the chuppah. First he made the guests laugh: “It is easy to marry the person you love, but much more difficult to love the person you married.” A chuckle rose up through the audience, emerging from my own mouth as well.

The rabbi moved on, though, to a comment that gave more pain than amusement. “We have here what could be called a best-case scenario.” I expected another amusing quip, but instead, I ended up feeling awkward, and then even angry. “Both the bride and groom come from Jewish families; both of their parents are still married, and both of them also attend the same synagogue,” he explained. I felt a sudden stab of anger and even rejection.

By implication, my own marriage was not a best-case scenario, on two counts, no matter how I might feel about it! Not only has my husband married someone who is not Jewish, but he married someone whose parents are no longer themselves together! Did missing two out of three constitute a worst-case scenario, or something in-between?

When I got over my initial shock, I wondered who else in the wood-paneled sanctuary might have felt a sudden jolt of pain at the rabbi’s words. Who else there was divorced? Married to the son or daughter of divorced parents? Or (possibly worse!), dating or married to someone of a different faith? It seemed a reasonable guess that these descriptions applied to more than a few people in the room. Was it fair of the clergy to imply that we were all in something less than a best-case scenario?

I could give the rabbi’s words a more charitable spin: As the rabbi knew, my friend’s mother converted to Judaism prior to marrying her father, making her own inclusion in the “best-case scenario” in some ways a near miss. Perhaps the rabbi’s words were meant to sooth any fears the new in-laws’ may have had about the Jewishness of their new daughter-in-law? Perhaps he meant only to reinforce her status as a “member of the tribe”?

Whatever the rabbi’s reasoning, the fact remains that this was one of the first times when I, even if indirectly or without intention, felt the sting of wider Judaism’s fear of intermarriage. Despite that sting, I chose to take the moment as a reminder that we have the responsibility to our partners, of whatever gender or marital status, to create our own best-case scenarios. Those of us who have joined ourselves together with a ketubah have a valid and binding covenant that enjoins us to create our own best-case scenarios, whether those involve intermarriage, divorce in a part of the family or other elements of awkwardness.

As my friend’s new husband stomped on the glass (I remembered hoping my new husband would not step on my foot as we crushed the glass together), I resolved, again, to work to create my own best-case scenario for myself, for my husband, for our daughters and for our loved ones.