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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 daughterâ€™s 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 canâ€™t 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 religionâ€”unless, 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 â€śone.â€ť 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 donâ€™t 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 whatâ€™s 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 doesnâ€™t 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 participateâ€”you are not asking him to convert. After all, itâ€™s 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 familyâ€™s 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 beginningsâ€”and 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 â€śup sideâ€ť 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.
Itâ€™s a Monday morning in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and my almost 2-year-old daughter and IÂ have a date with my friend and her 10-month-old daughter to go to a read-along at the Brooklyn Public Library. We get downstairs with the stroller, enough snacks to feed a small army and a water bottle. Not to mention diapers, wipes, A & D ointment, cell phone, wallet and keys. Oh, and Duckie, the stuffed animal that is covered in one thin layer of gross because it is trudged across New York by my daughter on every trip we take. Even when I wash Duckie, his yellow is a kind of city yellowâ€”so, basically heâ€™s gray.
The super of my buildingÂ sees me trying to get Helen into the stroller. â€śYou gonna take an umbrella?â€ť he asks, â€śItâ€™s supposed to rain like crazy.â€ť
The library is a ten-minute walk from my apartment and it hasnâ€™t started raining yet. The umbrella is the one item Iâ€™ve forgotten. â€śNo,â€ť I say, â€śIâ€™m not afraid of a little rain.”
Famous. Last. Words.
Almost eight blocks from my house, the sky opens. The rain comes down in sheets as if the sky had been holding its breath and someone just reminded it to let go. I am so soaked and Helen (though covered by the stroller top and a blanket) is getting her legs and feet soaked as well. I almost panic.
Midwood is a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I grew up here and now I live here with my interfaith family. Itâ€™s hard to live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and try to make people understand that my daughter is both Jewish and Mexican Catholic. In Jewish circles I find myself getting defensive. In Catholic circles I donâ€™t know how to explain my own take on Judaism. And when strangers hear me speak Spanish and then shout something in Hebrew three seconds later, I am met with baffled looks.
But Midwood means something else too. It means a ton of Honda OdysseyÂ minivans. Once, from my motherâ€™s house to our apartment three blocks away, I counted 11 parked Odyssey minivans. This is because the Jews, like the Mexicans, have big families and the Honda Odyssey seats eight. But, as a driver in New York, I hate being behind an Odyssey. Iâ€™m constantly making cracks about them. I can always see the TVÂ turned on in the back seat of an Odyssey. So many Odyssey minivan drivers drive too slow in themÂ because of all theÂ kids they have in the car. But, itâ€™s my own personal obnoxious joke that I canâ€™t stand the Honda Odyssey.
With that being said, as Iâ€™m in a small panic halfway from home and halfway from the library with the rain still pelting down, I see a blue Honda Odyssey turn the corner. A young woman in a traditional wig rolls down her window. â€śExcuse me!â€ť She shouts from her Odyssey, â€śDo you need a ride? I have three car seats in the car.â€ť I am wearing jeans (a clear sign I am not an Orthodox Jew, though I am a Jew, but she doesnâ€™t know this) and a shirt that has become so obviously see-through.
â€śAre you sure?â€ť I ask, hesitating as water drips down my face.
â€śYes!â€ť she says as she leaps out of her Odyssey with a purple umbrella decorated with dogs wearing tutus. She holds the umbrella over our heads as I get Helen out of the stroller. She then holds my daughter and puts her in the car seat. Helen starts to cry a little, but the woman is so gentle and I tell her not to be afraid. I throw the stroller in the trunk and get into the front seat. As soon as the woman closes the â€śdogs in tutuâ€ť umbrella she says, â€śIâ€™ve never picked up a stranger before! I just couldnâ€™t believe you were out here. I just dropped my kids off at camp and saw you. Where are you going?â€ť
I tell her that we are on the way to the library and I find out that she lives on that same block. She points to her house (which is directly across the street from one of my relatives’ apartment building) and on the porch are three mini beach chairs for each of her children. I thank her profusely and as I get Helen out of the car seat, the woman climbs into the trunk of her Odyssey and pulls a pink and white blanket from the back that says, â€śbaby.”
â€śPlease take this,â€ť she says, â€śI have six blankets in this car and the library is freezing.â€ť
This is when I take the opportunity to let her know in Hebrew that I am a Jew. Iâ€™m not sure why I do this. The entire ride, when I spoke to Helen, I spoke in Spanish. It was obvious to the woman that we were a different kind of family than the families usually seen walking through Midwood. But, religion, class or status didnâ€™t matter to this woman. So I said, â€śtodah rabahâ€ť (thank you, in Hebrew). â€śYou did a real mitzvahâ€ť (good deed).
But, to my surprise the woman wasnâ€™t shocked. Her mouth didnâ€™t drop open and she didnâ€™t shout, â€śOh my God youâ€™re Jewish!?!â€ť And that was a good lesson for me because her picking me up had nothing to do with my two faiths. She picked me up because she saw I needed help. She saw I was in a panic and she saw that, like herself, I am a mother. And being a mother has nothing to do with being a Jew or a Catholic and it has everything to do with being a Jew and a Catholic. Because two faiths, interfaith or one faith is about respect for the fellow man. And in a world that seems more chaotic every day, itâ€™s nice to know that as Anne Frank once wrote at the age of 13, â€śIn spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.â€ť Maybe Iâ€™ll stop being so judgmental about the Odyssey.
Giving your child a Hebrew name is a long-standing tradition in Judaism. Sometimes families have elaborate gatherings as part of a bris while others choose more intimate family ceremonies (we chose the latter). With our siblings and parents together, we could not help but reflect on the long journey to that moment over the last several years. We could not have persevered through it all without the love and support of those closest to us, which is why we asked that they share in this special moment. Thank you to each of these people for your unconditional love, generosity, kind words and most important, hope.
A naming ceremony for an interfaith family does not come without challenges, but we viewed it as an opportunity to foster understanding with those in our family who lovingly participated, and areÂ not Jewish. And in all honesty, my family is not the most religious, so it also served as a nice refresher for them. A family friend who is a doctor and mohel (someone trained in both Jewish law and the surgical hygiene for performing a circumcision) performed the beautiful ceremony. She made sure there was plenty of opportunity to pause and ask questions about the topics we discussed and why certain traditions were important to us. We asked my brother and sister-in-law to be Quinnâ€™s godparents. They will always be a big part of her life and in our absence, they would be there to help guide her through the learning process and discovering Judaism.
Jews of Central or Eastern European descent encourage the celebration of new life by the naming of children to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Between both of our families, there are many loved ones we wish could have been there to share in the joy of this most wonderful occasion. Jewish tradition also teaches us the importance not to mourn their passing, rather to celebrate their lives. They will live on in our hearts and are never truly gone whenÂ we continue to tell their stories and talk about our special memories of them. Often, we recognize this honor by giving the child an English name that starts with the same letter as a late relative.
It is also customary to give a child a Hebrew name in addition to an English name. We gave Quinn the Hebrew name of Pelia (pay-lee-ah) Davi (dah-vee). Pelia means wonder or miracle and Davi means cherished. Both her arrival into this world and into our arms made her Hebrew name very fitting. She is named after my nana, Paula, and Kimberlyâ€™s nonnie, Domenica. By giving her this name, we are bridging the generations of the past and present and also blending her Jewish and Italian heritage. She will never know where she isÂ going until she knows where she came from. Her great-grandmothers would have loved to have known her. In the years to come, we will be able to share many stories and memories about them with her. We hope she will embody many of the characteristics and qualities we loved about them and carry on their namesake.
We closed this memorable dayÂ by reading this special poem:
â€śWe didn’t give you the gift of life,
But in our hearts we know. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
The love we feel is deep and real, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
As if it had been so. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
For us to have each other, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Is like a dream come true! Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
No, we didn’t give you the gift of life, Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Life gave us the gift of you.â€ť
You just spent several hours or days in the hospital giving birth to your child or, in our case, several months going through your whirlwind adoption. But the moment you have long awaited is here: You are finally home. You left the house as two, but returned with three. For those of us as first time parents, the panic and paranoia is just setting in. As you slowly learn how to care for the newest member of your family, you begin to contemplate the next stages of life. How will we raise them? Jewish? Catholic? Both? Neither?
Or maybe you’ve already contemplated these questions. Kimberly and I had this discussion long before that first moment of staring into our baby daughterâ€™s big brown eyes. We thought it was important to talk openly about these topics early in our marriage. Too many people wait until game time to have the discussion and make decisions which can lead to poor decision making and being short sighted. Our wedding day was not about different religious upbringings, but was a celebration of love that including a â€świnkâ€ť to religious heritage. We were not married by a rabbi or priest. In fact, one of my best friends in the world got ordained and performed the ceremony that we wrote. It was special to have someone who truly knew and loved us both bring our marriage to fruition. At the end I stepped on the covered glass while everyone shouted, â€śMazel Tov!â€ť
So much like our marriage, we wanted our daughter to have some religious structure and affiliation in her life, but not necessarily be the driving factor that determined her day-to-day activities. We wanted to make sure our home was a healthy balance between knowing where you came from (even more important with adoption) and havingÂ different faiths represented.
One of the first religious rituals weÂ experienced as parents was the naming ceremony of our daughter while observing a long standing tradition of choosing names that begin with the letter of a loved one no longer with us. Quinnâ€™s Hebrew name is Pelia Davi (meaning beautiful gift). The â€śPâ€ť is for my grandmother, Paula, and the â€śDâ€ť is for Kimberly’s grandmother, Dominicaâ€”a blend of the old world and the new by bringing two different backgrounds together in the name of loving and caring for the next generation.
Since we were comingÂ from different backgrounds and experiencing life with a Reform religious involvement, we wanted a celebration that similarly mirrored our life: one that was about the love for our new child with a nod to the Jewish heritage she would now be entering. The gathering was intentionally small and consisted of our parents, siblings and our twin niece and nephew. It was important to give Quinn a Hebrew name to follow tradition, honor loved ones and give her a Jewish identity when she is called to the bimah. While this was Quinn’s introduction into her newly minted life as a Maccabee, it was our first introduction as a family into a religious celebration that will set the tone for years to come.
Long ago, we decided that Quinn would be raised Jewish, but we would also continue to observe all holidays from our religious backgrounds. She will go to temple and eventually go on to become a bat mitzvah. When she is old enough she can decide for herself if we put her on the right path and will have the opportunity toÂ choose otherwise.
My wife Kimberly didnâ€™t stop being Catholic the day we got married or the day our daughter was born. That part of her life will never leave her whether she ever steps foot in a church again. She has so many fond memories of her childhood that centered around CatholicÂ celebrations that we cannot ignore (nor should we ignore) them. Those experiences helped shape the person she is today and I wouldnâ€™t change that for anything. She has happily chosen to raise our daughter as Jewish as we forge a new path for our family that represents a true blend. We want to provide a warm and loving home that celebrates her parentsâ€™ individuality. But those differences are what brings us together and keeps us together.
These decisions and discussions came relatively easy to us. We have an open, honest and loving relationship that allows us to tackle what seems like, at times, daunting tasks. If you are starting your marriage or just entering parenthood, this is an opportunity, not a roadblock. Talk to your spouse about what is important to you and keep an open mind.Â Be prepared to compromise and show empathy by putting yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if they said it was their way or nothing? That open dialogue will serve you wellâ€”not just today but throughout the rest of your marriage. Our daughter is a precious gift and we want to give her the gift of love in return. Our love for each other and for our daughter will always preside over any religious celebration.
We each have our own story about when we saw, held or heard our children for the first time and we all arrived in those moments in different ways. I was born on Fatherâ€™s Day in 1980 as the first child in my family, so it was only fitting that I became a father under similar circumstances. However, my road to fatherhood is somewhat more unique than the â€śtraditionalâ€ť path after several unsuccessful years of trying to start a family, and included a mad dash to the finish line.
As a proud member of an interfaith marriage, I was raised in a Reform Jewish home and my wife Kimberly went to Catholic school from kindergarten through college. As it turned out, the first Jewish person she befriended, she wound up marrying. After recently celebrating our eighth wedding anniversary this May, our views on starting a family and the religious structure in the home have held up through the years.
While our individual religious upbringings shaped us throughout our lives, it was and continues to be LOVE that blankets our home and builds our family. This marriage is a 50/50 partnership: Everyone is equal and no person or circumstance is more important than another. We have always celebrated both Jewish and Catholic holidays from Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah to Easter and Christmas, and our house is perpetually adorned with decorations for all seasons. It is important to us that we show our children (and the world) that we stand together committed to LOVE as the dominant component in our lives and that religion is a cultural component that helps us observe our heritage and remember the past.
After Kimberly and I tried to have a child both naturally and through several clinical procedures, she suggested we explore growing our family through adoption. But I didnâ€™t know the first thing about adoption. So, the journey began much like any research starts today in the digital world, with a Google search for â€śadoption.â€ť
We came across a local organization that advocates for adoption and they were providing an educational workshop in the coming days. After some hesitation, mostly on my part (this was a big step into uncharted waters), we attended the workshop and were blown away with the new world we uncovered. Within a couple days of leaving the workshop we knew this path was the one we belonged on. We found our adoption agency and started the lengthy process. Over the course of the following year, we received communication about potential birth moms but none of the opportunities panned out.
On my 35thÂ birthday, I was with my brother playing in a charity golf outing when I received a call early in the morning. â€śThere is a healthy baby girl born a few days ago and the birth mom wants to meet you,â€ť said the social worker on the other end of the line. My stomach dropped and my mind frozeâ€”you know that feeling you get when going down the big hill of a roller coaster? Yeah, that feelingâ€¦times 100. I called Kimberly and told her the amazing news and we set up a time and place to meet our potential birth mom later that week. Although this was the call we had been waiting to get for over a year, it still felt like we were not prepared to hear it.
We had a four-hour lunch with our birth mom after which she looked at her social worker and said, â€śCan I tell them?â€ť With a quick nod from the social worker, she looked back at us and said, â€śI want you guys to be her parents!â€ť The words we had longed to hear finally overwhelmed us and we all embraced in a tearful hug. After all the ups and downs, crying, heartache and disappointment, we had finally arrived. It was worth every second and I wouldnâ€™t trade it for anything in the world.
Our daughter was brought into what is referred to as cradle care (temporary loving care between hospital and home by two of the kindest souls we have ever known) and we were able to visit with her as often as we wanted. I remember seeing her for the first time, holding her in my arms and looking at Kimberly. Nothing else in the world mattered at that moment: She was ours and we were a family, finally. The day before she was set to come home was, ironically, Fatherâ€™s Day 2015. We spent the entire day with her as I celebrated my first Fatherâ€™s Day as a new dad. What a special gift, both for us as a family and me for my first time on the other side of the equation.
Becoming a parent through the gift of adoption has enriched my life in more ways than I can recount. It is the ultimate endowment of selflessness and personal sacrifice on our birth momâ€™s part. It was not about the journey but the destination as our paths crossed in the end and she made the brave decision for our daughter to have the life she wanted, but could not provide. She put the needs of our daughter over those of her own. Kimberly, Quinn and I are forever grateful.
Over the last two years as I watched my daughter grow into a toddler, the time has flown. I often think about my first Fatherâ€™s Day and the day we brought her home. We went from the phone call to her arrival in exactly seven days. The moments were so surreal, like I was watching a movie but this was my life. Together we decided that Quinn would be raised in a Jewish environment but always observe EVERY holiday. In a time when the world is so cruel and intolerant of different faiths, genders, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientation, it is important now more than ever to experience different aspects of life. She will know the stories and traditions of our ancestors as we light the Hanukkah menorah and read the four questions on Passover. She will know that while dad went to temple, mom had different experiences in her life and we celebrate those too when we gather for Easter dinner and open presents under our Christmas tree.
Our house and Quinnâ€™s life will always be about love, trust and respect. Religion will be thereÂ to teach her history and provide cultural structure. A friend once told me that when your kids grow up, they donâ€™t look back and say, â€śI wish I was a different religion or celebrated different holidays.â€ť They look back and say, â€śI wish my parents got along better.â€ť LOVE will forever bind us by how we became a family and the way in which we grow as a family. I am blessed to be married to the most kind, caring and loving woman in the world who is the most amazing mother I have ever known. I am blessed to be a father and my unique story of how we arrived here only makes it that much more special.
Happy Fatherâ€™s Day to all the great dads who paved the road before and all the great dads who will surely come after.
Up until recently, I thought the hardest part of navigating life as an interfaith family was determining the religious identity of the home. After all, that’s where 99.9 percent of the angst within the Jewish community lies and therefore, almost 100 percent of the community’s engagement efforts are focused. The idea that many in the Jewish community adhere to is to get couples to a decision point, and hopefully, have them choose Judaism, and then nurture the Jewish choices of couples in a way that helps them to create a “Jewish home.”
But in my recent experience working with other interfaith families in my community of Dallas, Iâ€™ve realized that our intense focus on the religious choices of young couples and families has us all but ignoring the challenges and struggles of older couples and families. Especially for the couples that have actively chosen to the be part of the Jewish community, raise Jewish children and/or affiliate with a synagogue or other Jewish spiritual group such as a minyan, we figure that they’ve got this. The religion decision has been made; the family is Jewishly active; our work is done. Not so much.
For my husband and me, our sonâ€™s upcoming bar mitzvah has suddenly brought up big religious questions that have, at times, left me feeling a similar uncertainty I experienced in the early part of our relationship. In the months since I wrote about this somewhat surprising experience in my blog post,Â I’ve made peace with the uncertainty because we’ve seemed to have settled some of the questions. My husband will not convert before the big day and to date, feels 100 percent included in the process. How he will feel the day of the event or post-ceremony is impossible to predict, but I look forward to hearing what he expresses.
We’ve navigated the disquiet on our own. I’ve occasionally mentioned my uneasiness or questions to a close friend, but have otherwise not spoken to anyone about it. I know that I could have raised the issues with a clergy member at my synagogue or the rabbi officiating at my son’s bar mitzvah, but I haven’t felt like we needed professional guidance. However, I have been thinking about how nice it might have been to have a forum to share our questions and experiences with other interfaith couples in the same life stage as us and hear from intermarried couples who recently celebrated a bâ€™nai mitzvah, about their experiences. Essentially, I’d like to know if is this uncertainty is unique to my relationship or if other couples like my husband and me have had similar questions.
Iâ€™ve also had my eyes opened to the lack of professional support for older couples and families. I serve as the engagement director at my synagogue where I work with the interfaith dating and interfaith married couples. I recently organized a panel discussion for interfaith couples that are struggling with the religion decision. It consisted of two newly married couples who worked through the issue of religion in the home and a couple with elementary and middle school age children who have also worked through challenges of religious identity. The program was well attended by the target audienceâ€”dating, engaged or married young adult couples.
There were also several empty nesters. I wondered what these partners, who raised Jewish children in the context of an interfaith home, were doing at the program. They had Jewishly identifying college students or adult kids. They could be on the panel.
As I listened to the discussion during the question and answer period, I heard two of the empty nest couples say, â€śJust because you make a decision doesnâ€™t mean that religious issues go away. The issues just change.” I thought, â€śOf course, they do.â€ť I wrote about how dynamic the religious life of an interfaith family is in my bookÂ From Generation to Generation, pointing out that religious identity is often referred to as a journey for a reasonâ€”because it evolves as we age and move through different stages of life. How did I forget my words?
One couple shared that they are thinking about religion in the context of end-of-life issues. Another partner, a dedicated synagogue volunteer, mentioned that she is reconnecting with her Christianity now that one son is in college and the other has graduated, and she is struggling with how to incorporate her renewed interest in her faith into her marriage and Jewish family. A man admitted that, after 30 years of marriage and synagogue membership, he and his wife from another background â€śstill havenâ€™t figured it out.â€ť Everyone said that they would appreciate a group for couples like themselves to talk about the religious issues that they are navigating in their lives.
For me, their request was a call to action. Iâ€™m now helping these partners form a small group. Iâ€™m in the process of reaching out to over 100 other interfaith couples in our congregation who are in a similar life stage to see if they are experiencing these challenges and if they would be interested in being part of a small group with their peers who are navigating a similar road.
My personal experiences have always been my best material for writing and supporting other interfaith couples and families. Based on my need for community right now, I’m already thinking about how my congregation can create a forum for interfaith couples navigating the b’nai mitzvah cycle to connect with each other, discuss issues and find support through shared experience.
Focusing on young couples and families, and the choice of a religious identity for a home are absolutely critical for facilitating healthy religious discussions and engaging those who are intermarried in Jewish life. But we can’t be myopic and assume that once an interfaith couple makes a religion decision that our work is done. We must provide support for our couples, families and children through the various stages of life, just as we do for those who are intermarried because the religious identity of a home is a journey, not a destination.
Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Mosesâ€™ time asking, â€śChicken, brisket or both?â€ť But what Iâ€™ve always loved the most about Passover at my motherâ€™s house was the kidsâ€™ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, thereâ€™s a new kidsâ€™ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brotherâ€™s boys), Jacob and Nathan.
I didnâ€™t realize this phenomenon about the kidsâ€™ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my motherâ€™s house. â€śMy Mom used to do that at Christmas,â€ť Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my motherâ€™s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my motherâ€™s rendition of a kidâ€™s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his motherâ€™s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldnâ€™t totally grasp matzah.
â€śIt tastes like paper,â€ť he said.
â€śYes,â€ť I replied, â€śthatâ€™s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.â€ť
The kidsâ€™ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because heâ€™s sick and my aunt couldnâ€™t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cookingâ€”it made me realize that the original Passover kidsâ€™ table was now the adultsâ€™ table.
My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we donâ€™t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. â€śI told you so,â€ť I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.
My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting â€śHelen, Helen, Helen!â€ť When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, â€śChallah, challah, challah!â€ť But on Passover, we canâ€™t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, â€śMatzah, matzah, matzah!â€ť And then continued with, â€śAdi! Adi! Adi!â€ť for Adrian, their favorite uncle.
I marveled at the kidsâ€™ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. â€śNo se,â€ť she says, which means, â€śI donâ€™t know,â€ť and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.
The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. â€śWhy is this night different from any other night?â€ť begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, â€śSeriously?â€ť But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: â€śGet rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough â€“ as you really are.â€ť (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.
The doctor calls Adrian and me saying, â€śCongratulations! Youâ€™re pregnant!â€ť Adrian hugs me and we lift Helen up and kiss her little 16-month-old cheeks. â€śHelen! Helen!â€ť we cry, â€śHelen you are going to have a little brother or sister!â€ť Helen pushes our faces away not exactly understanding and gallops into the bedroom in search of her favorite stuffed animal, Senor Buho (Mr. Owl). Adrian and I are elated and we head out to our local kosher grocery store in search of kosher meat to cook as a celebration. Of course Adrian wants pork, but our home is kosher so celebrating is limited to all other delicacies.
On the Avenue, I feel lightness in my step and I whisper to Helen all day about how we are going to welcome a little bean into the family. I do everything right: I get my prenatal vitamins, buy Omega-3, stock the refrigerator with fruits and vegetables, rest and drink tea. I am five, maybe seven, weeks pregnant. Thatâ€™s when everything goes wrong.
One morning, I wake up early and see blood. Itâ€™s not a lot and itâ€™s not bright red, but I call the doctor anyway. â€śDonâ€™t worry,â€ť she assures me, â€śitâ€™s normal.â€ť Adrian also tells me not to worry, but I worry all day. I worry so much that by the evening, Iâ€™ve sweat through my clothes. Helen senses something is wrong and puts her head on my knee while Iâ€™m sitting on the couch. This calms me down a little, but only a little.
The next day I start to make promises. â€śHashem, God, if you make everything OK I will be the best person in the universe this year. I will do good deeds and feed the poor and work harder and pray more,â€ť I pray. Adrian thinks this is foolish and I ask him why he doesnâ€™t pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is known to help in times of worry and distress.
â€śBebe,â€ť he says in a serious tone, â€śthatâ€™s not how God and the saints work.â€ť I laugh because even with our interfaith family, I obviously think I can trick myself into convincing God of something.
I do everything right. And then, everything goes wrong.
The next day, I wake up and there is a lot of blood. Itâ€™s not brown, but itâ€™s red. My body feels heavy like itâ€™s losing something. â€śBebe,â€ť Adrian says, â€ścall the doctor.â€ť The doctor tells me to go the hospital right away. I rush to Manhattan and am attended to at Beth Israel/Mount Sinai with the thought, Â â€śThis is a place of miracles.â€ť I am shaking in my seat in the waiting room and I clutch a small pink book called â€śTefillas Channahâ€ť meaning Prayers of Channah (my Hebrew name). When I am finally called in, the doctor does an examination and tells me sheâ€™s sorryâ€”I have had a miscarriage. She adds, â€śBut it was very early, which is good.â€ť
Loss of any kind is letting something go when you were never ready to part with it. â€śBebe,â€ť I say to Adrian on the phone, â€śI have some bad news.â€ť I bleed for days. The doctor tells me this is normal, but it doesnâ€™t feel normal. I have not cracked my Hebrew prayer book to defy my God the way I feel he has defied me. I realize that these thoughts are irrational, but this grief is overwhelming.
After one week on the couch, my daughter brings me a book. It is a book about animals and I flip the pages for her. â€śBubbles!â€ť she shouts and I laugh. There is a miracle before me that I havenâ€™t been able to pay attention to. By far, Helen is the grandest miracle that has been gifted to me. Over a year ago, Adrian and I, out of fear for her life, decided to put Helen on formula when she had dropped down to 4 pounds. I prayed to God then. Now, Helen is in the 90thÂ percentile for height, walks, babbles, speaks some words in Spanish and English, points to the Virgin of Guadalupe before bed and I sing her the prayer of Israel in Hebrew at night. As I get up to get the bubbles, my body feels like it has been crouching in a cave.
â€śBebe,â€ť Adrian says a week into his own grief, â€śwe will try again.â€ť
I reach for my Hebrew prayer book to try to find the right words for what Iâ€™m feeling. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I find it: â€śAnd so I come before you, Hashem, EternalÂ who reigns over rulers, and I cast my supplication before You. My eyes dependently look toward You until You will be gracious to me and hear my plea and grant me sons and daughters.â€ť I look at Helen as she plays on the rug and I understand that I have been granted a miracle. With the two faiths that shine brightly through my house, I will be granted another one when the time is right.
Iâ€™ve been married for 14 years and with my husband who is not Jewish for 16. Iâ€™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 siblingsâ€™ and my friendships. But repeatedly, Iâ€™ve realized that their tolerance doesnâ€™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 spectrumâ€“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 wasnâ€™t a choice or a communicable disease, she worried that Andy and Gregâ€™s sexual identity might somehow influence our sonâ€™s sexuality.
So, it wasnâ€™t surprising that from the time my stepsisterâ€™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: girlsâ€™ 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 didnâ€™t do anything that might help them navigate intermarriage in their family. They didnâ€™t take a class, didn’t speak with clergy, didn’t read any books and they didnâ€™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 stepsisterâ€™s (she needed all of our support) and for my nephewâ€™s (he needed love and acceptance) sake.
*Note: My 8-year-old nephew has not yet adopted the â€śsheâ€ť pronoun or changed names. My family is supporting this transition and is taking cues from my stepsister and her child. Currently, the childâ€™s pronoun is â€śheâ€ť 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. â€śIt’s hard, but we are trying to be as supportive as possible. Weâ€™re reading a lot of books and articles. Jack (my stepfather) has spoken to his therapist. Weâ€™re trying to learn as much as we can. We love this child. We want him to be happy.â€ť
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.
We are so excited forÂ Mark and Priscilla’s recent baby news! After Max’s birth, this generous interfaith couple pledged to donate 99% of their Facebook shares to charitable causes.Â
By Joanna C. ValenteÂ
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla ChanÂ justÂ announced some pretty big news: Theyâ€™re going to be parents againâ€“making theirÂ 15-month-old daughter Max a big sister-to-be. Of course, the Facebook CEO made the announcement on his Facebook (because where else would he?).
The 32-year-oldÂ shared the happy news alongside childhood photos of himself and his wife, which makes the whole thing feel even sweeter (and also makes you feel old, because doesnâ€™t it feel like yesterday when you were just a kid yourself?). His post, while full of happiness and joy, isÂ also marked by his honesty and candidness about his fatherhoodâ€“as he admits why he had hoped their second child to be a girl:
â€śPriscilla and I are happy to share weâ€™re expecting another baby girl! After our difficult experience having Max, we werenâ€™t sure what to expect or whether weâ€™d be able to have another child. When Priscilla and I first found out she was pregnant again, our first hope was that the child would be healthy.
My next hope was that it would be a girl.Â I cannot think of a greater gift than having a sister and Iâ€™m so happy Max and our new child will have each other.
I grew up with three sisters and they taught me to learn from smart, strong women.Â They werenâ€™t just my sisters but some of my best friends. Theyâ€™ve gone on to write books, excel at performance, music, sports, cooking and their careers. They showed me how to compete and still laugh together afterwards.â€ť
He goes on to say how Priscilla grew up with two sisters herself, and how valuable this was to who she has become:
â€śPriscilla grew up with two sisters and they taught her the importance of family, caring for others and hard work. They supported each other as first generation college students and in their careers in medicine and business. They have so many inside jokes â€” the kind only siblings can understand.â€ť
Part of the reason why the coupleâ€™s announcement is so striking is the fact that Chan has been upfront about her fertility and pregnancy struggles in the past, including multiple miscarriages,Â statingÂ previously:
â€śItâ€™s a lonely experience. Most people donâ€™t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you.â€ť
In another post, Chan said:
â€śThere are really dark moments where you think youâ€™re alone. And when we realized that we werenâ€™t and that there were other people traveling along the same road with you.Â I think having that, knowing that youâ€™re not alone, was incredibly important for us. And we wanted others to know that they werenâ€™t alone, either.â€ť
Mazel tov to the growing family! We hope the pregnancy goes smoothly.
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.
Joanna Valente is the Editorial Assistant atÂ Kveller. She is the author ofÂ Sirs & Madams,Â The Gods Are Dead, Xenos, andÂ MarysÂ of the Sea, andÂ received her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.Â You can follow herÂ @joannasaidÂ on Twitter, @joannacvalente on Instagram, orÂ email her atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org.