Five Things People Assume When Your Spouse/Partner Isn’t Jewish

Whenever we meet someone new, I always worry about the reaction they will have when I tell them that my husband isn’t Jewish.  I keep having images of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof ripping his clothes in mourning when he found out his daughter married a non Jew. While that hasn’t happened, I have found that some people can be pretty opinionated on the issue of intermarriage.

I think we have found a fairly open community, open in that people are accepting of us, but in some cases it is very much a “don’t talk/don’t tell” kind of relationship.

So here goes, my top five things people assume when your partner isn’t Jewish:

1) You don’t care about Jewish spirituality.  I admit, when we got married, I didn’t care that much about Jewish spirituality, but I cared enough that I wanted certain elements in our ceremony (breaking the glass, mentioning G-d…).  We have grown and have learned there is a lot to Jewish spirituality, a lot of amazing things!

2) You probably belong to a Reform synagogue.  I actually go to a Modern Orthodox synagogue.  I don’t feel that the Reform path is for me.  And that’s ok.

3) You probably don’t keep Kosher or Shabbat.  Yes, we are kosher in this household.  We don’t have separate dishes yet, but it is on the radar.  My son and I keep Shabbat, no driving, using the phone, etc., etc.  We have a beautiful Shabbat dinner and lunch.  That being said, I do give my husband a “pass” every now and again, because I know he needs that space.

4) You celebrate non Jewish holidays.  Every family is different.  We are a full time Jewish household.  Other families do some of the non Jewish holidays and some do everything.

5) You are the reason that Jewish continuity is threatened.  Oy.  Yes I know.  It says in the Torah.  When the time comes (after 120 years), I will have that discussion with G-d.  I know plenty of Jewish people who are Jewishly married who don’t really care about Jewish spirituality.  Yes, genetically they are Jewish and their kids are Jewish.  From what I’m seeing it is getting harder and harder to guilt these types of families into marrying Jewish.

Ahad Ha’am has said, ”More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” What does this mean?  It means that Jewish continuity occurs in the families that have shown some interest in Jewish mitzvot, ritual, and spirituality.  I read a statistic that about 30-40% of intermarried families are raising their children with Jewish spirituality.  (Not too bad!)

Is a kid in an intermarried family, raised with Jewish values, more likely to “stay Jewish” (for lack of a better term) than a kid in a fully Jewish family raised with no Jewish values?

What would you add to the list?

Converting to Jewish – the book

I’m working on a book (actually, I’m more working on the book proposal and gathering data for the book). Essentially, the book is about my own conversion story, but also about my own struggle to raise a Jewish family that also embraces and celebrates a non-Jewish heritage. I’ve got a questionnaire so I can get others’ stories to interweave with my own.  Here’s a brief overview of the topic, and I’ve attached a copy of the questionnaire.

It’s estimated that nearly half of all Jewish marriages are ones in which one member of the couple is not Jewish. While this raises all sorts of questions about the future survival of the Jewish people, what interested me most are the questions that were more personal in nature. What does a marriage between people of different backgrounds look like? If the decision is made to raise your children in one faith, or one tradition, who compromises what? Converting to Jewish explores those questions and offers some much needed guidance on what happens after the conversion, and what raising a family with someone of a dramatically different culture and tradition is really like.

This book will serve as a inspirational guide to anyone in a relationship that deals with interfaith or intercultural differences. For those of us who convert because our spouse is Jewish, and we don’t want our family to be something we aren’t. This is the book I wish I had had when I started, an honest look at what it takes to be in an interfaith or intercultural relationship, how to navigate the trickiest aspects, and how to respect, celebrate and embrace the differences, even as you focus on what brings you together as a family.

If you’d like to fill out the questionnaire (a Word document), I’d love it. Ideally, what I’d like is to be able to weave in others’ stories along with my own. All responses will be anonymous. Please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts; my email is melissa.cohen0214@yahoo.com and my website is melissaannecohen.com.

Purim, Revealing the Hidden

One of the themes of Purim has to do with the hidden becoming revealed.  Esther hid her identity as a Jew within Achashverosh’s castle.  When the time was right not only did she reveal her true self, but she revealed Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews.  All the coincidences within the story of Esther all come together in the end and reveal a rich and interesting story.  G-d’s name is not mentioned at all in the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, but is hidden within Esther’s name itself, which means Hidden.

My husband and I celebrated Purim with a local Jewish organization.  I dressed up as Time Flies (I had wings and clocks) and my husband dressed up as Father Time.  Father Time was a priest with clock picture on his chest.  We felt this was funny on a few levels, since my husband isn’t Jewish.  I think he appreciated being dressed up as a character that is distinctly not Jewish.  He could be his non-Jewish self openly when all through the year he feels like he has to downplay and maybe hide the fact he isn’t Jewish.

We had agreed that our son would be raised in an entirely Jewish environment and my husband isn’t/wasn’t very religious so it didn’t seem like a big deal.  It does mean though that he gets submerged and swallowed with Jewishness.  Kosher food, Shabbat meals, Jewish holidays… he’s surrounded all the time.

We celebrate Purim by hiding behind masks and pretending to be what we aren’t (or briefly live a fantasy of who we would like to be), just as Esther pretended she wasn’t Jewish.  My husband got to enjoy the party being openly non-Jewish.

Why I still celebrate Christmas

I’m Jewish, and pretty happy about it.  I converted about four years ago, with our oldest two children.  But, yeah, I still celebrate Christmas.  I don’t celebrate it as the birth of Christ, but it’s still a tremendously meaningful and important holiday for me.  I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite holiday of the year – there’s too much other stress going on for that.  December is decidedly a challenging month for my husband and I.  Between the number of Jewish people who write articles that I can’t stop myself from reading that assure me that a tree has no place in a Jewish home, and worrying about whether or not people are judging me for putting up the tree anyway.  It’s celebrating a holiday that while it has never been particularly Christian to me – it is a Christian holiday to many people.  And either way, it is most definitely not Jewish.  It’s a hard month for my husband, who didn’t grow up  celebrating Christmas, but not celebrating it is almost a part of his Jewish identity – so it’s never an easy time of year.

But celebrate it we do, enthusiastically.  I’ve got stocking hung by the chimney with care, and a tree that’s lopsided, with way too many lights on it, and ornaments that are well loved and not particularly coordinated.  I’ve got pictures of all of my babies with Santa Claus, and tinsel and candy canes EVERYWHERE.  So why do I celebrate?  Why do I insist on participating in holiday that everyone keeps telling me is all about rampant consumerism and materialism?  If I strip away the Christian connotations to it, what exactly is Christmas all about?  And why exactly do I insist every year that we celebrate it?

I celebrate it because it’s wrapped up in some of my favorite memories from my childhood.  Caroling with my cousins, singing songs to my sister at night before we fell asleep.  Every Christmas Eve, my little sister would beg to sleep in my bed with me, and I’d tell her stories about Santa and swear that I could see Rudolph’s nose in the sky.  Baking Christmas cookies with my baby cousins, and taking my nieces and nephews out at night to look for the prettiest Christmas lights.  My mother has this one song – Mary’s Boy Child, and it’s this odd sort of Jamaican Christmas carol, and every time it comes on the radio, she’d turn it up as loud as it could go and rock out.  My mother doesn’t rock out as a rule, and watching her chair dance in the car while we drove anywhere in December was (and is) kind of awesome.

I celebrate it because I love the anticipation of Christmas Day.  I love that my kids talk about Santa Claus (despite the fact that both the older ones know it’s just a myth).  When I was a kid, I loved that sense, all month long, that we were building up to this one day when magically, just because, we’d wake up and find that someone had brought us presents, just because.  It’s not about the gifts, exactly.  Looking back, I don’t remember any specific Christmas gift that I ever got that made a huge impression.  What I remember is the magic, the excitement and the joy of it all.  I want that for my kids.

I celebrate it because I’m still my mother’s daughter.  And I’m raising her grandchildren.  Having a child convert to a different religion isn’t easy, and my mother supported me and stood beside me every step of the way.  I’ve never doubted her love or commitment, and I can’t imagine how hurt and disappointed she’d be if I didn’t give my kids the same opportunity to love Christmas as she gave me.  I won’t do that to her.  I won’t do that to her grandchildren.  It’s not that she wants them to not be Jewish, she loves listening to my two year old lisp out the Shabbat blessings, and makes sure that she’s a part of our holiday traditions as well.  She just wants to know that my family still a part of her family, celebrating her favorite holidays and traditions.  Like sleeping over at Grammy’s house on the night before Thanksgiving, and trekking up to Maine every year to camp at Hermit Island – celebrating Christmas, for my mother, is about spending time with her kids, and her grandchildren.  Passing along those traditions.  I’m not willing to tell them that it’s not their holiday just because they’re Jewish.  Yes, my children are observant Jewish kids but they’re also a part of my extended non-Jewish family as well.  Christmas is part of what they inherit from my side of the family, along with a crappy sense of direction and a gift for sarcasm.

I celebrate it because I believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards men.  And having a day to celebrate that is lovely to me.  I celebrate it because I feel a little closer to everyone else on earth during this time of year – it seems to me that it’s the one time when we all try a little harder to be nicer, a little harder to appreciate the blessings we have.   We don’t always succeed, and we aren’t all on the same page, but I sincerely think that the world is an amazing and beautiful and blessed place.  On Christmas, I think we all feel that way.

It’s not about the shopping or the wrapping or the stress.  And for me, it’s not about celebrating the birth of the Messiah.  It’s about joy and peace – it’s closer to a celebration that we’re coming into the light.  It’s no accident that the Solstice is on the twenty-first – we are literally getting a little more light, just a bit, every day.  I think it’s also an important theme of Hanukkah, that each night, we light just one more candle.  I think that’s worth celebrating.  I think having a day to stop and just celebrate the magic, celebrate the beauty of family and friends, to eat candy canes and drink eggnog, to watch your kids open presents and be absolutely delighted is awesome.  Christmas isn’t perfect, and it’s nowhere near as simple and as easy as it used to be for me, but it’s still an integral part of my year.  And my life.  I don’t want to miss it.  Being Jewish has added so much to my life, so much meaning and resonance, it’s given my kids a framework to build a spiritual life upon.  It’s given me Shabbat dinner, and Passover Seders and a community that I love.  But I still love Christmas.

Shalom

Shalom. I struggled with that salutation — I’m a Jew by choice and converted 4 and a half years ago, and the language can still feel clunky at times. I should be able to write that salutation without it raising the hair on my neck, but it does make me feel like an impostor sometimes.

My son, Oliver, is also 4 and a half, and my daughter, Esther, is 2 and a half. They attend a preschool/daycare program at a Jewish Community Center, and last week one of the teachers asked if we were Jewish or not. To be fair, not that many of the kids who attend our JCC seem to be Jewish. So it was kind of the teacher to ask rather than assume. However, I suspected the teacher had made an assumption that we weren’t Jewish because… well, I could come up with a list of reasons why my family of four is not passing as Jews. But most of those reasons have less to do with other people’s perceptions than with my own struggle to assert my place in this faith.

The reason I’ve decided to become a blogger on the InterfaithFamily Parenting Blog is because I felt confidant in my Jewish faith, in my Jewish marriage, in my Jewish parenting, and in my Jewish practice until my kids started becoming talkative Jewish know-a-lots. Then I realized that there is a major difference between converting to a faith as an adult and being raised in it. That shouldn’t be some huge revelation, I realize, and if my beit dein (rabbinic court) had asked me, “What’s the difference between converting to a faith and being raised in it?” before my mikveh, I probably could have responded confidently. But as with most things, children make you question a lot of your assumptions, and they keep you honest. This morning my kids were chasing each other around the breakfast table singing the motzi (blessing over bread) at the top of their lungs. In that moment I realized (1) their Jewish experience is going to be different from mine, and (2) we are not imposters. I’m excited by all the things I’m learning from these little Jewish know-a-lots, and I’m glad you’ll come along with me on this journey. Shalom.

Why I’m Blogging

Hi, my name is Suzanne and as this is my first blog post I thought I would start out by introducing myself. I am a Conservative/Reform Jewish woman (not sure where I really fit yet as I was raised Conservative but do not keep kosher anymore or follow many other rules so maybe I’m Reform?) married to my Catholic husband, Alex. We have two daughters, Kaitlyn, almost 9 (born Christmas Eve, what better day for an interfaith family?), and Megan, who is five. We live in Staten Island, New York, where we are raising our daughters in the Jewish faith, but we also celebrate the Catholic holidays as we love and respect my husband/their father.

My older daughter is in the Bet class (second class) at our Conservative synagogue but we started out at a Reform synagogue for her with Sunday School. I didn’t switch because of my personal confusion; I switched synagogues because I couldn’t get my daughter to Hebrew School on Wednesdays at the Reform temple but the Conservative temple had an arrangement with our JCC for busing if you are in their after-school program. This was being practical, not spiritual. It turned out to be a good fit for my daughter as she has more girls in her class that also attend camp with her and the boys are pretty great too (as my 5 year old would attest to with her first crush on an older man, another interfaith child who is 9 like my daughter). I miss my Reform temple, not for the spiritual way it conducted itself but for the friends I had made there. I have made some great friends at my new temple but you can’t help looking back, can you?

I’m hoping by blogging that I can help myself sort out what is going through my own mind spiritually. I feel very torn and confused at times and at others feel like I am in exactly the right place. I love being Jewish and sharing it with my daughters. I love that they are the ones who make sure we go to temple on Friday nights (which my sister and I never did with two Jewish parents!). I love how they identify themselves as Jewish, not half-Jewish. I’m torn at times when my girls ask questions about their dad’s faith or assume that all males are Catholic and all females are Jewish since their mom is Jewish and their dad is Catholic and we have no sons to show that their brother would be Jewish too (I am not Nellie from Little House on the Prairie who chose how to raise her kids by gender).

By blogging and almost forcing myself to have a conversation in my head maybe I can sort out how to continue teaching my daughters about our faith and how to respect everyone else’s too. I look forward to hearing from other parents who have handled similar situations as well.

Jew Camp

I just loaded my baby on a bus and sent him away for a month.

Ok, I realize it isn’t exactly a month.  It is 4 weeks.  Ok, I realize that it is 2 days shy of 4 weeks.  Yes, you are right, my baby isn’t a baby really… he is a big boy of almost 12.  But, still, I loaded my baby on a bus and sent him a way for a month.

He is going to, what we call, Jew Camp.  We laugh about Jew Camp, because we are the only family in our general area with a kid going to Jew Camp.  We aren’t going to Happy something camp, because we aren’t Christian.  All the kids in our area go to the Happy something camp.  The parents talk to me endlessly about it.  You would think I would be able to remember the name.  I always tune them out and smile sweetly and say, we got camp covered.  One parent persisted in knowing exactly what our plans were, and my daughter looked up at her and said, “We go to Jew Camp.  You can’t come.”  End of conversation. 

As I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I know that for many reasons it is the right thing.  First, he loves it.  He loves the activities, the kids, the counselors, everything.  Second, he will come home referring to most things in Hebrew.  He will sing the prayers every night.  He will come home from this experience feeling entirely Jewish.  He will feel like he is part, of as my daughter implied, an exclusive club and it is a pretty awesome club.

My oldest son has many things about him that aren’t like the other kids.  Aside from the fact that he has some special needs that separate him from the others, he is a Jew in a sea of Christianity.  For a month this summer he will be just like everyone else.  When he makes a joke in Hebrew the kids will get it… well if they don’t at least it won’t be because they don’t understand.  When he references Torah and his Bar Mitzvah it won’t be like he is speaking a foreign tongue.  He will be surrounded by other kids and some will understand what it is like to be a Jew in the sea of Christianity.  Many come from a family where one parent is not Jewish.

I am certain that these kids don’t really talk about that sort of stuff.  But, I think they know that the other kids “get” them.  They know that no one is going to give them a hard time because they are not going to see Santa or celebrate Easter.  These kids will all embrace Shabbat and celebrate it as it was meant to be celebrated.  There is a party going on right here and it is all about being Jewish.  Mac comes home from camp feeling love for his Jewishness.  What more could we ask for? 

As I watched my somewhat socially awkward child board the bus without a care in the world, laughing with his friends, I knew in my heart I did the right thing.  He was confident, happy and full of joy.  I realized that I was in fact doing a good job.  We will miss him.

Book: The Invisible Wall

When I go to the library at the Jewish Community Centre, I tend to browse and just grab whatever book catches my fancy.  A few weeks ago, I couldn't find anything, so I asked the librarian if she had any recommendations.  I was in the mood for a memoir or something historical.  She recommended Harry Bernstein's memoir The Invisible Wall. 

Mr. Bernstein wrote his memoirs (a series of 3 books) in his late nineties after his wife had passe away.  He paints an amazing picture of England in the early twentieth century.  He lived on a small street where the Jews lived on one side and the Christians on the other side.  Antisemitic remarks were commonplace and something they lived with constantly. 

I hadn't realized that the book would actually include the issue of intermarriage.  The eldest sister Lily, married a non Jew, a boy who lived across the street.  They had a secret romance and eventually "eloped" to the country side where they were married.  Mother Bernstein was heartbroken.  They mourned her "death" and sat shivah.  Lily even came to the house to show she was very much alive, but her family ignored her. 

Eventually they accepted the marriage, when a grandchild was born.  In fact the street became united to celebrate the birth of the child of intermarriage. 

I could certainly relate to what Lily went through.  After I started dating my first non Jewish boy, my parents were disappointed and our relationship was severed for a long time.  After the birth of our son, my parents have come around themselves, accepting my husband.  I know it can't be easy for them to put aside their own upbringing and ingrained beliefs, but they are doing it and showing amazing love and grace to my husband. 

Historically, Jews who intermarried were trying to shed their Jewish spirituality.  They felt that religion and spirituality were the cause of antisemitism, and by being "like everyone else" they would be more accepted.  This was the case for Lily and her husband. 

Today, people have many reasons for marrying "out"; religion may not be as important, or it can be as simple as they fell in love with that person, who happens to not be Jewish (the latter is what applies to me).  More importantly, many intermarried couples still want their children to have some kind of Jewish upbringing. 

Lily didn't even want her son to be circumcised.  I felt a bit sad that she could not see anything beautiful about her Jewish spirituality, only the ugliness of the antisemitism. 

I thought that as a society, we have moved forward and intermarriage would be more accepted, but from my experience of forming a parenting group, I am hearing otherwise.  Intermarriage rates may be high, but it does not necessarily imply that Jewish communities are welcoming. 

Why I Do Not Want My Children to Intermarry

When I first graduated from my MBA program a lot of important things happened in my life.  I got a new job, I got engaged to a Jewish man and I was called out in a lawsuit for being anti-Semitic.  This is not something I think about much anymore, but I was specifically named in the lawsuit for my anti-Semitic ways.  I remember the day I was served I thought, but I am marrying a Jew, how can I possibly be anti-Semitic?  I am raising my kids as Jews.  The whole thing didn’t make sense to me.

The woman who served the company with the lawsuit took what I did and said out of context, and the lawsuit was eventually ruled on in my favor.  But, what she said to me has in some part stuck with me.  She told me that the numbers of Jews are decreasing.  By marrying a Jewish man I am in fact aiding in decreasing the number of Jews in the world.  Her final conclusion was that I was so dedicated to ending the Jewish religion that I was giving my life to marry a Jew in my attempt to lessen the numbers.  She called me some not to nice names as well, but I won’t repeat them.  She was a little crazy.

I have been thinking about this a lot, as I have been trying to formulate a response to Steve’s comment regarding my recent post about not wanting my kids to intermarry.  Is my reticence to allow my kids to do what I did rooted in my desire to prove her wrong?  Or at least not let her be right.  I think that there is more to it than that, but there is probably a small amount of truth there.  I don’t want to contribute to the decline in numbers.

Being intermarried is not super easy, especially when the spouse does not convert.  Right, wrong or indifferent, I was inaugurated into the Jewish faith with “a don’t ask don’t tell policy.”  I look Jewish enough to pass muster at temple.  No one questions me.  I don’t correct people.  While everyone at our temple is really friendly and I doubt any of them care, there is still a sense of not belonging that is hard to shake.  My peers in this situation have responded by either converting or not being involved.  There is a small stalwart group of us that is involved and not converted.  We meet for coffee under the cover of darkness.

Again, the people at our temple are really warm and welcoming.  What I am talking about is not a specific issue, but rather a general feeling.  There is so much written and discussed about not wanting Jews to intermarry.  There is still an underlying current of disapproval for making that choice.  Just look around and see how easy it is to find a rabbi that will marry an interfaith couple, or a mohel who will perform a bris for a baby born to a non-Jewish mother, even if the non-Jewish partner is fully and wholly committed to raising the children as Jews.

Being a clueless optimist, it really never occurred to me that it might be hard when I made these choices.  But, I am less pie-eyed about my decision, and I realize that it is not something most people can do.  I do not want my kids to find themselves in a place where they forced to choose between their religion and their potential spouse.  One way to eliminate that is to not date out of the faith.  Old-fashioned, archaic one might say, but also avoids the potential for conflict.

Bottom line, marriage is hard work.  The fewer areas of potential conflict you have with your spouse the better.  I want my kids to be happy and successful, and as such, it seems marrying a Jew would be easier.  That said, my husband and I make a good team.  I don’t know that I could have found a better partner in my own faith.

Have a Little Faith

Sometimes I think what will be written on my headstone when I die is She had a lot of faith. As Roman Catholic raising Jewish children, I spend a lot of my time in houses of worship—three hours in the synagogue on Saturdays and an hour at Mass on Sundays—preparing for and celebrating holidays, and talking about God and religion with my friends and family.

The truth is I love it. I love being Catholic and I love that my family is Jewish. I am by no means a religious expert or theologian. I have studied Judaism for the past twelve years since I met my husband and as much as I have learned, I do feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Once when I was talking with a (Jewish) friend, trying to understand the differences between the Jewish denominations, he finally said the different denominations are about five minutes old in the span of Judaism, and I should not worry about the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reconstructionist Jew. He told me to study the Jewish holidays, interpret them for my family, and all will be well.

I am sure some would take exception to that advice, but it has worked for me all these years. I cannot expound on all facets of Jewish religion, tradition, and customs, but I have found my way living a Jewish life with my family. I am grateful for all of my teachers along the way, my children’s preschool, their Jewish summer camp, our synagogue, great friends, and resources on Interfaithfamily.com. And I cannot forget the secretary at my church who recommended the mohel we used for my son’s brit milah (circumcision).

My son is eight years old and my daughter is six. I am happy to share that they are thriving in all aspects of their humanity, they are healthy, they are socially agreeable, and self-identify as Jews. They know I am not Jewish and love me anyway. Last year when William was seven and Sarah was five, we took them to our local mikveh to be officially converted. Of course some lines of Judaism recognize patrilineal descent, but it was important to us to have them officially converted for their Jewish legitimacy to be recognized by most modern denominations.

On the appointed day, William and Sarah went through the ritual immersion for Jewish conversion at the Community Mikveh in Wilmette, Illinois. One at a time, they entered the small holy pool and immersed their whole bodies under the water three times. After each immersion, a prayer was said by the beit din (rabbinic court officiating the ritual) blessing them into the Jewish religion.

William and Sarah loved the experience. My husband and I prepared them for it in advance. The mikveh is a special place. The water is the most special water you will ever feel on your skin. You will be sealed with God’s grace in a very special way. Enjoy it; savor it because it will be a long time before you can go into a mikveh again.

Enjoy it they did. Sarah went first and made us promise she can come back again one day. William dunked himself at least six times. He treaded water. He swam around. He stayed in as long as he could.
The following day was Friday. At our Shabbat dinner, we all made toasts to how wonderful it is to be Jewish and what a remarkable week it had been. Our Shabbat Shaloms , l’chaims and special Shabbat blessings felt extra special and authentic. It was then when I realized that I really am the only non-Jew in our house. I also realized my work to raise Jewish children was not over. It had just begun.