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.

The Saturday Dilemma

Shabbat meals are ready.  The house is far from clean.  I have pretty much given up on preparing the whole house for Shabbat now that we have a baby.  Once a month, we have budgeted in for a cleaning lady.  I will have to wait one more week until the entire house will feel sparking and beautiful for the Shabbat Queen. 

My husband has learned to enjoy the holiness of Shabbat.  He comes home from work, and the Shabbat candles are lit, there is a beautiful meal ready to be served, and his wife seems a bit more relaxed than other days. 

In recent years I have increased my level of Shabbat observance.  I don’t drive, I don’t answer the phone or use electricity.  I want the same thing for my son.  My husband, who is not Jewish, isn’t required to keep the laws of Shabbat.  I know he isn’t really interested in fully observing anyway.  I worry sometimes, though, how that will affect my son. 

Before I go on, I want to say my husband is 100% supportive of my Jewish spirituality.  There are just certain things he can’t or won’t do himself though.  I get it. 

I know my husband likes his Saturdays for his man-cave time.  He tinkers on whatever needs to be worked on.  For him, Saturday is catch up day.  Or a day to run off with the boys for a mountain bike ride or a ski.

I have discussed with him on many occasions that right now, while our son is still young and mostly unaware, he can do what he wants.  But soon, probably way too soon, our son will be more in tune with what is going on in his house.  No doubt, he will want to be with Daddy, do what Daddy does.  Why would he want to stay home with Mommy and go to shul if Daddy is running off doing something fun like biking? 

I think about these kinds of things a lot.  I want my son to appreciate and enjoy his Jewish spirituality.  I wonder how to balance all of this.  Let my husband keep his cave time while educating our son. 

What do you think?

Santa or Star of David?

I’ve been trying to figure out how to narrow down the eleventy-seven questions that run through my head this time of year. (Couple that with my work barely coming out of busy season in time for the added holiday stress, and I’m often a real joy to be around this time of year.) I know my household isn’t alone in facing the December Dilemma, and I know we all have unique circumstances in our dilemmas. So, to keep the confusion in my head from just spilling out all over the page here, I’ll try to limit today’s post to just a couple issues.

We live in the Bible belt where, to put it nicely, people just assume you’re Christian. There are no Jewish day schools or daycares near where I live, so Baby goes to “school” at a wonderful daycare near our home. This school uses the A Beka curriculum, which is a Christian-based curriculum. We knew this when we chose the daycare, and we decided it was still the best place for Baby to go while we both work during the day. He’s happy there. His best friend (not coincidentally, the child of one of my best friends) is in his class. The teachers love him, the directors love him, and we’re quite pleased with the care he gets.

The school is warm and caring, and they decorate for all the seasons and holidays. Christmas is no exception. Yes, you read that right. Christmas is no exception. There are no menorahs or other Hanukkah decorations. There are no Kwanzaa decorations. It’s all snowflakes and Santa and stockings and trees. (At least it’s all “secular” Christmas decorations, even though many of you – my husband included – will tell me there’s no such thing as “secular” Christmas decorations. I hope we can agree to disagree on that for just this minute.) It’s festive and fun, and Baby LOVES the snowflakes and blue ball ornaments hanging from the ceiling all down the hall. As the Christian parent in the family, this actually doesn’t bother me…except…Baby is Jewish. Should it bother me? Should I request that the adorable Santa face outside the classroom that has Baby’s name on it be replaced with a Star of David or a menorah? We’ve not been overt about Baby’s religion, nor do we feel we need to be…should we be? Would it make things awkward at school? Should it matter to me if it does?

Bottom line, I know that the quality of care Baby gets at his school is the most important thing, and that he’s happy there. And I know that one day – or even one “season” (in the sense of the Christmas season) – won’t make him any less Jewish, if his Daddy and I do our jobs right as interfaith-parents-raising-a-Jewish-child. But still, these types of questions nag at the back of my mind. I’d love to hear thoughts from others in similar situations out there.

When is December Not A Dilemma?

As everyone who is reading this already knows, December is probably the most stressful/crazy/anxiety-ridden time of the year.  Or at least that’s what everyone wants you to feel.  Especially if you are intermarried or if you grew up in an interfaith family.  The questions – What are you doing for the holidays?  Do you have a tree?  Do your kids believe in Santa?  Do your kids get presents for both holidays?  Maybe it’s because I have been intermarried for 10 years and have had kids for the last 7, but thankfully I do not have a dilemma in December.  This is due to my amazing husband, in-laws and extended family and because we really did and continue to do the work to secure this non-dilemma situation during this crazy time of the year.  We celebrate Chanukah in our house and Christmas at my in-laws and extended family.  We each have our own menorah and bring it with us when the holidays overlap.  We have a great time and so do our kids.  While my in-laws celebrate Christmas as a truly religious one, we celebrate it as a truly fun day or two to spend with family – exchange gifts – and eat cinnamon buns.

The first year we were married, and I didn’t observe my family’s Jewish Christmas tradition of going to the movies and going out for Chinese food – unique, I know – I was completely overwhelmed by the gifts.  My in-laws are completely non-materialistic people so that made me even more taken aback.  Chanukah in my family was one nice gift and a bunch of little things for the rest of the seven nights.  Thankfully after we had kids, the bulk of the presents went to them – rightfully so – but I still haven’t been able to make my own peace with all of the presents.  Even today, I went to Macy’s in our local mall for a Chanukah Family Fest and was simply in shock at how many people were at the mall and all of the shopping bags they were walking out with.  Not that I am anti-gifts – my kids would never forgive me for that.  In fact, I am done with my shopping and I bought almost all of the gifts at non-commercial places like independent toy stores and book stores – crowds make me a little crazy plus I am a bad decision-maker so smaller stores with fewer options work out better for me. 

The first couple of years with our kids at Christmas, I was slightly adamant about their gifts being wrapped in non-Christmas paper: something wintery was fine – snowflakes or snowmen – and I definitely didn’t want any gifts from Santa – only from Grammy & Poppy.  I am beyond grateful that my in-laws respected my wishes – and humored me.   I also feel that my husband and I have done our job as parents for the other 364 days out of the year so one day is not going to make a lasting impact in their identity.

Now our 7 year old is the one asking questions – Why aren’t stores decorated for Chanukah?  Why do only people who celebrate Christmas put up lights in their yard?  Why do more people celebrate Christmas than Chanukah?  Is Santa real?  My husband and I try to answer these questions with simple yet truthful answers and in a way to let him know that we know these things can be hard to understand.  The Santa one is the hardest because it is such an honest question and one that we don’t want him to ruin for his friends – kind of like the tooth fairy.  It’s a tough one – what do you tell your kids?

Back To “Normal”

It’s been a crazy few weeks since my last post where I described my 7 year old’s 10 day sickness.  About a week after he finally recovered, I got the flu and a horrible cough – not normal since I usually get sick once every 5 years.  Then the weekend of Halloween, the Northeast, and Connecticut in particular, got hit with a crazy and very unexpected Fall snowstorm that left a foot of snow on the ground and us and most of our friends without power for 10 – 12 days.  School was cancelled for 7 full days – not normal.  The JCC, where I work, was closed for 10 days so I had no work and my 2 year old son had no day care – not normal.  Halloween was cancelled in our town and many others close-by due to downed trees, branches and power lines – not normal.  And we moved in with my in-laws for 8 days – definitely not normal!  Don’t get me wrong – I love my in-laws – but to be in someone else’s home, with no schedule, strange sleeping arrangements and no routine was tough on all of us.  Many of my friends and co-workers left town to stay with friends or relatives in other states  and those who did stay or had generators had multiple families over to shower, eat hot meals, charge their phones and computers and simply warm up on a daily basis.  Things that we all had planned to enjoy in these 10 days were cancelled – my son’s Consecration ceremony where he and all of his first grade classmates receive their own Torahs, soccer games, family get-togethers and birthday parties.  Finally when power was restored to our home, places of work and to our schools – things were FINALLY back to normal.  I had never wanted to go to work that badly in my entire life!

I also had a chance to reflect on the word “normal” at a training I attended in Boston last week for Jewish educators who work with intermarried couples and families.  The training started off with a panel of four intermarried couples who were all raising their children as Jews and had all found synagogues that they consider “home”.  They seemed to all feel normal as intermarried families in these synagogues because these synagogues and clergy were warm, welcoming, caring and respectful of them as an intermarried family – like any other family who is a member at that synagogue.

This got me thinking about how I feel like a perfectly normal family in my synagogue and in the Jewish community at large.  Our synagogue has many intermarried families as does the JCC pre-school where my younger son attends.  I get asked all the time by JCC members that I have just met “Are you Jewish?” because of my last name – MacGilpin.  When my husband and I got married I knew that I wanted to take his name because I felt like one day if we had kids, I wanted us all to have the same last name.  At that time, about 10 years ago, Soledad O’Brien was the news anchor on the TODAY Show and I thought, if she could have a Spanish and Irish name then I could have a Hebrew and Scottish name.  Completely normal, right?

Our Date with the Rabbi

Since moving back to Atlanta, my husband and I have been running around like madmen buying furniture, reconnecting with old friends, traveling to see family, settling into our jobs and new house and preparing for the kid-to-be.

Hectic is the theme of our life right now. Between CPR classes, baby showers, doctor appointments and pediatrician interviews, this tiny little baby in my belly has already squarely established himself as center of our attention.  But we’re okay with that… he’s just so darn cute.

This morning was no different as it was our first meeting with a rabbi of a local synagogue to discuss joining the temple and his views on intermarriage and conversion.  We’ve attended services at this synagogue a few times and both felt very comfortable, not an easy task for a family quite like ours.

After the usual formalities, our discussions varied from homosexuality and Hebrew school philosophies to Israeli politics and what makes someone Jewish.  It was not exactly what I expected, but I enjoyed the conversation immensely.  He shared personal stories of his own interfaith family (he is married to a Jew-by-choice) and inquired about our experience. His views on intermarriage and conversion meshed well with our own and his questions for us even made us stop and think about issues we’ve never considered… Again, not an easy task when it comes to two people who have had nearly 10 years to discuss everything under the sun (and believe me we both are known to be quite the talkers).

The rabbi, of course, asked me why I haven’t considered conversion and listened without judgment or interruption as I explained my personal decision not to convert.  Yes, my conversion would make everything easier and on the practical level makes complete sense.  I mean, I already live in a Jewish household, keep kosher, celebrate Jewish holidays, attend synagogue, know Hebrew and even lived in Israel for a year.  Come on, it is all right there!

But I’m not looking for easy.  I’m not looking for practicality when it comes to my spiritual needs.  I’m looking for a relationship with G-d.  My own faith fulfills that need and until it doesn’t and until I find I am fulfilled by Judaism, I have no plans to convert.  He accepted my reasoning under the caveat that the discussion, not only for conversion purposes, but for the overall role of religion and spirituality in our lives between us as a couple, our families, our community and internally never be over.  As a true believer in the art of good communication and continued personally growth, I fully agreed.  I don’t expect us to know the answers to every hurdle we may face as a family and I want someone in our religious community I can trust to help us navigate the path ahead.

I hope we have found a home temple where we both feel comfortable, where my husband and our children can grow in their Judaism, where we can find a community of acceptance and support and leaders who guide us to better ourselves as a family.

Having a baby has flipped our world upside down in hundreds of ways already and I can’t wait to see what this little guy has in store for us next.  He is making us better and opening our eyes to our greater potential every single day.

Before leaving us with a firm handshake, another date to discuss a mohel, a few booklets and a membership packet, the rabbi said he hoped he’d see us in services very soon.  I think he just may.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year – no – not Christmas and not back to school – but back to Hebrew School.  Remember that amazing Staples commercial from a few years back with the dad dancing through the store while tossing school supplies into the cart with the song playing in the background?  Well that’s how I feel now that it’s back to Hebrew School for my almost 7-year-old first grader.  My family joined a wonderful Reform synagogue in our area last year, just before my son started Kindergarten.  He had been at the JCC for daycare and preschool since he was 10 months old, so on a weekly and daily basis he got all of the loveliness of being at a Jewish school – Shabbat, challah, Jewish holidays, songs, crafts, PJ library books, Shabbat box, etc. I also work at that JCC so we got plenty of opportunities to participate in Jewish activities.   So when he wasn’t going to be getting that from school we felt we needed to step up to the plate and choose a synagogue and choose to send him to Hebrew School on Sunday mornings.

I don’t have particularly strong or happy feelings about my own Hebrew school days and my husband is Episcopalian so his Sunday school was completely different – although probably similar in many ways – holidays, bible stories, music, prayers.  We both wanted our son to enjoy his time at Hebrew School but wasn’t sure that was going to happen based on our own experiences.  Many people I know have said, “Well, I went to Hebrew School, so now my son/daughter is going to go – whether they like it or not”.  In our case, I think the “liking it” factor has definitely gone beyond my son – I actually like it.

I like it because he gets to spend time with other Jewish kids on a weekly basis – solely for the purpose that they are all Jewish and that their families think it’s important to have a Jewish education.  I like it because he gets to learn more about the holidays, prayers and Hebrew than I am able teach him.  I like it because it gives my husband and me another Jewish community to belong to.  I like it because the families there are all Jewish, yet all different in their own way – whether the parents are both Jewish, intermarried, gay, single parents or adoptive parents.  I also like it because our temple invites the parents to join the service every Sunday at 11 am.  I am able to see my son listening to the rabbi, going up on the bimah to lead songs and see his Jewish education in action. 

The best part for me is that I really enjoy the service myself – and I am not one to go to temple on a weekly basis on my own – no regular temple go-er here.  I love the songs and the sign language that the rabbi and cantor teach the kids.  I love connecting to Judaism through music and the absolute best part is the last song of the service.  It’s Tefilat Haderech by Debbie Friedman z”l and the rabbi asks everyone to “hold someone close to you” – and simultaneously all the kids put their arms around their friend’s shoulders and join in singing.  It brings me to tears – almost every time – to see this and to see my son grab his friends swaying in song.  It brings me back to my days at Jewish sleep away camp – which hold a special place in my heart.  It also brings to mind my dad, who passed away 2 years ago, and how proud he would be of me and my husband for choosing this kind of education and Jewish path for our family.

I also have to be honest and say that I also like having two hours to clean the house, go to Trader Joe’s and Target, go to the gym or spend quality time with our 2-year-old son.  I’m not going to lie – its pretty great.  But I mostly look forward to the 11:00 hour when I can be in the sanctuary and be an active participant in the Hebrew school service.

Introducing Susanna

HI!  Welcome to the Interfaith Parenting blog.  Since we are starting with introductions, I will take a moment to introduce myself and my brood.  I am the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith family.  When my husband and I got married, we were told:  It will never last, you will get divorced, it is doomed, interfaith marriages never work out, don’t get married unless you convert.  Having just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, I want to say pppbbbttt to all the nay-sayers!  We are still going strong and I would be very surprised if we divorced because he is Jewish and I am not.

I am still not Jewish.  I really don’t plan to become Jewish.  It isn’t part of what I want to do for me.  It isn’t part of my reality.  That does not mean that I don’t drive the kids to Religious School every week, make challah for Shabbat, take them to temple… alone, and do what a “real” Jewish mother would do.  My relationship with G-d is mine, and it isn’t Jewish.

We have three wonderful, Jewish children, two boys (11 and 8) and a girl (5, almost 6 (she wanted me to say that)).  They are more than Jewish, but living in what seems to be the epicenter of Christianity, I find that describing them as Jewish happens more often than not.  Oh the looks I get when I tell people that our babysitter is going to Israel for a semester and wants to be a rabbi

As a family we struggle to educate people that Christmas is a Christian holiday, that Santa Claus does not go to shul and that Easter is not for everyone.  One of my biggest surprises was going into my son’s kindergarten class and asking how many of them had heard of Hanukkah.  It was shocking how many really didn’t know anything about it.  Our challenge is to teach people about tolerance, and we believe that education is the route to that.

We are also embarking on many life cycle events: our oldest started middle school and is preparing for a bar mitzvah, our middle son is starting Hebrew school on Wednesdays, and our baby is going to kindergarten.  We are experiencing a great deal of change.  How that impacts our family and our sense of who we are, well, I guess you will have to keep reading to find out. 

Hope you take some time to put us in your RSS reader and keep coming back.  It is a great group of bloggers.