Private Practice

I am going to admit to something that I would not normally cop to in such a public forum.  I watch Private Practice.  It is a guilty pleasure.  In the show, Cooper (Jewish) is married to Charlotte (Christian).  They are pregnant with triplets, and the topic of what religion to raise the kids comes up.  It is discussed for 2 minutes (which we all know in tvland is a deep heartfelt discussion) and they decide to expose the kids to both and let them decide.

My television still works.  I did throw everything I thing I could reach from my nest of blankets at it though.  My husband is so glad I was too tired to knit, so I was not armed with pointy sticks.  All I had near me were old magazines and papers, not a good weapon to be found.  That will teach me to clean.  I was disgusted.  Really?  We will let the children decided.

My poor family had to listen to me yell at Cooper and Charlotte and tell them that they are massive wimps.  Make a decision (there may have been more colorful language here, but this is a family blog).  Seriously, you are the adults and you can’t decide so you abdicate the decision to your children?  After I calmed down a bit, my kids asked me why I feel so strongly about this. (They were not watching with us, but came down when they heard the ruckus.)

First, one reason they gave for doing both was that the kids would be denied the other parents religion.  Ok, I can see that is a very scary prospect.  Seriously, I almost didn’t get married because of that.  I understand.  But, in reality, you can still celebrate and expose your kids to both, without identifying them as both (or really nothing).

My kids very strongly identify as Jews.  Yet, they happily go to see my family every year for Christmas.  They know it isn’t their holiday, but that does not mean you cannot enjoy it.  Just like we invite Christian friends to have latkes and share in a Passover Seder.

But, the real reason it irritated me so much is that by raising the kids as both, you raise them as nothing.  You put your child in the position that you found yourself in, having to choose one parent over the other.  Imagine how that must feel?  Life is hard enough without having to choose which religion you want to practice, while potentially alienating one of your parents.  That is why the parents need to choose.  Best if you do this before you get married, because really if you can’t agree it will become a deal breaker.

My husband pointed out to me as we wrestled with this decision, that you cannot be a Jewish Christian.  They are separate religions.  In order to do one of them well, you cannot be the other.  I am not advocating one way or the other, but I am saying CHOOSE.  When the rabbi told me that he didn’t care what decision we made just that we made one, the reality of this situation was brought home to me.

The statement that people make of “I will let the kids choose,” tells me that they recognize that a choice needs to be made.  But, for some probably highly logical reason, the adults in the family did not want to make it.  We make thousands of decisions during our kid’s lives that have immeasurable impact on their development.  Some right, some wrong, many without so much as a second thought, I would like to encourage everyone to make this choice for their kids.  Let them have an identity.

It was ugly at my house as all of this went down.  When the child that the couple already had said, “I like being both, double the holidays, double the presents.” I had to turn the television off.

Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah Come Light the…Christmas Tree?

Saturday morning my family and I were at a children’s Shabbat service. Halfway through the service, our youth director asked the children to think of something they were excited to experience in the coming week. My son Oliver perked up and shot me an excited look, then reached his arm high into the air. I knew what was coming. We were going to cut down our Christmas tree the next day, and Oliver had been talking about it incessantly all week long. He is a child who hides his face and refuses to talk in Shabbat services, but Christmas trees could bring him out of his shell. I began sinking farther down in my seat and wishing this wasn’t happening.

Sure enough, the youth director called on Oliver first. “I’m excited to get our Christmas tree tomorrow!” he practically shouted. To the youth director’s credit, and probably in recognition of the number of interfaith families who are members of our synagogue, she asked Oliver whether or not we were going to cut the tree ourselves or buy it pre-cut. Oliver had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from saying we would buy it pre-cut. Then she said, “Sounds fun!” and moved on to the next child, who expressed his excitement for Hanukkah starting in a week. Which got Oliver excited, too. Hanukkah AND Christmas were so close? Amazing!

It was a nice moment, because she didn’t shoot him down or ignore his excitement. She did what a good youth director does and engaged him in conversation. Oliver was pleased that he participated. And I felt relieved and thankful for a youth director who understands interfaith families and excited little kids.

The episode reminded me of a Hanukkah/Christmas book called, “Light the Lights” by Margaret Moorman. I like it because it explores how both holidays use light during the darkest time of the year, and many of the sweetest interactions are about talking to your neighbors and observing your community as it prepares for the holidays. I especially like that you can’t tell which parent is the “Jewish” parent and which one is the “Christian” parent. Instead, both parents are equally participating and enjoying the holidays. It’s available at Amazon.com for under $10, and is part of the growing canon of books exploring both holidays.

My Girls Are 100% Jewish

So I’m at Thanksgiving last night with my husband’s family and religion somehow came up (does it come up as much with families that are all one religion, or do I just notice it more being from an interfaith family?).  I was discussing how my daughters actually like going to temple (have no idea what I’m doing right there) and my husband’s uncle mentioned that they are half-Jewish.  That got the hairs on the back of my neck to rise like a disturbed cat.  I don’t know about you, but my kids aren’t “half” anything.  They have a Jewish mother and a Catholic father but they aren’t half Catholic; they are 100% Jewish.  I didn’t even know how to respond without offending him (and more importantly my mother-in-law) and to top it off my mother was sitting right there too but thankfully it either went over her head, she didn’t hear it, or the filter between her brain and mouth was working (it doesn’t always work) and she kept quiet.  If she did hear I can’t wait to see if she comments next time we are together without my husband around, that’ll be a hoot.

It bothers me that I didn’t know how to respond.  I am so grateful that my mother-in-law is cool (or at least an academy award winning actress) about my girls being brought up Jewish and no one else from my husband’s family has ever said anything negative about it, but the 50-50 comments bother me.  Is there a way to address it or do I just let it go, knowing that my girls view everything correctly and that it will all get sorted out as they get older?

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.

Sammy Sings the Shema

As I’ve posted on here before, our bedtime routine is pretty typical – bath, pjs, stories, songs, lights out. While the pjs and the stories chosen might vary each night, the songs never do.

Each night, the request is the same: first, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (no, I’m not kidding; he actually wants to hear this EVERY night); second, the Shema; third, “La La Lu” (the lullaby from Lady and the Tramp).

Lately Sam has started to sing the songs with me. I know he doesn’t fully understand it yet, but I love that Sam is already starting to “pray” with me at night. I hope his “bedtime song” helps to open the door for him to easily talk to G-d as he grows.

If you incorporate prayers into your evening routine, when did your kids start saying them with you? When do you think they started to understand that they were more than just words or pretty tunes?

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.

Bed Time

Lori Palatnik recommended that I start saying the Shema with my son in the morning and in the evening before bed. 

After nursing my son, I would sing to him this song I learned in a play group (to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Litter Star):

Twinkle Twinkle Cochavim (stars)
High up in the Shemayim (sky)
When we say the Shema today, everything will be ok
When we say the the Shema tonight, everything will be alright. 

Then I sing the Shema.  My son is too young to understand, but I am hoping somewhere in his soul, these words will soothe him.  I say my own prayers for my son's welfare and I daven (pray) for those needing prayers of health. 

As my son gets older and has a better understanding, I am hoping that bed time will become a nice time to talk to G-d

What do you do for bed time ritual?

Joy

In early May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend the JCC‘s of North America Biennial Conference in New Orleans.  Most of the conference sessions I attended were about leadership, community and the future of the JCC movement – all very interesting and meaningful to me as a JCC professional.  However, the best workshop I attended was the one presented by David Ackerman of the JCC Association and Karina Zilberman, creator of Shababa at the 92nd Street Y in New York City focused on celebrating Shabbat at JCCs.  If you live in Manhattan and you have small children, my advice is to RUN, not walk, to the 92nd Street Y for Shababa Fridays and Saturdays.  If your kids like music and you like to feel inspired, this is the place.  In a room full of 40 adults, Karina was able to create an atmosphere of joy that I haven’t experienced really since summer camp many moons ago.  Her spirit, creativity and unique enthusiasm had a way of making everyone feel good, and in essence, make everyone feel good about being Jewish.  That’s a pretty big and important task.

This experience really got me thinking about joy and Judaism – are my husband and I making Judaism joyful for our boys?  We try to make it fun by bringing them to the JCC and synagogue Purim carnivals, by taking them to see Mama Doni concerts and by celebrating Passover with their cousins.  We try to make it part of our lives by going to religious school on Sundays and participating in the family service each week.  We try to make it social by setting up playdates with Jewish friends.  But do we make it joyful?  How do we really do that? 

I think I can see and hear joy when our boys are singing Jewish songs in the car and reading books from the PJ library – but how can we take it to the next level?  Overnight camp is one way for sure – Friday night services outside with all of your friends, singing the Birkat Hamazon (blessing after the meal) with all of the “campy” traditions – but until they (and we) are ready for that, what can we do now?  How can we ensure that they feel great about being Jewish and that they feel joy when they are doing Jewish things? 

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.

Interfaith Parenting Support Group

I have a confession.  I love the events posted on InterfaithFamily.com’s Network.

I am jealous.  I wish we had similar events here.  So I went on a mission.  I wanted to find some kind of local support group for interfaith families with one Jewish parent. 

I didn’t have any success finding anything established locally.  The programs I found were beginner level designed to teach basic concepts of Jewish spirituality and culture, which wasn’t what I was looking for. 

Naaleh offers a series of lectures on making Jewish holidays and life events meaningful to children.  I have listened to a couple and Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller does present some great ideas for making Jewish spirituality come alive to children of all ages.  I am looking for the ideas but put into the context of an interfaith family — when one parent isn’t Jewish. 

Thankfully, Benjamin from right here on IFF helped me get some things rolling.  He met up with some of the local Jewish Federation people at TribeFest.  He pitched my idea and they loved it.  He got me in touch with the right person and we’re trying to set up an introductory event, mostly to get people in the room and figure out where to go with this idea.   

Benjamin suggested I work on articulating the goal of this support group:  The goal is to help parents of interfaith families with parenting skills and decisions within a partial or fully Jewish household.  For example, there are the winter holidays — do you celebrate one or both and how would you explain it to the kids? 

Here are some of the questions that have crossed my mind:

– How do we keep the non-Jewish parent involved and not let them feel like the odd wheel? 
– How do we answer questions the children might have about the non-Jewish parent’s religion? 
– How do we answer the in-laws questions about Jewish practices like keeping Kosher (“what do you mean Junior can’t eat here?”)? 
– How do I choose a synagogue?  Does it have to be Reform just because my husband isn’t Jewish?   

I am trying to find practical answers to these questions.  How do you answer the questions without sounding like you have joined some kind of cult?  (“Yeah and then on Yom Kippur we swing a chicken around our heads…”)

I know there is no right answer, and in fact it’s the mixture of answers I would love to hear. 

They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and I am trying to find a village!  I keep hearing about the 50% interfaith marriage rate and assume some of these people have children — where is everybody? 

Do you have any experience with a similar kind of support network?  Do you just rely on your local shul for support or do you have a parent group you meet with regularly?  What do you talk about? 

I would really appreciate if you would share your experiences or even what you would look for in a support group.