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This yearâ€™s Rosh Hashanah became the beginning of a challenging New Year. Approaching the middle of my third trimester with a two-year-old at home I refused to cook. I spent the Wednesday afternoon before the festivities with my feet up while blowing bubbles for my daughter. There was only one small tantrum that occurred in the kitchen when I said â€śchickenâ€ť and my daughter said â€ścookieâ€ť and then when I pulled out a cutlet there were a few kicks and screams and â€ścookie, cookie, cookie!â€ť demands. Other than that, things seemed to be going my way.
We had Rosh Hashanah dinner at my motherâ€™s house and my daughter and nephews played until they exhausted themselves and then we all went to bed. The real Rosh Hashanah tradition begins in the morning when my mother and I walk one mile to our Orthodox synagogue every year. This is purely tradition. We are not Orthodox and I have been running an interfaith household with my Mexican/Catholic partner since before our first daughter was born. But the walking to the synagogue where my father prayed and where we went to visit my grandmother as children, because she lives half a block away, is the tradition I have kept because it is most important to me. It is also important for me to share that tradition with my own daughter and the new baby girl on the way.
It was so humid for our walk in the morning that my mother and I had to stop every few blocks. (AtÂ 72, my mother is in better shape than her pregnant daughter.) We huffed and puffed and made it in time to hear the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn that the rabbi blows into every year. And every year he says the same thingâ€”that no one can hear the shofar in the streets without trembling. I always tremble when he says this because it is such a unique image and I imagine the olden days when perhaps this was true.
It is always the walk to synagogue with my mother that matters on the High Holy Day. Of course we pray and we listen to the rabbiâ€™s sermon, but when we walk, we share memories. We wonder and are in awe of how we both made it so far with so much heartache. We look at my daughter and marvel how a baby so Jewish and so Catholic at the same time can be so blessed.
Our walk home this year is what changes things. On our way back to the house, my mother tells me she is excited because she will be going with my nephews to synagogue on Friday morning. At first, I think my brother will be bringing them to our synagogue. He doesnâ€™t live too far away but he would have to drive them over. But then my mother assures me that he is not driving, in fact SHE is driving to their house in the morning and going to a new synagogue in my brotherâ€™s neighborhood. I stop walking and have to sit down.
During my most challenging times of trying to balance two cultures and two religions in my own home and trying to give my daughter the gift of both beautiful worlds, I have never broken my own traditions to do so. I have never told my mother I was not going to synagogue with her. I have never missed a Passover seder. So it shocked me when my mother decided to do something she has never done before on our most important holiday. It also shocked me that I hadnâ€™t been invited. I was stunned.
The next morning was a beautiful day in Brooklyn. It was what Rosh Hashanah is made of. The neighborhood was green and the sky was a piercing blue. There was no humidity. The sidewalks had cooled off and the Orthodox women in my neighborhood shuffled by in their best dresses. Lilac, burgundy, opal and sea foam green were the colors of the dayâ€™s fabric. I walked out of my house without my mother. At first, I thought that I should try a new synagogue. Next door to our apartment, where I held a baby naming for my daughter, they had a service. When I walked in and the woman asked if I needed help I told her I had forgotten something at home and I walked back out onto the street.
I took the long walk to synagogue alone. When I approached my seat inside, the rabbi had just brought out the torah and everyone stood. Rosh Hashanah signifies a new beginning. It is the day God opens a new page and decides whether or not we will be forgiven for our past sins. It is a joyous holiday celebrated by the tradition of eating apples dipped in honey for the desire for a sweet year to come. It is on this day that I can always hear my father singing, even though he has been gone for so long. It is on this day that I thank God for the opportunities I have, for a family I have made with two faiths. But it was never in my mind that on this day, I would sit without my mother when she is still alive and well. It was never in my mind that I would miss someone. It never occurred to me that the matriarch of my own childhood family would be the first one to truly break tradition, to unravel it like a typewriter ribbonâ€”as if at the last minute she decided to change the story.
The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.
Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldnâ€™t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.
Because I wasnâ€™t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you donâ€™t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.â€ť (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.
I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasnâ€™t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.
Still, I couldnâ€™t believe I wasnâ€™t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situationâ€“the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her childâ€™s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.
As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, â€śYou donâ€™t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.â€ť
When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for bâ€™nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, â€śDid the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!â€ť
“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.
I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our familyâ€™s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.
ByÂ Sheri Kupres
Thirteen years ago I married a Catholic man from Chicago. I was raised as a Conservative Jew north of Boston. We met through mutual friends when I moved to Chicago. Prior to getting married, my husband and I agreed that we would pass along both of our religious beliefs to our children; we both had strong ties to our religious traditions and wanted to share these with our family. We had joined an interfaith couples group, based in Chicago, to help us discuss and navigate issues that come along with building a dual-faith family. We werenâ€™t sure how this would all turn out but we were committed to this plan.
While we have achieved a lot over the past 13 years, it has been a long road filled with challenges, doubt, guilt as well as learning, joy and celebrations.
When my husband and I decided to marry, my family was less than thrilled. They had always wanted me to marry someone Jewish and I know they felt they had failed when I chose someone outside of my religion. My husbandâ€™s family is not very religious and didnâ€™t pose any objections to our interfaith union.
During our wedding planning, the interfaith couples group provided resources. Through these resources, we were able to create a wedding ceremony which incorporated both Jewish and Catholic prayers and traditions and reflected our decision to celebrate both of our faiths. We originally wanted to have both a priest and a rabbi co-officiate at our wedding, but when the rabbi couldnâ€™t be at the ceremony until 30 minutes after sundown, my mother put her foot down and was insistent that our ceremony start right at sundown. In actuality, I know that she was uncomfortable having a priest at the wedding and knew we wouldnâ€™t have the priest if we didnâ€™t have a rabbi. She was rightâ€”we couldnâ€™t find another rabbi.
We ended up having my uncle and a good friend of my husbandâ€™s family officiate at the service. We had a very beautiful and personal wedding and still achieved our goal of incorporating both of our religions. In hindsight, I wouldnâ€™t change a thing.
The wedding planning gave us our first taste of the challenges we were about to experience as we embarked on this dual-faith path. This became obvious after we had our first child, Sam, nearly a year later. We decided to welcome Sam into our lives and into our faith communities through a baby naming/baptism ceremony where Sam would receive his Hebrew name and be baptized. There would be a rabbi and a priest officiating. Again, the interfaith network in the Chicago area provided us the resources to participate in such a ceremony.
Our excitement to take this first big step to being a dual faith family was overshadowed by my parentsâ€™ outspoken objections. My parents viewed this as a solely Catholic ritual despite the fact that Sam would also receive his Hebrew name. Their reasoning was that a baptism in the Catholic faith is a much more important event than a baby naming is in the Jewish religion; the two didnâ€™t hold equal weight. They couldnâ€™t see that we were participating in the ceremony as a way to have Sam welcomed into both of our religions. They could only see that my son was being baptized by a priest.Â
I tried having the officiating rabbi speak to them before the ceremony but that proved unsuccessful. They were struggling to understand what we were trying to do and didnâ€™t think that it was even possible to give a child both religions. They thought that the children would be confused and I think they feared that because Catholicism is the more prominent religion in our country, my children would naturally gravitate toward that and wouldnâ€™t identify with Judaism at all. At that point, I wasnâ€™t yet confident about how this would all turn out either, so my arguments were less than compelling.
We had planned on giving my son a Hebrew name after my grandfather but my parents refused to let us do this as they felt it would be an insult to my grandfather (in their eyesâ€”giving Sam a Hebrew name at a Catholic ceremony). So, two days before, we changed the Hebrew name we had picked for him.
Needless to say, there was definite trepidation going into the weekend of the ceremony. My parents were coming to stay with us for the weekend and I was extremely nervous about how this was going to go. My one saving grace was that my brother came in as well, so I had some support on my side. My brother had also married someone Catholic and they had just had their first child shortly after we had Sam. He wasnâ€™t sure at that point how he was going to raise his children, and while he has since made a different choice than ours, I knew he understood that we were trying to do the best for our family.
Despite all the chaos, the ceremony was wonderful. It was so warm and welcoming with a strong emphasis on making family from both religions feel welcome and recognized. The clergy talked about how lucky these children were to be raised in the very best of our two faiths and traditions, and my husband I agreed wholeheartedly.
I was so proud of our decision to be a part of this rite. Naively, I thought for sure that witnessing this would soften my parentsâ€™ opposition. It did not and I was crushed. We made it through the celebration back at our house where I had a cake that only said â€śCongratulationsâ€ť with no religious symbols or references. And I cringed every time my husbandâ€™s family unknowingly referred to the ceremony as a baptism. I knew my parents had noticed, too.
That evening was tense and we had words. We each gave our points of view and couldnâ€™t see eye to eye.Â My parents left the next day on a sour note and I felt very guilty that I wasnâ€™t pleasing them and for pursuing a path that they disagreed with. I didnâ€™t know how to appease them and still follow my belief that providing a dual-faith family for our children was the right choice.Â
We have since had two more children: Sarah who is 10 and our youngest, Rachel, is 7.Â We had baby naming/baptism ceremonies for both girls and we didnâ€™t invite my parents to either of these celebrations. We wanted these moments to be happy and special without the tension that we had experienced at Samâ€™s ceremony.
In the end, I realized that I couldnâ€™t appease them. This was going to be a journey that we were both going to go on. Our paths will not be the sameâ€”they may split, join, cross, and maybe sometimes converge. It will be a journey with hills and valleys filled with more hard times and more joys but we will all have to learn and grow at our own pace. I hope that somehow we will come to an understanding, even if we never agree.
Recently,Â two important Conservative rabbinic opinions came down that probably rang out strongly with their followers. For the rest of us,the announcement quietly gathered steam until it called out across the masses in the weeks leading up to Passover: the Rabbis declared kitniyot (Hebrew for legumes) as Kosher for Passover.Â
In what felt like overnight to me, a group of Jewish leaders told us AshkenazisÂ (Jews of German or Eastern European descent) that it was no longer necessary for us to belabor the possibility that a farmer who wasnâ€™t Jewish had mixed wheat in with the lentils, and that as long as we stay away from chametz, legumes are fair game. Much to my surprise, after 20+ years of label reading and black bean-shunning, I feel mixed about an easier Pesach.
I am not a Conservative Jew. I am a Reform-leaning Jew held in the warm embrace of a Reconstructionist community, so I am homing on two bases, neither Conservative. But this seems like a big deal, since I have owned this more â€śconservativeâ€ť practice since college. Also, to have such a public overturning of a centuries-old practice feels like a challenge for everyone, Conservative or otherwise.
On one side of my emotional spectrum is the urge to listen. For almost as long as Iâ€™ve practiced the ban on kitniyot, Iâ€™ve known it to be based more on an abundance of caution than on biblical clarity. Iâ€™ve also known it to not be the healthiest choice for my body–I will never forget the time I had to have a blood test during Passover and the doctorâ€™s dismay at my abysmal iron levels (made worse because I was a vegetarian at the time). I assured her theyâ€™d bounce back after the holiday, which they predictably did. So enough already–life without the kitniyot ban sure sounds easier, and the argument for it is thin at best.
On the other side, there is a part of avoiding kitniyot that I find adds even more meaning to the eight days of Passover. Perhaps I am too much of a glutton for punishment, but I like how additional rules increase my mindfulness about this time being different. I am not a huge bread eater, so avoiding kitniyot added another layer to the way I paid attention to what I was consuming, which, in turn, made me think even more about the why of the holiday. In incorporating kitniyot into my diet, I feel like I need to find a new way toÂ ensure the same quality of mindfulness I have had in the past several years.
In the middle is the way I hold this change in my role as the Jewishly-raised partner in my interfaith marriage. There is something in this that feels a little funny. Â Because our Judaism originated from my background, I often assume the role of leader or teacher. I can get my head around this when we observe Shabbat, fast on Yom Kippur or with almost everything related to Passover. But when a panel of rabbis picks something that Iâ€™ve suggested my partner do as a part of being Jewish and says â€śOops, not really,â€ť I feel a little like I tricked my family into something unnecessary. I know it is not that cut and dry (Eric assures me it isnâ€™t), but I am reminded that advocating for the Jewish choice for our household comes with some additional responsibility to shine a good light down the Jewish path.
This week, with a little hesitation, I have decided to stop worrying about kitniyot. Halfway through the holiday, it turns out my belly feels betterÂ off without an additional layer of forbidding myself kitniyot. I am curious, though â€“ what did you decide to do?
Recently I attended a long-time friendâ€™s Conservative Jewish wedding, and the event found me reflecting on my own interfaith wedding, now ten years in the past. The Â wedding took place in the Conservative synagogue sheâ€™d attended since her bat mitzvah, a large, well-appointed synagogue outside a major East-Coast city.
The ceremony started in the traditional Jewish way, with the ketubah signing and bedecken, where the groom places a veil over the bride’s head and face, in a reference to Jacob’s being tricked into marrying Leah instead of her sister Rachel. As two rabbis watched, friends and relatives signed the ketubah, and I felt tears spring to my eyes as I remembered my own friends bending over our ketubah to pen their names in Hebrew characters. Today’s bride was oneÂ of those friends. My maid of honor was also present at this friend’s wedding. She is not Jewish, and had carefully transcribed her name in Hebrew onto myÂ ketubah before also signing in English.Â Sitting next to me at our mutual friend’s wedding, she turned to me and smiled.
Other moments, though, emphasized the difference between this wedding and my own. We chose not to do a bedecken, for example, and our rabbi was all right with this. At my own wedding, my spouse and I each circled the other seven times, and then we circled each other simultaneously once. Yes, I felt dizzy in the ninety-degree heat! At my friendâ€™s ceremony, she circled her groom seven times, as is traditional, but he did not circle her. Despite these differences, tears again sprang to my eyes as I saw the bride and groom make faces alternately amused and loving at each other. I remembered my gathered friends and family laughing at the funnier facial exchanges during our own circling.
These small differences, though, hardly bothered me, and in fact, served as pleasant reminders of my ceremony. I find that I cry more at weddings with Jewish elements now than I do at Christian or non-religious ceremonies: the distinctive elements of a Jewish ceremony have such a strong association in my mind.
During that day’sÂ wedding ceremony itself, however, my mood shifted as one of the rabbis addressed the couple under the chuppah. First he made the guests laugh: â€śIt is easy to marry the person you love, but much more difficult to love the person you married.â€ť A chuckle rose up through the audience, emerging from my own mouth as well.
The rabbi moved on, though, to a comment that gave more pain than amusement. â€śWe have here what could be called a best-case scenario.â€ť I expected another amusing quip, but instead, I ended up feeling awkward, and then even angry. â€śBoth the bride and groom come from Jewish families; both of their parents are still married, and both of them also attend the same synagogue,â€ť he explained. I felt a sudden stab of anger and even rejection.
By implication, my own marriage was not a best-case scenario, on two counts, no matter how I might feel about it! Not only has my husband married someone who is not Jewish, but he married someone whose parents are no longer themselves together! DidÂ missing two out of three constitute a worst-case scenario, or something in-between?
When I got over my initial shock, I wondered who else in the wood-paneled sanctuary might have felt a sudden jolt of pain at the rabbiâ€™s words. Who else there was divorced? Married to the son or daughter of divorced parents? Or (possibly worse!), dating or married to someone of a different faith? It seemed a reasonable guess that these descriptions applied to more than a few people in the room. Was it fair of the clergy to imply that we were all in something less than a best-case scenario?
I could give the rabbiâ€™s words a more charitable spin: As the rabbi knew, my friendâ€™s mother converted to Judaism prior to marrying her father, making her own inclusion in the â€śbest-case scenarioâ€ť in some ways a near miss. Perhaps the rabbiâ€™s words were meant to sooth any fears the new in-lawsâ€™ may have had about the Jewishness of their new daughter-in-law? Perhaps he meant only to reinforce her status as a “member of the tribe”?
Whatever the rabbiâ€™s reasoning, the fact remains that this was one of the first times when I, even if indirectly or without intention, felt the sting of wider Judaismâ€™s fear of intermarriage. Despite that sting, I chose to take the moment as a reminder that we have the responsibility to our partners, of whatever gender orÂ marital status, to create our own best-case scenarios. Those of us who have joined ourselves together with a ketubah have a valid and binding covenant that enjoins us to create our own best-case scenarios, whether those involve intermarriage, divorce in a part of the family or other elements of awkwardness.
As my friendâ€™s new husband stomped on the glass (I remembered hoping my new husband would not step on my foot as we crushed the glass together), I resolved, again, to work to create my own best-case scenario for myself, for my husband, for our daughters and for our loved ones.
My memories of religious school are pretty varied. I remember visiting the sanctuary in first or second grade, a room whose enormity overwhelmed me, watching a few old men daven in the corner while our teacher pointed out the ark and the eternal light. I remember great conversations in our Jewish Studies sessions in later elementary school, reading coming-of-age stories about Jewish children and discussing them together. I remember lots of bagel cafe sessions, too many, if I recall, designed to drill down on how to order cream cheese in Hebrew.
I also remember a few teachers who seemed old-fashioned and way too strict. I remember some social dynamics between middle school students that hardly seemed to reflect the Jewish values we were learning in class. I remember some unfortunately contentious conversations during Confirmation class with a rabbi who didnâ€™t seem to understand us teenagers. Like my secular school experience, there were things I liked, and things I didnâ€™t. When all was said and done, I think I would say religious school was important, and I learned things that have stuck with me. There were people and things I loved about it, but I am not so sure I would ever say I loved it.
We are only two months in, but Ruthie loves Sunday School. I didnâ€™t expect that. I hoped sheâ€™d like it. I hoped sheâ€™d learn some things that would stick with her. The big surprise of this school year is less about her Monday-Friday school experience, and more about how much she loves Sunday School.
There are a few reasons why Sunday School had a step-up in the likeability scale before she even started. She has a Sunday School best friend, who she met last spring, who not only clicks with her beautifully but even shares her name (another Ruthie!). Unlike many of her peers, Ruthie started in public school in pre-kindergarten, so her Monday-Friday school is old hat, but this is her first year in Sunday School, so there is a shiny newness to it. Â And Sunday School is something that only Ruthie does – Chaya isnâ€™t old enough for it, so her Sunday morning obligation also solidifies her position as a more mature sister.
But that alone isnâ€™t enough to create love. I give the majority of the credit to the reality that her Sunday School is loveable. The temple where we are sending Ruthie is one of many where I have seen a commitment to make religious school awesome, recognizing that a lot of the parents dropping off kids on Sunday morning did not love Sunday School. Â The curriculum is varied and current. Once the kindergarten crafts are done, Ruthieâ€™s class engages in Hebrew Yoga to connect themselves to Jewish concepts and spirituality. Learning about Torah is so fun that we have overheard Ruthie bragging to her non-religious friends about how cool it is that she is learning about it.
A friend with older kids assured me that Ruthieâ€™s love is likely to wane, that I can expect an adolescent girl at some point that Iâ€™ll have to drag to temple on Sunday morning. I donâ€™t doubt that that may lay ahead. But for now, Ruthie loves Sunday School, and it is a pretty great gift.