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By Judy Mollen Walters
My 22-year-old daughter is seriously involved with a wonderful guy. Heâ€™s smart, funny, kind, and they just click. He lives in England, so they only get to visit every eight weeks or so, and have been flying back and forth to each otherâ€™s countries since they met while my daughter was on a semester abroad trip a couple of years ago. Video chats and texting and phone calls have been their lifelines. Iâ€™ve spent time with them together, observing them, and they are very much in love.
Last week, I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store. I hadnâ€™t seen her in a year or soâ€”her children and my younger daughter had been in the same high school class. We chit chatted a bit, catching up on how the kids were all doing, adjusting to their first year of college. Then she asked me about my older daughter. How was she doing, what was she up to? I told her about my daughterâ€™s graduate school work and how hard it is but how she is excelling. Her next question was, â€śIs she seeing anyone special?â€ť
â€śYes,â€ť I responded enthusiastically. I told her all about the lovely boyfriend with the charming British accent and the incredible commitment each of them have made to keeping their relationship alive. She leaned down then (I am short!) and whispered, â€śBut is he Jewish?â€ť
This was a Jewish woman with a Catholic husband who had raised three kids with both traditionsâ€”bâ€™nai mitzvot for her children one year, communions the next. The question she asked was not made in light or silliness or fun. It was dead serious.
â€śNo,â€ť I said, feeling uncomfortable.
â€śThatâ€™s OK,â€ť she said, â€śsince heâ€™s a great guy.â€ť
I turned the conversation back to her children and her life and left the grocery store quite disillusioned. But not shocked. Or even surprised. Because the fact is, Iâ€™ve been getting this question from Jewish friendsâ€”even if they had married someone of another faith or donâ€™t care about being Jewish personallyâ€”for the entire two-plus years my daughter and her boyfriend have been dating. It is often the first question out of their mouthsâ€”before â€śDo you like him?â€ť or â€śWhat does he do for a living?â€ť or even, â€śHow do you feel about him living in England?â€ť
Then there is the inevitable pitying look they give meâ€”as though I somehow screwed up in raising my daughter. As though my life is going to be terrible if my daughter marries this man who may be her beshert. And that feeling hurts.
So Iâ€™ve asked myself the question a dozen times, maybe moreâ€”am I uncomfortable if my daughter marries someone who’s not Jewish? Iâ€™m strongly Reform Jewish. I love the holidays and look forward every year to making Passover for 16 people with all of the classic dishes and a simple, short Haggadah. I enjoy toasting the Jewish New Year and take the days of awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur very seriously. I enjoy lighting the candles and making latkes at Hanukkah and giving the children in my life gifts. I feel very Jewish. I use Jewish values in my everyday life and let them guide me when I feel I need guidance. Those values inform how I treat others, how I think about the world, and how I choose my political affiliations.
My husband is Jewish. We raised our children in a very purposeful, Jewish way. They started Hebrew school at the age of 3 because we wanted them to learn that Hebrew school was part of everyday life. They attended a private Jewish preschool where holidays were celebrated. When they attended public school, I fought for the school to stop bringing Santa Claus into their winter holiday partyâ€”and won. They were bat mitzvahed and my older daughter chose to go to Hebrew high school at our synagogue until her high school graduation. She actively participated in the temple youth group and spent a semester in Israel her Junior year of high school.
So we did everything we could to instill a love of Judaism in our girlsâ€™ hearts. We think we were successful.
But were we? Because now my daughter is seriously involved with a man who is not Jewish.
And people are questioning her choice.
And they are making me uncomfortable.
And all they seem to care about is whether he is Jewish.
And thatâ€™s not all I care about, but I get it.
And I wish they would stop asking.
Because in the end, what I want for my daughter is a lifetime of happiness with whomever she marries, Jewish, Christian, Muslimâ€¦I want her to feel Jewish in her spirit and heart and know who she is and what she stands for. But I also want her to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and atone at Yom Kippur and get excited about the Passover seder she might make for her own family. I want her to think and act Jewishly. I want my grandchildren to embrace Judaism, in whatever form, just like she did.
Can she do that with a non-Jewish husband? I like to think so.
But when these people keep asking, first thing, â€śIs he Jewish?â€ť I feel like I failed. Maybe I did. But, then again, maybe I didnâ€™t.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of five novels, A MILLION ORDINARY DAYS (March, 2017), START AT THE BEGINNING (2016), THE PLACE TO SAY GOODBYE (2015), THE OPPOSITE OF NORMAL (2014), and CHILD OF MINE (2013). She is also an essayist whose articles ave been published on the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, and ScaryMommy. She can be reached via her web site at judymollenwalters.com.
Last Friday morning I took my cup of coffee and my smoothie outside to my patio. I sunk into an Adirondack chair with my cup of Joe, breakfast, and the newspaper. It was early. I had finished my workout, my husband was asleep, and my son was at overnight camp. It was just the dog and me enjoying a few moments of peace before I got ready for work.
As I finished the paper and savored my last few sips of coffee, I felt a calmness wash over me. Hmmâ€¦I thought, a little bit of Shabbat to start my day. A preview of what was to come when the sun set. I peeled myself out of the chair and headed inside to shower.
While I was getting dressed, I remembered a video that my sonâ€™s camp made a few years ago. There was a shot of Kabbalat Shabbat services. A teen camper was speaking about what camp had meant to her over the years and how it was unlike any of her year-round experiences. As she concluded her remarks, she said, “Camp is the Shabbat of the year.” I smiled at the thought. The girl was right; camp was the Shabbat of the year for kids and parents.
Iâ€™m not suggesting that Shabbat with my son isnâ€™t special. On the contrary, it is the most meaningful and connective family experience of the week. Our daily lives are so hectic as we juggle work, school, sports and extracurricular activities that striking the match to light candles feels like crossing a finish line. We all relax into the evening, talk about things other than family logistics and linger over dinner so long, that I often find myself shocked to see that itâ€™s after 10 pm. Because of the magic of our family Shabbat, I guard our Friday nights. With few exceptions, we rarely deviate from our routine.
But the three-and-a-half weeks that my son is away at camp is deeply connective and spiritual in a different way. It is said, that to be an effective parent, we must take time for self-care and to care for our relationship with our spouse or partner. Often the time we take for ourselves consists of an hour workout, watching TV or reading after the kids go to bed, occasionally catching up with a friend over dinner or lunch or a little time at the spa or salon. The time we reconnect with our partner is called “date night” and is a couple of hours spent in a dark movie theater or talking mostly about our kids and plans. These moments are passable. They give us a pause or a break but are not especially rejuvenating.
The slower pace of our life when our son is at camp gives us time to be with friends without rushing to get to the next activity. It gives me a chance to spend some time each day with myself, alone in thought without distraction or just daydreaming, rather than thinking about the next appointment on my calendar. It gives my husband and me the opportunity every night to talk, not about what the plan is for the next day or who is picking our son up from sports practice, but about life, family, relationships, politics and more. It reminds me of our pre-child years and all the reasons I fell in love with my husband.
It would be difficult to celebrate the daily Shabbat moments that my husband and I enjoy when our son is away if our son wasn’t safe and happy. This time is guilt-free because of the peace-of-mind that comes with knowing that our son is in a place that he considers sacred space with staff and kids who he thinks of as family.
Ten days before camp, we were in Austin for a water polo tournament. On the drive home, we passed the camp exit. When we saw it, I asked my son if he was looking forward to going. He said, “I can’t wait. Three-and-a-half weeks of FREEDOM! It’s the best. And I bet it’s good for you and Daddy too. It’s good for all of us to have a break.”
Yes, camp is good for all of us. Itâ€™s the Shabbat of the year.
Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather â€“ after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxyâ€™s birthday and my birthday. This year sheâ€™s hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as itâ€™s the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.
I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. Iâ€™m in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, itâ€™s more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9. Â I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebratingÂ four decades.
I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesnâ€™t feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and sheâ€™s already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday â€“ and oh yeah, Mommy â€“ you have to come, too.
The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course â€“ the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing â€śHappy Birthdayâ€ť in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til itâ€™s her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.
I guess it shouldnâ€™t surprise me that sheâ€™s so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that sheâ€™s so in tune with her Jewish identity that itâ€™s a given to her that of course weâ€™re going to get birthday blessings. But thereâ€™s a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasnâ€™t so important to Roxy? Iâ€™m not convinced I even would have thought of it.
The kids split their time between my house and their dadâ€™s house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend â€“ and next weekend â€“ the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldnâ€™t dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).
I will meet them there, because if I donâ€™t show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, sheâ€™d be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because itâ€™s so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants â€śKeyn yâ€™he ratzonâ€ť (be this Godâ€™s will) in response to the rabbiâ€™s recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with Godâ€™s protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.
At the end of the service, weâ€™ll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings arenâ€™t a given, and we donâ€™t always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and Iâ€™m grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.
My parents and extended family have always supported myÂ own interfaith family. There are many ways they haveÂ said or shown this to me.Â When I think about when I knew it would be OK for me to bring home a partner who wasn’t Jewish, I always remember one specific conversation. I canâ€™t remember exactly when this happened, but if I had to guess I would say it was during my Hebrew school confirmation year. The class curriculum, about understanding our Jewish identity as emerging adults, would have been an easy opener to summon up the courage to ask how my parents felt about me dating people who werenâ€™t Jewish.
My mom knew her answer right away.
â€śI wantÂ youÂ to find someone you love,â€ť she said, â€śand if you really love each other, then you can figure out the rest.â€ť
My mom was a clinical psychologist. Outside of her practice, she was a great friend, an excellent advice giver, and shared the role (with my dad) of #1 life advisor to our extended family. In other words, she had the inside track on a lot of relationships.
Wearing her many hats, my mom had seen successful marriages of all stripes, and she had witnessed the pain of marriages that ended in separation and divorce. She had seen same-faith and interfaith couples who thrived, and couples who had struggled to make their relationships work, regardless of religion.
My mom wanted her three children to find love, the kind that sustains lifeâ€™s ebbs and flows and would encircle her future grandchildren (who were always in her plans, I suspect) with love and stability. She wanted to be sure that no matter who we ended up with, she and my dad would be aÂ closely connected part of our lives. And more than anything in her life, she wanted to protect her children from pain.
She wasnâ€™t saying â€śBeing Jewish doesnâ€™t matter,â€ť nor was she saying â€śYour partnerâ€™s religion, and their familyâ€™s religion, donâ€™t matter.â€ť What she was saying was that she wanted us to learn how to love, and how to be loved. When she said weâ€™d figure out the rest, she really did expect that. My parents always modeled a kind of loving partnership where being married meant you worked through things, not around them. When we had partners, we would need to figure â€śitâ€ť out, whatever it was.
Ultimately, my parents wanted us to be happy. I believe my mom was concerned that if she put limitations on our choice of partners, we might not endeavor on a truly full exploration of what we wanted in a partner. It was most important to her that we learn how to both love and â€śfigure things out,â€ť with either a Jewish person or a person who was not Jewish. My mom understood that religion was important, but not necessarily the magic key to a successful marriage.
I am thankful that my parents opened the door for me to find my right match, and gave me confidence that they would support my relationship based on its merits. This week would have been my momâ€™s 67th birthday. As my dad, sister, brother and I celebrate her and remember how much we miss her, I am lucky to have my husband and his family watch over me and hold my hand. On her birthday, I will pause and thank my mom for the ways she embraced my husband, and for not missing a beat in telling me to #ChooseLove first, with faith that the rest would follow.
There are many ways we all #ChooseLove in our lives. See the gallery and share your story!
Over winter break, an inmarried Jewish friend told me that her son was no longer dating the nice Jewish girl from his summer camp. He was now dating a not Jewish girl from his high school. I could tell my friend wasnâ€™t enthusiastic about the relationship.
The following week, I received a message from another inmarried friend with two teenage sons. She had just read about the decision by the USY board to drop its policy prohibiting teen board members from interdating. She asked if I could write about the topic since dating was an extension of the intermarriage conversation.
I sensed that both of my friends were a little anxious about the subject even though they were Reform Jews with open minds, open hearts, and intermarried friends that live Jewishly. I also sensed that they werenâ€™t sure how to talk about interdating, and no one was discussing it with them either. My friends were looking for information and some guidance.
This post is for them and other parents who are navigating teenage interdating. Dealing with adolescent romance is not easy, and the issues of Jewish continuity and intermarriage can add a layer of stress. Here are few things for parents to keep in mind.
Few high school couples marry. Estimates suggest that high school sweethearts comprise only 2% of new marriages, and a 2006 Harris Interactive survey found that only 14% of respondents age 18-27 met their partner in either high school or college. With dating abuse receiving much attention of late, it is more important that your child is in a healthy, positive adolescent relationship than a relationship with someone of the same faith. Talk to your teens; teach them how to date, how to respect themselves and others, and how to protect themselves from abusive behavior.
Critical Jewish experiences are better predictors of future Jewish engagement than the faith of a romantic partner. I note in From Generation to Generation that the level of Jewish activism in a homeâ€“ritual observance, Jewish education and social networksâ€“is a stronger predictor of Jewish continuity than the faith of a love interest or marriage partner. Do you regularly celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays in your home? Do your teens participate in Jewish education post-b’nei mitzvah? Are they involved in Jewish youth organizations and activities? Do they attend Jewish camp? Has your family or teenagers traveled to Israel? Do they have Jewish friends? Answer “yes” to some or all of these questions and it’s likely that your children have a solid Jewish identity and will choose to make a Jewish home, regardless of the religious identity of their mate.
Telling your children â€śdonâ€™tâ€ť wonâ€™t ensure Jewish continuity. In From Generation to Generation, I quote an Orthodox father of five who says, â€śGuaranteeing Jewish identity is the sum of everything you do when you raise your children. Itâ€™s not just telling them donâ€™t.” Simply prohibiting interdating won’t make Judaism important to your children and unless you plan to arrange your childâ€™s dates, you have little control over the identity of his or her romantic partners. But you do have influence. According to Sylvia Barack Fishman, author of The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness, parents have the biggest impact on their children’s Jewishness when they are involved in and show a strong commitment to Jewish activities and regularly explain in an honest manner why they engage in Judaism. Talk to your teen about why Judaism and its continuation is important to you. Share your hope that he or she will want to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children irrespective of the faith of their partner. Donâ€™t just do this once; make it an on-going conversation. Show them that you mean what you say by engaging in Jewish life in your home and community.
Welcome the stranger. Make an effort to get to know your childâ€™s not Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend and create opportunities for him or her to learn about your family and your childâ€™s upbringing. Invite them to join you for Shabbat dinner, a Passover Seder or High Holiday meal. Ask them to participate in your Hanukkah celebration. Use these occasions to expose your childâ€™s beau to Jewish life, show them that Judaism is important to your family and give them insight into a different tradition. These experiences are an opportunity to break down stereotypes and build understanding and acceptance.
Interdating during the teen years is part of teenage social experimentation, but it can be difficult for parents. Preventing interdating is unrealistic and fearing the future you have little control over is unproductive. Focus your energy on influencing your teen’s connection to Judaism by planting Jewish seeds, nurturing them often and talking about the importance of Judaism in your lives. Not only will this help strengthen your familyâ€™s ties to the Jewish faith today, but it will increase the chances that Judaism will continue to blossom through your children tomorrow.
Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.
The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammyâ€™s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.
Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.
The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.
Prior to one of Sammyâ€™s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. â€śAbsolutely!â€ť I responded, â€śJoin us for dinner and Sammyâ€™s birthday celebration.â€ť
We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammyâ€™s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.
During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.
With Giladâ€™s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of â€śour Israelisâ€ť and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. â€śYes!â€ť he said with a celebratory fist pump.
It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.
No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.
I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child â€“ help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that campâ€™s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.