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By Lela Casey
As the only Jewish kid in my small town in Pennsylvania, Christmas was the loneliest time of year. Most of my classmates, and even some of my teachers, were almost entirely unfamiliar with Judaism. Perhaps if I’d been braver, I could have explained to them why I felt uncomfortable singing “Christ the Savior is Born” in music class, or painting Nativity scenes in art or writing notes to Santa in writing class.
But, I was shy kid. And I’d had enough pennies thrown at me and been accused of killing Jesus too many times to speak up. So I laid low, hummed along, asked Santa for a puppy.
Still, the loneliness remained. One of my earliest memories is of driving home with my parents on Christmas Eve. Each time we passed another sparkling house, another lit up Christmas tree, another window full of smiling children, I shrunk a little further into my seat. By the time we got home to our own dark house, I was so heartbroken that I went straight to bed.
To my young soul, it felt like a punishment. It was as if I’d done something wrong to be missing out on all the fun that every other kid I knew got to enjoy.
When I would ask my mom if we could put up a tree or have a special dinner on Christmas, she would get upset. Christmas might seem like an American holiday, but at its heart it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Celebrating a man as if he were God would be breaking the first commandment, and perhaps even worse than that, assimilating.
It was difficult, as a kid, to understand what was so terrible about assimilating. What could be bad about getting presents, hanging lights and singing songs? It’s not as if celebrating Christmas would negate being Jewish. It would just be a way to feel part of a world that seemed to include everyone but me.
It wasn’t until college that I met other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas eve I spent with my Jewish friends was liberating. We ordered Chinese food, watched movies, and reveled in the joy of being together.
I felt a deep sense of belonging and pride and a little bit of confusion to be celebrating Christmas with other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Because, really, that’s what we were doing. It may not have been with songs of Jesus or presents from Santa, but there we were, all gathered on the supposed day of Jesus’ birth, having a grand old time.
Was that assimilation? I wasn’t sure. But, whatever it was, it wasn’t lonely.
When I got married to my husband who is not Jewish, my feelings on Christmas were still shaky. By that point I’d experienced several Christmases away from my family—some with my Jewish friends, some with my husband-to-be and his family. Each celebration had been vastly different—but they all included one important element—community. Just being with other people, whether we were eating Chinese food or belting out “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” kept Christmas from feeling lonely.
Still, I had difficulty envisioning what Christmas would be like when we had our own kids. Was it important to keep Christmas out of our house completely? Would that alienate my husband? Make my kids feel that same aching loneliness that I felt as a kid?
We have three kids now, and our Christmas traditions have evolved over the years. Some years we go to my in-laws’ house and have a big dinner with family, and some years we stay home and order Chinese food. There’s no talk of Jesus or Santa, but there are presents and laughter and music and it’s never lonely.
It feels sometimes like I’ve copped out—given in to the assimilation that my mother was so fearful of. And, perhaps I have. But, the truth is my kids live in America and have a father who isn’t Jewish. Christmas is not some alien cultural phenomenon that they have to adapt to; it is an integral part of their world, their heritage. Celebrating Christmas is not so much assimilation as it is acknowledgment of the many components of themselves.
I feel confident in the strong Jewish roots I have given my children. They’ve whispered prayers into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they’ve learned the aleph, bet and stories of Jacob and Isaac in Hebrew School, they’ve helped me clean the house of chametz on Passover and light the menorah on Hanukkah.
My kids are Jewish—and, if one day they chose to take a different path, it won’t be because they enjoyed a joyful night with family at the end of December.
Lela Casey is a mother of three children living in Bucks County, PA. Being raised by a fiery Israeli mother and a gentle farmer in the middle of nowhere lent her a unique perspective on Judaism. She holds degrees from both Penn State University and Rhode Island College. You can find her work on many websites including kveller.com, pjlibrary.com, elephantjournal.com, brainchildmag.com and femininecollective.com.
By Stefani Wiemann
The holiday season is upon us. Christmas music plays in restaurants, Christmas trees are displayed in stores and Santa Clause can be seen in malls. Even as a Jewish mother, I love all of this stuff. I love the holiday season, including all of the decorations, the music and gift-giving madness.
Unfortunately, we have faced some challenging situations at our children’s preschool during this time of year. For example, they have Santa visit the preschool each year in December, which, as a family that identifies as Jewish, we are not comfortable with. They also have a Christmas singalong performance, which they conveniently call a Holiday singalong anytime they are talking to me, but call it a Christmas singalong on their newsletter, calendar and website.
While we have no issue with our kids singing Christmas songs, we chose for our kids to not participate because dressing up like reindeer, elves and Santa feels like too much for us. We simply opt for our children to not attend preschool on those days, in order to avoid our discomfort and our children’s confusion. This year, however, they have added a Polar Express day, in which they are to watch a movie that depicts a boy discovering his belief in Santa, and they also added an activity of writing letters to Santa (they even put a cute mailbox in the classroom that “sends mail” directly to the North Pole).
I would hate for my kid to be THAT kid who ruins Christmas for anyone, by revealing that Santa is not real, so we choose to not tell him that. Instead, we are OK with him thinking that this man exists, with the understanding that he doesn’t visit our home.
Our family is not the only family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas or celebrates more than one holiday. Here are some thoughts I wish teachers would consider during the holiday season:
1. Have empathy when it comes to the underlying meaning of the activities that you choose and have awareness of the different religions represented in your classes. Don’t plan a class activity that implies/expects a belief in a religion that not everyone believes in. Even if you perceive an aspect of the holiday to be secular, such as Santa Clause, doing any activity that is Santa-related implies that the child believes in that character.
2. Try to plan units/lessons that are festive for the season, and not so specific to a religious holiday. There are plenty of winter-themed activities and symbols that are adorable and fun. Who doesn’t love sledding, snowmen and penguins?
3. Don’t feel pressure to make things equal when it comes to religious holiday representation. Anyone who is educated on both holidays can tell you that Christmas and Hanukkah do not hold the same religious significance. In fact, Hanukkah is only considered to be as big a holiday as it has become because it falls in this same season as Christmas. Having an equal number of Christmas and Hanukkah activities may seem like the way to go, but simply toning down the religious specificity will make it easier for kids of all religions including kids who are being brought up with more than one.
This is known as the giving season. Let’s give respect to those around us. It is the greatest gift that one can give.
By Jacob Weis
Anybody who has had even the most menial part in celebrating Christmas can probably acknowledge the beauty in it. Whether Jewish-Jewish or interfaith, families sometimes run in to the question of what they are “going to do about Christmas.” Part of the reason for this question is that people assume that celebrating Christmas may dilute their Judaism or go against their practices. Participating in Christmas may be seen as one step deeper into assimilation. Christmas may feel like what Jews “don’t do” and so there are taboos and judgement around a Jew being part of Christmas from a tree in the house to allowing children to receive Christmas presents.
I propose a different view on what it would mean for a Jew or someone in an interfaith family to celebrate Christmas. I propose that celebrating Christmas not only will be an amazing time for you and your family, but can also bridge the gap between those who celebrate Christmas and those who don’t in the celebration of a worthy figure. I propose that it’s good for Jewish children and those in interfaith homes to be able to talk about Jesus and to learn the lessons Jesus is known for. This will help make children literate, world citizens but will also give the holiday season more context and enrich their own Jewish faith. Being able to learn about Jesus as a historic figure and to learn the parables that maybe one parent or cousins have grown up with will not steer them away from Judaism but will bridge some gaps, create more understanding and allow love to connect the family rather than fear of the other or fear of becoming something else.
Any excuse to gather around with friends and family and eat good food should be taken. For me this is not an opinion, this is fact. Maybe you won’t be diving into the Christmas ham, but the feeling of community is wonderful nonetheless. I take every opportunity to gather with my extended family. However, the question undoubtedly will remain, especially for the parent or grandparents who are Jewish, about what role a Jewish child can comfortably have during Christmas.
Some Jews feel awkward talking about Jesus. Jesus was a historical figure, and whether or not you feel he was the messiah, a prophet or anything more than a good person, is up to you. There has been so much bitter history of those accusing Jews of killing Jesus, blood-shed and anti-Semitism. I understand why some Jews may feel unsure about participating in Christmas. Some Jewish leaders suggest that if Jewish children mark Christmas with family who aren’t Jewish in purely cultural ways then it is “fine.” The idea is that this kind of hallmark marking of the holiday won’t confuse children and they will understand it’s about family, memories, giving, beauty and lights. But, how much richer and deeper for a Jewish child to actually learn about what Jews believe about Jesus and not be afraid to ask questions. Religions preach acceptance, and what better way to show your own family members of a different religion that Judaism promotes this tenant then to just be present in the celebration?
Acceptance, love, building bridges, sharing and learning will enrich children this holiday season. So, instead of being leery of Jewish children participating in Christmas because it will take away from their own identity, encourage an understanding of what the holiday symbols mean and explain the biblical narrative. Those who participate in this way will find shared messages and come away with a sense of family unity and peace.
By Laurel Snyder
This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org in honor of Interfaith Family Month
I have never suggested to my Catholic-born husband that he convert. As a child of intermarriage myself, whose parents always maintained their own distinct religions (but raised me Jewish), conversion wasn’t part of my heritage.
It was enough, I thought, that my husband supported me in raising Jewish kids. It was enough that he came to shul now and then. It was enough that he raced home from work in time for me to light the candles on Friday night, so that we could all be together for Shabbat. To be honest, I have inmarried friends whose partners are less supportive in this way. I felt lucky.
Then, last year, something happened I’d never expected. I was out of town, for work. I don’t remember where, but I know that I was busy on Friday night, and didn’t call home until Saturday afternoon, when my son picked up.
“Sorry, Mom,” he said right away. “But we couldn’t remember all the words last night.”
“What words?” I asked, confused.
“The words to the prayers,” he explained. “We tried. We did our best! We got most of them right.”
It took me a minute to realize was he was saying. There was a long pause before I asked. “Oh… did you guys light the candles… for Shabbat?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Dad did.”
“Huh, cool,” I said. I pretended like it was no big deal. We talked about other things, and after a minute we hung up.
But then I sat there, in my silent hotel room, and I felt my eyes fill with tears. Because while I’ve never asked my husband to convert, or even really thought about that possibility, I have wondered what would happen if I were hit by an eighteen wheeler. I’ve wondered whether Judaism is just the mom-show in our house. I’ve wondered whether it would continue in my absence. Whether anyone besides me wanted it enough to make it happen.
This proof that they did want it stunned me.
Here’s the thing—I didn’t grow up lighting candles each week. That wasn’t my heritage any more than conversion was. Shabbat candles were something I decided to do as an adult, as a mother. They were something I added into my life by choice. They weren’t automatic.
One could blame that fact on my parents’ intermarriage, but one would be wrong in doing so, because in fact my very inmarried grandparents didn’t light Shabbat candles either. So for me, an intermarried child of intermarriage, to light candles each week had to be a choice.
Of course there is value in tradition, in heritage, in routine. There is value in doing something because we have been imprinted, conditioned to do the thing. But there is also value in making a choice, in consciously deciding.
After my parents divorced, my father became more observant than he’d ever been before. As an adult, I watched him change. He began to cover his head. He began to keep kosher. He chose to do so, and if I have a Jewish heritage, I think that’s what it is. Choice. Mindful observance. Constant reevaluation. My parents married without a religious blueprint, and so they had to puzzle out a household. They had to make decisions. Periodically, they had to revise those decisions. That process continues to this day. In their homes, and now in mine.
People often assume that as Jews continue to intermarry, observance will decline. But that’s an incredibly pessimistic view. That doesn’t take into account the joy of discovery, or the pure pleasure of Jewish practice. The human inclination to do better next time. Such pessimism assumes that observance must be linked to tradition and routine.
It doesn’t make room for families like mine, for my Catholic-born husband and my second-generation-intermarried kids, lighting the candles, saying the prayers, all on their own, for the very first time. And getting most of the words right, anyway.
Laurel is the project manager for InterfaithFamily/Atlanta
By Joy Fields
When my fiercely independent mother recently suffered myriad health issues, it was clear she could no longer live alone. My husband and I were faced with finding an assisted living facility that would address all her health needs, but provide her with a comfortable social atmosphere that would keep her mentally healthy as well. We had to add to the decision making mix her being very active in Houston’s Jewish community—an area of town a 45 minute drive from us. Without traffic. When’s that?
Mom had been a five- to ten-minute bus ride from two Reform temples, two Conservative temples and a “Sephardic” temple, which made her raise her eyebrows but had the best onegs (post service desserts). There were also Orthodox temples and a Lubavitch Center but really, darling, who needs to be that religious? Friends accompanied her to the nearby Jewish Community Center for occasional classes, artistic performances and lunch seminars where, to be honest, she couldn’t quite understand the rebbe, but the lox was fantastic. She sang in two choirs and led karaoke as a volunteer at a Jewish nursing home.
Our suburb has one temple that services every denomination within a thirty mile radius. Over half the families are interfaith and there are many from a plethora of backgrounds who converted. The shul is open most Friday nights, plus Sunday and Wednesday evenings for classes. No choir. No cantor. The rabbi sings slightly off-tune but can be drowned out pretty easily.
The grocery store next to Mom’s apartment complex had every imaginable kosher-for-Passover item on display a month before the holidays. She could get up early in the morning and stock up on pesadich borscht before the masses completely bought it out (kosher for Passover beet soup—really, not something anyone need to know about). She could buy enough garlic/onion Tam Tams to provide snacks for twenty friends. Don’t worry darling, those never go bad. Sometimes she’d pull out a box in September and offer you one to prove that point.
Our suburban grocery stores usually remember to order multipacks of plain white matzah. They also carry gefilte fish in the “ethnic aisle” between the hoisin sauce and the frijoles. Not sure why.
My husband and I both work full time and were already exhausted from our numerous commutes to her hospital room near her old digs. We knew that if Mom were closer to us, we’d be able to visit more regularly and address her emergency issues (like bottle tops being screwed on too tightly, running out of pennies before the Bingo tournament or the prescription caddy spilling, which seems a higher priority to me).
So after a whirlwind of Internet searching and facility touring, we found a great place near us. In an ethnically diverse environment that would expose her to cultural richness from all over the world, but no JCC.
It’s a safe but affordable studio, with three daily meals served in a high ceilinged, brightly lit room on white linen and china, where she can be seated with friendly residents. Snacks available 24/7. Van transportation for appointments, organized outings and “WallyWorld Wednesdays.” On-site therapists, nurses, aids, beauticians and an activities director that would put The Love Boat staff to shame. There was even a sing-along group. We showed Mom the “Standard Favorites” song list. She could later ease in to gospel night.
At first Mom was very apprehensive, but realizing she would not be able to care for herself and not wanting to move in with us, she agreed to try it out. We addressed her dietary concerns: There were substitute menu items for pork chop night. She could politely decline bacon at breakfast. The activities director would introduce her around to residents who had similar interests to sit with. We explained showing silent respect to anyone blessing their meal according to their custom, without being expected to join in. No one would force her to cross herself. Or eat the crunchy white part of the lettuce that she hates.
We arranged all of her furniture that would fit as closely as possible to her previous apartment layout. Her prayer books and song books were on the most easy to reach bookcase shelf. Her Jewish community newspaper would arrive in her new mailbox. As, of course, would the TV guide. (This may not have religious significance to you, but to the retired, it’s universally sacred.)
We hung her family photos and set out her knick-knacks. Her “Shalom Y’all” and “Keep Calm and Kosher On” magnets were on her mini-fridge. Her candle holders and hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) were displayed on a top shelf. No way were we giving her matches…um, facility rules. We affixed a magnet to her mezuzah so it would hang on her door frame.
This turned out to be a conversation starter with residents taking a walker break in front of her door. She loved explaining what that “thing” was, and what was on the scroll inside it. Several of her neighbors had short term memory problems so she could explain it again the next day. And they could share background on their religious articles with her. Repeatedly.
We set out a large calendar and several pens so she could keep track of appointments. We set out her address book, because who needs to type all those numbers into your phone when you can just look it up? We pointed out the cords for emergency help, there, there and there. We clarified the definition of “emergency.”
We stocked her mini-fridge with healthy snacks, and were encouraged to later find her checking labels for non-vegetarian ingredients to make sure she could share with her new Hindu neighbor across the hall.
Very quickly, we were assured her transition was going smoothly. I picked up a prescription for her on my way home from work, and signed in to the reception area. One of Mom’s new lunch partners shuffled by and winked at me, adding, “Oh, aren’t you a mensch! But I think she’s about to say ganug on the meds already.” (Yiddish for “good person” and “enough.”)
I pressed the elevator button. The door swung open and there was Mom, practically running me down with her walker. “Hi Mom, I got your medication.”
“Oh, thanks, doll. Just put it up in my room. They’re having a wine and cheese party in the activity room and I don’t want to be late.”
Praised be the maker of the fruit of the vine.
By Rabbi Keith Stern
My friend Marcus and I were in rabbinic school together. He was a rebel, a guy who reflexively said no when anyone said yes. No one could tell him what to do. He was raised in a predominantly Jewish community in New Jersey that unceremoniously fled en masse for the suburbs when the first black family moved into town. (We don’t like discussing this, but Jewish families were certainly in the first waves of white flight). He says that he was the only white kid whose family stuck around. Within four years he was the only white kid on the block. This, Marcus says, is the crucible in which he learned to be his own man.
Marcus exercised his rebellious philosophy at various times in rabbinic school. His biggest “no one can tell me what to do” was his girlfriend Nonnie. Nonnie was not born Jewish. She came from a hippie family that lived for a time on a commune and who worshipped the sacredness of the cosmos in a pretty eclectic way that generally included cannabis and ’shrooms. Nonnie was what demographers call unchurched. She rarely went to Jewish/school events with Marcus. Then again, Marcus rarely went.
When the dean of HUC took Marcus aside a year before ordination and told him that in order to be ordained Nonnie had to convert, he was, as you might imagine, a tad upset. Marcus fought and cursed, but in those days the notion that a rabbi could have a significant other who wasn’t Jewish was ludicrous. But Nonnie converted, albeit without much joy. They got married, had a kid three years later and divorced two years after that. It still makes Marcus angry that he was forced into a series of actions he opposed.
According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at HUC known for demographic studies of American Jewry, “in-marriage” has historically “been central to what it means to be a Jew.” Its modern importance, he explains, is amplified because of the ongoing population decline among non-Orthodox Jews, which he attributes largely to intermarriage.
Cohen also argues that American Jews put “rabbis at the top of the symbolic hierarchy.” As a result, “it is logical for rabbinical schools to hold rabbis to higher standards.” While Cohen affords some merit to the suggestion that intermarried rabbis could serve as models for interfaith communities, he cautions that “we don’t know for sure what the impact of having intermarried rabbis will be upon those families.” We do know, he says, that “intermarried rabbis will have no chance of teaching the next generation the importance of marrying Jews.” Or at least, so he said in 2009.
Nearly all of the country’s rabbinical colleges have firm policies that prohibit the admission and ordination of students who are in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish. Even as interfaith couples are increasingly being welcomed into congregations of all denominations, they are effectively barred from pursuing the rabbinate.
But as Bob Dylan adjures, “the times they are a’changing.” The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which ordains rabbis for the denomination’s more than 100 congregations across the country, just ended their policy prohibiting applications from students in interfaith relationships. Says Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, “We believe that the only strategy that will work in today’s world of choice is one that engages rather than polices, one that truly welcomes and provides role models for intermarried Jews rather than one that disowns them.”
And Keren McGinity, a former member of TBA opines, “the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s new policy to welcome and graduate Jewish students who are in committed relationships with partners of other faith backgrounds is an excellent, forward-thinking decision.”
But Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, disagrees with McGinity’s assessment and she disagrees with the RRC as well. Eisner, a friend and fellow Wesleyan grad who spoke here for the Margaret Miller Memorial lecture series, hangs onto the atavistic belief that intermarriage is the biggest crisis for American Jewry. She writes that letting interfaith people get too involved, too close with Jewish life is dangerous. She says that “… at some point… inclusion leads to diminishment. At some critical point, boundaries become so porous that they no longer function as boundaries, and standards become so vacuous that they lose all meaning. This decision brings the Reconstructionist movement to that point, and to the degree that it places pressure on other denominations—and history suggests that it will—then it risks damaging our religious, moral and spiritual leadership at a time when we need it the most.”
It would be wonderful to find a true whipping boy for the various phenomena that plague postmodern American Jewry. If we could just say intermarriage is the cause of our troubles we can spend a lot of money trying to fix it, lest we damage “our religious, moral and spiritual leadership” beyond repair. But as Rabbi Waxman says, “For those of you still fighting, the battle was lost years ago. The Pew report, citing that 58 percent of marriages since 2005 are intermarriages, has disabused all of North American Jewry of the notion that Jews intermarrying can somehow be stopped by pressure from families, rabbis, or editorials from editors of Jewish publications.”
Reconstructionist rabbis will choose the partners they choose. If their partner is Jewish, I hope their partner will support them in their work. If their partner is not Jewish, I hope their partner supports them in their work. Intermarriage will not make or break American Jewry. The more open hearted a temple is to welcoming interfaith families, the more likely that synagogue and their interfaith families will thrive.
The true threat to American Jewry, and to mainline Protestant denominations and to Catholicism is the extent to which Americans consider religious and church/synagogue affiliation important. More important than soccer practice, ski trips or sleeping late on weekends. For Jews a synagogue must be a place that provides meaning and community and connection and fun. A synagogue must be like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. That’s the real work of Jewish survival, not who the rabbi is married to. And to provide that kind of institution is hard and will only become harder.
It would be so much easier to make intermarriage the bugaboo. But it’s not. To make a synagogue relevant and worthwhile for millennials as well as baby boomers is complicated and will require more and more nontraditional solutions. Eisner’s idea that too much inclusion leads to diminishment is an outdated Conservative movement cry—that has led them over the cliff.
As Tevye said to Golda, “It’s a new world.” That must be our mantra now as we consider our trajectory as American Jews, and as a Reform temple in Newton, MA. We are going to have to be courageous and audacious as we dare to move in new ways. Looking back with yearning is not a recipe; just ask Lot’s wife.
Well I’ve gone and done it. I didn’t mean to make you mad, but I can tell that I did.
There I was, a Jewish girl from New York, living my life, building a career, being a young adult in a big city, when out of nowhere — BAM — I fell in love with a kind mid-western man.
He was smart and loving and well, raised in a different faith — but frankly, the fact that we were in love trumped anything else.
But I didn’t expect you to be so disappointed in me.
You see, this man asked me to marry him, and there we were, planning our wedding — a Jewish wedding — because that is what we agreed it would be, because it was meaningful to me and I knew, and he agreed, we would keep Judaism in our lives. So I naturally asked a rabbi to be with us on our big day. he said no, he would not, under these circumstances, bless our union. I asked another and another and yet another and the prospect of having our Jewish wedding dwindled. But I struggled through and found a way to have the ceremony we wanted with a cantoral student who helped us create our beautiful Jewish wedding.
And then I got pregnant. A BOY, what a joy to behold! A blessing in our lives! But my husband had questions that I could not answer about mohels and ritual and foreskin and we sought the counsel of a rabbi to help. We called on your synagogues to find some answers. And we kept calling and calling and messages were left from the kind man who married the Jewish girl again and again, but again we were denied access to you. Once again we stood up for our family and the traditions we wanted to uphold and found a mohel that came to our home and we had a lovely bris for our beautiful boy. One fitting for bringing a Jewish boy into the world.
A third time I sought you out… to care for this child and teach him. But as you glared at my tattooed body and asked about my husband’s background, I was told that your community’s children’s programs were reserved for those who were members and perhaps I should look elsewhere.
And somewhere that day, I lost the fight. I gave up on you right then and there, Judaism. You clearly didn’t want me. There are only so many times you can be turned away before you wonder why you are trying in the first place. You did not want my family, Judaism… so I gave up trying.
But I was heartbroken.
I know you’re trying to find a way to welcome us, but you’re not there yet. When we encounter your barriers and your walls we struggle to get through them. And eventually we give up, because it is hard and we don’t want our children to hear your clucking or your message that they are not good enough for you.
Yet, your articles and comments and letters to the editor tell us it is we who are ruining Judaism. It stings to hear that we, the intermarried are destroying Jewish continuity.
But I am stubborn, and there’s something about you Judaism, that’s too important to let go. So after I gave up on you, a friend and fellow Jewish professional told me that my experience was not the Judaism she knew and loved and encouraged me to try again. I found my own way to keep the faith in you. I created a Jewish home and holidays and traditions in my own Jewish way. And eventually, I found a community that embraced me and supported my family for who we are — and doesn’t punish us for what we’re not. There are so many of us out here making our own way… but also so many who gave up, never to return.
You see, when you denounce intermarried rabbis and talk about the declining vitality of Judaism, we, the families are listening to you talk about how these rabbis — whose families closely resemble our own — don’t count for you. We hear you tell us, yet again, that we are not good enough but that you are welcoming in the same breath.
So while some of your newspapers and your blogs and your institutions (and your commenters, oh gosh, your commenters) whisper too loudly behind my back and wonder what to do with a “problem” like my family, my boys will bound through the door this Friday, giddy from the waning of the week and ask “MOM? What time is Shabbat?
This blog post was reprinted with permission from Red Said What?
By Jennifer Reinharz
Larry and I struck our deal over Sicilian pie.
“Turn Jew and I’ll marry you.”
I shook my head. “You’re crazy.”
“Then raise the kids Jewish.”
Bringing up nonexistent children in a faith other than my own seemed easier to digest than lukewarm mozzarella.
“OK,” I shrugged.
One civil ceremony two children, and 15 years later Larry and I have put some mileage on our interfaith marriage bus since that momentous meal.
Turns out, there are many of us traversing a similar highway.
Hoping our collective experience might offer insight to couples merging toward the on ramp, I reached out to a handful of drivers in my lane. Together, we created a travel guide we wished someone had stashed in our glove compartment years ago.
1. Know Your Baseline
A clear belief system is the anchor for future decision making.
Flushing out what spiritually, culturally and religiously, if anything was important to me: not extended family, not community, but me, before I was in a committed relationship would have saved me years of agita.
2. Face Fears
Fear is at the root of all issues interfaith.
Jill, who is married to a Jewish man, raised Jewish children, and is active in her church and synagogue believes, “If you are strong in who you are, then there is nothing to fear. Notice when you feel threatened and investigate within yourself.”
3. You Are You
Individual identities are often clarified and strengthened when one is in an interfaith relationship as its nature requires each party to listen, reflect and respond regularly.
I still hear Larry say, “Marrying outside my faith made me a better Jew. It puts me in a position to think about what matters.”
4. Your Children Will Always Be Yours
After our son’s bris, an outsider remarked, “He should go to the mikveh. It’s part of the deal.”
I felt torn between the conviction to do right by Larry’s conservative upbringing and dread that my child’s formal conversion would jeopardize our mother-son bond.
In search of guidance, I went to see a Reform rabbi. She explained the difference between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox interpretations regarding matrilineal descent and ultimately offered, “Think of bringing your baby to the ritual bath as a beautiful rebirth.”
Screw that, I thought. What was wrong with his first one?
My son never made it to the mikveh but believe you me, the kid is all mine. And when it comes time for him to stand on the bimah as a bar mitzvah, this Catholic mom will beam with pride.
5. Make a Plan
Whether it’s before the nuptials or on the second date, but definitely before babies make an appearance: decide. How will you raise the children?
Will your family choose one religion, formally teach two or like Laurie who is one-half of an interfaith and intercultural couple, celebrate and observe all holidays and life cycle events with a focus on spirituality, values, tradition and gratitude?
The plan will likely change, but a shared vision will minimize confusion, create the structure and identity children crave and help all parties feel safe.
Don’t rush this conversation to avoid cold pizza. Invest the time.
6. Show Up
Stacey, a proud Italian who was raised Catholic and her husband, a Conservative Jew, decided to raise their children in the Jewish tradition. He was responsible for schul (synagogue)-shopping and schleps the kids to Hebrew school. She holds court during the holidays and planned each child’s bar and bat mitzvah celebrations with care.
Laurie and her spouse deem it the responsibility of the parent whose tradition is being celebrated to teach the children about it in a meaningful way.
Regardless of approach, each person takes a turn behind the wheel.
7. Find a Friendly Rest Stop
When my children were young, I was fortunate to find a local interfaith group. During our regular “Coffee Talk” meet ups, we kicked around ideas, vented, listened, sought validation and offered guidance. These women and men were my leaning post and sounding board.
8. Build a Bridge
After agonizing through years of Hebrew laden Rosh Hashanah services and prayer-heavy meals with extended family, I cracked. “This is not my holiday. I don’t get it. It’s too much and I’m not going anymore.”
My outburst and subsequent conversation with Larry gave us permission to create a tradition where we each felt included and able to derive meaning from the environment. We started with a relatable rabbi, the children’s service at our Temple, and a meal with friends and have since graduated to grown up services and food with Larry’s family.
9. Celebrate Your Spouse’s Traditions
Larry, who was raised in a moderately observant home, had a post-decorating nightmare after he participated in my mother’s Christmas tree trimming party for the first time.
When we decided to put up our own Christmas tree a few years ago, I brought home a modest bush, concerned that a grand statement might make him squeamish. Larry gave our five-footer the once over, examined the nine foot ceilings and announced, “This tree doesn’t do the room justice. Next year it has to be much bigger!”
10. Give Extended Family a Chance
Let extended family on the bus. Offer to take a ride with them. Prepare a kosher meal. Attend a mass. Kindness, sensitivity and respect breed growth and mutual acceptance.
11. Be Open to the Journey
Jill feels being part of an interfaith family is, “An opportunity for you and your children to learn and understand not just one, but two cultures and religions on a very deep and intimate level. Learn and embrace as much as you can.”
The scenery doesn’t look quite the same as when Larry and I shared our Sicilian pie. Interfaith marriage is a journey and we are a work-in-progress.
In the end, we need to map the course which best suits our own family. Honoring each other along the way will make the ride more enjoyable and make all the difference.
Jennifer Reinharz writes for children; blogs for grown ups; is a teacher, CrossFitter and Mom. She is a 2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year and creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? Her work has also appeared in Brain, Child, Mamalode and Club Mid. Visit her on Twitter and Facebook.
This blog post was reprinted with permission from Red Said What?
By Jennifer Reinharz
After Hurricane Sandy, roughly six weeks post Rosh Hashanah 2012, we temporarily moved into my in-laws’ apartment. The building is home to a number of observant Jewish families, my in-laws included.
Waiting in the laundry room, I noticed a grandma folding clothes while her four-ish year old twin grandchildren, a boy and girl played nearby.
“I’m going to sing a Rosh Hashanah song,” announced the light eyed little guy.
After he got a few lines into his song I said, “That’s a nice tune.”
“He’s a good singer,” Grandma replied.
“Yes. I haven’t heard that one before.”
Right then his sister whipped her auburn curls, looked me dead in the eye and declared, “That’s because you’re not Jewish.
“Watch what you say to people!” Grandma barked.
Watch what you teach her, I thought.
I bit my lip and explained, “The Rosh Hashanah song I know is different. It goes like this…”
I sang a few lines of my holiday ditty. Thankfully the dryer’s buzzer went off. I took my clothes, wished them a good day and left – fuming.
Why do I have to be Jewish to know a Rosh Hashanah song? Why did the girl assume I was different than she? We were in the laundry room, not synagogue and it wasn’t Shabbat. Could she really have drawn her conclusion simply because I was dressed less conservatively than her grandmother?
It wasn’t clear.
What was clear was this little girl had been taught either directly or indirectly to identify, judge, and draw a conclusion about a person based on one’s appearance relative to the other grown-ups in her life. As a Christian woman married to a Jewish man who takes pride in raising Jewish children, I felt offended and sad.
This week, my family will celebrate the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and new beginnings. Whether you observe or not, perhaps it’s a good time for us to think about the symbolic gestures we feel bring us closer to God. Although seemingly benign when practiced with a similar group, the question remains;
Do these gestures create an unhealthy divide, particularly when our children form false and hurtful conclusions based on them?
When all is said and done, I personally don’t think God gives a rat’s ass about what clothes we wore, the food we ate, the holidays we observed, or how many times a day we prayed.
It is how we view and treat each other while we are here that matters.
But let’s be realistic; life is wonderfully diverse and so our lifestyles will vary and symbols sustain. So in an effort to close the gap, let’s be mindful about consistently teaching young people that all religious and cultural perspectives are valid and deserve respect.
Grandma, you and I may have different ways of approaching our day to day living, but my hope is that we embody the same values. With this New Year upon us, let’s show our children that when we look beyond the laundry room, we are all mishpacha.
Jennifer Reinharz writes for children; blogs for grown ups; is a teacher, CrossFitter and Mom. She is a 2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year and creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? Her work has also appeared in Brain, Child, Mamalode and Club Mid. Visit her on Twitter and Facebook.
Jake loves the Torah. He stands up proudly as he carries it in his arms, declaring “I’m doing it independently!” He places the Torah in the ark with great tenderness, stroking its velvety cover before he says goodbye and closes the door.
Jake loves his classmates. He leans in toward his friends and says hello as he peers at them through his thick glasses. Jake doesn’t seem to mind that one classmate is in a wheelchair, or another struggles to sit still during class; he simply loves them. When Jake goes to a separate room for individual tutoring, he asks where his friends are. And he asks to sit next to friends in circle or during prayer services, where he basks in their presence.
Jake loves praying. When he hears the class begin to sing prayers, he rocks back and forth and flaps his hands with a look of pure euphoria on his face. Now that Jake has learned to sing the prayers himself, he joins in with the same enthusiasm as fans cheering at a football game (and often the same volume). Jake understands that we direct our prayers to God, and has remarked: “I love Eloheinu.”
Jake loves Judaism. The joy he feels when studying, praying or celebrating a holiday is palpable. He wears his kippah (small head covering worn in synagogue) with pride. He feels at home in his synagogue and in his religious school. He gleefully uses Yiddish words, saying “I am a little vantz*” after a moment of mischief.
Jake chooses love, and we, his teachers, #ChooseLove, too. We love teaching Jake and watching him learn. We love the challenge of making lessons and materials accessible to him. But most important, we embrace both Jake’s strengths and his special needs, and we love the unique, mischievous, delightful young man that he is becoming.
*A vantz literally means a louse, and is slang for troublemaker.