The Message I Wish I Heard in Hebrew School

  

By Emily Waife

Emily's family

Emily (right) with her parents and sister

I’m Emily, the summer intern at InterfaithFamily/Boston! I thought I would kick off my internship by sharing a story about my family.

I grew up in a Conservative synagogue. Every Saturday morning, my mom, sister and I would attend Shabbat services. I learned the prayers and the meanings behind them at the youth services led by a beloved Hebrew school teacher. Twice a week I attended Hebrew after-school where we learned about the Jewish holidays, learned basic Hebrew and studied the Torah stories in creative ways. After I became a bat mitzvah, I chose to continue my Jewish learning at an after-school Hebrew high school program. I continued studying there until graduation my junior year, and became a teacher’s aid my senior year of high school. I have always felt a strong connection to my Jewish heritage and Judaism continues to be an important part of my daily life.

Throughout my Jewish education, I have been told that if nothing else sticks from my education, the one thing I must do, as a Jew, is marry a Jew.

It’s been like a broken record throughout all of my youth: “Marry a Jew! Marry a Jew!”

To be honest, I never thought much of it. I’m sure when I was told this countless times as a third-grader in Hebrew school, it was in some round-about way. Or maybe the love that I have always felt for Judaism shielded me from realizing that this message was not a benign suggestion, but was being pushed down my throat. It was something I listened to, almost without thinking—never truly questioning what I was being told.

I remember just four years ago, on one of the last days of Hebrew high school the director came and spoke to my class. All seniors, all about to graduate high school and leave the comfortable, sheltered bubble of our Jewish community. The one thing I remember the director telling us that day was that we had to promise her that we would marry Jews. She did not specify that just raising our children Jewish passed the test, she specifically told us that we had to marry Jews and expressed concern about interfaith relationships. We all nodded and listened to her explain the reasons for marrying a Jew.

It did not dawn on me until later that if my parents had followed this same message, I wouldn’t be here today.

I am part of an interfaith family. My dad grew up in a Reform household in a Midwestern suburb where there were not a lot of Jews at the time. My mom grew up with a Jewish father and a Unitarian mother and was raised in a Unitarian church in New England. My mom converted to Judaism in her adult life and committed to teaching my sister and me about Judaism. I have always known that no matter what, I am Jewish. For my whole life we have shared Christmas dinner with my cousins, Rosh Hashanah at my synagogue and large Passover seders made up of people from a variety of religious backgrounds.

Being a part of an interfaith family has taught me that there are many different ways to celebrate Jewish holidays, as well as secular holidays. I have been taught to invite people of all faiths to our home for holiday meals, treat people with respect and learn from one another. My family has taught me to open my heart and my door to those in need, which come from our Jewish values and being a kind person in general.

It is my hope that in Hebrew schools in the future, even at a young age, students are taught the same things I was taught about Jewish holidays, traditions and the Hebrew language. But there must be a way for us as Jews to impart our values and traditions on to the next generation while accepting and embracing those in our community who are in interfaith relationships. Interfaith relationships and families are a very important part of the Jewish community and create more opportunities for learning about and exploring the Jewish faith.

I am first-hand proof of how interfaith families are positive assets to the Jewish community. That is what the new message should be.

My Dad’s One Big Question

  

It started as most modern romances do these days. Girl logs on to a website. Spies a boy. Sends notes back and forth. But it was 2000 when I met Dave, long before dating websites—a time when chat rooms and websites catering to different hobbies and interests were just starting to bring people together.

We corresponded via Internet and phone calls before we ever met in person. I was living in Brooklyn and needed to be in Boston for a work event in May 2001. We thought we should have dinner. Dinner turned into a weekend, which turned into weekend trips between New York City and Boston for quite some time.

Aside from the travel, it all seemed so simple.

And it was, mostly. There came a point in the relationship where we knew we were going to move forward, as in, it looked like I was going to leave New York City and move to Boston to be with Dave. We felt like we needed to tell our parents we had met someone special. That we were serious.

I was nervous.

Liz and her father

Liz as a baby with her father

You see, I was raised Jewish. My mom, my dad, my Orthodox Russian Rabbi great grandfathers, and family as far back as I know of, are all Jewish. And Dave was raised in a different religion.

I know the stories, I’ve seen The Way We Were, Fiddler on the Roof, and Annie Hall. People get disowned, troubles arise … lineages are broken, chaos ensues! I love my dad. I am his first born and I have always wanted to please him. I also knew I loved Dave. And that my Dad loved me.

So I prepared myself mentally and I picked up the phone.

RING…

RING…

Please answer so I can get this over with.

“Hey you!”

We start off like any other normal conversation; we laugh a little and check in. Then I let him know that I have something important I want to talk to him about.

“OK.”

Deep breath.

“So I know I told you I’ve met someone… but I wanted to let you know that we are… um… moving forward with our relationship.”

Holding breath.

“Well I’m sure you must know that I have one big question for you about this man that I need to ask.”

“OK.” Still holding breath, about to pass out.

At this point I’m trying to prepare to help my father understand that, to me, just because Dave isn’t Jewish, that fact doesn’t make me less Jewish or even less likely to raise Jewish children. I’ve always loved the holidays and the culture and the food and I want to make sure that those traditions are carried on. I’m ready to have this conversation with my father.

“OK, Dad…ask it.”

“Well, is he a Red Sox fan? Because that might be a deal breaker for me.”

Liz's wedding

Liz and her father on her wedding day

And with tears in my eyes, I laughed. I laughed and told my father that no, the man I knew I was destined to marry was not a Red Sox fan.

I knew that my father chose love. He chose his love for me because he knew that love is the most important choice. He understood that we make choices in our lives every day and those choices should be made with love.

In my head, I made this conversation much more difficult because the “If you’re a Jew, you marry a Jew” mantra whispered throughout my upbringing. The truth is, by embracing my interfaith relationship, my father actually made me want to keep Judaism in my life more—to carry on the traditions and the culture in my own family. And while I wouldn’t realize it until long after this conversation, he made me want to fight to keep Judaism in my children’s lives no matter how many times we were made to feel unwelcome.

“I thought you were going to ask a different question.”

“I know.”

It has been over five years since my father died. I see him in my children. My Jewish children. When they laugh, when they’re defiant and when they participate in Passover and light the Shabbat candles, and certainly on the day they eventually become Bar Mitzvah. Judaism is strong in my family, because at a critical moment, my father chose love.

chooseloveTo learn more about InterfaithFamily’s #ChooseLove campaign and to tell us how you #ChooseLove, visit interfaithfamily.com/chooselove.

To see how we #ChooseLove, watch this video.