Will My Husband Understand The Annex?

  

By Madeleine Deliee

Madeleine and her husband

Madeleine and her husband

Shortly after the election last November, a friend sent me a real estate listing. It was for a private island in Scotland, including several buildings, its own postage stamp and infrastructure. I started breaking down costs, much to my husband’s bewilderment. He didn’t understand. But when I talked to my mother about it, she understood immediately. “We’ll know when it’s time to go,” she said. My husband thought we were being paranoid. I said we were being Jewish.

The fact is that it isn’t in my husband’s belief system to think that his government would ever turn on him. He simply cannot imagine that such a thing could happen. I can.

I knew long ago that there were some gaps in our perceptions of the world. He did not know about Dr. Brown’s soda, for one thing, or how to wear a yarmulke. He’d never seen a Woody Allen movie or lit a menorah. His relatives had largely fled the Potato Famine. He’s taught me about kneelers, having nuns in your family and growing up Boston Irish.

I wasn’t sure what we were going to learn about each other on our recent trip to Amsterdam. To me, going to Amsterdam meant art, the canals and probably some good beer, but mostly it meant finally getting to see the secret annex. I read Anne Frank’s account of living in hiding when I was in elementary school; it was a source of both hero worship and nightmares for me. I was excited about getting to experience the setting of her story firsthand, but my excitement contained both reverence and nausea. This was where she wrote. This was where she hid to save herself. Would my husband, who was not Jewish, be able to understand all of this?

We waited in line, in the sun, for hours to gain admission. “You can go,” I kept telling him. “It’s hot and there’s nowhere to sit. I don’t mind.” He said no. We took turns standing or sitting on the ground, talking with the German woman behind us who was waiting with her dog and eavesdropping on the loud group of Americans in front of us. They kept exclaiming loudly about how seeing the house was at the top of their to-do list in Amsterdam “because it’s like the biggest attraction.” We cringed. “I was like, OMG, we totes have to go and get the T-shirt or whatever,” I whispered to him. He rolled his eyes. Solidarity.

He took my hand as we crossed into the museum, making our way through the lower levels, the offices and store rooms that buffered the Franks and the other residents of the annex from discovery. The further up we went, the harder it became to swallow the lump in my throat. They were here, I thought. Those pictures on the wall are the ones Anne wrote about in her diary. This is where they ate. This is the textbook they used for lessons to occupy their time—to maintain some semblance of normalcy in a world that was no longer anything like normal.

This has always been part of what I’ve found so hard to explain to my husband: Their world was normal and then it wasn’t. Yes, things got worse and worse, until they were so bad that they fled for their lives. But it was incremental—a pot with the water gradually heating to boiling. This is what I mean when I ask, “How will we know?” I mean, how will we be better-equipped to recognize that the temperature is rising too high?

We were both silent as we left the museum, passing all the postcards bearing the images of the photos we’d encountered throughout the tour. It felt somehow indecent to buy them, although I hesitated over the copy of the picture of the sole survivor, Otto Frank, standing in the annex in 1960. How do you bear that? How do you endure being in the place where your family lived, knowing you couldn’t save them? “I love this picture,” I told my husband. “But I’m not buying it.” He nodded, understanding what I meant: We have children.

We went to a café for a drink, both deep in our own thoughts while we waited for our order. “I wasn’t sure you’d understand,” I admitted.

“I know,” he said.

“I didn’t like feeling that—but you’re right, I don’t have that context.”

“You don’t,” I said. “But I saw you in there. You felt what I did.”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “That doesn’t depend on context.”

We turned our attention to what was in front of us then: the drinks, watching people walk along the canal, and I realized that I’d needed his explanation as much as he’d needed mine. Our context is different, but we are not.

How Bedtime Stories Help Us Write a New Chapter of Jewish Tradition

  

By Shawna Gale

My parents, who are both Jewish, were married in the 1970s. In the year they took their vows, only 36 percent of the Jewish respondents in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey had married spouses who were not Jewish. By 2005, the year I was married, that number had climbed to almost 60 percent. Now, as the children of this recent boom in interfaith marriages begin to explore their Judaic roots and, consequently, synagogues prepare to experience an influx of interfaith families, many Jewish communities are entering uncharted territory, endeavoring to preserve a tradition that is thousands of years old while accepting the realities of our modern time—a reality they must embrace if Judaism is to have a future.

I am a part of that reality. My husband and I met when we were in the ninth grade. By the time we left for college (at schools 1,000 miles apart), we had been a couple for over a year and we had every intention of staying that way. Our families were, for the most part, supportive of our relationship. But every so often they would remind us—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—that despite our many similarities, there was one defining difference.

I was raised in a Jewish home. My husband was brought up in an Episcopalian family. Yet at age 17, this didn’t even register as a concern for us. My husband knew even then that someday I intended to raise my children Jewish. It was never a point of contention. He was fine with it. I was fine with it. What was the problem? A challenge was maintaining a long-distance relationship in the age before cell phones and Skype. Being an interfaith couple at the dawn of the new millennium was no big deal, right?

Perhaps the writing was on the wall as we sat, eight years later and newly engaged, listening to my childhood rabbi patiently explain why he could not marry us. I was incensed. Was he for real? Did he not hear us say that we were intending to raise our children Jewish? Wasn’t that the important thing?

We were married in a civil ceremony by a Jewish judge who could perform all the rituals that mattered to me. We could still have the chuppah and the wine and the smashed glass. But the refusal stuck with me all the same. Already I felt the weight of our interfaith union.

Our early married years were uncomplicated by religious concerns. We celebrated holidays with both families, with Christmas dinners and Passover seders alike. But new challenges were on the horizon as we prepared for the birth of our first child.

After our son was born, we planned a Jewish naming ceremony, hung the decorative certificate bearing his Hebrew name on the nursery wall and then spent the next three years mostly teaching him to walk and talk and eat with a spoon. Religion took a back seat to sleep training—the only prayer in our house was for a full night’s rest.

It wasn’t until our second son was born and we enrolled our older child in a Jewish preschool that our interfaith parenting experiment began in earnest. I was delighted as our 3-year-old came home reciting Shabbat prayers, recounting the story of Hanukkah and asking to bake hamantaschen—all cultural hallmarks of my Jewish upbringing—but I also began to worry that my husband would feel left out. These things were not part of his childhood memories. How would he connect with our children and help them to form their Jewish identities when he had not experienced that himself? How could he feel comfortable in a community where he did not share in the collective subconscious?

These are the struggles of many of us who are parenting Jewish children as interfaith couples. Our journey is an ongoing series of tough questions and difficult answers. Often, we have no model to emulate, no map to follow. We are making up the rules as we go along.

I found the answers to those lofty existential questions in a surprising place. While attending an event at our local JCC, I enrolled my children in a program called PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to children across the United States and Canada each month. Reading the books we receive monthly is such a simple thing, but the impact has been profound.

As my husband started sharing these stories with our sons at bedtime each night, he began to learn—right alongside our children—about Jewish holidays and celebrations; Hebrew words and Yiddish phrases; prayers and rituals and traditions. He discovered latkes and matzo balls and yes, hamantaschen. He started teaching our children about tzedakah, about doing a mitzvah and being a mensch—concepts so central and important in Jewish parenting. He is proud to be raising Jewish children and he is proud of the role he is playing in their spiritual upbringing.

I don’t mean to suggest that we have solved all our interfaith parenting challenges with a collection of bedtime stories. For example, we recently decided to suspend our attendance at my in-laws’ Christmas celebrations after our 5-year-old, excited about his burgeoning Jewish identity, expressed confusion about his place there. Needless to say, we were not the most popular family members that year.

However, according to a new participant survey from PJ Library, a majority of families like mine are finding help and support from the program in raising their children grounded in Jewish traditions. Three years and dozens of books later, PJ Library continues to provide my husband with a platform of knowledge, a fine substitute for those roots he lacked having not been raised Jewish. It gives him the vocabulary he needs to play an active role in our children’s religious education, and it allows him to feel more comfortable within our synagogue community where he participates confidently and often. We laugh when other members are surprised to find out that my husband is not actually Jewish. We are glad to be forging a path for the growing number of interfaith families in our community, and we are proud to be shaping a more introspective, responsive Judaism for this new era.

Shawna Gale is a blogger, wife and mother of two young boys living in Glastonbury, CT. Her website, www.outandaboutmom.com helps local parents find fun activities to do with their children. Shawna is an active member of her synagogue community and was recently elected to the board of trustees.