Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
We are commanded to honor our parents. The fifth commandment can present a few challenges, however, like when my Jewish mother is sitting next to my Presbyterian father-in-law in his favorite Chinese restaurant, waving a pink morsel around on her fork and loudly asking, “What is this?”
“It may be pork, Mom, just eat around it,” I whisper. OK, maybe I hiss. I’d prefer to think I whisper. Loudly. I’m sure I try to make a point of using an indoor voice without actually telling Mom to shut it.
She holds the morsel closer and focuses through her bifocals as if checking a diamond for flaws.
“Put it down and eat around it,” I repeat, trying not to appear angry.
“Oh, fine. I have plenty to eat anyway. Who needs rice?” She refocuses on her dinner plate. “Do you think I can eat the moo goo gai pan?”
Not with your mouth open. Remember, that’s your rule, Mom.
Of course I don’t verbalize this because it’s not going to help to argue with her in front of my in-laws, the restaurateurs they’ve been visiting for 20 years and the general public. I can just quietly break my chopsticks under the tablecloth, so no one will notice. Ah, that feels better.
I make a mental note to do a little advance preparation in the future. There must be ways to avoid confrontation and honor my parents. Not to mention my mental health.
To start, I try looking at the situation from my parents’ viewpoint. I made a decision to embrace an interfaith relationship, but Mom didn’t. I’m open to new experiences and accepting of different cultures; she loves me and is OK with my spouse, but isn’t comfortable outside of her own microcosm. Before bringing her into an unfamiliar situation, I should have discussed it with her so she would be a bit more prepared.
I would also try to use a positive viewpoint to appeal to her. Next time I’ll say: “Mom, the Smiths have invited you to their favorite restaurant because they really want you to enjoy a meal with them. They really love the food there and don’t realize it’s not what you’re used to. There will be something on the menu you will be able to eat, but the most important thing will be enjoying each other’s company. They really look forward to seeing you.” I’ll print a menu from the restaurant’s website (in large font, no less) so Mom can be thinking about what she could comfortably tolerate before she even gets there.
I also consider my in-laws’ viewpoint. My father-in-law typically enjoys ordering family-style to show his prowess at selecting the best flavor combinations. So I would politely let him know in advance that Mom has complicated dietary concerns, and although everyone appreciates his expertise, it might be better this time to let everyone order their own thing. He would understand and reward me with a detailed recount of his recent gallbladder surgery recuperation that required a special diet. He would be careful to remind me that it’s now perfectly OK to bring him a plate of those pecan cookies anytime I want to.
I would discuss with Mom their before-meal prayer routine. Most Jews I know don’t say Kiddush (the prayer over wine) before sipping wine in a restaurant, but my Christian family bows their heads slightly as the head of the family says a blessing before digging in to the meal.
I would point out the similarities between this and saying Ha’Motzi (the prayer before meals) before Mom’s Shabbat meal. I’d let her know that although some may bow, she’s certainly not required to. Most will voice “amen,” which is also not required of her. She can just keep her lips sealed. (I vaguely remember seeing her do this at some point in time and feel reasonably sure she can replicate it if she practices.)
Instead of focusing on differences, another great way to prepare is letting my family know what they have in common with others at the gathering. People of all backgrounds love gardening, crafting, investing and complaining about how long it takes their fancy new phone to update.
“Mom, why don’t you sit next to Ralph?” I would suggest. “He read that same Patterson novel you just did, and you can discuss the plot flaws with him until the cows come home while the rest of us talk about something we’re interested in.”
Finally, I heed the advice I received from a nurse experienced with dementia patients, which is applicable to all families: Don’t correct or argue about recanted memories. If Mom wants to tell Ralph and Mary all about her experience as a Broadway chorus girl, I’ll sit back and enjoy the show. I don’t mention that Mom grew up in New Jersey and couldn’t dance her way out of a paper bag. The family is entertained, everyone is happy and the fifth commandment has been fulfilled.
When my husband and I first started dating I was what you might call a serial monogamist—I had a string of long-term relationships that never really went anywhere. So when we met, I decided to change things up and ignore some of those relationship “milestones” that I’d sped toward in the past.
First on this list was meeting my family. I love them dearly, truly I do. But, we’re a large group that some (i.e. my husband) may call intense. I’d had previous boyfriends feel overwhelmed by the number of family events and obligations.
Second was religion. My husband is not Jewish and I am, and while I’m OK with that, I didn’t know how he felt. Now, this isn’t a conversation I typically rush into. I’m not the most observant Jew. I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue regularly. But, I do go to services during the high holidays and celebrate all the holidays with my family, and Judaism is definitely a part of my upbringing.
So, I decided these milestones could wait.
Until they couldn’t, and both converged just a few months into our relationship.
Elizabeth and her now-husband, Devon, on a trip to Italy before they were married
Passover was coming up and my sister was planning a big seder with all our family at her house. That meant my parents, sister, brother, in-laws, nephews, niece and more would all be in town just a few miles away for a big, raucous Jewish family event.
My husband (boyfriend at the time) knew I was going but I had already decided not to invite him. Who wants to meet a big family of another faith at a religious event that includes taking turns reading out loud, singing and speaking Hebrew? Apparently my husband.
As Passover neared I could tell that he actually wanted an invitation. That should have been my first sign that he was a keeper. But I resisted until it finally became more awkward not to invite him. And? It was great. He met my entire family at our Passover seder and the rest is history. So what did I know?
What I do know, now, is the importance of communication. While I initially waited to bring up the conversation about religion, we eventually did talk, long before we got engaged, then again once we were engaged, many times throughout the wedding planning process, again when planning our family and after, and we continue to have these discussions today.
We talked about what religion meant to us as individuals and as a couple, and most important, as a family. We made decisions early on, before we were married, about how we would raise our children. We talked about if and how this would impact our extended families, and what that meant to us as a couple. Mostly, we both felt strongly about respecting each other’s beliefs and needs.
We are lucky. Our religious backgrounds are widely different, but what is important to us about religion is the same. For us, it’s first and foremost about family. Then, tradition, history and heritage; and those are things we both respect and believe in regardless of the formal aspects of the religions.
We decided early on to raise our daughter with aspects of both religions. My parents disagreed, thinking it would be confusing, but my husband and I had already discussed this and felt strongly about our decision.
We believed that our daughter’s generation would be filled with kids from different faiths, races and combinations and that she would fit into this evolving world. And so far that has proven true.
Now, our daughter is 8 and we need to make decisions about joining a synagogue, Hebrew and/or Sunday School and a bat mitzvah. We also continue to celebrate Christian holidays and make that religion available as well. Because we’ve already talked about much of this, those decisions are easier to make and typically in line with our shared beliefs.
This is what works for us. I will not tell you that an interfaith marriage or a mixed religious upbringing is right for everyone. And I’m sure we’ll face obstacles and have to redefine our thinking and our plans. But, the best advice I can offer is advice that will fare well in any aspect of a marriage or relationship: Communicate openly; communicate often.
I am Jewish. I identify as being Jewish. Well, actually, I identify as being Jew-ish. I was born Jewish, but was raised in a non-observant home. No synagogue, no bat mitzvah and no serious Jewish boyfriend (yet?) to help me learn about Judaism and Jewish culture. We did have the occasional tradition (that’s an oxymoron, right?) of watching The Ten Commandments and Eight Crazy Nights on Passover and Hanukkah, put on by my father, who converted to Judaism before my parents got married. I still light the candles on Hanukkah with my parents and many of my best friends are Jewish. I was very happy growing up Jew-ish, but it has led to my fair share of awkward questions.
“OMG, your dad converted? So you’re technically half Catholic!?” Nope! Some Jewish denominations might disagree, but I am actually 100 percent Jewish.
“I’m confused, you’re Jewish but don’t Mexicans celebrate Christmas?” My Dad converted but we still join his family on Christmas as guests, not to celebrate.
“You’re Mexican, can you help me with my Spanish homework?” I doubt I know more Spanish than you do.
“What synagogue do you belong to?” My family and I don’t belong to one.
“You don’t look Jewish.” Um OK? What does a Jewish person look like?
I recently read an article about people who say “You don’t look Jewish,” as if it’s a compliment.
There is no such thing as a “Jewish” look. You wouldn’t tell someone on the street that they don’t look American. Children are taught to value diversity and respect those of other ethnic backgrounds because America is a land of many cultures. The same goes for anyone who is Jewish.
In addition to being Jew-ish, I try to maintain a deep connection with my Mexican heritage. Although I am not fluent, I try to speak Spanish as much as I can with my Mexican half of the family. However, I do not celebrate The Day of the Dead nor does my family play Selena music throughout the house or watch George Lopez 24/7. Stereotypes, man.
I have been dogged by many stereotypes and presumptions for as long as I can remember. I’m not your average Jew or average Mexican—but honestly, today’s world is becoming less and less stereotypical. For example, more interfaith families are becoming part of American Judaism.
By interning at InterfaithFamily this summer as part of the Chicago JUF Lewis Intern Program, I am able to connect with other young adults like me. I see a whole network of people out there trying to find meaning and make our way in our Jewish world. Sometimes this world feels welcoming and embracing and sometimes I feel out of place and awkward. Meet me, an eager newbie with lots to learn, a deep sense of pride of who I am, with new Jewish memories and an open heart and soul ready to forge our future.
I had been living at Moishe Kavod House (a home-based Jewish community for young adults) for about a month when my boyfriend, Courtney, and I decided it would be exciting for him to accompany me to Shabbat services. The gatherings are always well-attended by lots of friendly folks, so I figured it would be a perfect way to introduce him to the beauty of Shabbat. I brought Courtney up the stairs to the services and we took a seat together on the floor. The services began, and although I had prepared him for the Hebrew prayers and songs, I had forgotten just how challenging it can be to follow along in a Jewish service if one is unfamiliar with its choreography and language. Each time we would rise, or bow, or face toward the door, I would hastily try to signal to him what was happening, but it was always a moment too late. Our visibility as an interfaith couple was clear, but it was made even more clear by the fact that Courtney was one of the only people of color in the room.
Once services ended, we connected briefly before heading downstairs. I asked him how he was feeling, and he explained to me that despite the warmth and kindness of all the people he had met, it was hard to shake the feeling of being an outsider. We spent the rest of the evening meeting community members, eating delicious food and discussing the powerful d’var that a local social justice leader had given. But he and I were left with a lingering feeling of otherness. We were full of questions as to how we might be able to attend such an event with both of our full identities intact.
A few months after that Shabbat dinner, we flew to Atlanta to spend Thanksgiving with Courtney’s family. At that point, I had never met anyone from Courtney’s family, so spending the week with his immediate and extended family felt daunting, but exciting. I was prepared to feel a stronger sense of difference than usual, given that I would be the only white person there. Before the Thanksgiving meal, we stood in the guest room as Courtney assuaged my anxiety about meeting his extended family. Confident that the most important point of difference would be drawn across racial lines, I geared myself up for an evening of relative discomfort.
However, when I stepped out of that guest room, Courtney at my side, I found that I was completely wrong. His family welcomed me with open arms. To my surprise, there were only two moments that felt heavy and slightly uncomfortable. The first of these moments came when the family sat down with overflowing plates to say grace before eating, offering praise to the Lord, the Son and the Holy Ghost with a painting of the Last Supper in the background. Needless to say, at that moment, I was hyper-aware of being the only Jewish person in the space. The second moment came when Courtney casually mentioned to one of his young nieces that I work as a Jewish educator in Boston. She turned to me with wide eyes and said, “Are you a Jew?” In response, I laughed and said yes, and proceeded to answer her questions. I was taken aback by her shock until I realized that she has probably never encountered a Jewish person before, whereas of course my whiteness was unremarkable to her. When we flew home later that week, I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt with Courtney’s family, and interested that the primary point of difference had seemed to be religious.
I believe that these two experiences—attending a Moishe Kavod Shabbat with Courtney and spending Thanksgiving with his family—highlight critical, surprising truths about being in a relationship that is both interfaith and interracial. Our most important difference as a couple is neither racial, nor gendered, nor religious, nor socioeconomic, rather it is a fluid meeting and shifting of those identities and experiences. There is no hierarchy or primacy of identities. Instead, there are only shifts in context and experience that dictate which of us may or may not feel comfortable in a given situation.
I have given much thought to a feeling of otherness as Courtney and I navigate a relationship that many perceive to be built on difference. We attract quite a few stares and whispers when we are out in public and even though by now we are accustomed to sometimes rude responses, we refuse to adopt such a simplistic view of our differences.
Courtney and I met nearly six years ago when we were both undergraduates at Carleton College and throughout our time in school we became deeply, powerfully connected to one another. We see ourselves as interconnected, intertwined; in short, we do not perceive our relationship to be one focused primarily on navigating difference. The intersectionalities of race, gender, class and religion absolutely play a prominent role in our relationship and our related experiences—but even so, that feeling of otherness still feels like an imposition from the outside world.
Each and every day, I feel proud to be grappling with these complex questions about belonging, identity and community. I am excited that we draw from two rich, beautiful religious traditions as we shape our life together. We are blessed to be doing this work in a world that seeks to delineate inflexible categories based on race, gender, class, religion and so many other visible and invisible identities. Honoring our connections while maintaining and celebrating our differences is challenging, humbling, heart-opening, holy work. How blessed we are to be struggling and striving to be better for ourselves and for the world.
Jared and his (now) wife Laurie being married by Rabbi Lev Baesh on Laurie’s parents’ farm in Pennsylvania
Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a bar mitzvah. I’ve traveled to Israel. I enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. Passover is my favorite time of the year, and my wife and I love hosting our annual interfaith-humanist-vegan seder with friends of many faiths. The central question of why I am not a member of a synagogue, and why I have no desire to join one, spawns more questions:
Many of us have read articles about shifting demographics, aging congregations, low service attendance and the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. Many of these articles pit affiliation and unaffiliation against one another as competitors, with blame often irrationally ascribed to young Jews, especially those who fall in love with someone of another faith. These articles resemble conversations I’ve had over the years with older affiliated Jews, in which being young, Jewish and unaffiliated was treated as a temporary illness that would cure itself once the patient got married (to another Jew) or had children. What is often missing from these discussions is the spiritual value of being unaffiliated, and how creating Jewish moments outside of a synagogue can be meaningful and fulfilling.
My childhood experiences in a Reform synagogue convinced me that religion was something you learned and performed, whereas spirituality was something you felt and experienced in the secular world. The first crack in this logic occurred in college when I read the “Song of Songs.” Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafka’s works. I began to associate Judaism not just with coldness and formality, but with intellectual curiosity and growth.
Years later I participated in a Birthright trip to Israel where music, nature, spontaneity, adventure, politics and Judaism intertwined. Judaism became bigger, complicated and more interesting. I was living at the time with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was raised Christian but has an aversion to all organized religion and rituals that tend to suppress individuality. So when I got home from Israel and was suddenly very excited about Judaism it freaked her out a little bit. But she could see that I was inspired, and so we began celebrating Shabbat together on Friday nights. We’d put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and I’d recite the prayers in Hebrew and English. But it all felt just as cold and empty as the rituals from my childhood; none of the vibrancy that I felt in Israel was there.
I began to wonder whether the missing ingredient was community. I drew up a list of about 15 Reform and Renewal congregations in the Boston area and visited one every Friday night. I mumbled along with the prayers and songs, but it wasn’t inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregation’s passive reliance on their rabbis felt all too familiar. Although this familiarity provided sentimental comfort and a sense of belonging for me, since my girlfriend was not raised Jewish, nothing was familiar to her, and she didn’t share the sense of comfort that I felt for the objects, rituals and language. Going to these various congregations with an interfaith partner was immensely valuable for me, because it caused me to ask myself these questions:
What am I learning in these services? What am I feeling?
What do I want my wife to experience? What do I want to experience?
What do I gain from the rituals and prayers in the synagogue?
What values are expressed in the services by the rabbi?
What values are expressed in the services by the congregants?
After attending dozens of synagogues both familiar and alternative, I was frustrated with myself for not feeling satisfied. I asked a rabbi whom I had been meeting with if I should just pick a synagogue, stay for a while and hope that it eventually felt right. His memorable response: “Keep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.”
My girlfriend encouraged me to try one more place, and to our surprise it seemed perfect for us. The community lived within its means, renting rather than owning a space, which lessened the financial burden on the congregants. There was spontaneous conversation and dancing during services. The rabbi was explicitly welcoming of every type of person, a strong supporter of lay participation and able to connect Jewish teachings and rituals to the reality we live in. We became members and joined the shul band, and a year later I was asked to join the board.
Although the congregation’s practices were very alternative and free-spirited, it turned out that the key decision-makers in the community were just as obsessed with preserving their own way of doing things as I had found at the more formal synagogues. Deviations from their norm were considered inappropriate and without value. It pained me to hear board members refer to non-members (and even new members) as “outsiders.” During one meeting, several board members decided that the purpose of services should always be to satisfy the congregants who have been there the longest, rather than engaging with younger generations. I soon felt like a distant member of a community built for others’ needs. I resigned from the board several months later and the following year we did not renew our membership.
Finding a Meaningful Practice
Being unaffiliated does not prevent someone from being Jewish. It took me a while, however, to understand that being unaffiliated also does not prevent someone from having meaningful Jewish experiences. My wife and I are finding inspiration by celebrating Jewish holidays in our own way, tweaking traditions and developing new ones that have emotional and intellectual meaning for us. Some work, some don’t. In addition to our annual seder we’ve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. I’ve also officiated my maternal grandparents’ funerals. These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and that’s in large part what makes them so special.
As much as we enjoy our Jewish life outside synagogue walls, there are many things that congregations provide that a couple like us simply cannot: a place for communal prayer, access to rabbis steeped in knowledge and a support network. There is a beautiful timelessness in large groups of people gathering together in a single space.
While I’m not planning to join a congregation—my needs have changed—many Jews and interfaith families desire to find a community that fits their needs. For congregations looking to grow, rather than speak only to those already in the building (those who already understand the coded behavior and language, those who share the same expectations of a service experience), rabbis and their congregants could look around and notice who is not in the seats. Cultivating a community of explicit (rather than implicit) inclusiveness requires open, honest conversations among rabbis and congregants about their community’s core mission, the unintended consequences of existing cultural norms and the potential for change. Here are some questions that I think about, and that I hope unaffiliated and affiliated readers can ponder and help me better understand:
What values underlie traditional Jewish congregational behavior?
What values do we see in secular organizations?
How do Jewish and secular experiences intersect in our lives?
Before we seek to inspire others, are we keeping ourselves inspired?
It took me 20 years to find the love of my life. If you told me 10 years ago, or even 15 years ago that I’d end up with a man raised Presbyterian, on a farm, who is also a war veteran, I would have laughed at you. But if you asked me a full 20 years ago, it would have made perfect sense.
Growing up in an interfaith family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, I was drawn to my Judaism the way some kids are drawn to forbidden things. I was intrigued by it, wanted more of it and didn’t really know how to access it but for tiny, little tastes on holidays or special occasions. I knew that when I grew up, I was going to practice Judaism, have a Jewish home, Jewish friends—a Jewish life. But I didn’t quite know what that meant. It was more of an idea than a path at that point. A mission without a strategic plan.
Growing up in a town with very few Jews contributed to the fact that my own limited practice of Judaism was essentially expository. Everything I did, I also explained to those around me. This was a habit that naturally fed into my work as a Jewish educator in the first several years of my career, and not coincidentally, my interfaith relationships.
At age 14, almost exactly 20 years before I would meet my future husband, I went on my first date, with the son of a Methodist minister. That relationship lasted nine days. Then there was the Irish Catholic boy for a whole six months. Then the Presbyterian boy I worked with on the student newspaper for an entire season. And the final high school relationship, the one that stretched into college, with the Methodist basketball star. It never occurred to me then that I might date a Jewish boy in order to lead a Jewish life, but this was primarily because there were only a couple in my class and as a Jewish child of an interfaith marriage it didn’t yet occur to me that this made a difference.
As I’ve reflected on this as an adult, it has become clear to me that these formative years had an impact on who I would ultimately seek out, find attractive and most important, love deeply. College was the first time I actively pursued Jewish dating, despite the fact that I attended the Jesuit Catholic Boston College. While only around one percent of the student population at BC is Jewish, the Jewish student population in Boston is plentiful and I was a strong networker. Still lacking a strategic plan, I was ever mission-oriented and dated several “nice Jewish boys” during my college years. Still, the most formative relationship I had in college was with my Episcopalian on-again-off-again boyfriend.
The post-college years were my most strategic ones. I started working at Hillel, I signed up for JDate. I insisted on dating only Jews. In those 10 years or so, I met one man I felt a strong connection with. It turned out he felt a strong connection with someone else. It was frustrating, challenging, it made me feel sad and sometimes hopeless. I decided to stop trying so hard. I opened my heart, still with some hesitations, still believing I was meant to be with a Jewish man, but trying to simply let the universe do its work.
While still looking for a Jewish man, I dated men who weren’t Jewish casually: I fell head-over-heels for a man who turned out to be a liar and a cheater, I fell for a man who could never love me the way I deserved to be loved… and then I met my future husband. I didn’t know it at the time. I was trying to get over the last guy and just needed a distraction. “He’s not Jewish,” whispered my subconscious. We met at my cousin’s wedding in the fall. We went on our first date a month later. It was long distance, but he cleverly came up with reasons to pass through town every month. Then we started planning visits. After six months I realized I was an idiot if I let him get away.
Brianne and her fiance Jayson
I’m marrying a man who is kind, smart, generous, loving, more obsessed with Democratic politics and values than I am and also happens to have been raised Presbyterian. Last night I was relaying to him a metaphor I had used at my government job involving the Book of Esther. “Wait,” he said, as I finished the story, “but who would be Haman in this scenario?” It actually took me some time to come up with an answer to that question, as I realized I had been outwitted in my latest Jewish educational moment by my partner who isn’t Jewish.
We’ve already had the big conversations: We’ll raise our kids Jewish, we’ll keep a kosher home, we’ll participate in Jewish community. We’ll also honor the traditions we had growing up, when we visit our parents’ homes. And we’ll go out into this world with the hope that our communities embrace our choices.
I know it won’t be easy. I can already tell in my own Jewish community that some are uncomfortable with the way that love found me. My closest friends are thrilled and they see what a good partner he is to me. But I cannot even count how many times I have been asked by Jewish friends if he is also Jewish, and when I say no, they quickly express support anyway, pretending it doesn’t matter to them. It hurts my heart when this happens. These are habits, not intentional barbs, but they affect how interfaith couples feel in community. And as the child of an interfaith family, I know this well. What’s even worse, there was a time when I acted this way toward other interfaith couples. Please consider this my apology.
As an adult from an interfaith family my Jewish identity is regularly called into question. Some people can’t quite believe I could have been raised in Grosse Pointe, MI. “But there are no Jews in Grosse Pointe!” they say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “You don’t have a Jewish name,” some say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “Who is Jewish, your mother or your father?” they ask. It’s my mother, so I pass the test. These are hurtful questions, although not intended as such. My children will likely experience the same.
I am lucky, because 20 years after I first started looking, the love of my life found me. If I hadn’t been willing to open my heart to what my Judaism could look like with a loving, supportive partner who isn’t Jewish, I might have missed out on it all.
I made a decision early in my life to pursue Judaism and despite the fact that biology, geography and many other factors were pulling me in different directions, I am still pursuing it. One of my favorite sayings about compassion is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s something I am hoping our Jewish community will come to embrace as we learn to do a better job of welcoming our interfaith families. You may be born a Jew, but to be Jewish is not a passive thing. Pursuing Judaism is a choice you make every day of your life, a choice that is harder for some than for others, and as a community and as individuals we should all be supportive of this.
Throughout my life, I was a person in search of a religion to call my own. Born in the United Kingdom to a non-practicing Hindu father and a non-practicing Church of England mother, I never received any kind of religious upbringing beyond weddings and the hymns I was forced to sing in grammar school—words that were as meaningless to me as the tunes were depressing.
From an early age, I began to discover my identity. I was a teenager in 1980s England. The word ‘transgender’ was never used. All I knew was that the horrific bullying and abuse I suffered growing up had to be because God didn’t care for me very much.
When I was 18, I fled England for the United States. Without the internet or any U.S. history taught beyond “Oh and, by the way, in 1776 we lost the colonies,” my education about the United States revolved entirely around Dallas, Dynasty, Starsky & Hutch and Quincy, M.E.
However, my history professor did at least provide some education about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. While naturally horrified, I was drawn immediately to the nobility of the Jewish people. I also obsessively watched and re-watched the miniseries Masada with Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss. (It told the story of the historic Roman attack on a Jewish citadel and its leader Eleazar, and the Jews’ mass suicide as the Romans advanced.)
I believed America was where anything could happen and anyone was free to be whomever they wished to be. I was in for a bit of a rude awakening when the foreign exchange company placed me in New Albany, Indiana, with a Mormon family. They tried to convert me but I couldn’t make sense of any of it.
My identity started to take over with full force and I suffered the consequences of America’s Judeo-Christian rejection of what some people considered a “perverse cross dresser.” I was in the middle of the Bible Belt and a doomed marriage to an evangelical Christian led to moments, in church, where I questioned my own validity as a human being.
In 2001, I attempted suicide. Most transgender people can tell you a similar story. I wasn’t trying to follow Eleazar’s defiant end. I just wanted the pain to stop. I did not credit God with my change of heart, but instead set the blame at God’s feet for my failure to remain an active part of the world
In fact, I flirted with atheism, believing that there could not be a God given the inner conflict I was suffering and the endless torment of knowing that I could not live as myself in a society which just would not accept me. Yet I could never reject God completely. I just had no hope that God would not reject me.
Fifteen years after the day I stood on the sidewalk of Indianapolis’s busiest street and was one step away from death, I met with Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, in a suburban Chicago coffee shop. From there I joined Rabbi Cindy Enger’s classroom at Temple Beth Emet in Evanston.
By this point, my physical transition from Jonathon to Gretchen was over and I was beginning my journey toward finding God in Reform Judaism. There was just one missing piece.
I found it last year when, for one week I joined my LGBTQ brothers, sisters and gender nonconformists in their day-to-day struggle for equal rights in Israel. I was a secular transgender journalist invited to join a writers and bloggers tour of Israel during the 2015 Pride Celebrations. I wanted to know what life was like for the average Israeli lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individual.
Tel Aviv Pride Parade 2015. Photo by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
After eight days in Israel, I realized that the lives of LGBTQ people there are not so dissimilar from our lives in America and I knew I wanted to be a part of the passion, solidarity and fight of the Israeli LGBTQ community. I knew it the moment I was invited to take hold of a corner of the immense transgender flag on its journey through Tel Aviv’s streets.
There was no question about whether I was an outsider or what my religious affiliation might be. As far as the transgender marchers were concerned, I might as well have been living and fighting along with them for years.
The lesbian, gay and bisexual communities may be celebrating more social acceptance in Israel but they are still fighting against religious intolerance and for pro-LGBTQ legislation that has stalled or even moved backwards. This has left them even further behind, say, a LGBTQ person in Mississippi.
In the end, I discovered the Israeli LGBTQ community is involved in a fight that is just as brutal and essential for their rights to exist as those in the trenches of any other country, or state, where such a right is being denied.
I had hoped to go to the summit of Masada and breath in the place Eleazar had made his last stand, but alas, the schedule didn’t allow for it. Instead, I found the people of Israel and especially their LGBTQ community to be as beautiful and flawed as those in the rest of the world. There is a passion to get a lot of things changed for the better and I believe they will.
I will be honest. Recent events in North Carolina, Mississippi and Orlando, Florida, have not only tied me further in solidarity to my LGBT community but also with the community in Israel. That is why I want to join them. Oppression must and can be fought no matter where it rears its head. The story of Masada taught me that.
I have found the God I have searched for all my life in Reform Judaism. It is a place I am accepted, where I can question God but love at the same time. I have been a part of many religions whether through circumstance or family, but this is home.
My life as a secular British transplant in the United States amounted to a 25-year discovery of my authentic self. Now that I have discovered where I belong—as a proud Jewish transgender individual in Israel—I expect the road to get there to be as challenging as it is long.
But it is a journey I can hardly wait to begin. Next year, in Tel Aviv.
InterfaithFamily is proud to offer many LGBTQ resources and connections. For more info, click HERE.
Gretchen Rachel Hammond was born in Manchester, England. She came to America at the age of 18 as part of a foreign exchange and was placed with a family in New Albany, Indiana. In the course of her career, Gretchen has worked as an actor, screenwriter, film critic for FOX 59 and WXNT radios in Indianapolis, a fundraiser for theaters and educational organizations and is currently a senior staff writer for the Windy City Times in Chicago with a focus upon investigative pieces and features. A transgender woman, Gretchen was inducted in to the Trans 100 in 2015 and has lectured on transgender issues for the Adler School of Professional Psychology and Roosevelt University in Chicago. Gretchen sits on the Board of the Trans Life Center at the Chicago House. Her book The Last Circle was published in 2013.
When my family moved to Pittsburgh, my son was 10 weeks old and my husband was entering into a grueling six-year medical residency. Though we’re not Orthodox, he found us an apartment smack dab in the middle of the eruv—a ritual enclosure some Jewish communities use to allow residents to carry certain objects on Shabbat and holidays, which would otherwise be forbidden. He was hoping that by surrounding ourselves with Jews, I would feel supported in living a Jewish life.
Judaism is my chosen faith. While the conversion process was long and intimidating, it is not nearly as intimidating as raising Jewish children in a Jewish home. My husband grew up a secular Jew and his mother has since passed, so there has never been anyone to show me the ways of brisket braising and Hebrew prayers. And while I studied prayer books and cookbooks, blogs, and literature about how to build a Jewish home, I prayed every night that someone would take my hand and show me the way.
Our first week here we attended a family Shabbat service. I sat in the lobby hushing my fussy newborn and I noticed another woman chasing her 18-month-old daughter through the coat racks. She smiled at me and asked if we were new to the area. Turns out her husband was also in medicine and they were Pittsburgh “transplants” as many call it: people who come here for a job—usually away from family and friends—and end up staying because they love the city.
We developed a friendship and her family invited us to Shabbat dinners, Passover seders and birthday parties. Five weeks after our first meeting, she babysat my not-bottle-taking newborn so that I could have a minor surgical procedure. Two years later, she rushed over to my house when I was in labor with our second son, scooped up my toddler, and grabbed a laundry basket like it was her own home, allowing me to focus on getting to the hospital.
My friend was also a convert and I looked up to her greatly. I admired the Jewish art on her walls and her collection of menorahs. I watched her cook, pray, and mother her Jewish children. I was inspired and hopeful that I could execute Judaism just as effortlessly one day.
Mothering unites us as Jewish women.
As a child, I sang almost before I could speak. I truly believe that it was a gift God bestowed upon me to share with the world. As an adult, I remember walking into my first Shabbat service and hearing the music. So beautiful and so… foreign to me. I wanted nothing more than to find familiarity in that sound. The sound of Jewish music.
After living in Pittsburgh for about two years, I met a woman at the park one day. Our children were very close in age and she and I were equally nine months pregnant. We got to talking about life, about ourselves. We were both Jewish and both in a local MOMs club chapter but had never met. She told me in passing that she and her sister sang in an a capella group and I should come sing for them sometime.
I did and was welcomed into this group, Kol Shira, to sing Jewish music alongside nine other Jewish women, each of us differing in our level of observance but all equally Jewish in the eyes of one another. Through a chance meeting at the park, Jewish song became part of my everyday life—learning it, hearing it, and singing for my children.
Song unites us as Jewish women.
When we welcomed my daughter into the Jewish community, Kol Shira filled the chapel with beautiful music in her honor. And when I gave birth to my fourth child two months ago, these same women hosted the most thoughtful brit milah(ritual circumcision). They walked into my living room that morning and let me cry on their shoulder; they hugged my children; they held my baby; and they brought beautiful food and décor, set it up, served it, and cleaned up every last bit, leaving leftovers in the fridge for my family. These Jewish mothers held my hand because they remembered being the one shaking and sobbing on their son’s eighth day of life.
That morning when we welcomed my beautiful boy into the Jewish community, my home was filled with people—only one of them was related to us by blood. My friends, this community of women, took the all too familiar weight of that day off of my shoulders and spread it around each other and I am forever grateful.
Tradition unites us as Jewish women.
A few years ago, we sang at the Chabad Women’s Convention that was held in Pittsburgh. The message of the conference was “sharing your light” by encouraging other women in their own Judaism. When I think of all of the women who have shared their light with me these past six years in Pittsburgh, I am overcome with emotion. Each one gave me little drops of Judaism, and from those drops my cup runs deep. Just by surrounding myself with women who embrace each other and their faith so effortlessly, I’ve become more modest, more generous, more accepting, and more capable. They have inspired me not only to be a better Jewish mother, wife, and teacher, but showed me how I can share my light.
Tamara Reese, MPH, CHES is a stay-at-home Mama and consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to Kveller and her work has been published in academic journals, La Leche League USA, Brain, Child Magazine and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tamara lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, two boys and ginger-baby daughter. Her passions include child injury prevention, gentle parenting, and breastfeeding advocacy. #YouAreAGoodMama
Like his other mother, my 4-month old son Sam is Jewish. I am not. I was born and raised Catholic. My mother and her sister converted to Catholicism while attending the Catholic schools that offered a better education to black families than the separate but equal public schools in the segregated South. My mother went to mass every day and, after she died, the congregation at her local church planted a tree in her honor outside the front door. My aunt (her sister) regularly serves communion at Sunday mass. My father’s family has been Catholic for generations—his cousin was Mother Superior of a convent of black nuns in New Orleans. My Catholic background was such a point of pride for me that, even after agreeing that our son would be Jewish, I still wanted to name him Ignatius Xavier in honor of the founders of the Jesuits.
With this history, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I told my family that Sam was going to be Jewish. I was especially concerned about my father. Dad’s family is Louisiana Creole. For him, being Catholic is not just about religion. It’s a core part of his identity, as integral to his sense of self as being black and from Texas. Sam was already biracial and a native Californian. I was afraid that when Dad learned that Sam was going to be Jewish, he might decide Sam was too different to be his grandson.
To my surprise, my father was not only accepting, he was also enthusiastic. And full of questions. Why was Sam going to be Jewish? How could my baby be Jewish if I’m not? Was he going to be baptized Jewish? What were the Jewish holidays? It was a bit overwhelming. Figuring that it would be better to let him find his own answers, I asked IFF/LA’s Rabbi Keara Stein for book recommendations.
Dad came to visit Sam for the first time a week ago. When he called before the visit, he mentioned that he had read the books. Judaism had made a strong impression on him and he was “excited” that it was going to be a part of Sam’s life. He liked the Jewish sense of community and the rituals, but most of all he liked how, as he described it, Judaism emphasized study over knowledge. “I feel like that really resonates with me,” he said.
I suggested that he join us for Shabbat dinner while he was in town. (His text message response was “I’m down w/‘Shabbat’ after I look up what it is.”) We also invited my cousin, who just moved to LA, and my mother’s brother, who happened to be in town. So my father experienced his first Shabbat with his grandson, surrounded by family. It was the first time he had ever shared a family meal at my house. It was also the first time he ate challah, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
At his suggestion, he and I took Sam to services on Saturday morning, where, after seeing me navigate the prayer book, he asked if I knew Hebrew. (“Not really,” I answered. “But it’s OK to just la la la if you don’t know the words.” He laughed.) Driving home, we talked about what to expect at Sam’s bar mitzvah. And he finally asked an easy question. Dad wanted to know why Sam didn’t have my last name. “Easy,” I said. “Our name is Bacon. That’s just not very Jewish.”
Before he left, my father told me how much he enjoyed his trip, even the two hours we spent at services. Looking back, it might have been the best visit we’ve had as adults. Talking about Judaism made for some of the longest and most personal conversations we’ve ever had. And his curiosity gave me a chance to think more deeply about what it means to raise our son in our Jewish community. Dad’s parting words were a request that I let him know when holidays were coming so he could be prepared. Perhaps I’ll give him a call for Shavuot.
A good story is supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, right? Well, this story about being Jewish only has a beginning. Yep, I’m Jewish. Exactly 50% Ashkenazi according to my genome. And Jewish law says I’m 100 percent because my mother is Jewish—which also makes my kids Jewish.
I spent the first half of my life knowing this about myself, but that was literally all I knew about being Jewish. I never went to synagogue, didn’t become a bat mitzvah, we didn’t light candles or celebrate Jewish holidays or eat Jewish food. Since I don’t “look” Jewish, the only Jewish things about me are that I lived in New York and have a passion for lox and bagels.
I grew up in a secular home with lots of influences—Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, atheist, New Age. My dad is a fourth generation Chinese-American, born in Hawaii. If you ever see a balding, long-haired Chinese guy in Berkeley wearing two different color crocs, that’s my dad! My “Jewish” mom wasn’t raised Jewish. My grandfather was atheist and my Austrian grandmother converted to Christianity. I can only imagine this was her best way to cope during the war. In the background, my Jewish auntie and uncle would assure me that I am Jewish, even though I didn’t know what that meant. Then there’s my god-mom, a Southern black woman who meditated every morning and only ate macrobiotic, unless she was cooking her famous mac-n-cheese.
It was a smorgasbord that was totally liberating and utterly confusing! As a kid I felt trapped in between—I was everything and nothing; not Chinese, not white, not black, not Jewish or Buddhist or atheist, but I also felt I had a claim to all these things. Have you ever had to answer the question, “What are you?” Growing up, this was always the first question that people asked me. Innocent curiosity about my ethnicity was exhausting. There were times when I envied people who could check one box and who knew what they were and where they belonged.
But that wasn’t being handed to me, so everything about my identity has been claimed and self-determined. I moved to China, learned to speak Mandarin, studied up on Asian-American history and married a Chinese guy. We’re raising our kids bilingual; my 4-year-old daughter can sing more songs in Chinese than I can and our 7-year-old does Kung Fu.
I was feeling pretty smug about raising my kids to be so culturally fluent, until one day at the JCC. When I took the kids swimming, I had gotten in the habit of pointing out the Hebrew on the pillars and telling them it’s the Jewish language (not that I could read it). I checked a mental box every time I reminded them, “You’re Jewish too.” That day, my son Simon stopped me and asked, “How do I know that I’m Jewish?” And I said, “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”
“How do you know you’re Jewish?”
“Well, because my mom’s Jewish.”
“No mom. How did the first person know they were Jewish?”
I was stumped. “That’s a good question.” That moment I realized that we don’t practice or express our identification as Jews in any outward way—it’s just been a statement of fact. Clearly this falls short, especially compared to the experiences, language and cultural ties that we’ve cultivated on the Chinese side. Simon in his 7-year-old wisdom knew: You have to do something to be part of it and for it to belong to you. Somehow he lasered in on this missing piece of our identity and it sent me spinning.
So I threw myself into reading Jewish books and met with three different rabbis to start my Jewish education. I even went to my first Passover seder with the kids. It turns out there’s lots of ways to be Jewish and my version is part of the Jewish experience. I’m 38 years old and this is just the beginning of my story about being Jewish… whatever that means.
Amourence Lee lives in a fixer-upper in San Mateo, CA, with her husband, two kids, two chickens and two cats.