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By Elizabeth Vocke
A couple of weeks ago, as we were going to sleep, my husband said, âIâm sorry there are people out there who donât like you because of your religion.â I have to say, I was a little startled by the comment, though it was appreciated.
As a Conservative Jewish person growing up in a small town, Iâve always known there was anti-Semitism out there. If not overtly, then just this sense of being âother.â But marrying someone who is not Jewish, and raising a Jewish daughter together, gives me a new perspective.
Several years ago, there was a hate crime on a college campus. It was apparent to me that it was a hate crime, but my husband wasnât sure. He thought it was horrible, but maybe just a college kidâs prank. We fought about it and likely came to some agreement, but I was surprised by his views. He had a different world view. Not because heâs unaware or ignorantâheâs one of the most intelligent and well-read people I knowâbut because 1. Itâs something he hasnât experienced and 2. He just could not believe someone would feel and act so hateful.
Fast forward a couple years and someone made a Jewish âjokeâ in front of me. Again, he was floored and outraged. This time, not quite so shocked.
Fast forward again to todayâs political and social climate and sadly the shock is gone, but the outrage is still there, and has grown.
What does that mean for our daughter, who is being raised Jewish and in the religion her father grew up with?
Sheâs 9 now and for years I never talked to her about racism of any kind. I didnât want her to see it or know that it exists. But in Kindergarten, she had an African American teacher. I happened to be volunteering in the class on MLK Day and listened as the teacher explained the importance of the day to the kids. They listened and I listened and I was so glad to have her perspective and hear how she so freely and frankly explained why Dr. King is important.
Still, it took a while before I explained the Holocaust. Again, I didnât want to introduce the ideas. But eventually we did talk about it and she accepted what had happened as children do.
But hate is more apparent today than ever in my memory, so how do we talk about it? We are still figuring it out, but hereâs what we do.
First, we donât let our daughter watch the news. Itâs horrific and scary and not meant for a 9-year-old. We do talk to her about it as much as we feel is appropriate for her age and maturity.
Second, we use this as a learning tool. We talk about our own beliefs in respecting everyoneâs religion and ethnicity.
Third, we stress the importance of multiculturalism and just how cool it is to know people of different backgrounds.
And no matter what, we support each other 150 percent. Itâs a given that my husband stands against hate and prejudice of any kindâhe would regardless of whether he was married to a Jewish womanâbut this hits closer to home because of our marriage.
Perhaps most important, we keep the lines of communication open. We answer questions and are always available for discussion. And we donât tolerate hate or prejudice of any kind.
Shouldnât that be a given for all?
By Liat Katz
âA Y A M,â She writes.
âUm, Maya, I think you wrote your name backwards,â I respond.
âNope, itâs just in Hebrew,â the 6-year-old says.
Maya is learning to read and write in English, while also learning Hebrew at our synagogueâs Sunday school. That makes it confusing. And sheâs left-handed too, which makes this backwards-forwards thing even harder.
The whole figuring-out-the-Jewish thing in our modern world has been complicated. Finding a Jewish community that is both warm and accepts our two-mom interfaith family was also difficult, but I think we are starting to find a rhythm.
My wife, Lisa, is not Jewish (she is a recovering Baptist), but is completely on board with raising our kids Jewish. She took time to learn some Hebrew, she helps the kids get to Hebrew school, light candles, says prayers on Shabbat, and seems to be more knowledgeable about Judaism than I am at this point. She also makes the best latkes I have ever tasted.
For our oldest girlâs naming ceremony, we hired a Rabbi who was a humanist, gay, social worker, anarchist, vegan to do the ceremony in our home. Iâm not kidding. Of course he had no problem with the fact that were gay and interfaith. And the ceremony was beautiful. But beyond candle lighting and the occasional high holiday service, we did not have much of a Jewish household after that ceremony.
That was, until a couple of years ago, when we heard that kids absolutely have to start by third grade in Hebrew School to be on the bat mitzvah track. Aviva, our older child, was almost in third grade. And being a child of a Holocaust survivor, I felt compelled to partake in this Jewish tradition for all those that could not. Besides, though I am not very religious, I wanted to have our kids have a sense of belonging to a larger Jewish community.
When I lived in Israel, I could be a part of the Jewish communityâand feel Jewish by virtue of living in a Jewish land, speaking the language, interacting with the people. But here, in the U.S., going to temple seems to be where we need to connect to the Jewish community.
So we started shopping for synagogues to join. We started with the obvious ones for our familyâReconstructionist. We went to a few services and kidsâ services at a relatively local Reconstructionist synagogue. I looked around: Lots of gay families, check. Interfaith families, check. Even racial diversity (pretty unusual at most synagogues), check. Interesting services with lots of opportunities for activities, check. The only thing missing was, well, warmth. Being Gay-friendly did not make them friendly-friendly. Nobody really spoke to us, looked at us or acknowledged us, or each other, either. Not the place for us.
We checked out Reform synagogues. The communities were nice, but huge. And somehow it wasnât what I wanted. Why didnât I like it? The people seemed nice, there were a few other gay families, a bit of diversityâŚbut I realized it wasnât like the services I grew up in. The tunes to the songs were different, and the prayers were mostly in English.
So it turned out that this non-traditional family that had babies in a non-traditional way, wanted a synagogue that was moreâŚtraditional.
Looking online for a Jewish community, I stumbled upon Kehilat Shalom, a small Conservative synagogue that was about 15 miles away from our house. The Rabbi looked nice. And the midweek Hebrew class was held online, which meant we wouldnât have to drive anywhere after school every week.
I contacted the Rabbi and got a lovely response. We went to a service. No gay people, but the people were warm, asked us genuine questions, and invited us to various groups.
The services were mostly in Hebrew, and the tunes were as I remembered them. The sanctuary was beautiful, and bathed in natural light. I closed my eyes and exhaled. We enrolled our older daughter in Hebrew Schoolâand the mid-week Hebrew school class with a special Skype-type program was so helpful and you know, just like the ancient Israelites had planned.
And as I dropped her off for Sunday classes, I went in to Rabbi Arianâs office to chat. Yes, he is knowledgeable about all things Rabbinic and Halachic, but he is also surprisingly, human. I got to know him and his great wife, Keleigh. And they got to know our family. They invited our family to their house, and we invited them to ours.
Of course, I did panic when we invited the Rabbi over. What do we cook? What plates do we use? We made pizza. Vegetarian pizza. My kids started to play a pretend restaurant game and offered the Rabbi a ham and cheese sandwichâhe took it in stride.
And one Fall afternoon, there came a surprising new edition to the litany of endless childhood questions that often makes this mommy feel inadequate. In addition to my daughtersâ questions like: Why donât we have aâŚChristmas tree?âŚa daddy?âŚa beach house? they now, also ask me:âWhy donât we have a Sukkah?
As I got to talk with the Rabbi more, I began to understand conceptions of God and faith in a more relatable and fulfilling way. I discovered that maybe I want more than just Jewish culture in my life. And as the Rabbi got to know us and others in our community, he became more interested in LGBTQ issues.
In fact, he recently did a talk entitled, âReflections on Ten Years ofÂ LGBT Inclusion in Conservative Judaismâ at synagogue. And after he took a tour of civil rights sites (and the Names Project) in Atlanta, he wrote in a weekly Shabbat email and blog post: âThe unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?â
Maya is slowly learning to spell both in Hebrew and English. Aviva continues to connect via computer to her teacher and to class, and now she also connects to Judaism through an overnight camp. And as I connect to a Rabbi, a God, and a community that are both thoughtful and inclusive, I realize that our life is even more diverse and warmly Jewish than I ever expected it could be.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Liat Katz, a clinical social worker, is a graduate of New Directions, a writing program offered by the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. Her work has been published in Lilith, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and the narrative medicine websites Pulse and KevinMD. Of herself, she says, âI write to make sense of the world I see through the lens of a mom, a clinician, a patient, a wife, and a person just muddling through life.â Liat lives in Rockville, Maryland with her wife, two daughters, four cats, and a bunny.
âŚwith Grandparents with Grandchildren of Interfaith Marriages
ByÂ Rabbi Richard Address, D. Min.Â
In my travels to congregations and Jewish organizations for Jewish Sacred Aging, many issues seem to emerge organically in discussions of family dynamics. More often than not, concerns about caregiving and end-of-life issues are quickly raised. Not unusually, as situations get unpacked, another issue emerges: that of how to grandparent our grandchildren who are products of interfaith marriages.
This issue is no longer representative of a small cohort of families. Indeed, as baby boomers age and become grandparents, we are beginning to see the impact of the gradual rise in interfaith marriages among our own children. How many of our friends have confronted their children when it comes to the question of âHow will you be raising your children?â Those childrenâthose names of those childrenâare part of our claim on immortality. Is it our name, our legacy that is at stake? Or is it something else – a sense of time passing, a loss of control and a sadness that the world we expected will not be ours?
Every clergy person who does weddings has walked this walk with families. Indeed, some of those very same clergy have dealt with this in their own families. The time has come for our community to begin a serious dialogue on this issue. Opportunities for discussions and support for grandparents who are dealing with this issue need to take place and include those grandparents who already are having the conversation and adults whose children are engaged and about to be married.
There are an increasing number of clergy who are now performing interfaith ceremonies. Often during premarital counseling, the issue of how one will raise children comes up. Rarely, in my experience, however, are there opportunities for a conversation with the potential grandparents on their feelings and concerns. We all wish our children to be âhappy.â We take pride in the fact that we have raised independent adults, responsible for their own choices. We also are observing that our adult children are more and more choosing marital partners from diverse cultural backgrounds.
How is this growing cultural and religious pluralism given voice within the framework of the larger family system? Could greater opportunities for dialogue and honest sharing of emotions lead to greater harmony and understanding? Hiding those feelings surely can and does create barriers and in the end, donât we all wish to nurture and savor these very primal family relationships? Arenât these relationships ever more meaningful as we age?
I recently sat down with a grandparents whose children married partners who are not Jewish. Not atypical, this couple was in a second marriage and so we add the issues of âblendedâ relationships and the boundaries that come with this reality. We discussed some of the issues that these grandparents, both active and involved within their Jewish community, faced when dealing with their married children and their grandchildren. I asked them if they could suggest a brief checklist of issues that would be good to keep in mind. Some of the issues they raised were:
These questions and concerns are being discussed and considered by an increasing number of grandparents now. Itâs time for our community to create meaningful and non-judgmental opportunities for these issues to be raised. Our most important social connection remains family. How can we have an open conversation and honest dialogue? To repress emotions leads only to anger and discomfort and in an age which is so fraught with uncertainty, letâs open these doors to a pathway to âshalom bayit.â
By Jordyn Rozensky
For some of us in interfaith homes, December can highlight sticky situations. There are questions of how to balance traditions, how to keep in-laws happy and complicated questions about religion. But December also offers a unique opportunity to embrace new traditions. In my own interfaith home, for example, each year we trim a tree made out of blue tinsel, which we fondly call our âHoliday Neutral Tree.â
Recently I met up with friends to honor Christmas and Hanukkah by baking a batch of Hanukkah themed Christmas cookies and talking with a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old about the holiday traditions in their family. (Spoiler: Thereâs not much of a dilemma here). In case youâre interested in trying this at home, hereâs what youâll need:
Step one: We started our afternoon by chatting about our favorite aspects of the holidays as we set out our ingredients. As the oven preheated to 400 degrees, I asked the 10-year old his favorite part about Hanukkah. âThe presents. And family.â I asked the same question about Christmas: âThe presents. And the tree.â
Step two: We grabbed a large bowl and started mixing. First, we combined the butter and sugar. Next, we carefully cracked the eggs and stirred in the vanilla. Finally, we took turns adding and mixing in the flour, baking powder and salt.
Step three: While the dough chilled, I turned my journalistic attention to the 5-year old. His answers were much like his older brotherâs. One of the main things I noticed was that neither of the boys seemed too confused or upset about the holidaysâin fact, the only concern about Hanukkah and Christmas happening at the same time was the fact that there were fewer days dedicated to holidays this year!
Step four: After the dough was mixed, chilled and ready, we rolled it out on a floured surface and began cutting the shapes. Our cookie cutters were the shape of a menorah, a Star of David and a dreidel. My next question: Do other kids at your school bake Hanukkah and Christmas cookies? Both boys looked at me and shruggedâif other families were struggling around balancing the holidays, it didnât seem to trickle down to fifth grade or pre-school.
Step five: We placed the cookies in the oven and set them to bake for 6 to 8 minutes. While we waited for them to cook (and then cool), we paused to learn a bit about latkesÂ and check out the Christmas tree. During this moment of perfect synergy, I turned to the parents: âI think celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah together is pretty normalized in your family. The kids seem to be pretty OK with how this all works out!â
Step six: As we mixed together the ingredients for the Hanukkah cookie glaze, I learned more about how the holidays work in this family. âWhen we first married, we spoke about how important Christmas was as a tradition. Ultimately, thereâs not a lot of religion or church in how we celebrateâbut there is a lot of tradition. If you think about it, celebrating tradition is as Jewish as it gets.â
Step Seven: We coated our cookies with glaze and got to decorating. Hereâs where imagination took overâand our Hanukkah cookies turned in Hanukkah, Christmas, Valentineâs Day, Halloween AND Star Wars cookies. There wasnât a lot of dilemma, just a lot of love, a lot of tradition and a whole lot of sugar.
ByÂ Elizabeth Vocke
My husband jokes that I only married him so I could finally celebrate Christmas. And I admit that I do love Christmas. I love the anticipation and excitement, the coziness of the season, the decorations. I also love Hanukkah, but I think itâs more difficult to create that same sense of excitement, though for the sake of our 8-year-old daughter, we do try.
Itâs taken all 11 years of marriage to figure out how to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, and we still donât have it all figured out. This year will be even more difficult because Hanukkah starts on Christmas Eve. I like to make a big deal out of the first and last nights of Hanukkah, but this year I donât see that happening.
I vividly remember the first year I decorated our house for Christmas. I enjoyed creating a snow scene using white and blue ornaments in a crystal bowl, plus a beautiful white garland. It didnât feel religious, just festive, but was definitely meant for Christmas.
My husband walked in and said, âOh, look, you decorated for Hanukkah!â Well, no, actually. I decorated for your Christmas holiday, dude!
In fact, decorating for Hanukkah was not something I thought Jewish people even did, and itâs only been bit by bit over the years that Iâve started adding Hanukkah items to our holiday decorations.
Fast forward to today and we have a house loaded with Christmas decorations, plus menorahs and dreidels, and Iâve made peace with it all. But we still donât have all the answers.
We do have annual traditions.
We have a big Hanukkah celebration with my family that is fun and festive and raucous. We host a latkes and hot dogs party for the neighborhood kids (most are not Jewish), and every year I go into my daughterâs class and teach the students about Hanukkah and how to play dreidel. I love these things.
Every year we also drive around looking at decorations on Christmas Eve, watch National Lampoonâs Christmas Vacation, read âTwas the Night Before Christmas and enjoy a big Christmas celebration with my husbandâs family. I love these things, too.
Yes, our holidays are filled and busyâbut fun! And so by now we should have it all figured out, right? Well, no.
Every year we discuss (debate?) if weâre going to church for Christmas Eve with my mother-in-law. My husband is actually the one who doesnât want to go. Ironic, right? Some years we go, and some we donât.
Christmas Eve, a night I really love, is often rushed and stressed trying to cram everything in (see above). Hanukkah still sometimes feels anti-climactic, and weâve been known to forget to light candles a night or two. Hanukkah presents are also often less exciting. Letâs face itâone present just doesnât compare to a pile. In fact, our daughter tells us that she asks Santa for the big, expensive presents because she figures heâll bring them to her, and for Hanukkah sheâs open to whatever we want to give her. Little does she know.
So, like most things in life, in marriageâand especially an interfaith marriageâweâll keep trying and tweaking until we get it right. And by that time our daughter may be married with kids of her own!
After belting out an energetic rendition of âThe Bare Necessitiesâ recently, my 8-year-old daughter Molly asked me, âWhere do I get my love of music from?â
Iâll admit, I greedily credited my side of our family. After all, my Jewish grandmother was a piano teacher who played beautifully. I have lovely memories of being about 8 myself and dancing in her living room as she played tunes from Fiddler on the Roof and Mary Poppins. Then thereâs my Irish grandfather who played the accordion and sang with a lilting brogue. They passed along their love of music (if not their talent) to me, and now Iâm passing it along to Molly and my sons.
It got me thinking about the things we inherit from our families and how those things impact our lives. Celebrating Motherâs Day this weekend, I see that my momâand her interfaith experienceâhave beenÂ a big influence on how I see the world, parent, work and love.
My mom, Mary Margaret Theresa Mahoney, converted when she married my Jewish father, Paul Melvin Hurwitz in the 1960s. With Irish immigrant parents, she grew up immersed in Catholicism but had lost her faith by her late teens. She was happy to convert if it meant marrying my father: a dashing, intellectual Navy pilot. It didnât really matter to my father, but his family would never have accepted the two as a couple if my mom didnât convert.
When my brother and I were born, it was my mom who took charge of our Jewish education, which is both ironic and quite common as women often drive their householdâs religionâeven if itâs not the religionÂ they grew up in. She drove us to and from Hebrew school every week and organized my bat mitzvah. She planned and implemented our Jewish holiday celebrations at Hanukkah, Passover, etc. Looking back, she worked hard to raise us Jewishly.
I think because of her interfaith experience, she has always been an advocate for people who feel excluded or marginalized. She taught me the importance of making people feel welcome, accepted and important.
That lesson extended beyond our family to the larger world. My mom worked with children and adults with special needs and often invited them to our home for holidays. We were always encouraged to reach out to lonely or ostracized classmates and neighborhood kids.
My mother was also an important feminist role model. When I was in kindergarten in Iceland (my dad was stationed there), she started a Womenâs Consciousness Raising Group. When we moved to San Francisco a few years later, she went to grad school and I remember her typing papers late into the night at our dining room table. She had cool hippy friends who were artists and writers. She worked (when many Navy wives didnât) and she and my dad split household chores. My dad cooked dinner most nights.
I grew up with the expectation that I, too, would study and work and be an equal partner in my relationships. These are all lessons that I am teaching my own children.
Often, I see my mom and dad in my childrenâin the way they interact with their siblings or tell a story or write an essay for school. And I wonder, what about me will my children pass along to their kids? The thought actually reminds me to live more mindfullyâbecause I know my kids are watching, the same way I was 40 years ago. Itâll also motivate me to sing more oftenâand energetically.