The Hanukkah Fairy

  

By Kelly Banker

Girl lights menorahI am 8 years old. My siblings and I are huddled in my parents’ bedroom, awaiting the precious sound of the Hanukkah bell. We have just come from an evening of lighting the menorah, dancing and singing in a circle and haplessly spinning a dreidel. Now here we are, eyes closed and ears open for the sound of that beautiful bell. My dad looks at us and slowly raises his hand, cupping the bell gently. He shakes the bell three times and the magic settles upon us. We giggle nervously as my mother slips out of the room to see if the Hanukkah Fairy has visited our house.

We wait for what seems like an hour, but is more likely about 10 minutes. Each minute crawls by as we stare intently at my father’s face, trying desperately to see if he is giving us a clue about where we should look, about what to expect. Finally, the long-awaited knock comes and my mother is at the door, beckoning us out into the hallway to search for the presents that the Hanukkah Fairy has left for us. We tear through the house, searching every nook and cranny to find the impeccably wrapped gifts, signed with a sweet note from the Hanukkah Fairy herself.

As each of us find our present, we sit in a circle on the green rug in the living room, running the fringe through our fingertips, waiting. When everyone has found their gift, we sit together in a circle and open our presents all at once. Together we exclaim, “Thank you, Hanukkah Fairy!” And “Happy Hanukkah!” The angelic-looking doll, who we understand as a stand-in for the real Hanukkah Fairy, rests on a table nearby. With her tightly curled blonde hair and blue eyes, she watches us as we thank her for bringing us such sweet gifts.

Fast forward to 16 years old. The Hanukkah traditions of my earlier childhood have worn away slowly, and at this point have dwindled to lighting the candles for one or two nights, perhaps with some singing that reminds us all of our younger days. The magic of lighting the candles remains, though. No matter how few or how many nights bring us together for the lighting of the menorah, I am always left with a sense of wonder that I cannot explain. I am awestruck by the beauty of the blessing, the solemnity of it, the gathering of voices and the soft glow of the menorah lighting up the dark night.

I was at least 18 years old when I learned that, in fact, the Hanukkah Fairy is not a staple of Jewish practice, but rather a very creative concept devised by my intermarried parents. You can imagine my shock and laughter when I found out from more observant Jewish friends that they had never heard of the Hanukkah Fairy, and that in fact she sounded like a blend of the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Hanukkah and Christmas. I remember that moment of learning; I remember feeling an immediate surge of pride for my parents’ ingenuity. They created a ritual that became meaningful for our family that in many ways merged their two traditions.

My father was raised Catholic, but no longer identifies with any religion. My mother is Jewish and identifies as such, but more in an ancestral sense than in a practicing sense. As such, my childhood was typical in many ways of interfaith families: We celebrated Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and sometimes Passover, and for many years we attended a local Unitarian Universalist church. We were raised to have a deep respect for all religious traditions yet without a true grounding in any particular one. The open approach to religiosity in my childhood, far from being a limitation or barrier, has in fact been transformative for me as an adult.

For the past several years, I have slowly begun to delve deeper into spiritual practice, first through an exploration of Goddess traditions, and then through a connection with earth-based Jewish practice, primarily in Renewal Jewish communities. I love every moment of this choice. Had I been raised with a more dogmatic approach to one or both traditions, I feel that my relationship to God and Jewish practice would be different; more difficult, perhaps, to return to. Now when I light Shabbat candles, or sing the Shema or make Havdalah, I feel intimately connected to the tradition because I enter it from a place of consent, agency and pure joy. Every time I engage in Jewish practice, I feel that I am returning to myself, to God and to my ancestors.

As someone who is now engaged in rich and informed Jewish practice, I look back at the Hanukkah Fairy fondly. I feel proud of my family’s invented tradition with such a lovely blend of Jewish and Christian practice. I feel so much gratitude that my parents decided to invent this blended ritual for my siblings and me, and that they chose throughout my upbringing to give us the agency to make our own decisions about whether and how we wanted to participate in spirituality. That precious, sweet sound of the Hanukkah Fairy’s bell rings for me now and always as a reminder of that profound familial tradition and the blessing of coming from an interfaith family committed to action, choice and knowledge.

Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Women’s Studies. She currently works as a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She also teaches Hebrew school and yoga at local synagogues. Kelly has also worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence and as a doula. She loves movement, running in the woods, poetry and the moon.

Breast Cancer and An Unexpected Spiritual Journey

  

By Melissa K. Rosen, Director of National Outreach for Sharsheret

Melissa K. Rosen SharsheretI went to Shabbat services this morning for the first time in months. My long absence wasn’t an intentional decision. In fact, I only became aware of the “decision” recently.

A cancer diagnosis affects so much more than you think it will. Of course I expected the physical challenges. And it came as no surprise when I found myself emotionally drained. What I didn’t recognize for either of my two diagnoses was the impact cancer had on my spiritual life.

Living Jewishly has been important to me since childhood. Through the years it has meant very different things, yet has always been an integral part of who I am. I grew up in a Reform temple. My husband, now a committed Jew, grew up in a Christian home. We have spent time in both Conservative and Orthodox communities. Those varied experiences have made us sensitive to both the ways we practice and our relationships with God and community.

During my first diagnosis, I instinctively turned to faith and spirituality. I went to synagogue, spoke with God, wore an amulet with Jewish text and even received a healing bracha, or blessing, from a rabbi. My community and my faith were a large part of my recovery. I drew strength from what had always been important to me.

Seventeen years later, at the time of my second diagnosis, without even realizing it, I shut down spiritually. In retrospect, it was as if a switch was flipped. I withdrew from my community. I stopped attending Shabbat services and drew little joy from holidays and Shabbat.

Navigating cancer places unique pressures not just on the patient, but on the family as well. A medical crisis can bring family together—and it can also highlight differences. In my family, with our joyful and carefully constructed religious life, changes of any type were a challenge that needed to be addressed. Were the changes I made permanent? How would they impact my family? Were they actually helping me deal with my diagnosis?

I realize now, both from the benefit of time and from the conversations I have had with other cancer survivors, that diagnosis can make a person spiritually fragile. When you are diagnosed you may look to find meaning in the experience. That may mean drawing closer to faith, changing the way your faith is expressed or turning away completely. It may be an intentional decision, or something you realize in retrospect. Maybe I was mad. Maybe I needed every ounce of strength I had to deal with my treatment. What I know now, healthy and long past treatment, is that my life is missing something.

Jewish observance and commitment has always been an active conversation in my home, so I’m not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that I’m aware of what I have lost, I have made myself a promise to fight my way back to something that has always brought me joy and comfort. I’m not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll be in synagogue next Shabbat!

Sharsheret, Hebrew for “chain,” is a national not-for-profit organization that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer at every stage—before, during and after diagnosis.

If you are interested in learning more, or would like to run a Sharsheret Pink Shabbat®  to raise breast cancer awareness in your community, you can contact the author at mrosen@sharsheret.org.

A Millennial’s Take on Interfaith Dating

  

By Nicole Rodriguez

Interfaith Dating for MillenialsWhenever I meet someone new, there’s always an instant connection the moment I find out they’re Jewish. It’s almost like an immediate form of familiarity, even though we just met. However, when I meet someone from a different faith, I am just as interested to learn more about their culture as I am when someone is a different denomination of Judaism.

Growing up in a Reform Jewish household, I was often told by my parents, “You can marry anyone you want, but we prefer a nice Jewish boy.” A big emphasis was on the “prefer.” But I’ve dated many people and the religious aspect hasn’t weighed heavily. The one serious relationship I had was with someone who was not Jewish—he was Lutheran. But besides the occasional questions here and there about our faiths, we rarely talked about it. It just became one of the details I knew about him. We were both pretty non-observant religiously; less organizational and more family-centered and holiday-based. All the other positive aspects about him were more important to me than the fact that he came from a different faith and belief system, which ensured a successful relationship.

Interfaith dating forces some—not all—people to make the difficult decision of whether they should or should not pursue a potential relationship with someone of a different faith. My opinion as a millennial in this day and age is that beliefs are not a key factor in determining the outcome of a relationship; values are. Date whomever you want based on personality, sense of humor, how that person shows their love for you, etc. Truly good people are those who find ways to apply their beliefs to their lives and aspire to live a life by the right values.

Though all the different kinds of faiths across the globe may vary from one to the next, many of their values are universal. As long as both people share similar values and are able to maintain mutual respect for each other’s beliefs, there shouldn’t be anything holding them back from being together. Both parties can carry on the religious traditions important to them, share in each other’s practices and celebrate the unity of their values. There will be different approaches to how to be a good person, and that can potentially be enriching to learn about and process.

As a famous Beatle once said, “All you need is love.” Now, John, what do you mean by that? Specific love from specific people? Love as long as it’s with someone from your religion? No. I think he means that any love is worth your time and affection, regardless of religious differences. By limiting yourself to one cluster of people, you might be denying who can truly make you happy. Some couples might disagree, but in my opinion finding someone who will love you the way you truly are is the truest kind of love.

Judaism has a sense of peoplehood and a shared text, language and connection to a land. However, when you find a mate with real love and connection that isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t mean they can’t still be a great addition to the community. I won’t lose my Jewish connections and Jewish allegiances, identity and pride when I #ChooseLove. I’m not choosing love over sharing the same religion. If I can have both, awesome! I’m hoping for love with someone who will support me for me and let my beliefs inform them as well.

Take the Fifth: How an Intermarried Woman Honors Parents

  

By Joy Fields

Dinner

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.

I’m Down with Shabbat… After I Look Up What It Is

  

By Robyn Bacon

Baby Sam in Choose Love shirt

Baby Sam

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.

 

Passover in Morocco, Iceland and Beyond

  

AirplaneGrowing up with a dad who was a Navy pilot, my family celebrated Jewish holidays in some pretty far-flung places around the world. We gathered with other Jewish military families or new Jewish friends in whatever country we happened to be living in. Seders were lovely, multi-cultural and welcoming.

My dad, Paul,  when we lived in Morocco

My dad, Paul, when we lived in Morocco

In Morocco, we sang Passover songs with Sephardic melodies. In Iceland, my parents welcomed the only other Jewish family they could find for a small, intimate seder. Stationed in Virginia Beach, we heard the hagaddah read with a southern accent.

Each year we’d celebrate with new friends in a new location somewhere in the world. Far from our extended family in Boston, seders became a way for us to feel close to something from home—Judaism.

I asked my mom Mary, who was raised Irish Catholic and converted when she married my dad, what those seders were like for her. She said, “I remember thinking, ‘So this is what it’s like to be Jewish. You’re linked to all these people around the world; Jews who come together to celebrate their ethnicity and their community.’” She had never experienced anything like it.

Then, when I was 10, my dad retired after 20 years in the Navy and my parents moved back to Boston to be closer to their families. That’s when we started going to seders at my Jewish grandparents’ home. Tovah and Jacob attended an Orthodox synagogue and kept kosher. Their seders were more serious affairs. They were completely in Hebrew and lasted for hours.

My parents, brother and I didn’t understand much Hebrew and Passover suddenly became a stressful holiday. I felt lost at the seder, often on the wrong page of the hagaddah and afraid to make a misstep. I didn’t want to read the Four Questions, terrified that I might mispronounce the transliterated Hebrew. While I respected (and still do) my grandparents’ approach to Passover, it just didn’t feel accessible to me.

Seders lost their joy for me, and so I opted to avoid them. It wasn’t until recently, with my own children, that I have started to rediscover and re-imagine the tradition, especially as an opportunity to pause and be thankful for our freedom and remember those who still are not free.

This Passover, we'll be celebrating with our whole family

This Passover, we’ll be celebrating with our whole family

This year, my husband and I are inviting our families to a personalized, less structured seder. In addition to telling the Passover story, we’ll spend time talking about refugees in the world today, fleeing war in search of a safe place to raise their children.

We’ll explain everything to our kids as we go along and answer all their questions, so no one feels left behind. In addition to the traditional items, our seder plate will feature an orange, a symbol of people around the world who are marginalized or excluded.

Our little girl, Molly, 8, will read the Four Questions and we’ll sing songs and share stories. We’ll try to recapture the charm and magic of my family’s seders in Reykjavik, Casablanca and beyond… in hopes that our children grow up looking forward to Passover as a meaningful and inclusive holiday.

Purim: The Darker Side of a Festive Holiday

  

By Lela Casey

Happy Purim!

Lela’s daughter enjoying one of her first Purim celebrations

The first time I really celebrated Purim was when I was 9 years old on vacation in Israel with my family. I remember being in awe of the sea of kids pouring through the streets dressed in colorful costumes and shaking noise makers. It was a party like I’d never seen before and I was thrilled to join in.

My next Purim experience didn’t come until my junior year of college when I did a semester at Tel-Aviv University. The night of Purim, we all piled into an enormous bus which took us to Jerusalem where we drank rum punch and danced with students from all around the world until the sun came up. The spirit of that evening inspired me to be a different person than the thoughtful, fairly prudish girl that I had been until then. By the end of the night my angel costume had shifted into something more like a toga, I was more tipsy than I’d ever been before and I’d lost track of the number of boys I’d kissed. It was one of the happiest, most free-feeling nights of my life.

Kids celebrating PurimWhen my own children came along, I made a point of taking them to Purim festivities. As the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage, I felt a responsibility to share with them that same freedom, that same lightness of the soul that I’d felt. And, while they did enjoy the celebrations, something about the holiday began to concern me.

Yes, there is a joy and lightness about Purim, but there is a darkness that few people ever mention. Purim is essentially a celebration of the blotting out of our enemies…and not just the infamous Haman. During Purim we drink to the destruction of the entire nation of Amalek, a genocide that is mandated to be read about in the Torah every year. It is, in essence, a celebration of a bloody act of retribution.

The first time that I learned of this part of the Purim story, I began to think back again to that night in Jerusalem. Yes, it was fun and free, but I also did things that I would never have done as my usual self. The spirit of the holiday, along with the alcohol and costumes, took me outside myself. Could the mandate to drink on Purim be, in essence, a way to shut out the “good” voices in your head? Could it be symbolic of how Biblical Jews had to silence those voices in order to commit genocide?

There are a lot of frightening things happening in the world today. People are being categorized by ethnicity and religion and immigrant status and painted as the enemy. There is a sweeping movement across America to blame others for our misfortune—a movement eerily familiar to other dark times in history. Extolling peace and acceptance is paramount on my mind right now.

As Purim gets closer, I find myself struggling with how to justify glorifying genocide with the desire to have my kids enjoy the joyousness of the holiday. Should I simply ignore that part of the story with them and focus on the merriment and hamentaschen (Purim cookies)? Or is it better to discuss the darkness of the day with them and let them come to their own conclusions? Perhaps should we just forgo Purim entirely?

One of my favorite things about Judaism is that it encourages questions and discussions. So, I ask you: Is it possible to celebrate the lightness of Purim while also addressing the dark side?

A Little Christmas Can Be Enriching

  

By Jacob Weis

Christmas tree

Anybody who has had even the most menial part in celebrating Christmas can probably acknowledge the beauty in it. Whether Jewish-Jewish or interfaith, families sometimes run in to the question of what they are “going to do about Christmas.” Part of the reason for this question is that people assume that celebrating Christmas may dilute their Judaism or go against their practices. Participating in Christmas may be seen as one step deeper into assimilation. Christmas may feel like what Jews “don’t do” and so there are taboos and judgement around a Jew being part of Christmas from a tree in the house to allowing children to receive Christmas presents.

I propose a different view on what it would mean for a Jew or someone in an interfaith family to celebrate Christmas. I propose that celebrating Christmas not only will be an amazing time for you and your family, but can also bridge the gap between those who celebrate Christmas and those who don’t in the celebration of a worthy figure. I propose that it’s good for Jewish children and those in interfaith homes to be able to talk about Jesus and to learn the lessons Jesus is known for. This will help make children literate, world citizens but will also give the holiday season more context and enrich their own Jewish faith. Being able to learn about Jesus as a historic figure and to learn the parables that maybe one parent or cousins have grown up with will not steer them away from Judaism but will bridge some gaps, create more understanding and allow love to connect the family rather than fear of the other or fear of becoming something else.

Any excuse to gather around with friends and family and eat good food should be taken. For me this is not an opinion, this is fact. Maybe you won’t be diving into the Christmas ham, but the feeling of community is wonderful nonetheless. I take every opportunity to gather with my extended family. However, the question undoubtedly will remain, especially for the parent or grandparents who are Jewish, about what role a Jewish child can comfortably have during Christmas.

Some Jews feel awkward talking about Jesus. Jesus was a historical figure, and whether or not you feel he was the messiah, a prophet or anything more than a good person, is up to you. There has been so much bitter history of those accusing Jews of killing Jesus, blood-shed and anti-Semitism. I understand why some Jews may feel unsure about participating in Christmas. Some Jewish leaders suggest that if Jewish children mark Christmas with family who aren’t Jewish in purely cultural ways then it is “fine.” The idea is that this kind of hallmark marking of the holiday won’t confuse children and they will understand it’s about family, memories, giving, beauty and lights. But, how much richer and deeper for a Jewish child to actually learn about what Jews believe about Jesus and not be afraid to ask questions. Religions preach acceptance, and what better way to show your own family members of a different religion that Judaism promotes this tenant then to just be present in the celebration?

Acceptance, love, building bridges, sharing and learning will enrich children this holiday season. So, instead of being leery of Jewish children participating in Christmas because it will take away from their own identity, encourage an understanding of what the holiday symbols mean and explain the biblical narrative. Those who participate in this way will find shared messages and come away with a sense of family unity and peace.

Getting Most of the Words Right

  

By Laurel Snyder

This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org in honor of Interfaith Family Month

Lighting shabbat candles on their own

I have never suggested to my Catholic-born husband that he convert. As a child of intermarriage myself, whose parents always maintained their own distinct religions (but raised me Jewish), conversion wasn’t part of my heritage.

It was enough, I thought, that my husband supported me in raising Jewish kids. It was enough that he came to shul now and then. It was enough that he raced home from work in time for me to light the candles on Friday night, so that we could all be together for Shabbat. To be honest, I have inmarried friends whose partners are less supportive in this way. I felt lucky.

Then, last year, something happened I’d never expected. I was out of town, for work. I don’t remember where, but I know that I was busy on Friday night, and didn’t call home until Saturday afternoon, when my son picked up.

“Sorry, Mom,” he said right away. “But we couldn’t remember all the words last night.”

“What words?” I asked, confused.

“The words to the prayers,” he explained. “We tried. We did our best! We got most of them right.”

It took me a minute to realize was he was saying. There was a long pause before I asked. “Oh… did you guys light the candles… for Shabbat?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Dad did.”

“Huh, cool,” I said. I pretended like it was no big deal. We talked about other things, and after a minute we hung up.

But then I sat there, in my silent hotel room, and I felt my eyes fill with tears. Because while I’ve never asked my husband to convert, or even really thought about that possibility, I have wondered what would happen if I were hit by an eighteen wheeler. I’ve wondered whether Judaism is just the mom-show in our house. I’ve wondered whether it would continue in my absence.  Whether anyone besides me wanted it enough to make it happen.

This proof that they did want it stunned me.

Here’s the thing—I didn’t grow up lighting candles each week. That wasn’t my heritage any more than conversion was. Shabbat candles were something I decided to do as an adult, as a mother. They were something I added into my life by choice. They weren’t automatic.

One could blame that fact on my parents’ intermarriage, but one would be wrong in doing so, because in fact my very inmarried grandparents didn’t light Shabbat candles either. So for me, an intermarried child of intermarriage, to light candles each week had to be a choice.

Of course there is value in tradition, in heritage, in routine. There is value in doing something because we have been imprinted, conditioned to do the thing. But there is also value in making a choice, in consciously deciding.

After my parents divorced, my father became more observant than he’d ever been before. As an adult, I watched him change. He began to cover his head. He began to keep kosher. He chose to do so, and if I have a Jewish heritage, I think that’s what it is. Choice. Mindful observance. Constant reevaluation. My parents married without a religious blueprint, and so they had to puzzle out a household. They had to make decisions. Periodically, they had to revise those decisions. That process continues to this day. In their homes, and now in mine.

People often assume that as Jews continue to intermarry, observance will decline. But that’s an incredibly pessimistic view. That doesn’t take into account the joy of discovery, or the pure pleasure of Jewish practice. The human inclination to do better next time. Such pessimism assumes that observance must be linked to tradition and routine.

It doesn’t make room for families like mine, for my Catholic-born husband and my second-generation-intermarried kids, lighting the candles, saying the prayers, all on their own, for the very first time. And getting most of the words right, anyway.

Laurel is the project manager for InterfaithFamily/Atlanta

IFF month

November is Interfaith Family Month, when we show appreciation for the interfaith couples and families in our communities and gratitude for all they contribute! See who’s participating here.

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.