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By Shawna Gale
My parents, who are both Jewish, were married in the 1970s. In the year they took their vows, only 36 percent of the Jewish respondents in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey had married spouses who were not Jewish. By 2005, the year I was married, that number had climbed to almost 60 percent. Now, as the children of this recent boom in interfaith marriages begin to explore their Judaic roots and, consequently, synagogues prepare to experience an influx of interfaith families, many Jewish communities are entering uncharted territory, endeavoring to preserve a tradition that is thousands of years old while accepting the realities of our modern timeâ€”a reality they must embrace if Judaism is to have a future.
I am a part of that reality. My husband and I met when we were in the ninth grade. By the time we left for college (at schools 1,000 miles apart), we had been a couple for over a year and we had every intention of staying that way. Our families were, for the most part, supportive of our relationship. But every so often they would remind usâ€”sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtlyâ€”that despite our many similarities, there was one defining difference.
I was raised in a Jewish home. My husband was brought up in an Episcopalian family. Yet at age 17, this didnâ€™t even register as a concern for us. My husband knew even then that someday I intended to raise my children Jewish. It was never a point of contention. He was fine with it. I was fine with it. What was the problem? A challenge was maintaining a long-distance relationship in the age before cell phones and Skype. Being an interfaith couple at the dawn of the new millennium was no big deal, right?
Perhaps the writing was on the wall as we sat, eight years later and newly engaged, listening to my childhood rabbi patiently explain why he could not marry us. I was incensed. Was he for real? Did he not hear us say that we were intending to raise our children Jewish? Wasnâ€™t that the important thing?
We were married in a civil ceremony by a Jewish judge who could perform all the rituals that mattered to me. We could still have the chuppah and the wine and the smashed glass. But the refusal stuck with me all the same. Already I felt the weight of our interfaith union.
Our early married years were uncomplicated by religious concerns. We celebrated holidays with both families, with Christmas dinners and Passover seders alike. But new challenges were on the horizon as we prepared for the birth of our first child.
After our son was born, we planned a Jewish naming ceremony, hung the decorative certificate bearing his Hebrew name on the nursery wall and then spent the next three years mostly teaching him to walk and talk and eat with a spoon. Religion took a back seat to sleep trainingâ€”the only prayer in our house was for a full nightâ€™s rest.
It wasnâ€™t until our second son was born and we enrolled our older child in a Jewish preschool that our interfaith parenting experiment began in earnest. I was delighted as our 3-year-old came home reciting Shabbat prayers, recounting the story of Hanukkah and asking to bake hamantaschenâ€”all cultural hallmarks of my Jewish upbringingâ€”but I also began to worry that my husband would feel left out. These things were not part of his childhood memories. How would he connect with our children and help them to form their Jewish identities when he had not experienced that himself? How could he feel comfortable in a community where he did not share in the collective subconscious?
These are the struggles of many of us who are parenting Jewish children as interfaith couples. Our journey is an ongoing series of tough questions and difficult answers. Often, we have no model to emulate, no map to follow. We are making up the rules as we go along.
I found the answers to those lofty existential questions in a surprising place. While attending an event at our local JCC, I enrolled my children in a program called PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to children across the United States and Canada each month. Reading the books we receive monthly is such a simple thing, but the impact has been profound.
As my husband started sharing these stories with our sons at bedtime each night, he began to learnâ€”right alongside our childrenâ€”about Jewish holidays and celebrations; Hebrew words and Yiddish phrases; prayers and rituals and traditions. He discovered latkes and matzo balls and yes, hamantaschen. He started teaching our children about tzedakah, about doing a mitzvah and being a menschâ€”concepts so central and important in Jewish parenting. He is proud to be raising Jewish children and he is proud of the role he is playing in their spiritual upbringing.
I donâ€™t mean to suggest that we have solved all our interfaith parenting challenges with a collection of bedtime stories. For example, we recently decided to suspend our attendance at my in-lawsâ€™ Christmas celebrations after our 5-year-old, excited about his burgeoning Jewish identity, expressed confusion about his place there. Needless to say, we were not the most popular family members that year.
However, according to a new participant survey from PJ Library, a majority of families like mine are finding help and support from the program in raising their children grounded in Jewish traditions. Three years and dozens of books later, PJ Library continues to provide my husband with a platform of knowledge, a fine substitute for those roots he lacked having not been raised Jewish. It gives him the vocabulary he needs to play an active role in our childrenâ€™s religious education, and it allows him to feel more comfortable within our synagogue community where he participates confidently and often. We laugh when other members are surprised to find out that my husband is not actually Jewish. We are glad to be forging a path for the growing number of interfaith families in our community, and we are proud to be shaping a more introspective, responsive Judaism for this new era.
Shawna Gale is a blogger, wife and mother of two young boys living in Glastonbury, CT. Her website, www.outandaboutmom.com helps local parents find fun activities to do with their children. Shawna is an active member of her synagogue community and was recently elected to the board of trustees.
The phone rang and I heard my dadâ€™s apprehensive voice. â€śHi Sarah. I have a bit of a strange question for you. We are thinking ahead about Easter and we would like to have everyone over for brunch and an Easter egg hunt. We would of course love to have you there, but we know youâ€™re raising Shira Jewish and we donâ€™t want to offend you by extending the invitation.â€ť
I cut him off before he could even muster up the right words for the question that would follow. I was ready for this moment and said, â€śWe will be there. Iâ€™m glad you brought this up, since we havenâ€™t had a conversation about it yet. Yes, we are raising her Jewish, but we want her to understand that her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins celebrate other holidays. We wonâ€™t observe them in any religious capacity, but whenever invited, we want her to participate in those holidays to appreciate what her loved ones celebrate.â€ť
He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and weâ€™re now on our third round of celebrating Easter. We just got through her third Christmas as well. I found the timing of the conversation to be funny because we made it this far without having a need for it.
Then I remembered that earlier in the day, my dad had been over at our house and Shira was sharing leftover challah with him. I told him that making and eating the challah is her favorite part of our weekly Shabbat routine. He could see the challah cover, kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks proudly standing on our kitchen table. I understand now that up until that moment, he didnâ€™t realize that we practiced Jewish traditions together as a family on such a regular basis. He knew we had done the Simchat Bat ceremony and we observe Passover and Hanukkah, but other than the celebrations and holidays weâ€™ve included him in, our Jewishness is mostly kept rather quiet and simple within our own home.
It must have struck him that we were indeed raising her Jewish in the everyday, not just on the seemingly big holidays. He may have been surprised to come to that realization because it was in stark contrast to how I was raised.
Like my daughter, I was born into an interfaith family. My mother, now deceased, was Jewish, and my father is Protestant. Growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, but that was the extent of the religiously affiliated holidays we celebrated as a family. None of our holiday observances felt religious in nature. Our celebrations were much more about culture and family traditions. As a young child, I didnâ€™t feel any strong religious identity.
After my mom passed, my dad remarried someone who was Catholic. With this change in our household religious dynamic, any element of Judaism that I once had some connection to had to continue on my own will. My dad and stepmom were both supportive of me lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to Friday night Shabbat services with friends and joining a local Jewish youth group to explore my roots. They always joined in and happily participated whenever my momâ€™s family invited us to a Passover seder.
At the same time, I joined them in their celebrations of Christmas and Easter. I had celebrated them when my mom was around, so it felt normal to continue celebrating those occasions with my family. For this reason, I couldnâ€™t see raising my own family without Christmas and Easter. These holidays have always been a part of my upbringing. While my husband and I are raising our family Jewishly, in a more religious and observant way than how I was raised, we both grew up celebrating these Christian holidays and we want our daughter as well as any future children to understand that these holidays are an important piece of our family fabric.
We hadnâ€™t been intentionally avoiding the subject with our families, but we knew that with Shira being so young, her understanding of differing religions, rituals and celebrations is still very limited. My husband and I knew we would need to address it with her, and our respective families, once she reached an age of more awareness. We were preparing for the topic to come up eventually, and this challah-snacking Shabbat day just happened to present the perfect opportunity.
By Rabbi Ari MofficÂ
While InterfaithFamily is a Jewish organization, we naturally work with individuals and clergy of other faiths and often get requests to hear about topics from another religious perspective. As the December holidays approach, Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, reached out to Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block, who herself was raised in an interfaith household, to share her views.
Many of the articles and blogs on our website feature families who choose Judaism. Here we offer a perspective of someone who chose to become a Christian pastor in the hopes that it will be interesting to all of you and model the ways that we can listen to each otherâ€™s experiences. Rabbi Ari Moffic conducted this interview over email, and we thank Rev. Gonzalez-Block for sharing her thoughts with us.
What would you say is the religious message of Christmas (in a nutshell)?
Christmas is a holiday which celebrates the birth of Jesus, who Christians believe to be the Messiah.Â In the weeks leading up to Christmas, churches observe the Advent season, which is a time of waiting and reflection in preparation for the Messiahâ€™s coming. Christmas is also an occasion of great joy because it is a reminder of Godâ€™s commitment to Godâ€™s people, as exemplified by sending the gift of Jesus.
What are some of the cultural (not religious) aspects of Christmas?
Christmas throughout the centuries has expanded from being a strictly Christian religious holiday to a more cultural one â€“ especially here in the United States.Â This can get tricky for Jewish and interfaith families who may participate in cultural aspects of Christmas. There can be much judgement for assimilation or for seemingly confusing Jewish children. Family members and others may accuse parents of evoking a feeling to their children of not being fulfilled through the Jewish holidays alone.Â Some families like German Jewish ones may have had cultural Christmas traditions going back generations in America. Christmas carols can be heard on the radio airwaves, and persons of different faiths may put up lights or gather with family and friends. In fact, some of the immortal Christmas carols were written by Jewish composers for mainstream audiences. Interestingly, most of societyâ€™s favorite Christmas traditions are not necessary directly related to Jesusâ€™ birth story. These includes traditions around Santa Claus and the act of decorating Christmas trees – both of which have emerged out of different cultural contexts and have been incorporated into the way this holiday is celebrated.
How can Jews make sense of a Christian partner who may not be religious who wants a tree and the cultural elements?
There are many reasons why a Christian partner might want to celebrate the Christmas holiday. One possible answer might be found in the beloved character Tevyeâ€™s favorite word: Tradition! There is certainly something comforting about celebrating a holiday (be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving) in the way that oneâ€™s family did. If a partner has childhood memories of decorating the Christmas tree and hanging up tinsel, the partner might feel drawn to carry on these practices in their new home today. For this reason, even a non-observant Christian partner may still want to share the â€śspiritâ€ť of the holiday with the family and partake in some of the cultural or religious practices.
What are the values you hold dear around the Christmas narrative?
The Christmas story brings a deeply meaningful spiritual message to me: â€śGod is with usâ€ť (which is what Jesusâ€™s name, Emmanuel, means). In this narrative, God gives the greatest gift. God freely chooses to come to earth, not as a king bearing gold, but rather as a poor baby born to a teenage, unwed Jewish mother in a barn. In my eyes, this shows that God is not only committed to walking among us, but has a pronounced compassion for the marginalized and those in need. Made in Godâ€™s image, we are called to be a gift to those around us, especially those who have fallen on hard times or feel far from God. Christmas is a wonderful time to volunteer and to help serve those in need.
What can someone Jewish expect when going to church over Christmas?
Get ready for lots of music! Christmas services in both Protestant and Catholic churches are filled with familiar holiday hymns – from â€śJoy to the Worldâ€ť to â€śAway in Manger.â€ťÂ Many churches do not play any Christmas songs during the Advent season, so Christmas is a celebratory time when the choir, congregation, and horn section all soar. The Christmas story is read aloud and the pastor or priest typically offers a sermon. If there is a Christmas pageant, children, and even adults may be dressed as shepherds, sheep, angels, wise men, Mary and Joseph, and perhaps even a real baby posing as Jesus. Many churches hand out candles to parishioners, and while singing â€śSilent Night,â€ť the lights are dimmed. It is usually a packed house (not unlike the Jewish high holidays) and there is palpable energy and joy in the air.
As a Christian Pastor who grew up in an interfaith home, what is your message to other interfaith families over this sometimes overwhelming and emotionally fraught holiday season?
As someone who grew up in an interfaith home, where we practiced both Judaism and Christianity, both Hanukkah and Christmas were important holidays for my family.Â The ways Judaism and Christianity were brought into our family home came out of many trying and eye-opening discussions between my parents.Â My message to interfaith families who are navigating this coming holiday season is for partners to sit down together to discuss their spiritual and culture concerns and desires. By so doing, they can prepare for the holidays in a way that feels authentic and acceptable to them both. This will no doubt take a great deal of compromise, openness, effort, and may even require partners to put their shared needs before the social pressures of extended family and friends. If possible, partners should turn to clergy and trusted confidantes for further discussion and advice. The holidays, however difficult, do not need to be a â€śmake or breakâ€ť moment for a couple, but rather can be a formative time to imagine together what spirituality will look like in their interfaith home.
Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block, who was raised in a Jewish-Christian household in New Jersey, is the Associate Pastor at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC.