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By Laura Baum
The most popular days to get engaged are Christmas (and I assume Hanukkah!), New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day. That means this time of year is one when rabbis like me get lots of phone calls to officiate at upcoming wedding ceremonies.
One of my favorite parts of my rabbinate is officiating at weddings. It is such a joyous time in people’s lives, and they are eager to share their stories, to plan a wedding that celebrates their values, and to bring their friends and families together for a wonderful celebration. As a rabbi, I get to learn about people and to work with couples to think about their future together and the family life they are beginning to create.
Of all the weddings that I do each year, most are for interfaith couples. This makes sense, since most couples getting married include partners with diverse backgrounds and religious identities. As my colleague and friend Rabbi Jesse Gallop often says, “interfaith families are modern Jewish families.” I agree; they are not outliers or some group that needs to be treated as outsiders to the Jewish community.
Today’s Jewish community is beautifully diverse. Whether a Jewish person marries another Jew or someone who identifies with a different background, what I believe matters more are shared values. Yes, it is possible for a person who is Jewish and a person who is Christian to have very different values, just as it is possible for two Jewish people to have very different values. It is also possible for someone who identifies as Jewish and someone who identifies as Christian to have common values. At the end of the day, conversations about values, traditions, rituals, and frameworks for living one’s life are more important to me than a conversation exclusively about religious identity.
It is for these reasons, among others, that I am happy to officiate at interfaith marriages, including some ceremonies where I co-officiate with clergy of another faith. In recent conversations with InterfaithFamily, a group that (among other activities) matches couples with prospective of officiants, I learned that they get many requests for rabbis to co-officiate and that many rabbis are unwilling to do so.
Of course, I respect that my rabbinic colleagues can and should make individual choices about which ceremonies they are comfortable officiating. That said, I am here to say that I have had only positive experiences working with co-officiants. When I officiate any wedding, whether between two Jews or a Jewish person and someone who is not Jewish, I make case-specific choices about whether it’s a wedding I am comfortable officiating. There are times that I say no because I am not comfortable for any of a number of reasons; a couple wanting an interfaith ceremony or a co-officiant is not a reason in and of itself for me to say no.
In those ceremonies, I bring Jewish elements and my clergy colleagues bring elements from their tradition into the ceremony. We make sure we are all comfortable with the specific elements chosen. We each explain what we are doing so that all of the people there understand the elements of the service. We work with couples to talk about what matters to them – so they are very intentional about the choices they are making for their ceremony, which is really just the beginning of a series of choices they will make throughout their married lives. I would so much rather an interfaith family hears welcoming and positive messages from a rabbi rather than being told “no, I can’t be there for you.”
Throughout my rabbinate, I have seen how amazingly involved parents who aren’t Jewish often are in their children’s Jewish identity. They are often the ones driving kids to Hebrew school, helping them prepare for their bar or bat mitzvahs, and volunteering at synagogue. There are so many parents who do not identity as Jewish who still strongly cultivate their children’s Jewish identity. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s also celebrate the families where couples choose not to become parents and have a wonderful marriage celebrating both of their religious identities, learning from one another.
So to all of the couples who just got engaged or are about to get engaged, mazel tov and congratulations! If you’re looking for a rabbi to officiate at your interfaith marriage, we exist and are happy to do it. Don’t give up. Keep calling, and you will find a community that welcomes you.
By Laurel Snyder
This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org in honor of Interfaith Family Month
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
By Joy Fields
When my fiercely independent mother recently suffered myriad health issues, it was clear she could no longer live alone. My husband and I were faced with finding an assisted living facility that would address all her health needs, but provide her with a comfortable social atmosphere that would keep her mentally healthy as well. We had to add to the decision making mix her being very active in Houston’s Jewish community—an area of town a 45 minute drive from us. Without traffic. When’s that?
Mom had been a five- to ten-minute bus ride from two Reform temples, two Conservative temples and a “Sephardic” temple, which made her raise her eyebrows but had the best onegs (post service desserts). There were also Orthodox temples and a Lubavitch Center but really, darling, who needs to be that religious? Friends accompanied her to the nearby Jewish Community Center for occasional classes, artistic performances and lunch seminars where, to be honest, she couldn’t quite understand the rebbe, but the lox was fantastic. She sang in two choirs and led karaoke as a volunteer at a Jewish nursing home.
Our suburb has one temple that services every denomination within a thirty mile radius. Over half the families are interfaith and there are many from a plethora of backgrounds who converted. The shul is open most Friday nights, plus Sunday and Wednesday evenings for classes. No choir. No cantor. The rabbi sings slightly off-tune but can be drowned out pretty easily.
The grocery store next to Mom’s apartment complex had every imaginable kosher-for-Passover item on display a month before the holidays. She could get up early in the morning and stock up on pesadich borscht before the masses completely bought it out (kosher for Passover beet soup—really, not something anyone need to know about). She could buy enough garlic/onion Tam Tams to provide snacks for twenty friends. Don’t worry darling, those never go bad. Sometimes she’d pull out a box in September and offer you one to prove that point.
Our suburban grocery stores usually remember to order multipacks of plain white matzah. They also carry gefilte fish in the “ethnic aisle” between the hoisin sauce and the frijoles. Not sure why.
My husband and I both work full time and were already exhausted from our numerous commutes to her hospital room near her old digs. We knew that if Mom were closer to us, we’d be able to visit more regularly and address her emergency issues (like bottle tops being screwed on too tightly, running out of pennies before the Bingo tournament or the prescription caddy spilling, which seems a higher priority to me).
So after a whirlwind of Internet searching and facility touring, we found a great place near us. In an ethnically diverse environment that would expose her to cultural richness from all over the world, but no JCC.
It’s a safe but affordable studio, with three daily meals served in a high ceilinged, brightly lit room on white linen and china, where she can be seated with friendly residents. Snacks available 24/7. Van transportation for appointments, organized outings and “WallyWorld Wednesdays.” On-site therapists, nurses, aids, beauticians and an activities director that would put The Love Boat staff to shame. There was even a sing-along group. We showed Mom the “Standard Favorites” song list. She could later ease in to gospel night.
At first Mom was very apprehensive, but realizing she would not be able to care for herself and not wanting to move in with us, she agreed to try it out. We addressed her dietary concerns: There were substitute menu items for pork chop night. She could politely decline bacon at breakfast. The activities director would introduce her around to residents who had similar interests to sit with. We explained showing silent respect to anyone blessing their meal according to their custom, without being expected to join in. No one would force her to cross herself. Or eat the crunchy white part of the lettuce that she hates.
We arranged all of her furniture that would fit as closely as possible to her previous apartment layout. Her prayer books and song books were on the most easy to reach bookcase shelf. Her Jewish community newspaper would arrive in her new mailbox. As, of course, would the TV guide. (This may not have religious significance to you, but to the retired, it’s universally sacred.)
We hung her family photos and set out her knick-knacks. Her “Shalom Y’all” and “Keep Calm and Kosher On” magnets were on her mini-fridge. Her candle holders and hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) were displayed on a top shelf. No way were we giving her matches…um, facility rules. We affixed a magnet to her mezuzah so it would hang on her door frame.
This turned out to be a conversation starter with residents taking a walker break in front of her door. She loved explaining what that “thing” was, and what was on the scroll inside it. Several of her neighbors had short term memory problems so she could explain it again the next day. And they could share background on their religious articles with her. Repeatedly.
We set out a large calendar and several pens so she could keep track of appointments. We set out her address book, because who needs to type all those numbers into your phone when you can just look it up? We pointed out the cords for emergency help, there, there and there. We clarified the definition of “emergency.”
We stocked her mini-fridge with healthy snacks, and were encouraged to later find her checking labels for non-vegetarian ingredients to make sure she could share with her new Hindu neighbor across the hall.
Very quickly, we were assured her transition was going smoothly. I picked up a prescription for her on my way home from work, and signed in to the reception area. One of Mom’s new lunch partners shuffled by and winked at me, adding, “Oh, aren’t you a mensch! But I think she’s about to say ganug on the meds already.” (Yiddish for “good person” and “enough.”)
I pressed the elevator button. The door swung open and there was Mom, practically running me down with her walker. “Hi Mom, I got your medication.”
“Oh, thanks, doll. Just put it up in my room. They’re having a wine and cheese party in the activity room and I don’t want to be late.”
Praised be the maker of the fruit of the vine.
By Emily Waife
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.