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A Magen David on Our Christmas Tree

Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Chronicle of London.

July 13, 2006

David and Carolin Sommer have been married for five years. They live in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and have two children: Leon, 2, and Benjamin, six months. David, 34, is Jewish. He was born in Welwyn Garden City and brought up in Surrey. He studied physics at Oxford University and works as a commercial director in publishing. Carolin, 33, is non-Jewish and was born in Dusseldorf, Germany. She is currently on maternity leave from her job in marketing.

For those who fear that intermarriage will lead to the extinction of Judaism, David and Carolin Sommer make an interesting case study.

David's father is Jewish and his mother had a Liberal (similar to Reform) conversion. He grew up in Farnham, Surrey--not the most heimishe of areas--and was to his knowledge the only Jewish child in his school.

When he met a nice, non-Jewish German girl from Dusseldorf and settled down in a leafy part of Buckinghamshire, you might imagine that Judaism would not figure high on the list of priorities for their children.

You would be wrong. Despite the fact that 2-year-old Leon and six-month-old Benjamin have only one grandparent who was born Jewish, they have both gone through conversions under the auspices of Maidenhead Synagogue, already attend services there, and in due course will go to cheder (Hebrew school) and have their bar mitzvahs.

"What we don't want is the boys falling between stools--not feeling British or German, Jewish or Christian," David says. "We hope that we are giving them a strong sense of identity."

There is another reason why David is so keen that they should grow up Jewish. "My brother, Daniel, died three years ago at the age of 28 from cystic fibrosis. His death gave extra poignancy to the idea of giving Leon and Benjamin a Jewish education. Although they can't replace him, there is a strong feeling that we are keeping the Sommer name Jewish. Otherwise, it would be the end of the Jewish line for our family."

While the boys will grow up Jewish, they will also grow up with German relatives in Dusseldorf. So Carolin, who met David while spending a year in England as part of her university course, tries to speak to her children in German. She is perfectly happy about the children being brought up as Jewish, even though it is not her own religion.

"I thought for a long time about converting [to Judaism], but in the end I decided I couldn't do it, despite the fact that I had been to so many classes at the synagogue that I could easily have qualified. I haven't been brought up as a Jew and I just can't feel it. I have no problem with the Jewish religion, but I'm not a religious person myself," she says in a barely discernable German accent.

"On the other hand, I didn't want the boys to grow up wondering what religion they are. So, when it was suggested that Leon and Benjamin could have a conversion, which meant that I didn't need to, it really was a huge weight off my shoulders." Carolin explains, in the same way, that she could never become British, despite feeling more at home here than in Germany.

"I prefer the British mentality, but I am not and can never be British myself."

The problem of their different cultural inheritance was not an issue for David and Carolin, or for either of their families. As a German, Carolin did feel "slightly worried" about meeting David's parents--particularly as his father was the child of German-Jewish refugees who arrived here in the 1930s. She need not have. She was immediately accepted and now feels very close to her parents-in-law. David adds: "I lived in non-Jewish areas, attended non-Jewish schools and didn't move in Jewish circles, so the chances of my meeting a Jewish girl were always going to be small."

Once David and Carolin became engaged, they had to decide on the kind of wedding they wanted. A Jewish wedding was out of the question, so in the end they were happy to opt for a civil ceremony, but with a strong Jewish component. David says, "I broke the glass, and we said grace after meals. The non-Jewish guests were fascinated."

There are, of course, complications--for example, what to do at Christmas. After all, Carolin's family are Protestant, although not religious. Carolin says the easiest option is to go to Germany to see the grandparents for the holidays, but they have spent Christmas at home.

David explains: "We light the candles for Chanucah and give presents. As far as Christmas goes, we have a turkey, but then so does just about everyone in the country--it has long since ceased to be a religious festival any more. There was a debate about whether we should have a tree and in the end we did, except ours had a Magen David on top, rather than a fairy."

Hebrew for "shield of David," it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.

Simon Round is a staff writer for the The Jewish Chronicle of London.

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