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Bagels, Lox and Easter Ham

On a recent trip to my childhood home where my non-Jewish fiance Jay and I are currently planning our September wedding, I overheard my fiance discussing the Reform Judaism movement with my father. Jay and I recently completed an Introduction to Judaism course for interfaith couples preparing for a Jewish wedding ceremony, a learning experience that has left Jay and me discussing Jewish tenets like two chess-playing elderly men on the Lower East Side. My father's pleased surprise at Jay's knowledge and enthusiasm for things Jewish reminded me of how much Jay has learned and really connected to during the past few months of our wedding preparations.

But despite Jay's recently adopted knowledge of Jewish theology, history, and other facts, how do I help him to know the cultural aspects that are so deeply rooted in my Jewish upbringing? Raised in an affluent Jewish family in the suburbs of Boston, I've experienced a lifetime of bagels and lox, Chinese take-out, and Christmas-time vacations to the Caribbean. All my formative teenage adventures were at summer camp with boys with names like Goldberg or Schwartz. I've inherited my father's wry sense of humor and my mother's patience to hold out for Bloomingdale's sales. Are these qualities and experiences even Jewish? For strong cultural reasons, I say yes. They have been part of my cultural Jewish experience, and they've shaped who I've become.

So how do I share this intangible, idiosyncratic, upper-middle-class American Jewish identity with a man raised on Sunday Mass and Easter ham?

It's easier than I've thought. Since Jay and I have been engaged, we've actively sought out these less tangible Jewish experiences: revivals of Woody Allen movies; a shelf full of American Jewish authors (from Philip Roth to Anita Diamant); stories of my father's time at Brandeis (where he sold sub sandwiches door to door with a pre-radical Abbey Hoffman) and his mother's famous Passover brisket; and memories of my mother's ultra-Reform temple in Providence, RI, and her parents' involvement in a new movement in America that sought distance from the Orthodox roots of European Jews. For these are the intangibles that make up my modern Jewish identity. These are the things that I share so we can build a life together that acknowledges the rich history behind these Jewish idiosyncrasies.

And there's a flip side to this sharing. Jay's strong Catholic and Italian-American heritage is a similar tapestry of stories, quirks, and experiences. It is the blending of our experiences that will help us to create who we are together, what traditions will be carried into the family that we are creating and will continue to create after our marriage. Our choice to have a Jewish wedding ceremony--but one that is inviting and inclusive of both of our families--marks the beginning of a path of sharing that will lead us through a lifetime of making each other's cultural traditions and heritages our very own.

Jay and I reflect on what we've learned in the Introduction to Judaism class and other preparations for our Jewish wedding. We attend Passover seders and Easter dinners. We explain and discuss our choices with our other married friends--Jewish, interfaith, and other religions. Jay knows how important my Jewish upbringing is to me--from Hebrew school to summer camp--and that it's important that our children will have similar opportunities. And I'm open to spending Christmas with Jay's parents and exposing our children to their rich Italian background, too. The next generation of family, the one that Jay and I will create, will be the product of diversity, of two cultures--not just religions--that celebrate what's so intangible and unique about each of our experiences. This is our foundation of diversity, and our way to preserve, understand, and continue to grow our cultural identities together.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Dana Hagenbuch

Dana Hagenbuch lives in Arlington, MA with her husband, two sons, and Norwich Terrier. She is Vice President of Commongood Careers, a search firm for leading edge nonprofits. She can be reached at dhagenbuch@commongoodcareers.org.

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