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Mixed Families, Mixed Messages: Winning Essays Reflect Joys, Pain of Interfaith Marriages

This article is reprinted with permission of j. The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. Visit

No, "Bagels, Lox and Easter Ham" is not a religiously confused Dr. Seuss book.

Rather, it's an essay penned by San Franciscan Dana Turney exploring the myriad realities of interfaith life, starting, naturally, with holiday dinner and moving on to everything else.

The cleverly titled essay is one of six by local authors to be honored in a contest sponsored by

The essays recall incidents such as ferrying between church and synagogue during holidays or the angry confrontation between a Jewish husband and his Christian wife over whether to circumcise their first-born son (they did).

Anna Mills, the only Bay Area writer to place first in one of the contest's categories, wrote of her struggles to be accepted by fellow Jews because of her mixed heritage (her mother is Jewish while her father is Quaker). During her college years, for example, she was once offered the post-Shabbat meal cleaning duties usually reserved for a so-called Shabbos goy.

"At a lecture on 'The Intermarriage Crisis,'" wrote the 28-year-old San Francisco writer and educator, "I had to raise my hand to protest, 'I am not a crisis!'"--a phrase that became its title.

While in college, "I returned week after week for four years, lingering in the sanctuary with the candles after dinner. I learned to lead services, singing out the first haunting lines of the Kaddish and waiting for the group's response."

Mills took first place in the "Claiming Jewish Roots" category. Her essay and all other top-three finishers can be read online at

Other Bay Area writers featured of the 130 entrants include Charlotte Honigman-Smith of San Francisco, who received an honorable mention in the "Claiming Jewish Roots Category"; Turney and Pam Chernoff of Pinole, who received honorable mentions in the "Engaging in Jewish Life" category; and Joanne Catz Hartman of Canyon and Christina Pertus-Hendelman of Mountain View, who received honorable mentions in the "Raising Jewish Children" category.

Many of the essays reflected on small or everyday events that, in context, loomed much larger in the writers' lives.

Honigman-Smith, for one, wondered how she should be called to the Torah considering her Catholic father has no Hebrew name. To ignore him and only use her mother's name would feel wrong, and to give him a Hebrew "alias" would come off as phony.

"The next time I was asked for my Hebrew name in a context that required more than my given name, I told the rabbi, 'Sharon bat Tsviah v'Gregory,' and knew that was right," she wrote.

"This is a small detail of my Jewish life, but it represents for me the challenges and the rewards of a Jewish identity derived from an interfaith family."

Several non-Jewish spouses of Jews wrote of their gradual acceptance within the Jewish community and growing knowledge of Judaism.

"I got the first Passover of our marriage wrong. I simply don't have the erev part down yet. Since I'd messed it up for the previous two years, my husband, Joel, figured I had learned my lesson, and thus believed me when I said authoritatively that Thursday was the first night," wrote Chernoff.

"We planned to shop for seder preparations after work Wednesday. I arranged to leave the bookstore where I work two hours early Thursday. Then he looked closely at his calendar and that shopping day went out the window. Oy. Or as the Norwegian Lutherans I grew up around would say, Uff-da."

Yet, by the conclusion of her essay, Chernoff notes that she's "come a long way since the day I sincerely but ignorantly wished Joel a Happy Yom Kippur."

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "holy," a prayer found in Jewish prayer services. There are many versions of the Kaddish, the best known being the Mourner's Kaddish, said by mourners. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "gentile," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.
Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

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