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Adult Children of Intermarriage: Their Stories

As rates of intermarriage soar, we wonder what the future holds for the children and grandchildren of these unions. Interviewing three adults who were raised with one Jewish and one Christian parent can provide a quick glimpse of what is to expect.

The three individuals I spoke with are each moral, responsible individuals with a sense of community--credits to any background. However, in terms of Jewish continuity, their ties with Judaism present a dismal outlook. The odds of their children being Jewish, based on this small survey, are minimal. In our nominally pluralistic society, Christian institutions and holidays take center stage, except in a few cities with large Jewish populations. Generally, a person must be highly motivated to seek out Jewish resources, institutions, activities, friends or mates.

Of our three subjects, Reay Kaplan, twenty-six, raised in Boston and living in Florida, has the strongest Jewish identification. Her father is Jewish. Her formerly Episcopalian mother converted under duress.

Kaplan was brought up celebrating both Christian and Jewish holidays, with no formal religious education. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and, although she remained very close to her mother, religiously, she leaned toward Judaism. She liked "the feeling of community, the feeling of tradition."

Her mother had many friends who lived satisfying Jewish lives, and because Kaplan enjoyed Jews, she worked in a predominantly Jewish camp and dated Jewish men. She has just married a Jewish man after an official, heartfelt, Jewish conversion.

Reay says that she now feels "much more whole. Because I wasn't born into one religion, I really had to make choices." Now, she says, "I want to continue the Jewish traditions and teach them to my children." She remains close to her mother, who supports her decision to live a Jewish life.

Although she says that she doesn't get along with her father, "I can at least say that Judaism is one thing he gave me."

Leah Peicott, a day-care teacher in a small town near Boston, is in her mid-thirties. Her mother is Jewish and her father converted to Judaism. She defines herself as being "raised Jewish," and is married to a non-practicing Catholic. They have two young children who have not had any religious education.

Peicott has positive memories of lighting Sabbath candles and of joining with the few other Jewish families in town for Rosh Hashanah. But "it was difficult" living in a community with so few Jews, being a shy kid and commuting half an hour to attend religious school."

Peicott says she has always loved Christmas but now, when her mother comes to visit, she feels awkward having a Christmas tree. "Although my mother is understanding about my interfaith situation, I still feel funny about it. I wish I could click my fingers and make it disappear."

Peicott and her husband wanted to be married by her parents' Conservative rabbi, but he would not perform the ceremony, so they chose a Unitarian minister.

She celebrates Hanukkah with her children and, she says, "I think I probably mention it's the Jewish New Year. When my kids ask me about Jesus, I just say "one set of grandparents doesn't really believe in Jesus; one set of grandparents does." As for the Christmas/Hanukkah mix, "I just tell my kids it's about love and giving.

Still, she says that when people find out she's Jewish and say she doesn't seem Jewish, "It just irks me. How does Jewish seem?" She says she will probably end up being a Unitarian Universalist. "It becomes very complicated when you have children," Leah says.

When I telephoned Lance Hellman, a New Hampshire artist, he said, "You're talking with a fifty-seven year old who is struggling with issues of God at this very minute." His Unitarian church was in conflict over some of the minister's practices.

Hellman says that growing up in Iowa, his Jewish father made sure that he went to temple, where he remembers the rabbi's wonderful, spellbinding stories. His mother, however, always dropped him off late. His Jewish education ended after the rabbi told his mother to "bring him on time or not at all." As a child, he was not attracted to his mother's Methodist church, nor later to her Unitarian church.

Hellman married a woman with two daughters and no religious affiliation. They had one daughter together, who was raised without any religion. The marriage unraveled, and Hellman now says, "I sure as hell see the value to being spiritually aligned with your partner."

These days, Hellman enjoys the spiritual support of his Unitarian church. He appreciates "the sense of community, the shared social concerns" and the fact that the Unitarians are "non-credal."

He says he's "into Buddhism, some pagan ideas, and cultures that were led by women." He feels some connection to a Jewish past, but the destruction of his European relatives during the Holocaust is, paradoxically, the reason he considers himself an atheist. Judaism seems to play little or no part in his present or future life.

Paula J. Brody, L.I.C.S.W., Ed.D., director of Reform Jewish Outreach for UAHC Northeast Council, says you can't generalize about what individuals will feel or do about religion in their lives based on having had parents with two different religious traditions.

She says, "Many of those individuals, reflecting on their childhoods, will say they would have liked to have had a clear religious identity. These adults usually feel that religion is more than what holidays were celebrated in their home. They often do not feel grounded, or identify with any religion. Many wish they were raised with a belief system or faith." Brody feels that generally adults who come from homes where their parents had two religious traditions but raised them in a particular religion are more comfortable with their identity than those who were raised with both religions or with none at all.

So, if Jews are interested in building a future, it is necessary for members of a religion to have a community with strong links to a past and a present. Living in a culture that is either non-religious or Christian, a person raised with both Christian and Jewish heritages will have to be extremely focused and motivated to pursue a Jewish life.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. 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. 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.
Miriam Weinstein

Miriam Weinstein is a freelance writer and the author of Yiddish: A Nation of Words, Ballantine Books, 2001

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