Josh Fischel is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He's originally from Hanover, New Hampshire.
An Interfaith Child Thinks about His (Hypothetical) Interfaith Children
Lately, I'd been of the mind that there's no such thing as being interfaith. One can be raised by people of divergent or lockstep beliefs, but if you include the influences of teachers, coaches, and friends, then pretty much everyone is raised in an interfaith situation anyway. It underscores that old adage: "I am a unique individual, just like everybody else." After all, few of us derived from interfaith couplings adopt a new religion fused from those of our parents. Even though my dad is not, I am Jewish. Even though I'm not particularly observant, I'm still Jewish. In the same way that wizards can have both wizard and muggle parents without a reduction in wand prowess due to genetic blending, I'm just as Jewish as my rabbi. Thus, to ask whether my interfaithitude has been a positive or negative experience seemed to me kind of an awkward question to begin with.
Since being born Jewish, I've become a bar mitzvah, I've taught Hebrew to third graders at Sunday school, and I've been to Israel. I've also worked at an Episcopal boarding school, a barely Protestant day school and a formerly Protestant summer camp. I suppose that being from an interfaith family has taught me that my identity can't really be besmirched by taking part in other traditions and celebrations. In fact, that's where this whole column was basically going--how the best thing about being raised in an interfaith family is being given a greater sense of tolerance and acceptance of unfamiliar practices and people.
Then, however, things got complicated by the girlfriend.
I've been going out with her for about two and a half years now, and even though we're not engaged and have no stated plans to be, she pretty detereminedly caught the bouquet at the last wedding we were at, and our conversations occasionally ramble kind of abstractly to the future. You know, Where could you see yourself living? is a veil for Where should we live together. And discussions about religion tend, I think, towards providing cover for the real question: What will we do about the kids' religion? It's not an easy question for me. Just because I'm Jewish doesn't mean I can really imagine persuading my girlfriend that she should be Jewish, too (I can't imagine wanting to do that, either). Plus, I could take or leave imposing religion on my own children. All those early wake-ups on Sunday, the forced march (in nice clothing, no less) to services, the expensive coming-of-age celebration--it all seems like more trouble than I'd like to deal with. On the other hand, I'm not very comfortable with these theoretical kids thinking Jesus is their savior.
In our most recent discussion, the girlfriend was talking about how Christian values have been useful to her as a guide for how to live life. She named traits like honesty and civility, things that I responded a child could learn in any number of non-religious settings. Frankly, I continued, I'd rather a kid figure out that it's good to be good on his own, rather than doing it under the threat of God's wrath. In fact, what I really want to do with children of mine, while everyone else is going to Sunday school, is take the whole family and do some service of our own: rake leaves for an elderly neighbor, build something for the community, or help out at a soup kitchen. I figure we'd be walking the walk instead of just talking the talk that way, empowering the tykes to give for no reason other than that it's the right thing to do, to serve those who need help.
As I was saying all this, though, it struck me that I was contradicting the beginning of this column. That is, I want to actually be interfaith--I want to reach the goals of organized religion through an atypical process. I want to light menorahs and sing Christmas carols without any pangs of guilt from my conscience. I kind of do that now, I suppose, but I still do it as a Jew. If one of my kids' friends asks him what religion he is--years from now, you understand--I want my kid to have to pause. Then, even if it's too dorky for an elementary school student to say, I want him to think, "I'm raised to believe in myself."