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Family Traditions: Growing Up in an Interfaith Family

November 1998

"Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad" (Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.) I have recited this blessing every night before bed for as long as I can remember. It is especially meaningful to me because of the phrase, "the Lord is One." Partly because of my interfaith family, that concept has particular resonance, and I believe that all religions bring people closer to the same God I pray to as a Jew.

Although I have been raised in a Jewish household, my Dad’s family is Anglican. He has never converted to Judaism, although he does observe many Jewish traditions. I live in Victoria, British Columbia, a city of 300,000 with a fairly small Jewish community. When I was born, Mom and Dad had decided to raise their family according to Jewish tradition. We didn't keep kosher at that time, or observe Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I was given a Hebrew name: Chana Mindel Bat Yitah Fegah.

When my younger brother was born, Mom and Dad had to make an excruciating decision. Our rabbi spent many hours with them talking about the commandment of circumcision. I think Mom had more trouble with the idea that Dad did, as she did not want to make a permanent mark on her little baby. Just in time (the circumcision is usually performed eight days after birth), they decided to go ahead with the ritual. I’m sure my brother recovered faster than Mom’s nerves. Looking back, I realize that the birth of children is often a major crossroad in a family’s Jewish observance.

After my brother’s circumcision, we became more observant in several ways. We moved into a new house, and decided to keep a kosher kitchen. We did it the easy way, by becoming vegetarian. At four and a half, I was quite thrilled with the experience of pouring boiling water over all our counters. I was probably more interested in the streams of hot water than the significance of ritual purification.

Also, every year our family joyfully celebrates the major Jewish holidays. At Sukkot, we fumble around trying to fit the two by fours together around our backyard picnic table to make the traditional hut called a sukkah. There is an excited flurry of scissors and staplers as we put together long paper chains and scribbled flowers to symbolize the fall harvest. Throughout the year, at Hanukkah, Passover, Purim, Tu B'Shevat (the New Year of the Trees), and other holidays, we savor each other's company with old songs, improvised skits, and good food. We try to observe the rules, but like many other families we know, we often let compromise creep in. Usually one or two of us make it through the fast on Yom Kippur unscathed, but such observances are a matter of personal choice in my family.

Although my Anglican grandparents--my father’s parents--go to church regularly, I have attended only a few times, and considered myself a visitor rather than a participant in the service when I did go. Christmas is the only Christian holiday we have ever celebrated together. Interestingly, Mom was the one who kept it going; she felt that decorating a tree and giving presents created a wonderful family event that we shouldn’t miss out on just because we were Jewish. Dad would have preferred not to celebrate it at all. It was, however, a great occasion to visit with Dad’s side of the family, especially when my aunt and uncle moved nearby. In the last few years, however, we have stopped observing Christmas except when relatives are visiting.

My level of Jewish observance is always changing. When I had my Bat Mitzvah, I took responsibility for the commandments in the Torah, and I do feel an obligation to fulfill them. I went through Hebrew school, learned to lead services, and have played an active part in Jewish youth activities. For the last four years I have taught Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation classes. I attend services semi-regularly, and occasionally chant the Haftorah (reading from the Prophets) in Hebrew, although I do not speak the language conversationally.

People often wonder whether children from interfaith families are less likely to remain Jewish as they grow older. I think that depends on the person. As for me, I have always been interested in exploring other spiritual paths. For a while I thought about converting to Baha'i. To me, religion is a way of structuring my relationship to God and to the rest of the world. The Baha'i emphasis on the essential unity of all religions fit with my own observations. I liked some of the rules they live by. I'm not sure why I did not convert--I guess it's because so many things about the Jewish tradition appeal to me as well.

Nobody forces me to observe Jewish traditions. Perhaps because of their own background, Mom and Dad leave it to us to decide which commandments to observe and whether to date other Jews. In my case, one out of three boyfriends has been Jewish. I see religion as one aspect of life. If a relationship is really strong, I think it can work despite religious differences.

At this point I feel comfortable dating someone who is not Jewish as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to observe Jewish traditions. If it comes to a decision about marriage and a family, I know it won’t be so easy. In my family, Dad was willing to raise his children in a Jewish environment. In fact, he has studied so much about Judaism that he usually leads our family celebrations. When we ask, he tells us about Christian approaches to life that he learned while growing up, but there is never any doubt that we are a Jewish family. Not all non-Jews would be comfortable with this level of Jewish life.

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure how comfortable I would be raising a family outside the Jewish tradition. It is an issue I would want to discuss seriously before marriage. I suppose I will just search for the right decision if the issue arises. For now, I intend to postpone the matter entirely.

I can’t imagine growing up in a family other than my own. The differences in my parents’ backgrounds have enriched my experience by showing me that wonderful lives can be lived according to any tradition. Our observance of the Jewish cycle of festivals and traditions has brought us together as a family more than anything else we do together. They have become family festivals, family traditions enriched with our own brand of silliness and joy. I would not have it any other way.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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. A selection from the books of Prophets that is read following the weekly Torah portion. There is a Haftorah for each Torah portion. 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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 "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Rohanna Green is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in English and Geography at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. She is nourished by the beauty of the natural world, and hopes to dedicate her career to its protection. She plans to spend the next year at the University of Hong Kong on an International Exchange Program.

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