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Growing Up Jewish in an Interfaith Family

When I was nine years old, my father pulled me aside for one of our routine walks around the block. I remember the beautiful spring day well, the chirping birds and the sweet flower smells that filled our neighborhood. But this walk was not simply a stroll to enjoy the pleasant afternoon; Dad meant business. The agenda of the walk would be my religious identity.

Up until this point, as the daughter of an interfaith couple I had always thought of myself as half-Jewish, half-Christian. According to my childish logic, it made sense to me that I would belong to both of my parents' religions. Even though we were practicing Jews, my mother had never officially converted to Judaism and we still celebrated Christmas every year. But on that walk, my "half-and-half" logic was forever abandoned.

"You are a Jew," my father told me decisively, externally imposing on me a sense of myself as a religious being. My father's declaration established a mental schema through which I construed my developing religious thoughts and experiences. I wholeheartedly accepted his decree that I was a Jew and never again considered myself to be any fraction Christian.

For many years after this influential exchange, my religious identity as a Jew continued to be imposed by external factors and created in response to external events. As children, I believe we develop a sense of ourselves in the social realm, on the basis of our overt actions and in relation to other people and the beliefs we think they hold about us.

While I was growing up, my religious behaviors were directed by others, primarily by my parents. I attended Sunday school and Hebrew school, observed the Sabbath, and went to synagogue on the holy days because that is what my parents directed me to do. I considered myself to be a Jew and acted as a member of this group in response to external demands and expectations.

Even after I came to proclaim myself as a Jew in middle childhood, as an adolescent I was still concerned about how others would view me as a member of this religious community. I remember feeling nervous that the family of a very observant friend who talked of inviting me to Shabbat or Sabbath dinner would look down on me and not consider me to be a Jew. I worried that my Hebrew school classmates would not regard me as a legitimate Jew because I celebrated Christmas each year. In these and many other ways, my religious identity was very much oriented outwards until my late adolescence.

In recent years, my realm of self-definition has shifted away from the social. Internal, personal meaning has become more important to me in thinking of myself as a religious being. I experience my Jewishness more from the inside out than from the outside in, as it was when I younger. I have been working to sort out and define internally what it means to me to be a Jew. There are many questions I ask myself in considering how Judaism informs and enriches my life. For example, what Jewish practices, rituals and traditions will be important for me to incorporate into my life? What Jewish teachings and morals guide my life and inform my actions? Do I wish to identify with a Jewish community? How can I find a spiritual life in the context of Judaism? Whether or not these questions are more difficult because I am the product of an interfaith marriage, I do not know. Perhaps these are common questions with which people my age grapple in considering and questioning themselves as religious beings.

I do know that sometimes I long for the simplicity I experienced as a child when my religious life was externally defined and directed. Part of me misses the days of being told who I am and what to do as a Jew. Now I must do this work on my own, and the searching often feels as if it is being done in solitary. I struggle to develop a self-concept that incorporates a sense of myself as a Jew. At this point in my life, my Jewish identity is very much a work-in-progress.

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 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.
Emily Case

Emily Case is a senior at Yale University majoring in psychology. She is interested in working with children with emotional and behavioral challenges.

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