"When I grow up, I want to marry someone who isn't Jewish so my kids will have to learn tolerance for other people. With two religions under one roof, they'll have to be open-minded." I can see my ten-year-old self sitting in the backseat of my father's car as I made this solemn proclamation to whomever might listen.
Josh, the friend strapped into the seatbelt next to me, lit up. "Hey Sam, marry me! That way I'll get presents for Christmas and Hanukkah."
"That's not the point!" I whined, but Josh was already off listing the presents he could receive if he joined an interfaith family.
Josh was right that I have received a few extra gifts from being a child of interfaith parents. These greater gifts, the results of a twisting and sometimes confusing journey, have shaped my life and who I am. However, these gifts don't come wrapped in boxes beside a menorah or underneath a tree.
I'll admit that I was a little confused about religion at age five or six. I knew I was Jewish because my mother took me to synagogue and taught me the Hanukkah blessings. However, while I went to one grandmother's house to light candles and arrange seder plates, I went to another grandmother's house to eat a big dinner on Christmas day. Before I started Hebrew school, I occasionally attended Sunday Mass with my father and his mother. I would listen to the organ and search through the hymnal for songs I knew. Unfortunately for me, neither "Hatikvah" nor "Hava Negila" made the cut.
Once I reached religious school age, got my own Hebrew name and learned the aleph-bet, the boundaries between my mother's Judaism and my father's Catholicism became clearer. No matter how many times I greeted my father in Hebrew, he would not answer, and no matter how many times I looked, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not have books in the Tanakh. Even if I helped decorate a tree on December 25 or could recite the "Our Father" prayer by heart, I found a sense of heritage in Judaism. I shared a Jewish name with my mother's grandmother, and even though centuries might separate us, my Jewish ancestors and I had the Sh'ma in common. In the synagogue, I could pray the same prayers my ancestors had prayed, and in the religious classroom, I could study the same history my great-great grandparents had studied.
Becoming a Bat Mitzvah, assuming the obligations and privileges of an adult Jew, only solidified what I felt towards Judaism. I enjoyed my growing faith and education, and I willingly continued classes to reach Confirmation. Around this time, I began delving into a facet of Judaism that I love--finding my own answers. Contrasted with the rigidity I found in my father's Catholicism, I enjoyed the Jewish encouragement of asking and answering questions. Today, I am still fascinated that through the guidance of texts, traditions and teachers, I have the freedom to question my religion and search for answers.
Shortly before my Confirmation, I made a decision seemingly contradictory to my Jewish growth. For various reasons, I transferred to a private, Catholic academy for high school. Despite my exposure to my father's religion, I knew next to nothing about Catholic schooling, scripture or sacraments. In my first months at school, I sat in a quiet state of bewilderment. When my course schedule read "Hebrew Scriptures," I thought we would be reading books in Hebrew, and during a Mass deemed, "The Blessing of the Throats," I thought priests would place lit candles around students' necks. However, despite my initial confusion, by graduation I had learned an incredible amount about Catholicism, and I grew substantially as a Jewish adult.
Faced with seven daily hours of Catholic education, I enrolled in Gratz College through the local Hebrew High School. Through my classes there and with my synagogue rabbi, I learned to explore modern Jewish ethical dilemmas and decide which traditional practices I wished to incorporate into my own life. Furthermore, my high school experience and my Jewish educational experiences provided me with a unique ground on which to build upon the interfaith atmosphere created by my parents. Because of the open-mindedness within my interfaith family, in no way could I form a narrow-minded stance toward a religion. At the same time, I could develop a Jewish identity in a safe environment.
Having just completed my first year at college, I can now more greatly appreciate the gifts my interfaith family has given me. When presented with a problem or a debate in the classroom, before I give a response or an opinion I tend to listen to both views and try to extract the positive points of both sides. Having parents who held contrasting religious beliefs, I learned early in life how to approach a seemingly familiar or a seemingly unfamiliar situation with an unprejudiced mind. Furthermore, I learned to take conflicting stances and make them compatible without compromising individual identities.
Finally, as a child of an interfaith family, I hold a great appreciation for the warmth and depth of the Jewish community. College has been my first true encounter with a Jewish community outside of my family. All year, the welcoming spirit and vibrant variety of Jewish life have amazed me, in part, I believe, because of my upbringing. As a child, I never experienced Jewish community as I have discovered it in college, and this background makes the experience all the more incredible.
I believe that being the child of an interfaith family has offered me the chance to cultivate a strong religious faith in an embracing Jewish community, to develop a viewpoint where I may seek harmony in contrast, and to hold an open mind towards people different from myself. Looking back on that day in the car and my friend's remarks, I realize he was right. Because of my interfaith family, my parents have certainly bestowed these generous gifts upon me.