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Talking to Morgan

"I was very lucky with Daddy," I said to Morgan as we drove into San Francisco for a day of shopping. Car time is quality time and thought I'd use the opportunity for a serious discussion. It was a rare occasion. With Morgan in college and my son a high school senior, any time with them was hard to come by.

"Yeah, I know," Morgan said. I waited for her to say something or at least ask me why.

"I mean the way things worked out," I continued. "That even though Daddy isn't Jewish, it hasn't been a problem raising you and Sammy Jewish."

Joe and I come from completely different backgrounds--ethnically, economically and religiously. His family is Catholic, but Joe claims he broke with the Church when he was seven, only thirty minutes after his First Communion. It was over graham crackers and milk, the mid-morning snack for which he paid a quarter a week. When Joe returned to his classroom, he asked the nun for his crackers and milk. The nun said it was too late, that everything had been given out. So Joe asked for his nickel back, and the nun rapped his knuckles for being insolent. That was it for Joe and the Church.

Although I attended religious school through high school and was active in our temple youth group, I considered Judaism a cultural thing having more to do with corned beef and weekend retreats than religion. I always considered myself Jewish, but for many years after I left home I wasn't observant.

When Joe and I got married, "who" would marry us seemed more important than what kind of marriage we would have. We didn't discuss religion or how we'd raise children. Even when the children were born I didn't bother with a naming ceremony or bris (circumcision ceremony). It didn't occur to me. It wasn't until Morgan was in third grade that we even joined a temple.

"If you marry someone who's not Jewish, it's important to settle things before you get married," I said, not wanting Morgan to stumble into a situation that may not work out as well for her as it did for me. Although I don't expect her to get married anytime soon, I wanted to get Morgan thinking along the right lines early. "Negotiating religious differences is hard work."

I had been to interfaith workshops at Temple Sinai in Oakland, where we belong, and at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, and had heard horror stories. I told Morgan stories of non-Jewish spouses refusing to participate in their own child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, of failed attempts to raise children as both Jews and Christians, of marital discord over the question of religion, and of families that opted for no religion at all. I told her about one new mother who cried through an entire workshop describing how her husband changed his mind about raising their child Jewish when their baby turned out to be a boy.

I has also heard Bruce Phillips, a sociologist from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, speak at a regional biennial conference of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Monterey, California. He said that children from interfaith families were more likely to marry non-Jews than those from Jewish families, and that the interfaith marriages that were most likely to survive were like mine--where one spouse had a strong religious identity and the other had none. There's no guarantee Morgan would get that if she married a non-Jew.

"It's easier if you marry someone who's Jewish. Someone who shares the same traditions, who knows the rituals, who goes to services with you," I said. "It can be very lonely going to services by yourself."

"But sometimes Daddy goes with you, and besides, you know a lot of people at temple and always have someone to sit with," Morgan said. It's true. Being the Jewish partner, the one who is responsible for my children's religious education, has made me more Jewish, more involved in the temple, and I have put more effort into my own Jewish education than I probably would have had I married a Jewish man.

"I know," I said. "But it's still nice to have someone to share that part of your life with."

"You have Sammy and me," Morgan said. "If you could it to do all over again, would you still marry daddy?"

"Of course I would," I said. "But I would have talked some of this stuff out first."

"Look Mom. I know who I am. I'm very Jewish and I couldn't raise my children anything but Jewish," Morgan said, sounding exasperated. "I wouldn't marry anyone who wouldn't agree to that. I know it can be hard marrying a non-Jew, but it would also be hard if I married someone who was Orthodox. Besides, we've had this discussion a thousand times."

"We have?" I said. "Well you know what they say in Yiddish: Anything worth saying is worth repeating."

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." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. 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.
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 "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Ronnie Caplane

Ronnie Caplane is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Northern Calif.

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