October 26, 2012
At Shabbat dinner on Friday, September 21, 2012, I was part of the most terrifying conversation of my entire life.
Let me give you some background. I am a 23-year-old liberal Jewish female who spends her time in the car listening to NPR.
I am a deeply devoted Reform Jew. I grew up with a father who taught religious school and attending seders at my cousin's house, the renowned Rabbi Harvey J. Fields. I started attending Camp Hess Kramer in 1999 and also attended camp at JCA Shalom and Gindling Hilltop. I went on to be a staff member at Hilltop for five summers and was a unit head at URJ Camp Newman. So, you could call camp my life... with the rest just being details. Camp and Judaism are intertwined for me, and I decided to devote my life to camp and Jewish education. In college, I was actively involved in Hillel at the University of Oregon and participated in two trips to Israel: one through Birthright and the other, a study abroad semester in Jerusalem for five months.
My two passions in life are politics and Judaism. Oh, and anything by Joss Whedon, but that's for a different article.
Back to the disastrous conversation. I went over to my friend's house for Shabbat dinner, on the holiest Shabbat of the year, during the Days of Awe in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My friend had grown up Orthodox, but her family had recently become slightly less observant. Exhibit A, her mother was wearing pants; Exhibit B, the TV was on despite the fact that it was past candle lighting, the start of Shabbat. To me this was normal, growing up in a Reform family with a self-proclaimed atheist mother.
We sat down to dinner enjoying our soup, various dips, and Shabbos meats. The conversation started innocently enough: talk about the importance of the holidays and repentance during these days before Yom Kippur. Then, my friend's mother started talking about interfaith relationships and marriage, which hits me personally in a number of ways.
My family has two weddings coming up in the next year. One is my brother, who after years of dating has finally found the most amazing woman who our entire family adores. The second is my first cousin, who has been dating her fiancé since they were freshmen in college. My brother's fiancée is a Persian woman who was born Muslim but does not practice. In deciding about their lives together, she and my brother have concluded that they will raise their children Jewish. She is not planning on converting but has expressed interest in taking introductory courses on Judaism so that she can be an active part of raising her children in a Jewish home. My cousin is also marrying someone who is not Jewish, and they have also decided to raise their kids Jewish. In fact, my cousin, who is Jewish, wants to take the Jewish introductory classes with my brother's fiancée and her fiancée because she feels that she is "a bad Jew" and doesn't know enough.
The second reason that the interfaith topic hit me so hard is because of my dad. My father was married twice, each time to a Jew, and now has a partner who is Mexican and Catholic. Their relationship has always been based on the mutual embracing of their two cultures and religions. My father will have grand Rosh Hashanah dinners at his house where the Catholics outnumber him, but he loves every second of it. A few years ago, my father and his girlfriend decided to have a baby, a decision with which the rest of my family was not entirely thrilled. In deciding how to raise their child, my father insisted that the child would be raised Jewish, with no objection from his girlfriend. My father is deeply and personally connected to his Judaism, though his girlfriend does not feel the same connection to her Catholicism. In their house, all traditions are celebrated. During the holiday time, they will have a Hannukah party one weekend and have everyone over to unwrap their Christmas presents the next. My baby brother was born into a loving and inclusive family, and he is a bumbling, bouncing ball of Mexican, Catholic, and Jewish joy.
Back to the dreaded Shabbos table. I remember hearing that assimilation was ruining the Jewish people and interfaith marriage was the cause. I slapped my hand on the table and said firmly, "THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH INTERFAITH MARRIAGE. My brother is marrying a wonderful women who is Muslim, and they are going to raise their children Jewish." My voice trailed off as one of the other people arguing with me just shook his head in disappointment. He said calmly, "That is a shame, just a shame." I bolted out of my seat and ran for the bathroom, hot tears running down my face. I cried as my friend came in to comfort me saying, "You know how ignorant these people are, don't listen to them." I shook my head angrily, not only about what they had said but that I didn't get enough of my points across before I broke out into tears. I told my friend that I had to leave and go to my father's house, which surprised both her and me because I have not always had the best relationship with my father or his girlfriend.
I quickly gathered myself and walked out of the bathroom. I thanked everyone for dinner, wished them a Shabbat Shalom, and scurried out before the tears started flowing again.
I called my dad on the phone, and he answered with a cheerful greeting of "Shabbat Shalom" as I asked through tears if he was home and if my brother was still awake. My father asked me what was wrong and I told him I was on my way and I would explain when I got there. I pulled up to my father's house and walked as quickly and calmly as I could to the front door.
I suppose I felt I needed to go there for two reasons: first, because it was only two blocks away and second, because I needed to look my beautiful baby brother in the eye and tell him that he was a Jew no matter what. When I got there, I had the most amazing and spiritual realizations.
My father's girlfriend opened the door, and I fell into her arms in tears. My father appeared and I hugged him as well, looking around for my brother. I found him sitting on the dining room table in a diaper, engrossed in the images on his mother's phone. I picked him up, even as he squirmed away from me, telling him "you are beautiful and you are Jewish and I love you."
As I put him down, I realized something: it doesn't matter whether a Jew marries a non-Jew. Nor does it matter whether a non-Jew decides to convert for their Jewish partner. If there is a mutual understanding and acceptance that an interfaith couple will commit to raising their children Jewish, then nothing else should matter. When critics of interfaith relationships say that the future of the Jewish tradition is at risk of dying out, all I can think about are the people I know and love who have committed themselves to religion and culture so different from their own. I admire their courage, bravery, and strength to have the faith in themselves and their relationships to stray from the norm.
The key is that Judaism has existed for thousands of years and gone through all sorts of trials and tribulations and, yet, we are still here. Judaism exists and continues to exist because of the people that make it thrive, including those parents who, not being Jewish themselves, commit to raising devoted Jews for the next generation.