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I Am My Interfaith Family

October 22, 2012

My husband is Jewish. I am Jewish. We are raising our daughters in a Jewish home, and we belong to a synagogue. Yet we are an interfaith family.

I am my interfaith family.

My husband's parents are both Jewish, and, from what we know, their ancestors have been wearing kippahs and lighting candles on Friday night for generations. My family, however, is not so straightforward. My mother's father was born and raised in a Christian family from Oklahoma. He served in Italy during World War II, where he met the woman who would become his wife and, later, my grandmother. She was Italian and her father was Jewish. Her mother was probably Catholic, but possibly Jewish. The reality is that I'll never know for sure. Secrets were formed during the war, secrets that may have saved some of my family members from Mussolini's terror. They truth was lost when the Jewish population in that small Italian town was destroyed. The secrets died with my grandmother.

My father is the son of two German Jews, and yet, as I looked around the room at a recent family gathering, I saw Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Bahais, atheists, and agnostics. Some are blood relations, others are not; in our family it is a meaningless distinction. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings, with their varied beliefs, cultures, and heritages, are part of who I am, and part of who I hope to raise my daughters to be.

This diversity is woven into my DNA and my life history. I grew up with Christmas trees next to menorahs. My mother sent me to Hebrew school, however briefly. I can recite the Lord's Prayer and the Sh'ma, and I know better than to genuflect during a Catholic service. We have mezuzahs and hamsas next to small icons of Catholic saints on our walls, and Tanakhs and family bibles on our bookshelves. I write for a Jewish parenting website. I read the writings of the Buddha and practice mindfulness meditation.

Yet I am Jewish. We are Jewish, and we are clear on that. Every family draws a line in the sand of observance somewhere; for us that means that we don't have Christmas trees or Easter eggs. We celebrate Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, and we don't have pork or shellfish in the house. But we also have many friends who aren't Jewish, and we have happily attended their holiday celebrations and their children's christenings.

It's messy and inconsistent and it's a gift. I cannot deny who I am and who my family is, nor do I want to. Now that I am a mother, my history has taken on even greater meaning. I feel blessed to be able to share it all with my daughters. It's not easy to explain such complexity to young minds that seek concrete answers, but I don't have to worry about that yet. For now, we read books about Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah and Passover. We light candles on Friday nights and go to Tot Shabbat on Saturday mornings and celebrate Hanukah and Christmas with family and friends. We are teaching them that we are Jewish, but we are also part of a much broader family and community that includes lots of different types of people. Because I am a Jew, married to a Jew, in an interfaith family.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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 spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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 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.
Carla Naumburg

Carla Naumburg, PhD, is a clinical social worker and writer. She is a contributing editor for Kveller.com, and she writes the Mindful Parenting blog for PsychCentral.com. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, InterfaithFamily, and JewishBoston.com. Carla lives outside Boston with her husband and two young daughters. You can follow Carla on Twitter @SWMama, and on Facebook at facebook.com/CarlaNaumburg.

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