Tanya H. Keith lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband Doug Jotzke and their menagerie of cats and a hedgehog. All are eagerly awaiting the October birth of their first child. She is the event coordinator for Des Moines' soccer stadium, a soccer referee, a marathon runner, and occasionally a freelance interior designer. As the Outreach Chairperson of Temple B'Nai Jeshurun, it is her top priority for all Jewish families (interfaith, by choice, or otherwise) to feel comfortable in the Des Moines community and wherever she is.
Another Generation Begins
Another generation begins. How incredible it is to be pregnant and feel a new life beginning inside you. Our baby means a whole new era for two families, a new volume of stories, celebrations, heartbreaks, and thrills.
I think about this little baby growing inside me, and the history he or she will inherit. I hope that our baby will grow up to have the strong Jewish identity and pride that I have found in my life, but I realize that I cannot take this for granted. This person will face some of the same challenges I did, and some new challenges. Our baby will be the child of an interfaith marriage, the grandchild of an interfaith marriage, and the great-grandchild of an interfaith marriage!
Many in the Jewish community will consider it nothing short of a miracle that our child will be raised Jewish. They believe that interfaith marriage will hasten the end of Judaism. As I was growing up, it was very difficult to be an "interfaith" child facing those opinions, that disapproval, especially when I felt like a 100 percent Jewish soul. At times, I think the Jewish community works against itself by holding onto antiquated misgivings toward interfaith marriage, creating the very lack of continuity it fears.
I have been thinking about the challenges my mother faced in the early years of her marriage to my non-practicing Christian father. My great-grandparents sat shiva (Jewish mourning ritual) for her, as a statement that she was now dead to them. Despite the dramatic reaction from her own parents, my grandmother decided to stand by my mother (my grandfather had already passed away). She told my mother that if my father treated her well and was a good person, that was what was most important. My grandmother's acceptance of my parents' marriage saved her relationship with my mother and opened the door to Judaism for my sister and me. Even so, as a result of the rejection from the rest of her family, my mother was alienated from Jewish life, and to this day she chooses to practice only in limited ways.
Somehow, though, my sister and I both found our own ways back to Judaism. I have no recollection of my great-grandparents' animosity towards my mother. For me, my grandmother's lessons in everything from Jewish holidays to Mah-Jongg gave me the foundation upon which I built my adult Jewish life. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away when I was only thirteen years old. What if I had not had that brief, positive Jewish influence in my life? Perhaps my great-grandmother's disowning of my mother would have caused an even greater, more tangible loss... the loss of my sister's and my generation and of all further generations of Jews in my family.
Fortunately, that didn't happen, and I developed a strong Jewish identity on my own. Halfway through college, I moved to the Midwest from the Northeast to follow my fiancé's job offer. I discovered that the "casual Judaism" encountered in the New York metropolitan area didn't exist in our part of the Midwest. In my new home I had to answer new questions, and I had to make an effort to seek out other Jews and Jewish culture. Fortunately for me, my non-Jewish fiancé Doug supported my efforts.
As we planned our wedding, I learned more and more about Jewish tradition and ritual. I asked Doug to take an Introduction to Judaism class with me. It was not important to me that he convert, but I did not want to be responsible for his Jewish education. The course was a fantastic learning opportunity for both of us, and I know that I would not be as Jewishly involved today if I had not intermarried.
When Doug and I were looking for a rabbi to marry us, our temple's rabbi in Des Moines made it quite clear he would not perform our wedding ceremony unless Doug converted. This struck me as very odd, since we weren't planning to get married in Iowa! Why would he, supposedly accepting of interfaith marriages in his congregation, go out of his way to give us this negative news when he knew we planned to marry where I had grown up, in New Jersey? We were already a part of the Des Moines Jewish community, and it felt as if he were trying to push us away at a vulnerable time.
We were fortunate to find a wonderful N.J. rabbi to perform our wedding ceremony. I had asked around and developed a list of rabbis there who would work with interfaith couples. My husband and I then made several trips back East to interview independent rabbis there. Some made me feel as if we were looking for a back-alley wedding. But we found one, Rabbi Shimon Berris, whom we both loved right from the start. He was warm and encouraging, and treated us like normal people trying to get married in a Jewish way. It took two years to plan our New Jersey wedding from Iowa, but it turned out perfectly.
On May 28, 1995, in suburban N.J., we stood under the chuppah (bridal canopy) grinning at each other, with our families and friends gathered around us. It was one of the most intensely wonderful moments of our lives, and, thanks to "our" rabbi, it was the beginning of our Jewish home.
So here we are, seven years later, anticipating the birth of our first child as members of Temple B'Nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, where I serve on the board as outreach chairperson. Our children will be raised Jewish. For now, it is Doug's choice not to convert, but I am sure that he will be a supportive parent as we raise our children in our Jewish house. I don't think of him as non-Jewish any more; I call him my "slightly less Jewish" spouse. I just wish the people who disowned or looked down on my mother could see her daughter's "interfaith" family preparing the Passover seder, going to Shabbat service on Friday nights, or cherishing any of the thousands of other Jewish moments in my life.
Instead, I'll just say this: interfaith marriage does not mean the end of Judaism. Welcoming interfaith families into your congregations and your circle of friends can make that small difference in someone's life that allows them to follow a path to Judaism in the way they choose. Perhaps not the most traditional or the easiest path, but many interfaith families do want to live Jewish lives. It's up to all of us, from the most fervent Jews to those who are "slightly less Jewish" in the community, to make sure that the door is always open.