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Because Their Children Are Jewish

July 14, 2010

Many Jews are surprised when I tell them about the non-Jewish women I know who bake hallah for Shabbat and hamantaschen for Purim--not because they plan to convert to Judaism, but because their children are Jewish. "What? Why would they want to do that?" people often say to me, perplexed and cautiously pleased. As a religion scholar, the women's efforts originally came as a surprise to me, too, but for different reasons. In my research on intermarried couples, I started out assuming that the parent whose religion was being passed on to the children would be responsible for actually teaching that religion. But it turns out that in many cases, religious "work" in families is the responsibility of mothers, regardless of whether the mother's religion matches the rest of the family's.

Jennifer Thompson and son
Dr. Thompson with her son, a boy who has eaten homemade hamantashen.

Through five years of participant-observation research among interfaith families, mostly in Atlanta, I discovered that the association of women and religious activities in the home was very strong. Here's an example. For about a year and a half, I attended meetings of the Mothers Circle, an educational support group for non-Jewish women raising Jewish kids. One of the women I met there was Sandy, a woman from a Christian background who did not see herself as religious. The group met at the home of Denise, one of the most warm and welcoming Jewish women I've ever met. At the meeting right before Purim, Denise and her mother taught us about baking hamantaschen, cookies for the Purim holiday. I was already experienced at making hamantaschen myself, having done so annually since I had converted to Judaism "for no reason," as someone from my synagogue once put it, when I was 20 years old. But I was eager to learn about it from the Mothers Circle perspective.

By this point in the year, the Mothers Circle curriculum had already covered Jewish traditions associated with naming, life cycle ceremonies and holidays, and the stories of Hanukkah and Purim. Members had sat together in a semi-circle each week and mused about why their Jewish husbands opposed having Christmas trees in their homes, even though the husbands usually had no interest in any Jewish activities. The women were also perplexed about why their husbands feared that their young children would be convinced of the divinity of Jesus if they received a visit from the Easter Bunny. I heard these same questions over and over as I talked with other intermarried, non-Jewish women.

Sandy had raised these same questions herself in the group. She and her husband, Josh, were raising their young daughter in Judaism. Now that Passover was on the horizon, she remarked that her mother-in-law, Ellen, was already urging her to assume leadership of the family's Jewish celebrations. Sandy commented as she rolled out the cookie dough, "Every time I learn how to do a new Jewish thing, she tells me, 'Oh, now you can take over that for the family!'"

"Why doesn't she say that to your husband instead?" I asked her as I cut out circles of dough with the rim of a drinking glass. "He's the one who grew up with Judaism." "Oh, he wouldn't know anything," Denise said.

Sandy agreed. "He doesn't know anything. He probably won't know what these hamantaschen are when I bring them home."

Denise's husband Joe was standing by the oven waiting for the hamantaschen with poppyseed filling to come out. As far as I could tell, we had made the poppyseed ones just for him, because no one else wanted them. "He'll know what hamantaschen are," Joe said. "That's one of the things you remember from being a Jewish kid. He'll know."

As we concluded our baking, Denise explained that our next session would cover preparations for Passover: how to clean, cook, kasher the dishes, buy kosher-for-Passover products and put away other foods.

"My mother-in-law wants me to host all our family seders from now on too," Sandy remarked.

Denise nodded encouragingly.

"That's going to be a lot of work!" I said. "Is Josh going to help you with it?"

"No, he wouldn't be able to help with that," Sandy said.

Denise agreed, telling me, "He wouldn't know." She turned to Sandy. "But your mother-in-law can tell you what to do and what family traditions you can incorporate! You should ask her."

If I had only heard of a situation like Sandy's once, I probably would have filed it away as interesting but inconsequential in any broader context. But the more I listened to the stories of intermarried couples, the more I saw that non-Jewish women were engaged in Jewish life, and often more so than their Jewish husbands were.

As I considered why that was the case, I found several different reasons. First, once the women had agreed to raise their children as Jews, a subject on which their husbands often had strong feelings, they wanted their children's Jewishness to have real integrity. To them, that meant that they wouldn't just say that they were Jewish; they had to actually practice Judaism regularly. Second, the women often did find Jewish practices personally meaningful, even if they didn't plan to convert to Judaism. Third, the gender roles with which most American women grow up typically assign household work to women, and many Jewish ritual observances are situated in the home. Thus cooking dinner and making the home beautiful for Shabbat or holidays usually fell to the women because they were women, even though they weren't Jewish.

Conversations about intermarriage in the Jewish community have sometimes given the impression that non-Jews who marry Jews are a major threat to the continuing existence of Judaism. The women I met through my research suggest that this does not have to be the case. Sandy's story suggests that she is actually quite willing to help perpetuate Judaism in her family, even if she bears primary responsibility for it, and even if she feels that she is the least equipped to do it. It may be that by coming to Jewish practice without preconceived notions about it, Sandy and women like her are actually better equipped to handle it than they realize.

Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. 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." 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 spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the action of making something kosher (like cleaning a kitchen). Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story.
Dr. Jennifer Thompson

Dr. Jennifer Thompson conducts research on intermarriage and interfaith family life among Jews and their non-Jewish spouses and advises Jewish organizations about outreach to interfaith families. Dr. Thompson received her Ph.D. in the Ethics and Society Program of the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. She lives with her husband and son in Iowa.

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