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"But Josh isn't religious. Why should we raise our children as Jews?" Patricia asked this question during one of my premarital workshops for couples contemplating an interfaith marriage. Quite a few non-Jewish heads nodded in agreement. "Josh doesn't speak Hebrew, doesn't go to synagogue, and doesn't keep kosher! So why is he so insistent that we keep a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews?"
Explaining that a Jew isn't required to do any of these things to be identified as a Jew is a difficult task. I said that just being born a Jew or converting to Judaism makes a person part of the Jewish people. A Jew doesn't need to do any of the things Patricia mentioned in order to be considered Jewish.
Christianity requires that you do certain things, such as follow the teachings of Christ, go to church, and accept Christian doctrine to be considered a practicing Christian. Jews do not need to do any of those things to be considered Jewish. In fact, some Jews are atheists but are still considered Jews.
Josh received very little Jewish education as he was growing up. He attended neither day nor afternoon Jewish school. He lived in a non-Jewish area and most of his friends were not Jews. His parents didn't socialize with many Jewish people. A private teacher taught him his Bar Mitzvah lessons, and these lessons did not involve any more knowledge of the Hebrew language or religion than he needed for his portion. He rarely, if ever, attends a Sabbath or High Holiday service, and only enters a synagogue for a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah.
Josh's parents' home did not keep kosher, although he liked to call their diet kosher style: (no pork or seafood products were served, but the meat was not necessarily bought from a kosher butcher). However, his parents celebrated many of the Jewish holidays and observed customs, such as lighting Hanukkah candles, eating latkes, having hamantashen for Purim, having a Passover seder and eating matzah. To Josh and many like him, this is a Jewish way of life, a way of life with which he was very comfortable and through which he strongly identified with the Jewish people. No doubt he is an example of a secular Jew, but he nevertheless is still considered by others and by himself to be Jewish.
In anticipating a marriage to a non-Jew, Josh has no difficulty sharing his tradition with her and respecting her beliefs and traditions. But he is very anxious to maintain his Jewish heritage and to pass this heritage on to his children. He wants his future wife to promise to bring the children up as Jews so that he can remain faithful to his tradition and fulfill his obligation to contribute to Jewish continuity.
Patricia and many in her position have trouble understanding why Josh is so anxious to pass on what seem to her as meaningless traditions. She finds it difficult to understand his feelings as a Jew because of her own upbringing. In her mind, he never participated in what she would consider religious activity, and she wonders why he wants to start now. She doesn't recognize the Jewishness that Josh feels in his heart and soul.
How do we help her understand that many Jews feel their Judaism in a way that is foreign to a non-Jew? Josh, at this point, has a large task in front of him. He has to become a teacher of his approach to Judaism. He has to recognize how difficult this is for Patricia, who has learned a very different approach to religious identity. She is not letting go of her religion and has a difficult time understanding his concept of secular Judaism, yet is expected to teach and nurture their children as Jews.
Josh's family can play a major role. They can help Patricia to feel welcome in their home and in their life, and in the process they can help her learn their style of being Jewish. They, however, need to understand that Patricia herself will still be connected to her own traditions and religion and that these must be respected.
With patience, discussion, hard work in setting examples and explaining his thoughts and feelings, Josh can help Patricia see why he wants his children to be brought up as Jews. In an atmosphere that allows Josh and Patricia to respect each other's beliefs, this family can grow more comfortable day by day