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Choosing a Religion

July 26, 2010

The excitement of getting married is sometimes overshadowed by the difficult discussions about religion. It is often easiest to forget about it until it becomes an issue, usually once you have kids. Or you can make the decision to not decide and raise the kids in two religions. Unfortunately, if you wait too long, you might find out that things don't turn out the way you thought they would.

two globes
Thinking about giving them the best of both worlds? Think again.

I have been in an interfaith marriage for 14 years. We decided how we were going to raise our kids before they were born. Actually, we decided before we got married. My father was a divorce lawyer. I learned that it was wise to make all the "deal breaker" decisions before you get married, because the only people who win in divorces are the lawyers.

As my husband and I wrestled with the decision of how to raise our kids, I actually pushed the idea of raising them as both and letting them decide. My husband would not allow that. Our kids were going to have an identity. He just could not reconcile the idea of doing both. How much religious school would the kids go to, was always his question. He knew intuitively that you just cannot be a Christian Jew.

What we learned as we went through the process was that in an interfaith marriage, not choosing one religion is not fair to your kids. If you decide to expose your children to the best of both and let them decide, it forces them to make a decision that you, the adult, do not wish to make. Yes, it is a very hard decision. Not doing it puts your children in the boat you are in and delegates that responsibility to them. It forces them to choose one parent over the other. Do not make them be the ones to make the hard decisions.

While I intellectually agreed with the idea that we needed to choose, it was very hard for me to emotionally reconcile myself with the fact that my kids would not be like me. I did not want to give up Christmas and Easter, and all the traditions I grew up with. Christmas is my favorite holiday. I felt like I would lose my family and an essential part of myself if I gave that up. I wanted to share all my traditions with my kids. I wanted my kids to experience Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, dye eggs, bake Christmas cookies, decorate the tree and do all the things that I loved doing as a kid. If I raised my kids as Jews, I would not be doing all those things. My kids would miss out. I would be the outsider in the family. It was like stripping myself of myself to give up having Christian kids.

As we explored our various choices, we went to services at the temple. It was very scary and different. Let's face it, my Hebrew is and was not so good. I struggled with the idea that the service was printed in a book. Seriously, it is the same every time? You read it from a book? That seemed so foreign to me.

The decision to call the whole thing off loomed large in our relationship. My husband suggested we go and talk to the rabbi. I will go on record saying that I would not have a Jewish family and be married to the most wonderful man in the entire world if it were not for that rabbi. He welcomed me in, showed me the ropes and helped me to see why my husband wanted us to choose. He didn't care what we chose, but he encouraged us to choose.

The rabbi gave us the book If I am Jewish and You are Christian, What are the Kids? by Andrea King. This book changed the game for us. Ms. King is the non-Jewish partner in a Jewish family. Ms. King also attended the same college I did, so I immediately felt as if this was beshert, or meant to be. I got to see through Ms. King's experience that I could have Jewish kids and still be a part of the family, and that in the end I would not lose myself.

Ultimately, it was more important to my husband to have Jewish children than it was for me to have Christian children. Making this decision about how to raise our children was not a negotiation, but I still got a small consolation prize. Because my husband's family does not celebrate Christmas, there is never any question as to which family we will see. To this day, we go to my parents' house for Christmas every year. My kids celebrate the holiday with my family, in the same way you celebrate a birthday. They understand that it is not their holiday, but what kid turns down presents?

For many years, we went to a friend's house to dye eggs for Easter. We have very elaborate afikoman hunts for Passover and scavenger hunts for birthdays and Valentine's Day. I still get to do the things I did as a kid, just in a slightly different way.

As a family, we have our own traditions. They are similar to the ones I had when I was growing up, but they are uniquely ours. I have learned that I really did not lose as much as I feared I would. My kids are Jewish, I am Christian and it is going to be alright.

"Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Susanna Perrett

Susanna Perrett is a stay at home mom with three wonderful Jewish children and a Jewish husband. They have been learning about the joys and pitfalls of raising children and creating traditions in an interfaith family for over 15 years.

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