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Do As I Say, Not as I Do

April 23, 2009

I've been thinking back to my teenage years a lot lately. I did so as I wrote my religious autobiography, reviewing my history with Judaism while working on conversion. I've also reconnected through Facebook with some friends from high school and college. And then there's my daughter, Rachel, who at almost 15 is very much a teenager.

It was shocking for me to realize recently that my daughter is only about three short years from being the age that my husband and I were when we met at the beginning of our freshman year of college. We didn't get married until more than six years later but were only 18 when we stopped dating anyone else.

Rachel hasn't dated yet. When I raised the topic of dating, and the subtopic of interfaith dating, Rachel reacted in a typical teenage fashion: she rolled her eyes and said "Yes, Mom, I know, you want me to marry a nice Jewish boy!"

 a slice of pepperoni pizza
"I don't think she would be comfortable with a non-Jewish spouse eating a pepperoni pizza (non-kosher for several reasons) in her house and feeding it to their children."

I have to admit she's right: I do hope she marries a Jew. Not only because I hope that someday I'll have Jewish grandchildren, but because I think that she'll be more likely to have the kind of home life that will make her happy if her spouse (male or female) is Jewish.

The ironic thing is that I'm not Jewish myself (...yet. The rabbi I've been studying with studying with for conversion is starting to arrange the scheduling of my visit to the mikveh.) But the fact is that in 21 years of marriage, I've never considered our family to be "interfaith." Rather it has always been a Jewish family, even though it has a non-Jewish member--me--who nevertheless lives a Jewish life.

I keep kosher and attend synagogue services regularly, including holidays that fall on weekdays when I have to miss work. Having attended services for more than 24 years, I know the Hebrew prayers of the Shabbat morning service and holidays reasonably well. As a woman, the fact that I don't wear a tallit is not unusual, and I don't wear a button saying "I'm not Jewish." So from time to time I have had to turn down offers for taking an aliyah from members who didn't know I wasn't Jewish. But still, I'm not Jewish, and my children have always known that.

I find it a bit frustrating when people assume that my husband and I married, even though he was Jewish and I was not, because we didn't care about Judaism. But everyone makes compromises in life. We chose to marry each other despite seeing the situation as less than ideal. Many years ago, I surprised a Jewish friend of ours who was seriously looking for a woman to marry and was dating a non-Jewish woman. When he asked me for advice on his relationship, I had to tell him I really didn't advocate intermarriage and that I thought he would be happier marrying a Jewish woman. I was happy when this friend married a wonderful Jewish woman he met through JDate.

It has been a relief and an inspiration to me that my daughter has always had a very firm Jewish identity. As someone who is visibly half-Chinese and therefore does not "look Jewish," she has to endure questions about her Jewish status. She says she simply tells people who ask probing questions that she took a dunk in a mikveh when she was young. She is direct and unapologetic about it, and says people usually back off as soon as they hear she was formally converted to Judaism.

But these days, as she has become old enough to start dating, I worry she may have an unrealistic idea of what a more typical interfaith family would mean. I don't think it occurs to her that not all non-Jews married to Jews would want to have a completely Jewish family life like ours. I'm pretty sure she would want to raise her children solely as Jews, which could be a source of disagreement with a non-Jewish spouse. When she was younger, she chose to observe kashrut more stringently outside our home than the rest of the family did at that time. Thus I don't think she would be comfortable with a non-Jewish spouse eating a pepperoni pizza (non-kosher for several reasons) in her house and feeding it to their children. (Although I admit this could also be an issue for a non-observant Jewish spouse.) This fall, it bothered her that as a non-Jew I could not have an aliyah like all the other minyan members at the Simchat Torah service. I wonder how she would feel if Yom Kippur were just another work day for her spouse.

I would never tell her she could not date non-Jewish boys. In fact, I hope I am able to restrain myself from expressing disapproval should she choose to do that because I think it would only encourage her to do it in rebellion. And dating, particularly for teenagers, is not necessarily a precursor to marriage. But sometimes it is, as it was for me. Since it is difficult to soberly assess something like the issues of intermarriage when one is hopelessly "in love,"  it is worth thinking about the issue before getting to know someone. So we'll see what happens. Maybe when it is less hypothetical, she'll want to talk it. I hope I'll be open to her opinions and that she'll be open to mine when that time comes.

Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") 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.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. 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.
Debbie Burton

Debbie Burton was concurrently active in three Conservative synagogues before her conversion made her eligible for "official" membership: the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan (a lay-led congregation in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago), the Skokie Egalitarian Minyan (the lay-led "library minyan" of Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, which is within walking distance of her home) and Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah (the synagogue where her children attended Hebrew school).

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