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If I'm Jewish and You're Christian, What are the Kids?

Despite their parents' adamant claims to the contrary, children raised with both religions are often confused.

Sooner or later (usually sooner) every interfaith couple is asked, "What will the children be?" And sooner or later (often later) the couple finds an answer. Deciding which religion, if any, to pass on to the next generation can take many months of thoughtful, even painful, discussion.

Because I am both an intermarried parent and an early childhood educator, I was asked to write a book to help interfaith couples consider their options and make good decisions for their families. In If I'm Jewish and You're Christian, What are the Kids? I recommend that interfaith couples decide on one religious identity for their children, and observe just one set of holidays, rituals, and life-cycle events in the family.

Many interfaith couples bristle at this advice. They argue that they can blend Judaism and Christianity in their family celebrations, and that their children are genuinely "Jewish-Christian" or half-and-half. These parents often say they are giving their children the "best of both" religions.

In my twenty years' experience working with interfaith families I have learned that when a couple says they are practicing "the best of both" religions, they mean that they follow the four-holiday calendar: they celebrate (in a mostly secular way) Christmas and Hanukkah, Passover and Easter. Their children usually do not attend any religious school, nor do they participate in the life-cycle events of either religion. The parents or grandparents may tell the children a little about each religion, but not enough to upset the delicate religious balance within the family.

There are myriad variations on the "best of both" theme. Some families celebrate Jewish and Christian holidays in alternate years. Others raise the boys in the father's religion and the girls in the mother's faith. A few couples choose to raise the first child in one religion, the next in the other, and so on. Still others introduce rituals, holidays, and customs from several faiths, giving the children a veritable course in comparative religions, rather than one of their own. Frankly, the "best of both" usually boils down to "not much of either."

Despite their parents' adamant claims to the contrary, children raised with both religions are often confused. They absorb very little about religion, tradition, heritage or theology from the four-holiday calendar. One child, Jamie, age six, explained his interfaith family's celebrations this way: "Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas, Easter is the Easter Bunny's birthday and Passover, I don't know what that is."

In reality it is impossible to give a child the "best of both" religions. Christianity and Judaism share some values, but they are based on inherently contradictory belief systems. Children as young as five years old can accurately articulate the basic differences between the two religions. They understand, even if their parents don't, that they cannot be both Jewish and Christian.

The bottom line is that interfaith parents need to face the challenge and decide on one religion for their children, no matter how difficult the decision. And most likely it will be tough. One parent will have to let go of the idea of recreating some favorite childhood memories with his/her own children, and learn a new set of customs. The other parent will have to take on the major responsibility for not only whatever religious traditions the family observes, but the children's religious training as well. Both partners have to adjust their expectations.

But what starts out harder for the parents ends up easier for the children. They grow up with one religious identification, one series of holidays and traditions, one consistent set of ethics and values, one answer to the most basic of all questions: Who am I?

Children with one religion look forward to holidays and life-cycle ceremonies. Children enjoy being part of a community, learning about its history, continuing its customs, and putting its values into practice. When he was six years old, Zeke (who is Jewish) and his Christian mother donated some bread and vegetables left over from a school function to the local soup kitchen. As they carried the food into the building, Zeke's mom explained the work of the soup kitchen, and the importance of their gift. They had completed the last trip and were walking back to the car when Zeke stopped in his tracks and exclaimed, "Mom! We did a mitzvah (commandment, good deed)!" Even young children can feel important and special when their religion relates to real life.

Most children want their parents to give them a religious identity. As seventeen-year-old Hannah said, "I think having a religion should be like having a hometown. You know you belong there, you know everyone and all the rules. You don't have to stay there, but you always know where it is, and you can come back whenever you want." It is this feeling of having a religious hometown that I would wish for the children of intermarriage.

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." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!")
Andrea King

Andrea King is the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage of 20-five years. She and her husband, Ben Cardozo, live in Santa Monica with their seventeen-year-old son Nathan. The family belongs to Beth Shir Sholom, a Reform synagogue, where Nathan became bar mitzvah, Ben has served on the Board, and Andrea heads the outreach program. Ms. King also serves on the UAHC Regional Outreach committee and is the author of If I'm Jewish and You're Christian, What are the Kids? (UAHC Press, 1993). She holds a master's degree in education, and supervises the preschools for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

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