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Interfaith Curveballs: Issues I Hadn't Anticipated

June 25, 2007 Republished June 26, 2013

With our anniversary fast approaching, I am wowed by the fact that it has been twelve years since Bonnie and I had our Jewish-ish wedding. During that time we have been living in interfaith bliss. We spent a lot of time working out our religious differences and planning what our family would look like before we walked down the aisle. Our plan was for me to maintain my Protestant faith while helping Bonnie to raise our children in her faith, Judaism.

We always knew that we'd have to tweak the game plan from time to time, but we were both a little surprised when we realized that there were some things we had not anticipated. Just when we were thinking, "Oh yeah, we've got this interfaith family thing all worked out," somebody had to throw us a curveball and remind us that we didn't think of everything.

My wife and I were at a function at our synagogue when a woman that we barely knew asked us what we would do if our children started dating someone who wasn't Jewish. Because our two daughters were only 6 and 3 at the time, I wanted to say, "I don't know, I'll get back to you in eight or nine years." Bonnie answered something about how we would be supportive of whatever they chose to do. That was a quick reply designed to be polite, but really said, "We haven't thought about it much."

Later that evening, when the kids were in bed, the two of us discussed the question further. It didn't take us long to figure out that we would, indeed, be supportive of their decision to date someone who wasn't Jewish. After all, we didn't always date people within our own faith growing up.

However, Bonnie and I have made a strong commitment to raise our girls Jewish. In addition to celebrating the holidays in the home, we belong to a temple. The girls attend religious school there. We also belong to the Jewish Community Center and send our daughters to its preschool and summer camp program. We hope that, with these positive experiences, they will carry their religion and culture forward throughout their lives. We, as much as anybody, know that intermarriages do happen. If our daughters end up in such a scenario, we hope that they look to our family model for direction. Funny how one little question can make us see how our parents must have felt when we first started dating.

After reaching an understanding on this new issue, within days we encountered yet another, more daunting one. A good friend asked me if I had ever written anything about death and bereavement in an interfaith family. To tell the truth, I hadn't. The thought had never even crossed my mind. Death was a topic that I just didn't care to delve into. I usually like to write about having fun and enjoying life.

Naturally, though, curiosity overcame my phobia. I broached the subject with Bonnie. Although she hadn't put much thought into it, and didn't want to, she at least knew that Jews and Christians weren't usually buried in the same cemeteries. We would have to talk to our clergy to find out what people did in our situation.

I guess that's the rub right there. Our "situation" is not easily defined within Judaism and Christianity. There are no hard and fast rules in many congregations, so a lot of confusion can ensue. Or, there are rules, and they sometimes aren't inclusive of one of the partners.

There was also the question of bereavement. As the rabbi and minister both told us, it's not a subject that most couples, even same-faith couples, take the time to go over. But, if there isn't a plan, those loved ones who are left behind have to guess. Should I sit shiva (the Jewish period of mourning for seven days)? Would she sit shiva for me? Which of the Jewish customs would our family take part in? Would we cover our mirrors? Would we cut keriah (the act of cutting ones clothing, either actually or symbolically, to represent the tearing apart that the death has caused in a griever's life)?

After talking with our clergy, we have decided that a big part of bereavement is to help the living feel better and move on with life. Therefore, for the girls' sake, we would probably sit shiva if anything happened to either of us.

Fortunately for us, my minister and Bonnie's rabbi are very open to discussing our conundrum. Their experience with interfaith couples has given us many valuable ideas. Although we are still working on the details, Bonnie and I feel that we now have a general conception of what we would do in the case of one of us passing.

In an interfaith family, there are so many furtive problems that can rise to the surface. Some, like death, are somber and painful to work through. Other issues, thank goodness, are seemingly light in comparison. For instance, what religion is our dog, Jasper? Stop laughing. I mean it. Is he Christian or Jewish? I'm sure our daughters view him as another member of the family--so does he get Christmas or Hanukkah presents? When I was a kid, my dog always got a rubber hot dog or some other squeaky toy for Christmas. (Yes, he had his own stocking.) I never thought of him as being any other religion.

As our girls grew from toddlers to pre-schoolers, they started becoming aware of their own religion. Naturally, they assumed that since they were Jewish, Jasper must be Jewish.

After our initial "shock" of yet another unanticipated issue, Bonnie and I decided to make sure Jasper only receives Hanukkah presents, as our daughters do. Like them, he still gets one last small Hanukkah present on Christmas morning at my parents' house. Last Christmas, he got a doggie yarmulke (skull cap).

As for discussing Jasper's religion with our kids, we have explained that he is one of God's creatures, although we didn't tell them that he had a particular religious affiliation. We used the children's book Sammy Spider's First Hanukkah by Sylvia A. Rouss as an example. In the story, Sammy, a young spider who lives in the house of a Jewish family, sees the boy who lives there spinning colorful dreidels. Mesmerized by this, Sammy asks his mother if he can have a dreidel to spin. Her reply is, "Silly Sammy. Spiders don't spin dreidels. Spiders spin webs." In the end, Sammy's mom knits him eight socks to keep his eight legs warm. The socks are the same colors as the boy's eight dreidels. Sammy is very content with this gift and in simply watching the boy and his family celebrate Hanukkah. Like Sammy, Jasper doesn't spin dreidels, but he can still have fun with us while we celebrate our holidays.

As the kids get older, I'm sure they'll be asking for more details about how our interfaith family works. And, as Bonnie and I grow older in our marriage, we know that we'll be hit with additional interfaith issues. Will we be surprised when these topics stumble their way into our lives? Probably. You always think that you've thought of everything. However, with a consistent game plan and plenty of communication, I'm sure these problems won't be anything we can't handle.

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. Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "tearing," refers to the custom of mourners tearing a garment (usually a shirt, jacket or vest) or a ribbon (and affixing it to one's garment) that is worn throughout the shiva period (the first stage of mourning). 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. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.

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