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Interfaith Doesn't Mean Having to Say Goodbye to My Jewish Heritage

Reprinted from j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California with permission of the author.

I'm at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center on a Monday evening to join other parents who are raising Jewish children in an interfaith family. The topic: integrating your Jewish child's non-Jewish heritage into your child's identity.

My husband should be here right now, not me. After all, he's the "non-Jewish heritage" in our family.

But since he works with grown-ups all day and I either write alone at home or work with schoolchildren, being able to listen to and talk with adults for an evening is, well, a treat. And I'm happy to play hooky from bedtime for a night.

Also, as he's apt to point out, I'm the one with the interfaith questions: How will we not confuse her? What's worked for other families?

"Honoring Your Jewish Child's Non-Jewish Heritage" is one of many classes, workshops and offerings from Building Jewish Bridges, a program of outreach to interfaith couples in the East Bay. Our friendly and compassionate facilitator is Dawn Kepler, who has been planning and leading interfaith classes and workshops for 16 years.

We sit at a round table and introduce ourselves: There's Pam, mother of a 1-year old; Teri, who has a 9-year-old son; and Barbara, a grandmother of many, who all share a non-Jewish heritage.

Unintentional background music wafts down the hallway from another room; we stop at one point and try to name the tunes: "Rhapsody in Blue," the overture from "Fiddler on the Roof"?

Even though my own personal history differs from the group, I immediately identify when Teri worries aloud that her son "will always be mixed up with the blending of things."

Dawn reassures us that children need to feel connected to their parents, that both parents' heritage is a part of who they are and how they view themselves. "Being Jewish doesn't erase the non-Jewish parent's identity," she says, as she begins to help us sort religious identity from cultural identity.

"Usually," Dawn tells us, "the Jewish partner has a strong idea of what he or she wants to pass on: food, music, language, history and practice." We nod. She asks us what things we want to make sure our children don't miss, what are the great memories that have shaped us.

I recall endless games of gin rummy with my grandmother, an ace canasta player. I'd always thought of rummy as a Jewish grandmother's game, but it's not, I've come to discover. I have not played since, but jogging this memory is enough to make me want to teach my daughter.

I wonder aloud what memories from my husband's upbringing he doesn't want our daughter to miss.

He spent time bowling and fishing with his father, and he's reminisced about his family going out for ice cream after church every Sunday. While we don't attend Shabbat services every week, stopping for ice cream when we do is certainly a tradition I'm in favor of.

When the discussion veers to the topic of food, everyone has a potent culinary memory or favorite cooking story. While apples and honey will, no doubt, remind my child of Rosh Hashanah, I also know that gigantic bowls of buttery mashed potatoes with my husband's family will remind her of her father's family dinners. It has nothing to do with their Catholic roots, but is a part of her father's family tradition that will be passed on.

And that's just what we're all starting to figure out here at the round table, that incorporating traditions and passing on memories doesn't necessarily mean Christian. Hobbies and pastimes that define us, that we want to share with our children, can reach beyond the religious realm.

Ideas spring back and forth, sharing family folklore and music, swimming in lakes, picking fruit and making pies, layering a Jell-O mold of one family's past.

"What you're really trying to do is teach your children about you, through stories and experiences giving memories of being with you," Dawn sums up.

On the way home I think about mashed potatoes and post-Shabbat service ice cream, and how we'll shop for father-daughter fishing poles. I think that weaving in more of my husband's non-Jewish family heritage will work for all of us.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
Joanne Catz Hartman

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at jc_hartman@comcast.net.

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