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"Mom, are all dads Christian?"
I had to laugh a bit when one of my 5-year-old twins posed this question recently from the backseat of the car. But based on what he knows of the world, it was a valid query.
Just as my boys ask if every singer they hear on the radio has been on American Idol, this question came from what they've experienced. They know from watching the show that good singers--well, at least some of them--go from American Idol to the radio, and they've learned from interactions with kids at school or during play dates that their families are composed of both Jewish and non-Jewish parents. In the black-and-white world of childhood, your reality (TV or otherwise) and "true" reality are one and the same.
In actuality, our family does socialize with many other interfaith families, although we did not seek them out because of it. In fact, we became friendly first and then later discovered our common bond.
While it is nice for the adults to be able to discuss our religious issues--be they about ceremonies or holidays or even how to coexist with our conflicting beliefs--I think the children actually benefit more from the relationships. Whether they're conscious of it or not, it's reassuring to know that other kids have a parent who identifies him- or herself with and practices a different faith.
This interfaith structure came in particularly handy this summer, when my sons and I attended our suburb's annual Home Days festival with another interfaith family. In addition to riding the rides and playing the games, the children enjoyed going from hosted booth to booth to see what the sponsors were giving away. At one church-sponsored booth, my sons and their friend each grabbed a bag of caramel corn and a colorful plastic egg. They excitedly pried apart the halves of the egg to see what trinket they'd received.
"Cool! Look!" they shouted to the other mom and me as they proudly held up little wooden crosses hanging from key chains.
We moms smiled a quick thank-you to the booth staffers and then exchanged slightly amused, slightly worried looks with each other. We knew that getting the boys to give up their new toys wouldn't be easy.
Taking them aside, we gently explained to the boys that they couldn't keep the key chains. "Crosses are for Christians--people who go to church," we told them. "Jewish people, like you, wear Jewish stars, not crosses."
The boys tried to think of ways they could keep the crosses. "We could just play with them in the house, where no one would see them," offered one.
We moms declined that suggestion.
They discussed it some more, and then one of the boys stumbled on the perfect solution: "Hey! My dad goes to church. I can give my cross to him."
The other two agreed that this was a good plan and willingly handed over the key chains for safekeeping until they could deliver them to their fathers.
The crosses forgotten, the boys went on to have more fun--and collect more nonreligious items--for the rest of the evening.
Beyond this one experience, my family has discovered other benefits to the diversity an interfaith family brings.
For example, my husband's three siblings all head to their parents' house in Wisconsin to celebrate Christmas, but not always at the same time. Because they all married Christians, they need to share the holiday with two families, some not even in the same state.
But, as I promised my mother-in-law when my husband and I married, we are theirs for the whole holiday, every year.
And as neighbors and co-workers complain each Christmas about stringing up lights, installing inflatable lawn decorations, and dragging home a tree, my husband smugly replies, "That's why I married a Jew."
From my perspective, it is fun to take part in the more secular parts of the Christian holidays, helping the kids hunt for candy-filled eggs on Easter and exchanging presents with my husband's side of the family on Christmas. While growing up I never felt slighted as I watched my Christian friends partake of these traditions, but I know my own kids look forward to them every year.
Despite the religious conflict, I feel comfortable with my children's involvement in these rituals because they identify themselves as Jews and understand they are participating to help their dad celebrate his holidays. He, likewise, celebrates our holidays with us.
Every once in a while, though, something happens to remind us that being an interfaith family isn't always simple. A friend of my 8-year-old daughter recently informed her that she was only half Jewish, and I had to come to her defense. I am Jewish, and my daughter is being raised as a Jew, so therefore she is Jewish. Period.
All of these experiences, mostly positive but some negative, combine to make up my family's interfaith reality.
So, in response to my son's question "Are all dads Christian?" the answer is obviously, "No."
The addendum to that answer, though, is that it's just fine if they are.