Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
There were only two Jews at Lisa Orta's Los Altos, California, high school--Lisa and her sister.
Located about 60 miles south of San Francisco, Los Altos is in the heart of high-tech heaven, Silicon Valley. Although it was still in its youth then, the character of the community was already formed.
"It was a community of mavericks," says Orta, 44. "It was a community of engineers."
And religion wasn't part of that scientific culture. But in spite of that and the fact that Orta came from an interfaith family, she grew up with a very strong Jewish identity.
But until she and her sister became involved in religious school, her family was "pretty much nothing." Her father, although not religious, was born Catholic. They celebrated Christmas with his family--her father is Mexican American--but it was a cultural event with tamales, presents and beer, not a religious one.
Her mother was a transplant from the Bronx who, while culturally very Jewish, didn't know much about Judaism.
"Because of my sister and me, we grew up in a Jewish home," said Orta, adding that they were the ones who went to temple and brought the Jewish stories, history, and holidays home.
Her maternal grandparents also stoked Orta's Judaism. They spent summers in California, and in the winter the Ortas went east to visit, where they were exposed to a very Jewish environment.
"My mother's parents were very invested in us growing up Jewish and my father was just old-fashioned enough to want to please his father-in-law," explained Orta.
Ironically, because Orta's father was not religious he was able to be both supportive of and to participate in their Jewish upbringing. The fact that he came from a strong cultural background also helped. It made it easy for him to embrace the festivals, food and family aspects of Judaism. Although he never converted to Judaism, Orta's father went to services with them and participated in all the Jewish holidays.
And then there was their rabbi. A bit of a maverick himself, given the times, Rabbi Sidney Akselrad of Congregation Beth Am was open to and inclusive of interfaith families, including performing interfaith marriages. He set the tone for the congregation, and Orta never felt like a second-class citizen or less of a Jew.
"We had community seders, and I remember my father reading [from the Hagadah]," said Orta. "[The rabbi's] big thing was that you must raise your children Jewish."
Orta is now a mother raising her own children, Gary, seven, and Geneva, four-and-a-half, in an interfaith home. Orta's sister married a non-Jew and also is raising her children Jewish.
"In a way, Karen is a mirror image of my dad," said Orta of her partner and co-parent Karen Rust. "Karen is not a religious person. She is truly an agnostic. I checked that out right away. I know I would not have felt comfortable raising my children in another religion."
Like Orta's father, Rust supports and participates in the family's religious activities. This summer, Orta, Rust and Gary went to Israel on a trip sponsored by their synagogue, Temple Sinai in Oakland.
And like Akselrad, their rabbi, Steve Chester, is supportive and inclusive of the non-Jewish partner in interfaith families.
"When Karen comes to temple, she feels it's her community too," says Orta. "It's very important to a child to see that the religious leader accepts the [non-Jewish parent]."
But there are also many differences between Orta's family of birth and the one she has created.
"Primarily I'm much more knowledgeable about Judaism than my mother was," says Orta. "My mother wasn't interested in temple or the kitchen. I am. Karen and I talk to the kids about Jewish history. What I love about the Jewish holidays is that they all have their stories."
These stories have become part of the fabric of their children's lives.
And, unlike her experience in Los Altos, Orta's children's Judaism is integrated into their daily lives.
"Several kids at Gary's secular school are members of the temple," she says. "He is very aware of that and very comfortable at school talking about Jewish holidays."
So how would Orta feel about her children marrying non-Jews?
"If they can do what my mom, my sister and I have done it would be ok," she says. "Marrying someone who is not a Jew doesn't mean not having a Jewish home."