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May 21, 2010
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week with the title, "In the Mix: Religion And A House Divided."
My parents' divorce, a month before I entered first grade, was undoubtedly the great trauma of my life.
I say this not to make them feel guilty or even to argue against divorce; had they stayed together, their unhappy marriage would likely have caused just as much, if not more, misery for all involved.
But there is no way around the unpleasant fact that few events (with the obvious exceptions of death, war, neglect, abuse and serious illness) are more stressful for children than having a mother and father separate.
Even when the estranged parents both behave well, divorce entangles children in inevitable conflicts over money, custody and countless other issues. It also forces them to shuttle between two different homes, often feeling like they do not fully belong in either one.
Add different religions to the mix, as in the high-profile battle between Chicago parents Joseph Reyes and Rebecca Shapiro Reyes, and things can get very ugly.
That protracted divorce process, during which Catholic Joseph had their 3-year-old daughter Ela baptized without his estranged wife's permission, and Jewish Rebecca obtained a court order temporarily barring him from taking Ela to church, was settled last week.
Rebecca was awarded full custody and the right to determine Ela's religious education/upbringing, with Joseph allowed to bring Ela to church during his visitation time.
Their case, battled out in court and through dueling "20/20" TV interviews, is of course not typical of all interfaith marriages gone awry. I would hate to think of knee-jerk intermarriage critics using it as a cautionary tale, an item to add to the top-10 "Reasons to Marry in the Tribe" list (much in the way many have long argued that intermarriages are more likely than in-marriages to end in divorce).
However, while usually not so dramatic, many of the issues that came up in the Reyes case seem to be common in interfaith divorces: individuals who, when the marriage was good, were willing to set their own religions aside (Reyes converted to Judaism) for the sake of family harmony, suddenly find themselves seeking solace in their own faiths and feeling turned-off by all things, like the other religion, that they associate with The Ex.
One friend, whose Jewish mother and Protestant father divorced when she was a teenager, said that "religion was a very small issue in their marriage when it was healthy, but when they started to have problems for other reasons, it became increasingly a thing."
Her mother, who had always been secular, suddenly wanted to go to synagogue and began chafing during family Christmas celebrations. Meanwhile, she says, her father has become almost anti-Semitic in the aftermath, because "everything associated with Jewishness is automatically associated with Mom and that marriage," she observes.
Since my friend and her sister were already teenagers by the time the marriage dissolved (and both parents were atheists), religious upbringing was not an issue for their family.
However, in other families it can be a huge conflict, especially since keeping promises and making sacrifices for someone you no longer love, or whom you feel hurt by, is not easy.
As my friend Laurel, whose Jewish dad and Catholic mom divorced when she was 8, points out: "A married family makes an effort to smooth over patches, but the opposite happens when there's a divorce: people try to make each other's lives more difficult."
Beth, a high school friend of mine who is Jewish, has stuck to her commitment to raise her two sons Catholic, but not without some ambivalence after her husband left her.
"I look back now and think it would've been nice to raise [the boys] Jewish, because now I'm with them 85 percent of the time," she told me. "I take them to church without him all the time, which is really odd because here I am not kneeling, not making the sign of the cross. I'm trying to teach them what they need to do, but I'm not doing it and I feel sort of out of place."
I also know of divorced gentile women who ferry their children to Hebrew school, even as they feel ill-equipped and, sometimes, unenthused about raising them Jewish.
But even in the best of cases, when the family has worked out an agreement about the religious upbringing of the children and both parents are committed to following it, "the logistical stuff becomes very complicated," notes Laurel.
"My mom's supposed to help me with my Hebrew school homework when she doesn't know the alef-bet? She's supposed to drive me to [temple] Sunday school when she wants to go to church?" she asks rhetorically.
Exacerbating the problem for Laurel was the fact that both her parents gravitated more toward their own religions after the divorce, a situation that's not uncommon.
In the immediate period after separating from her husband, when "we didn't talk a lot and he didn't see the kids much," Beth, who had never before exposed her children to anything Jewish "decided I was at least going to show them everything I could about the Jewish faith."
That Hanukkah she bought a menorah and taught her sons about the holiday. One evening, her ex-husband came over, saw the candles and said, "What's that all about? You're still raising them Catholic, right?"
"I said 'Yes, but it's educational--half their family is Jewish.' It took him awhile to get used to it. He was pretty adamant about not exposing them to it, which I thought was a little anti-Semitic. He's OK with it now, but it took awhile."
Nonetheless, interfaith divorced families do have one advantage over same-faith divorced ones: no conflicts over where the children will spend the holidays.
"I've had a friend or two who divorced and were constantly fighting over Christmas and Easter," Beth said. "And I say, 'Please, take the boys to your family for Christmas!'"