Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.
Yours, Mine and Ours: Explaining My Christian Beliefs to My Jewish Husband and Children
Before we married I took my Jewish fiance Barry to meet an old friend at her parents' home. Hard to miss as we entered this house was the 4' by 3' photo of the pope hanging over the fireplace. The size and prominent positioning of the photo made me--a Catholic--catch my breath in surprise and I immediately wondered what Barry was thinking.
We moved into another room and were joined by my friend's daughter, who was four at the time. She kept staring at Barry and finally whimpered to my friend, "Mommy, he's scaring me!" Her comment, combined with the prominent display of the pope, prompted Barry to jump to the conclusion that she was scared of him because he was Jewish. Then she added, "Why does he have hair on his fingers?" Barry joked after we left, "Good thing she couldn't see my horns," referring to a dated racial epithet that Jews had horns growing out of their heads, like the devil.
The overtly Catholic decorations that made me so uncomfortable in my friend's parents' home were invisible to me in my own parents' home. Granted, my parents didn't have a huge photo of the pope over their mantle, but pictures of Jesus are displayed throughout the home in which I grew up. Until Barry pointed it out, I'd never been consciously aware of the number of Catholic symbols that are tucked about my parents' home. For example, the kitchen has a prayer card with a picture of Jesus on the refrigerator and an 8" x 11" portrait of him on the wall by the phone with palm frond crosses tucked in it from the previous year's Palm Sunday Mass. In addition, when Barry first visited my parents' home, he stayed in what we now jokingly refer to as the "Jesus" room. The room has a découpage plaque of Jesus above the light switch and a tabletop cross sculpture made out of matchsticks. To me, that cross represents an arts and crafts project from my oldest brother's days as a Boy Scout in the '50s. To Barry, that cross represents persecution and violence carried out under the auspices of Christianity.
I began to consider what else we perceived differently. For example, the idea that my friend's four year old might not like Barry because he was Jewish hadn't crossed my mind until he joked about feeling that way. Perhaps Barry was being overly sensitive, but perhaps I wasn't being sensitive enough. Since I was in love, I assumed the latter and went to work on raising my consciousness.
To become more aware of what Barry was feeling and why, I read books on Jewish history. I was appalled as I was reminded of all the horrible things done to Jews in the name of Jesus Christ, and embarrassed at how many of these attacks came from the Catholic Church. I hadn't been a part of that history, but I now had a heightened realization that my cultural assumptions were based on a Christian default. I was reminded that not everyone looks forward to Christmas carols or believes in Jesus Christ as the son of God. Rather, as Barry says, "We just don't think he had anything new to say." I may not agree with him, but by listening to him and trying to see things his way, I understood his perspective better.
I found myself watching my word choices--winter break instead of Christmas, spring instead of Easter, and later when the children arrived, I felt that I shouldn't even mention Jesus Christ by name, much less talk about him as a belief or concept. It has been a process to realize that, if my faith is strong enough to be open to learning more about Judaism, Barry's should be strong enough to learn more about Christianity. Barry has always tried to understand my perspective, but now I challenge him more about his assumptions and am more active in correcting misconceptions about Catholics and Christianity. Both of us trust that the other has no desire or intent to convert the other. A strong trust that we respect the choices each of us has made eases any tension that might come up if we were to discuss these things with other people.
Barry and I have good-natured arguments about (among other things) how a messiah would be identified in any century, whether Jesus was a messiah, a prophet, or just a really wise man, and whether the concept of the trinity is antithetical to believing that there is only one god. We both respect that our perspectives, beliefs and interpretations of events and artifacts--such as the Bible--differ.
Understanding through debate may be fine between adults, but how do I help my two young children--ages four and six--come to understand my religious beliefs, even as they struggle to understand their own? Barry and I both agree that what we believe about God and religion is in large part due to our parents' influence. What happens to children who are raised in interfaith families? And more specifically, what will happen to our daughters who are being raised as Jews in an interfaith family?
Although the girls are too young to debate much more than their need to go to bed, Barry and I already challenge their assumptions about God in discussions geared to their age. For example, Barry and I had to giggle when we overheard our daughter Claire mumbling to herself as she watched the video Prince of Egypt. "Huh? God's a burning bush?!" Later, I asked my daughters if God was a he or a she. They immediately and emphatically said, "A he." "How do you know? I thought God was a burning bush," I said--and the discussion was rolling. We talked about the bush's voice being a male voice, but how that voice was an actor, not God. "But, God is everything." "Yeah, God is nature." "Then who is Mother Nature?" "His sister." "Perhaps God is so complex that we need to imagine God in ways that make sense to us," I prompt.
As a mom of two girls, I want to take this discussion in another direction, and so I ask them why it only makes sense for God to be a man. I lose them at this point to stuffed animals. But I have set the groundwork for them to understand that people believe what makes sense to them and that to make sense of something you need to respectfully question and be open to learning more.
I no longer avoid talking about Jesus Christ to them as I've realized that making them more knowledgeable about Christianity doesn't have to lead to conversion. As a Democrat, I explain that Democrats and Republicans disagree about some fundamental things, and my girls still insist they would vote for President Bush. Barry and I believe that being able to identify and understand various perspectives is a critical lifelong skill.
We are giving our girls a foundation of their own, while teaching them to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and explore what other people believe. I trust that we are raising two young women who will each have their own religious identity and who will understand that the world has no religious absolutes. I hope that we are raising children who will respect what is mine, understand what is theirs, and who will care enough to find the places where these overlap to become ours.