Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Keeping the Faith: Why I Have Chosen to Maintain My Christian Religion in My Jewish Family
What a relief. I had just finished doing a reading at Barnes and Noble Booksellers and had breezed through a relatively easy question and answer period. Everything was over, and I was putting my coat on when a good friend of mine came up and asked me what was easily the most difficult question of the day: "How do you feel being the only Christian in your Jewish family?"
I told her to submit her questions in writing one week in advance to give me time to prepare. Seeing that she wasn't going to let me off the hook that easily, I had to stop and think of a way to express my feelings accurately. After all, this question elicited a potential minefield of emotions. Further, she wanted to know how I felt about my children not believing in Jesus as the son of God.
She wasn't trying to be rude--and I certainly didn't take it that way. I'd known her for quite a while. I knew that she was a devout Christian and one who liked to take part in spirited conversations about religion. She was not a person who judged others based on their beliefs. She was just genuinely curious.
I told her that sometimes it was hard on me. No lie. There had been times when I'd wondered if I'd made the right choice. If I believed in my faith so much, how could I let my own children not? Would it be better if I converted to Judaism? Before the kids were born, I thought that there was a chance that I would feel like a black sheep in my own family.
However, when my wife Bonnie and I married, we decided to focus on our religions' similarities. Sure, we knew that Judaism and Christianity had some fundamental differences, but there was so much more that the two had in common--especially the morals and values that they both taught. We felt that there was a way to make this work, without either one of us having to give up our own faith.
In addition, we decided that we would raise our children in a way that celebrated their Judaism, but also let them know that being Jewish was just a part of who they were. They were girls, they had brown hair, they liked to sing and dance, and they were Jewish. In similar fashion, I, Daddy, was a boy, had green eyes, liked to make silly faces, and was Christian. By helping our girls to understand it this way, we had demonstrated that sometimes family members had different faiths--just as they also had different physical and personality characteristics--and that was okay.
I told my friend that since our daughters were born, I had yet to feel like an outsider in my own home. In fact, my five-year-old knew full well that we had different religions. However, it really had been enjoyable for me to help her learn about Judaism. At the same time, it had been a lot of fun watching her make an effort to include me. Last November, when we were lighting the first candle for Hanukkah, everyone yelled, "Happy Hanukkah!" While the hootin' and hollerin' was going on, she reached over to me, pulled me down to her level, and whispered in my ear, "Merry Christmas, Dad." For a "Daddy-Daughter Moment," you just couldn't get any better than that.
As far as my own children not believing that Jesus was the Messiah, well, I had never been one to say which religion in this world is the correct one. While my faith has always been strong, my daughters and I still love the same God, and that is good enough for me. The important factor here was that Bonnie and I were raising them in a faith that had wonderful traditions and taught excellent values. The last thing we wanted was for them to grow up without any religion at all.
My friend seemed satisfied with my answers, and we gathered up our kids and headed for the parking lot. She hadn't been looking for a justification of my choices. Rather, she was merely curious about something that was completely foreign to her. She and her husband were not only both Protestant, but they were also of the same exact denomination.
I don't know if she felt that my choices were something that would have ever worked for her if she had been in my shoes. I wouldn't expect them to. I have never been foolish enough to believe that everyone would agree with me on this issue. It is a tough one, and people handle it in different ways.
In fact, people often ask me why I have not converted to Judaism as one way to address the issue of our mixed-religion family. When Bonnie and I were dating and trying to figure out how we would make our interfaith marriage work, I looked at every option. It didn't take me long, however, to know that I would not convert. Sure, conversion would mean that my wife, kids, and I could all practice the same religion--very convenient. But, convenience is not why people convert. It has to feel right. I don't feel that I could leave my religion. Is letting my parents down a factor? Oh, sure. But, ultimately, both my parents and I know that it would be my decision to make.
I guess the main reason why I have not converted is simply that I am not Jewish. This may seem obvious, but it's important to me. The Keen family mostly traces its roots back to, among other places, Clan Gunn of the Highlands of Scotland. I am a Protestant. I grew up this way, and my faith is as strong as ever. It's just who I am. I believe that every American has a heritage and should be proud of it. That's what makes our country great. It's what unifies us--we're all from someplace else. I love teaching my girls about the places where their ancestors were born. I think it's wonderful that they learn about these people from Scotland, England, Ireland, the Comanche Nation, Lithuania, Russia, and Poland. What a crew. And now, I am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.
While I am firmly rooted in my Protestant background, I do not, however, feel that conversion is the wrong choice for other people. You can still be proud of your heritage and adopt a new religion and culture. I have friends who have converted to Judaism. I think that they've made the right decision for their family. They are doing very well, and I am happy for them. They contribute positively to the Jewish community and are very involved in teaching their children about Judaism. I believe that their path was no easier than mine. While it works for them, it just wouldn't be right for me.
In short, I feel that I am the luckiest guy on earth. I have kept my religion, while also having had the opportunity to learn about another great religion and culture. I get to have my cake and eat it, too. I'm a Christian who is fortunate enough to help raise a Jewish family. In my eyes, it's the best of both worlds.