Sam Osherson: A “Good-Enough” Jew

By Ronnie Friedland


It was when his daughter asked him which part of her was Jewish and which part was Christian that Sam Osherson knew he had to choose.

Until then, Osherson and his wife Julie had practiced a little bit of both their Jewish and Christian religious traditions and had avoided giving their children one religious identity. They celebrated, and still do, Christmas–tree and all, Easter–with an egg hunt, Hanukkah, Passover, and the High Holy Days.

But after that question, Osherson and his wife joined a synagogue, where their two children learned about Judaism and went on to have bar and bat mitzvahs (ceremonies in which a person assumes the obligations and privileges of an adult Jew).

And Osherson himself began a long self-examination and spiritual quest, which ultimately led him to write a wonderfully illuminating book, Rekindling the Flame, about that search and the searches of a hundred others he interviewed over a five-year period.

As a result of his research and self-examination, Osherson came to an important conclusion–one that should influence the ongoing debates about how to assure Jewish continuity: “It is “the warm ties to family that connect us with our faith. The best thing that we can do to make sure our children will feel an allegiance to our religion is to have warm and loving ties to them.”

Severing ties, expressing strong disapproval, is what pushes our children away from our religion. And that, he believes, is where the Jewish community has done itself some harm. The strong disapproval that so many intermarried couples feel from the Jewish community–as when the Jewish partner’s rabbi refuses to marry them–alienates that family from Judaism, whereas a welcoming response might have strengthened the Jewish person’s religious affiliation.

If Osherson were to counsel the parents of a couple of mixed faith backgrounds, he would tell them to remind their adult child that they love her, and then to ask her how she thinks things will work out in the future, how she plans to handle issues that will arise, such as holidays, children, relationships with family.

And if he were to counsel these couples, he would advise them to maintain their bonds to their parents–not to let any initial upset on the part of their parents to permanently estrange them.

Osherson believes that when a person has an interfaith marriage, that person has to weigh his ties with his parents against his wish to find something new and meaningful for himself. This same issue, he observed in his psychotherapy practice, reemerges when a child is born.

“We want to ‘hold on to’ and ‘let go of’ tradition, to both accept what our parents have given us and to discover our own meanings,” he says. The tension between these twin tugs leads to our spiritual quests.

Osherson is skeptical of the Jewish community’s propensity to “count” how many Jews are affiliated with Jewish institutions: “It’s clear to me that many of the uncounted and the discontented are far from ‘disconnected’ from Judaism. Some of the most lively, juicy conversations I’ve had about Judaism have been with interfaith couples, many of whom are actively engaged with Judaism–in large part because they’ve chosen it, rather than simply dutifully following age-old family patterns.”

While some are threatened when a Jew, interfaith married or not, explores another religion, Osherson disagrees. We each, he said, “have to work out our own sense of a religious identity and what we believe in. Exploring other religions is often our way back to our own.”

Making people feel guilty or ashamed of their interest or curiosity about other religions will just push them away from Judaism, he says. We should, instead, “invite them back.”

Jews interviewed by Osherson often expressed feelings of inadequacy over not knowing enough Hebrew or fully remembering a prayer, or guilt over not believing in or questioning the existence of God. These feelings, he found, keep many Jews away from the synagogue.

“Many of us,” Osherson says, “feel that we are not good enough Jews because ‘two Jewish preoccupations’ inhibit our search: equating being a good Jew with how much ritual and history you know and with being a loyal member of the Jewish community.” It would be much more helpful, he adds, to recognize that “anyone who considers him or herself Jewish, and who is struggling with issues of faith, observance, or affiliation, is a ‘good-enough Jew.'”

Although the Holocaust took place over 50 years ago, Osherson talks about ways in which all Jews, and our Jewish identity, have been damaged by the Holocaust. “We may resist being Jewish because of the weight of unintegrated feelings of loss, anger, and shame about the Holocaust. We resist the sorrow, the danger of being openly Jewish.”

He also explores the way Jewish men may resist identifying with males who failed to protect their people from being decimated. And, he says, the “shame” of being different from the dominant culture may cause some Jews to resist being Jewish.

Osherson found that Judaism is a family and life experience, as well as a religious tradition. And that Jewish identity is not settled once and for all at some point in our lives, but is an ongoing issue that changes as we change.

“The idea of the good-enough Jew,” comprising our identifications with parents, relationships with significant people in our lives, and the way “our spiritual impulse is nurtured,” says Osherson, would be a helpful ingredient to toss into the contemporary Jewish stew.



About Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.