An Intercultural Celebration

By Karin Mahony


Ours is a new millennium family. My children’s only Jewish first cousins are on the Irish Catholic side of the family. My sister and I both married Jewish men and converted. Joking with his golfing buddies one day, one of whom is Jewish, my dad coined himself an “Irish Jew.” With two Jewish daughters, two Jewish sons-in-law, and five Jewish grandchildren, he figures he’s “grandfathered” into the tribe of Israel.

Since I converted, the Jewish world no longer considers mine an interfaith family. However, I still need a name to describe our situation. Family has always been more than husband, wife, two kids, and the family dog, and I am still the living bridge between my Jewish and families who are not Jewish at weddings, funerals, holidays and life-cycle events. Perhaps intercultural family is the best term. It’s descriptive and inclusive. Raising Jewish children within the context of an extended interfaith family is more than just raising them Jewish. It’s raising them Jewish while maintaining their connections to their entire heritage and all their relatives. How else will they understand and embrace who they are and have the support of important family mentors to become the best they can be? The best Jews they can be?

Neither my son, Connor, nor his sister, Sarah, distinguishes between their Jewish relatives and relatives who are not Jewish. Ours is a complicated family. My husband’s parents divorced when he was three. Both of his parents remarried and had more children, six siblings total. It’s hard enough for Connor and Sarah to keep straight who is attached to which branch of the family—that’s three sets of grandparents plus a great-grandmother still living—never mind who’s Jewish. Remember the Jewish cousins on the Irish Catholic side of the family? They keep kosher. My kids’ Jewish grandparents don’t belong to a synagogue, and none of their paternal aunts or uncles is a practicing Jew.

Religion has been a dividing force for too many generations and in too many families. I’ve searched for ways that religion can be a force that ties an intercultural family together. A bar mitzvah is a powerful coming-of-age ceremony and a powerful family ritual.

My son Connor is my parents’ oldest grandchild, and their only grandson. In planning his bar mitzvah (July 6, 2002) it was important to me that my parents be included in the ceremony. Maybe I felt guilty for creating a situation, marrying outside the family faith, that was inconceivable to them while raising a family in the sixties and seventies. In choosing Judaism I rejected some of my heritage, some of them. But I also bristle against my take on the Jewish perspective, which ignores those who are not Jewish in interfaith or intercultural families. Most importantly, I knew that Connor loved and valued all of his grandparents. My husband and I have taught our children that Judaism judges people not by what they are, but by who they are, and by what they do. We needed a ceremony that “walked the talk.”

My parents stood on the bimah (podium) along with my sister, while she and her husband recited the aliyah (blessing over the Torah). They remained on the bimah while my brother-in-law read from Torah. That was a real highlight of the ceremony for my father. He’d never seen a Torah, had never viewed up close an item imbued with such history and sacred ritual. When Connor later read from Torah my parents could appreciate more fully his accomplishments. They felt honored to be involved and they felt a part of his religious world. It deepened their bond to him. Participating in Connor’s bar mitzvah service, and attending mine four years prior, gave them an understanding of and respect for the choice I had made. That deepened our relationship.

We also included other relatives who were not Jewish. Paternal aunts and uncles stood on the bimah as their Jewish spouses recited other aliyot. They were all hesitant, self-deprecating when first approached, “But I’m not Jewish.” I only responded, “But, you’re family, and you are important to Connor.”

Our guests later told my husband and me that we were having too much fun during the service. We smiled, we sang, we laughed. We didn’t want the service to end. Our whole family: birth, step, Jewish, not Jewish, and Hispanic family members were joined together in a common purpose—a spiritual act. By including all of his family in the service, we acknowledged Connor for who he is and from where he came. And, we committed, as a family, to act as mentors and guides as he continues his path. Hopefully, his Jewish path.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Of course, Sarah’s bat mitzvah is fast approaching in the summer of 2005 . . .


About Karin Mahony

Karin Mahony is a freelance writer and editor of two community parenting magazines. She lives outside Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, two children, and her dog.