Turning Off the Autopilot

By Birger Stamperdahl

October 23, 2009

Birger and Leif Stamperdahl
Birger Stamperdahl and his son, Leif

One of the many things I love about my wife, Juliet, is her desire to live life with intention. What I mean by this is that she tries to be as present in her life as possible, and she rarely goes into what I call “autopilot.” I’m happy to zone out, listen to music, watch movies and just let decisions happen. Being in an interfaith relationship has forced me to resist my autopilot tendencies and think about life decisions in a more conscious way.

From the very beginning, Juliet and I talked about what our interfaith marriage might look like. Juliet is Modern Orthodox: she keeps kosher and observes Shabbat. I grew up first-generation American with two Norwegian parents, neither of whom are particularly religious, although my mother did have me attend the Congregationalist church down the street from where I grew up in New Hampshire.

Juliet and I were living together in a housing collective near San Francisco before we started dating, and this gave me a first-hand look at what it might be like to keep a kosher, observant home. My first thoughts as we started dating went something like this: “How is this going to affect my weekend free time?” and “How does anyone observant with a full-time job find time to do home-improvement projects?” While I was wondering these things, Juliet was wondering, “What will a marriage between a secular Norwegian and an observant Jew look like?” and telling herself, “If we can just get the wedding to look both Jewish and Norwegian, we can use that as a model for the whole marriage.”

From the engagement to the wedding, and now as parents, we’ve been making purposeful decisions to respect both our cultures. Our wedding’s save-the-date card featured me dressed as a student of Judaism and Juliet as a Viking, and the card included the tagline, “We’re still working out the details.” Our wedding invitation featured a viking ship with a Star of David on the main sail, and our ketubah-like document was written in English, Hebrew and Norwegian.

But really, the rubber hit the road when our son was born just a year after our wedding. Even before getting married, we had agreed any children would be raised Jewish. I knew that meant our children would observe Shabbat the way Juliet does, with no turning on appliances or riding in a car. Our children would learn Hebrew, Torah and the history and laws of the Jewish people. And I knew at the outset that any male child we might have we would circumcise.

Before deciding to be engaged, Juliet and I had some very intentional conversations about circumcision. For Juliet, it was almost non-negotiable, a ceremony that marked the beginning of a boy’s journey into Judaism. Not having much information on its meaning in the Jewish faith, my initial comments on the subject went something like this:

“It’s an unnecessary surgical procedure being performed on a newborn. Why inflict pain on a child just getting used to being out of the womb? It seems cruel.”

Our positions were at odds, and I think that if any issue was a sticking point for us as we discussed marriage, this was it. We talked about it for several months. What it came down to in the end was this: My position was grounded in doubt, and hers was grounded in belief. Belief won out, partly because it had thousands of years of history backing it up, and my doubt was just a few months old. In the end, it mattered more to her than it did to me.

And with any luck, we’d have girls.

Four months into Juliet’s pregnancy, we told the technician doing our ultrasound that we didn’t want to know the gender of the baby. She proceeded to tell us: “There’s his left hand. There’s his right hand. There’s his spine. Oh, and I’m just using ‘his’ as a placeholder. It doesn’t mean it’s a boy.” After the ultrasound, I was fairly certain that we were having a boy.

During the pregnancy, I talked to my mother about circumcision should we have a boy. She told me in no uncertain terms: “You committed to raising your children Jewish, and this is part of it. Based on what I understand, you have to do it.” I hadn’t actually asked her whether we should do it–I was simply voicing some of my continuing misgivings. For me, it wasn’t an issue of whether to circumcise–we had settled that question even before getting engaged. It was an issue of emotionally coming to terms with the practice. It was difficult, and I felt I needed to have some say in how the ceremony would be handled.

I asked Juliet to make several concessions related to the circumcision. The main one was this: I wanted the circumcision to be as low-key and with as few people in attendance as possible. For me, this was about keeping the ceremony as honest as possible. I want our son to be raised Jewish; I am committed to this, and circumcision is part of that for our family. But on an emotional level, I was not going to be comfortable with a ceremony that involved celebrating in front of the entire shul community. We decided on a simple minyan in our home.

The bris was one of the most memorable and enjoyable ceremonies in my short time in an interfaith Jewish relationship. We named our son Leif Mendel, Hebrew name Mendel Lev. This name was chosen to honor Juliet’s grandmother, Minda Leah, and also my grandfather, Leif. I spoke during the ceremony about how important my grandfather Leif had been to me, and the characteristics he held that I admired and valued. In that way, I was able to bring my own family very much into the ceremony, talk about Norway and help connect the other people in attendance with that part of Leif’s background.

This intentional combining of both our backgrounds has been important in defining our family, from the engagement to how we raise our child. I hope this will be a successful model for all of those other challenges I have yet to discover as a non-Jewish father of a Modern Orthodox son. I think Leif will ultimately benefit from the conscious effort we put into our family’s interfaith identity.

Editor’s Note: You can read about the Stamperdahl’s wedding in Juliet Stamperdahl’s article, Uncompromising Compromises.


About Birger Stamperdahl

Birger Stamperdahl is the full-time father of a wonderful two-year-old boy and and the full-time non-Jewish partner of a wonderful Modern Orthodox woman. In his spare time, he holds down a full-time job as the Marketing Director for Give2Asia, a nonprofit helping US donors support local charitable groups based in Asia. Although originally from New Hampshire, he has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1993.