Are We Still an Interfaith Family?

By Esther Shchory


Being interfaith in Israel has a strange dissonance. Most of the time the fact that I have Christian relatives seems irrelevant to my life. We go to synagogue most Fridays and our year is played out to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. Then we approach the 24th of December and my mother asks when my children will be free to come and decorate the tree. I smile and flick through my diary but inside lurks the question why? Just like me she keeps kosher, eats matzah on Passover and tries to fast on Yom Kippur. Our religion is celebrated in a synagogue, not a church. We have finally realized the destiny that I always thought she wanted for our family. So why does she still feel connected to the English-Christian calendar and yearn to decorate a tree at Christmas?

I grew up having parents who lived in different countries. My father, a Sephardic (non-European) Jew, lived in Israel. My mother, who was hesitant about marriage or living in Israel, lived in England. I grew up in England with my grandmother, who regularly attended the Church of England, and my mother, who had little patience for Christianity and rejected organized religion.

Despite this, my mother insisted that I be raised in the religion of my father, even though she had very little idea of the day-to-day business of being Jewish. My Jewish education consisted of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Israeli folks songs, the Old Testament, and the Holocaust.

Of course I wasn’t totally isolated from my grandmother’s religion. My local school had started its career as part of the Church of England, which ensured that morning assembly was heavy on the hymns, grace was said before meals and Christmas was celebrated with a carol concert at the parish church. We even had an occasional visit by the vicar.

In later years many of my Jewish educators have looked aghast at such a scenario, but my teachers were aware I was Jewish, were very respectful of this fact and even helped me to identify the elements of our studies most relevant to Judaism. And though they offered to let me opt out of certain activities, they made no comment when I decided that my Jewish identity was strong enough not to be adversely affected by attending them.

By the time I was ten I had convinced my mother that I must meet my father for the first time. When we visited him in Israel I discovered that I had more than forty first cousins–Jewish cousins. We shared in Shabbat (Sabbath) celebrations and made family visits to the synagogue. I reveled in the Jewish experience and the vitality of being Israeli–and, of course, finally getting to know my father.

Before my mother and I returned to England my parents had decided to get married and my father came to live with us. Although my father was a secular kibbtuznik he came from an Orthodox family and with his guidance our daily life and yearly calendar became more Jewish. We still celebrated the Christian holidays for my Christian grandmother who lived with us, but we also started to celebrate Jewish holidays and visited synagogue where I was shaken to discover that most other Jews did not consider me Jewish. I was aching to dive into my Jewish heritage, but the synagogue board regarded us with a certain detachment and declared that my father and I could join, but my mother could not. To make matters worse, the synagogue provided no outreach or adult education programs, so as I was enjoying Sunday school with other congregants’ children my mother was struggling to learn Hebrew in a university class with two nuns and a priest. Suddenly, the mother who had always tried to nurture my Jewish soul was avoiding the synagogue and finding our Jewish experiences painful.

At secular secondary (high) school my Jewish identity also suffered a few knocks and bruises. Although my non-Jewish friends begged to visit on Friday to join our celebrations and partake of my father’s homemade challah (Shabbat bread), my classmates from Jewish studies weren’t so enthusiastic. They felt I was too voluble about Israel, too willing to tell everyone I was Jewish, basically too proud of being an Israeli Jew!

For a while these reactions caused me great self-doubt. At the age of seventeen I sat at a memorial service surveying my surroundings and decided that Christianity was quite pleasant–the lovely stained-glass windows, the beautiful songs, the calm atmosphere. I began to wonder if being Jewish was really worth it. Wouldn’t it just be easier to let go and be Christian like everyone else? As we came to “For Jesus Christ’s sake” at the end of the prayer I understood that though the two religions had a lot in common, I couldn’t join in. I also realized that most people I met would not be as supportive of my Jewish identity as my first teachers. Being half-Israeli complicated the situation even further.

Whether as an escape or to look for an answer I decided to visit Israel for three months. After ten months I returned home to announce I had volunteered to do military service and was making ‘aliyah’ (immigrating to Israel). I had discovered a home where living at a Jewish pace of life is not a constant struggle against the stream and even people who don’t consider me Jewish find it quite unremarkable that I have a Jewish way of life–celebrating the holidays, going to synagogue of Friday, not mixing milk or meat. Despite the fact that at times life in Israel can be the cause of hair-ripping frustration, I felt more free to be myself and less of an alien there.

My parents were a little shocked at my decision, but when I found myself a husband on an army base they gave in to the inevitable and moved to Israel to be closer to any future grandchildren.

Once settled in Israel I still desired to officially become a Jew but felt unable to reconcile certain questions of equality and pluralism with an Orthodox conversion. I found my place in the Reform movement where I was accepted as a Jew under patrilineal descent after a course of study to affirm my Jewish identity.

And now my mother wants a Christmas tree and presents. I thought I had finished with being different, with celebrations that most people don’t understand. In my house there are no Christmas decorations, except for the many cards sent by our Christian friends. I only want to be concerned with Hanukkah traditions, such as spinning tops and eating doughnuts, like my neighbors.

I take a deep breath and examine the situation rationally. I am Jewish, but I also believe in pluralism, which means I can accept my mother’s desire for a secular Christmas without compromising my own beliefs. I can accept that even in Israel she still wants us to be an interfaith family.

About Esther Shchory

Esther Shchory Esther Shchory grew up in England as a Jew in an interfaith family. She nows lives a Jewish life with her husband and children in Israel while being in almost daily contact with her parents.