Do as I Say, Not as I Do

By Debbie Burton

April 23, 2009


pepperoni pizza

I’ve been thinking back to my teenage years a lot lately. I did so as I wrote my religious autobiography, reviewing my history with Judaism while working on conversion. I’ve also reconnected through Facebook with some friends from high school and college. And then there’s my daughter, Rachel, who at almost 15 is very much a teenager.

It was shocking for me to realize recently that my daughter is only about three short years from being the age that my husband and I were when we met at the beginning of our freshman year of college. We didn’t get married until more than six years later but were only 18 when we stopped dating anyone else.

Rachel hasn’t dated yet. When I raised the topic of dating, and the subtopic of interfaith dating, Rachel reacted in a typical teenage fashion: she rolled her eyes and said “Yes, Mom, I know, you want me to marry a nice Jewish boy!”

“I don’t think she would be comfortable with a spouse who isn’t Jewish eating a pepperoni pizza (which isn’t kosher for several reasons) in her house and feeding it to their children.”

I have to admit she’s right: I do hope she marries a Jew. Not only because I hope that someday I’ll have Jewish grandchildren, but because I think that she’ll be more likely to have the kind of home life that will make her happy if her spouse (male or female) is Jewish.

The ironic thing is that I’m not Jewish myself…yet. (The rabbi I’ve been studying with studying with for conversion is starting to arrange the scheduling of my visit to the mikveh.) But the fact is that in 21 years of marriage, I’ve never considered our family to be “interfaith.” Rather it has always been a Jewish family, even though it has a member who isn’t Jewish—me—who nevertheless lives a Jewish life.

I keep kosher and attend synagogue services regularly, including holidays that fall on weekdays when I have to miss work. Having attended services for more than 24 years, I know the Hebrew prayers of the Shabbat morning service and holidays reasonably well. As a woman, the fact that I don’t wear a tallit is not unusual, and I don’t wear a button saying “I’m not Jewish.” So from time to time I have had to turn down offers for taking an aliyah from members who didn’t know I wasn’t Jewish. But still, I’m not Jewish, and my children have always known that.

I find it a bit frustrating when people assume that my husband and I married, even though he was Jewish and I was not, because we didn’t care about Judaism. But everyone makes compromises in life. We chose to marry each other despite seeing the situation as less than ideal. Many years ago, I surprised a Jewish friend of ours who was seriously looking for a woman to marry and was dating a woman wasn’t Jewish. When he asked me for advice on his relationship, I had to tell him I really didn’t advocate interfaith marriage and that I thought he would be happier marrying a Jewish woman. I was happy when this friend married a wonderful Jewish woman he met through JDate.

It has been a relief and an inspiration to me that my daughter has always had a very firm Jewish identity. As someone who is visibly half-Chinese and therefore does not “look Jewish,” she has to endure questions about her Jewish status. She says she simply tells people who ask probing questions that she took a dunk in a mikveh when she was young. She is direct and unapologetic about it, and says people usually back off as soon as they hear she was formally converted to Judaism.

But these days, as she has become old enough to start dating, I worry she may have an unrealistic idea of what a more typical interfaith family would mean. I don’t think it occurs to her that not all people who aren’t Jewish who are married to Jews would want to have a completely Jewish family life like ours. I’m pretty sure she would want to raise her children solely as Jews, which could be a source of disagreement with a spouse who isn’t Jewish. When she was younger, she chose to observe kashrut more stringently outside our home than the rest of the family did at that time. Thus I don’t think she would be comfortable with a spouse who isn’t Jewish eating a pepperoni pizza in her house and feeding it to their children. (Although I admit this could also be an issue for a non-observant Jewish spouse.) This fall, it bothered her that, as a someone who wasn’t Jewish, I could not have an aliyah like all the other minyan members at the Simchat Torah service. I wonder how she would feel if Yom Kippur were just another work day for her spouse.

I would never tell her she could not date boys who aren’t Jewish. In fact, I hope I am able to restrain myself from expressing disapproval should she choose to do that because I think it would only encourage her to do it in rebellion. And dating, particularly for teenagers, is not necessarily a precursor to marriage. But sometimes it is, as it was for me. Since it is difficult to soberly assess something like the issues of intermarriage when one is hopelessly “in love,”  it is worth thinking about the issue before getting to know someone. So we’ll see what happens. Maybe when it is less hypothetical, she’ll want to talk it. I hope I’ll be open to her opinions and that she’ll be open to mine when that time comes. 


About Debbie Burton

Debbie Burton was concurrently active in three Conservative synagogues before her conversion made her eligible for "official" membership: the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan (a lay-led congregation in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago), the Skokie Egalitarian Minyan (the lay-led "library minyan" of Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, which is within walking distance of her home) and Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah (the synagogue where her children attended Hebrew school).