“Why Isn’t Daddy Jewish?”: Questions Children of Intermarriage Ask

By Andrea King


Ready or not, here they come–questions you’ve been waiting for, such as “Where do babies come from?” “Why do we have toenails?” And some you may not be prepared for, such as “Why isn’t Daddy Jewish?”

Children of intermarriage ask all the regular questions, along with others that reflect their special concerns. Every interfaith couple will have to find its own “right” answers, but you’ll want to think about, discuss and have answers ready for the questions that are most likely to come up.

If you have decided to raise your child with one religious identity, his questions will focus on why and how he is different from other people–family, friends, and even strangers: “I’m Jewish and you’re Jewish, why isn’t Daddy Jewish?” “We are a Jewish family; so why are Grandpa Joe and Grandma Eva Christian?” “Do you think the ice cream man is Jewish?”

These questions are part of a young child’s efforts to make sense of the world; don’t interpret them as budding bias or prejudice. Answer them as simply as you can. Something like, “Grandpa Joe is Christian because he grew up in a Christian family” will often suffice.

A child may have questions about her relationships with people of different religions: “Leslie is Jewish like me, and Tina is Christian. So how come Tina is my friend and Leslie isn’t?” “Can I invite Jessie to my birthday party even though he’s Christian?”

With these questions, your child is asking for your reassurance that it is okay to have friends of different religions.

At some point, usually between the ages of four and seven, children start asking specific questions about religious practices and beliefs. You may hear questions like these: “Richard says that Jews don’t go to Heaven. Is that true?” “Why do (or don’t) we have a Christmas tree?” “Why do I have go to church/synagogue?” “Do I/you/we believe in Jesus?”

By asking these questions, your child is collecting new information and integrating what other people believe.

Around fifth or sixth grade, you can expect your child to begin to challenge everyone and everything, including religion. Your child may ask: “If you chose this religion for me, why didn’t you choose it for yourself?” Or conversely, “If your religion is good enough for you, why didn’t you choose it for me?” “Why didn’t you make me half-and-half?” “I’m really both religions, since you and Dad are different religions. Why can’t we celebrate all the holidays?” “Do I have to be this religion forever? What if I want to change?”

Challenging your beliefs and practices is your child’s way of finding out what is really important to you. It’s his way of asking, “How much do you value my religious identity?” Interfaith couples should discuss in advance how to answer these questions. You might say something like: “We chose this religion for you because we both agreed that it will give you good ideas about how to live your life.” “I’m Christian because when I was a kid my mom and dad raised me as a Christian.” “Mom and I believe that it would be too hard for one person to be two religions, so we talked about it and chose one for you.” “Most people stay the same religion all their life, but everyone can choose what religion to be when they grow up.”

The older child’s questions about religious belief get stickier: “Will you and Mom go to the same place when you die?” “Do Christians and Jews have the same God?” “Why do they usually show only Christian things on TV?”

As always, direct, honest answers are best. And sometimes “I don’t know” is the best answer.

If you decided to raise your child to be “bi-religious,” you are likely to face a somewhat more complex set of questions: “If Jesus is the Messiah, how can I be Jewish? But if he’s not, how can I be Christian?” “If I’m half-Christian, does that mean I half-believe in Jesus?” “How can I be Jewish and celebrate Christmas?”

The decision to raise a child with “the best of both religions” is usually based on the parents’ need to continue certain celebrations, and ignores the child’s need for a clear religious identity. Few young children are able to understand the ambiguity inherent in a bi-religious upbringing, no matter how inclusive and democratic it may seem. Advice for parents: talk early, talk often, and agree on your answers in advance.


About Andrea King

Andrea King is the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage of 20-five years. She and her husband, Ben Cardozo, live in Santa Monica with their seventeen-year-old son Nathan. The family belongs to Beth Shir Sholom, a Reform synagogue, where Nathan became bar mitzvah, Ben has served on the Board, and Andrea heads the outreach program. Ms. King also serves on the UAHC Regional Outreach committee and is the author of If I'm Jewish and You're Christian, What are the Kids? (UAHC Press, 1993). She holds a master's degree in education, and supervises the preschools for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.