From Distance to Closeness: An Interfaith Family’s Journey

By Diana Zankowsky


An Inauspicious Beginning
When we were ready to get married, Fred, my future husband (who was and is not Jewish) and I went to talk to my rabbi from my childhood synagogue. We explained how much in love we were, and how we wanted a Jewish wedding, and asked him to marry us. This was back in the mid-70s, however, and not many rabbis would perform an interfaith wedding. My rabbi refused to officiate. So, we had a secular wedding and were married by the mayor of my hometown.

Not an auspicious beginning for a Jewish household, huh?

And, in fact, our household was actively a-religious for the next eight years. We didn’t live near either of our families, so family holiday celebrations didn’t happen that much. No menorah, no Christmas tree, no December dilemma. And we were just enough put off by the events around our wedding that we didn’t seek out a synagogue in any of the towns in which we lived.

Until our first child was born…

The influence of children
We were not prepared for a son. Not because I hadn’t known I was pregnant; on the contrary, I was more than ready for this baby to be born, since he was late and large. But Fred and I hadn’t really discussed the Jewish implications of a baby boy. While I hadn’t thought very much about how to make a bris (ritual circumcision) happen, there was no question in my mind that my son must have one. However, Fred didn’t know what a bris was! Since we didn’t belong to a synagogue, arranging for one in suburban California was not easy. I found a mohel (ritual circumciser) who got lost on the way to our home and circumcised our son on the lap of a friend in one of the dining room chairs. Of the two-dozen people in the room, only five people were Jewish, the baby, his mother, the mohel, and one other couple. The Jewish grandparents couldn’t make it; they were 9000 miles away in France. Our non-Jewish friends were amazed and astounded by the ceremony and had some difficulty regaining their appetites!

Five years later, as our son was ready for school, we had our second child, a daughter. With two children, we had the motivation to find a synagogue. We joined the Reform synagogue in our town so that our son could start religious education and our daughter could be named.

Selecting names for children is always interesting; in an interfaith family, naming a child can become quite a challenge. The initial discussion was over naming after the living versus naming the dead, since Fred had been named for his grandfather, who had then been alive. We had such difficulty with our son’s name that the hospital had to insist that we couldn’t take him home without a name.

We balanced the conflicting demands by selecting a first name for my son from my side and the middle name from my husband’s family. Then we did the reverse with our daughter. All of their names are after the great-grandparents. My son’s name, David Dominic, draws from both religions. David means beloved and links to King David, while Dominic is Latin for Our Lord. My daughter’s name, Anastasia Rose, links the oppressive rule of the Czars in Russia to a classic Jewish-American girl’s name. Neither child should forgive us for the burden. But we ultimately pleased each other.

The Evolution to Now
From our inauspicious beginnings, we’ve continued to increase our Jewish involvement both at home and in the community. At home, we celebrate Shabbat regularly and the holidays, too. We belong to the Reform synagogue in our town and regularly attend services together. Ours is a small synagogue, with less than 70 member families and a high percentage of interfaith families. It is a do-it-yourself synagogue, led by a student rabbi and lay leaders. Both our children have attended Hebrew and religious school and have become b’nai mitzvahs. We’ve each become increasingly involved. I’m on the board; I facilitate an adult education book discussion club, and occasionally lead services. Fred is well known in the community and helps at many events, including the Purim carnival and the Labor Day barbeque that starts our year.

I must credit the welcoming and open environment in our synagogue as the strongest reason for our continued Jewish involvement. We are tightly connected to our community; we care about each other and care for each other as well. And the welcoming feeling comes from everyone, not just those in similar circumstances. I feel so fortunate that we can be Jewish while being ourselves, with only our own limits on our abilities to grow.


About Diana Zankowsky

Diana Zankowsky (nee Jacobson) was raised in New Jersey, went to college in Massachusetts and California, and now lives in the Bay Area of northern California. She is married (31 years) with two grown children, runs her own consulting business and is on the board of her synagogue.