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Mar 21

Interfaith and why it matters to me

According to most definitions, I’m not in an interfaith marriage.  I’ve converted to Judaism, and it’s the only religion practiced in our home.  We are a religious family, as well as spiritual (and I think there is a difference).   We come from different backgrounds, my husband and I.  On almost every level, we’re total opposites, in terms of history.  His parents have been married for fifty years, I grew up in a single parent family with an absentee dad.  He grew up as an enthusiastic, practicing Jew.  I grew up as a nominal Catholic, and have always felt much more drawn to wiccan traditions than anything else.

He has a visceral, bone-deep aversion to the celebration of Christmas, and I am completely committed to the celebration of it.  For me, it’s a line in the sand – and being able to share that with my kids makes it easier to raise them in a tradition so different from that of my own childhood.  I have so many memories and traditions, on a completely secular level, built up over years of celebrating it.  First as a child, then as an adult.  I have a whole history, more than thirty years of not being Jewish, and I can’t leave that behind.  I am Jewish – but Judaism is the culmination of a journey for me, the next step on my path.  It’s a part of me, as much as singing Deck the Halls and decorating Easter Eggs is.

My point is that while we’re not interfaith – we are interculture.  Our backgrounds and personal history are completely different, and our children are the product of our union.  Our union – which takes two.  My history is as much a part of their story as that of my husband, and our choice to raise them within the Jewish tradition doesn’t change that.  I was incredibly ignorant of Judaism when I met my husband.  I knew almost nothing about it, and from the  beginning, I worried about how a child, born of two such different parents, would be able to feel at home in both cultures.

So I studied.  I researched, and I thought and I debated and discussed.  I believed that they were Jewish, because their dad was.  I also believed that they were not Jewish, because I wasn’t.  The more I read, the more I learned, the more I discussed and debated, the more I wanted to change that.  I didn’t want them, and me, to be half and half.  Half Jewish, half not.  They were Jewish, and in the end, so was I.  Judaism made so much sense to me, and there was no internal, spiritual conflict about following the Jewish laws and making it official.  Especially because I could see that without a formal conversion, they wouldn’t be considered Jewish by the Orthodox or Conservative traditions.  And I couldn’t even imagine formally declaring that my children were something that I wasn’t.  If they were Jewish, so was I.  Because we are one family.

I’m not ashamed of my past.  I don’t want to hide it, or walk away from it.  I know that my children are as much mine as my husbands.  And while I feel so, so strongly that they should clearly identify as Jewish, because their dad is Jewish, because I believe, profoundly, in the Jewish traditions and history and culture, and want to pass that along to them – I don’t, not for a minute, think that it means that they shouldn’t also feel a part of my history and traditions as well.

This makes me a minority.  A minority, within a minority that, at times, resents the majority.  A majority that includes most of family.  It’s an odd position to be in, and I don’t always handle it well.  I want to assert my right to be Jewish.  I want my kids to feel proud of their parents’ marriage, and not to hear that it’s wrong.  The concerns and fears around interfaith marriage are hard and it is scary.  The prospect of having your children grow up and walk away from their history is terribly, terribly hard to contemplate.  I know, because I did it to my mother.

I think that we’re in a unique position, those of us who converted into Judaism.  Those of us who converted because we fell in love, and we learned about Judaism, and we want our children to have that.  Those of us who are trying to hard to feel a part of it, and those of us who are consistently told that we’re different and our marriages are wrong.   Those of us who can’t help feeling protective and defensive about our relationships, and worry about the message we’re sending to new interfaith families.

We know how hard it is, most of us have already had those hard conversations with our own parents.  We know how much it hurts, we know how much you wish that your own child had married someone who knew what gefilte fish is, and had her own recipe for challah.  We know how much our parents wished for similar things.   We also know that our children are Jewish, and are growing up with a greater awareness of the culture at large.  Will they feel less Jewish as adults?  We doubt it, because they know that Judaism is a choice.  Because, in the end, it is a choice.

Even if you are a product of completely Jewish heritage, where everyone was born Jewish, married someone who was also born Jewish – you are still making a choice.  You can choose to celebrate your Judaism or to walk away, or to do neither, just not care either way.  My children will probably grow up to be religious.  Both their dad and I are drawn to religion and spirituality, and they’ve grown up hearing the discussions and debates.  They’ve lived a childhood marked by the Jewish calendar, putting up sukkahs, shopping for Passover and dancing at Simchat Torah.  Do I care if they grow up to marry someone who’s Jewish?  I care that they love someone who honors and celebrates who they are – and they are Jewish.  I care that they aren’t asked to be something they aren’t – the way my husband has always respected and valued my traditions.  I care that they find someone they love and respect, and that they are loved and respected in return.

The discussion on how to talk about interfaith families, how to welcome and embrace families that have non-Jews, and Jews-by-choice is a vital one.  And it’s hard and scary and feelings are going to get hurt all around.  But it matters – because there are an awful lot of Jewish kids growing up today.  The way their parents are treated, their non-Jewish parents, their Jew-by-choice parents, and their non-Jewish grandparents – that’s what’s going to impact their desire to Jewish.  By making it clear that Judaism is the right choice, that everyone is welcome if they want to be there – that’s how we make sure that our kids grow up to be Jewish.


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