I’m not yelling at Jewish people. Not really. But I have been thinking a lot, lately, about all of the articles and columns and discussions that have been going on all over the place on the internet. I’ve waded in on a few of them, and I know that I need to hold back. Stop.
There was a book released recently called Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller. I’d have read it anyway, because I tend to like reading books about interfaith families, but I was especially eager to read this one. There really aren’t any other books out there that are as openly supportive and encouraging of raising children in more than one tradition.
It’s sort of accepted lore by EVERYONE that you must choose one religion to raise your children. Kids will be confused, it’s a watering down of both traditions and in the end, by not choosing one tradition, you’re, in essence, choosing no tradition that your child will be fully comfortable in. Don’t do both – do just one. If you’re Jewish – BE Jewish. Do it all the way. And if you are going to do it halfway, at least acknowledge that you are going to have hopefully confused and bewildered kids, with no real spiritual grounding or traditions to fall back on.
At least, that’s the message I’ve always gotten. And I’ve been doing this for a while now, we’re coming up on our twelve year anniversary. And what I’ve found, for us, is that the message is wrong. I’m convinced that we, as a Jewish community, need to really think about the message we send when we claim that interfaith is wrong, and in light of the overwhelming number of kids with one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent – we need to be a whole lot more inclusive and accepting and supportive. Judaism has lasted for thousands of years, I don’t think that my marriage, and others like it, are going to do any damage. We might even be part of a Jewish revival.
First, I have to acknowledge that we’re not technically interfaith. I’m Jewish, and Jessie and Sam went to the mikvah along with me. Julianna was born after the conversion, so her Judaism is assured as well. Jessie knew she was Jewish from an early age, and it became clear that according to Jewish law, technically, she wasn’t. I didn’t want her to feel torn or like she wasn’t able to claim her Judaism, and took the steps to make sure that she was officially Jewish. Even though there are still a lot of Jewish rabbis who would still claim that her conversion isn’t valid because it wasn’t thru an Orthodox rabbi. But I did all I could to make sure that she and Sam would feel as at home and as comfortable in the religion and spiritual community we were raising them in.
Even before conversion – I was never a particularly observant Catholic. Spiritual, yes, but not particularly “religious.” So in many ways, we didn’t face the same kind of religious discussions that other interfaith families had. Jewish theology has always made sense to me, it was always a good fit for what I had sort of figured out on my own. So while I still feel very much like we’re an interfaith family – we’re not. We’re an “interculture” family. Because spiritually, we’re pretty much on the same page. Marc and I aren’t identical in our beliefs, but we’re close enough, closer probably than many couples where both members grew up Jewish. But culturally – we’re still very different.
I love Christmas, he doesn’t. I downplay it in our home, but still actively celebrate – and he celebrates it a lot more than he’d like to, I’m sure. It’s a cultural difference. Neither of our parents are delighted with it – mine worry that the kids are missing out, and his don’t really understand why I keep insisting on having a tree every year. Not every difference is as weighted – I like milk with dinner and butter on my bagels – and he doesn’t. I’ll never remember to get gefilte fish for Passover without being reminded, and I still think horse radish is gross. He prefers to have the prayers and blessings in Hebrew, I’d rather English, so we do both.
But we have three kids, five including my (Jewish) stepdaughters, and we’re raising them in a Jewish household. And I get mad, I know I need to stop, but I get hurt and mad and offended when I read that our parenting style is “wrong,” and that our kids are only half Jewish and thus not as “Jewish” as kids who weren’t afflicted with a non-Jewish parent. I get hurt and frustrated when I think about my kids reading some of this – debates over whether or not they’re actually Jewish, discussions over how their upbringing may be leading to the demise of the Jewish people as a whole, and why putting up a Christmas tree is so, so wrong.
Because my kids are Jewish. They know that they are part of an ancient tradition, repeating prayers and celebrating holidays that go back for thousands of years. But they’re also proud descendants of Irish, Scottish and English colonists, and have a branch of the family tree for the lone man who was put to death during the Salem Witch Trials. My family believes in fairies and Christmas trees, too much candy on Easter and that going to the ocean is a spiritual experience. That’s as much a part of them as matzoh on Passover and singing the shema. They shouldn’t feel as though to be one, they can’t have the other.