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A damn good question was sent into my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly!

Why am I not considered Jewish even though my mother converted to Reform Judaism? My father is Jewish by birth. I’m dating an Orthodox Jewish guy, and his mother has asked me what kind of conversion my mother went through, which is really dumb, because she’s a convert herself. Isn’t it enough that I’ve grown up with a Jewish identity my whole life? How dare people question what I believe? I’m Jewish through my father. Why isn’t that enough? If I were to marry the man I’m dating, his family would accept it only if I reconverted! Why?
— Really Annoyed!

My reply:

Dear Really Annoyed: There are several elements to your question, so let me begin with the halachic ones. For halachic Jews (those whose lives are informed by Jewish law), people are Jewish if they were born of a Jewish mother or if they converted. Therefore, you can’t gain Jewish identity through your born-Jewish father in a traditionally observant Jewish environment. This doesn’t mean that people can’t love you, have you over for dinner, enjoy your company etc., but it does mean that when they are determining whether a person is eligible to marry into their family, your father’s identity does not get you in.

Halachic Jews don’t see your mother’s conversion as authentic because the person who converted her was not authentically a rabbi according to their beliefs. That is, a Reform rabbi does not observe all the mitzvot, so is not really a rabbi and does not have the power to convert your mother.

You say, “How dare people question what I believe?” I’m betting that you question what they believe. Doubting the beliefs of others is a longstanding human practice. I doubt that you are going to be swayed to the views of your boyfriend’s family any more than they will be swayed to yours. I suggest that you don’t bother to go down that black hole, because it is highly unlikely there will be much mind-changing.

You mention that your boyfriend’s mother is herself a convert and had an Orthodox conversion. You feel that logically that would make her more willing to accept your mother’s conversion. But, in fact, that is all the more reason for her to not accept your mother’s conversion. She has taken on a way of life in her adult years that required a great deal of thought, faith and change. She surely did not do it lightly. I would bet that her conviction is strong and that she very much wants her children and her grandchildren to live within the framework of the life she chose.

Where to go from here? You need to talk to your boyfriend and see where he stands. Is he quietly letting his mother do the talking for him and is he not willing to marry you unless you have an Orthodox conversion? (This will not be a reconversion since you never converted. You were born a Jew, a Reform Jew.) If he feels as she does, he needs to stand up and be honest with you. If that is the case, then you should ask what being an Orthodox Jew means to him. Does he see his future married life as one with a kosher home, where the family is shomer Shabbos? Does he expect that you would modify your dress, hairstyle and activities, in order to maintain an Orthodox lifestyle?

If he does, then it’s your decision as to whether you want to live this way. You should certainly meet with an Orthodox rabbi to discuss what would be expected of you both for your conversion and your life as an Orthodox family. If you see beauty in a traditional lifestyle, then go ahead and convert. But you should do this for yourself, not for your boyfriend or his mother.

If on the other hand your boyfriend doesn’t really care about an Orthodox lifestyle and doesn’t intend to keep a kosher home or maintain the practice with which he was raised, then he needs to have a conversation with his mother. He should explain to her that just as she chose her own life direction when she chose to convert to Judaism in a traditional community, so he too is going to make his own choices. If he plans to marry you then he needs to tell her so. She may be angry with him but he is the person with whom she has a conflict, not you.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Conversion, Intercultural, Mixed & Matched
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I received this message from a reader of my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.

Your column is always suggesting convoluted ways that interfaith couples can deal with more traditional Jewish views. Why bother? Why don’t you just tell them to join a Reform synagogue and be done with the people who don’t agree with their life choices or see their kids as Jewish?
— Annoyed with Traditional Jews

And my answer —

Dear Annoyed: I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that you asked this question! I’ve been wanting to discuss this topic since I started writing the column.

I don’t know the religious makeup of your family, but my loved ones include Christians, Muslims, atheists and Jews of all stripes. Additionally, they are white, black, Hispanic and Asian; some Jewish, some not. What do they have in common? I love them. I don’t want to discard any of them. I may not agree with all their views or practices, but I choose to hold them close all the same.

The most challenging moment of inclusion I experienced was traveling to Texas to visit my nephew, who was serving in the Army. He wanted to take us all to a shooting range as an outing. He had dozens of guns and had prepared some for our use. Live ammunition was to be used. What should I do, I who was raised by a pacifist to abhor violence and guns? I sucked it up.

I looked at this situation through the eyes of my beloved nephew. For him, guns are a daily part of life and were essential to staying alive when he was deployed in Iraq. Shooting is a skill, and like hunting, fishing or golf, it can be a hobby. Granted, it is a hobby that I never anticipate adopting, but I made the effort to see it all through the eyes of someone I love. I am proud to say that I was able to do that.

I also came smack up against my boundaries. I realized right then and there that I never even considered being among people who own guns. I don’t want a gun owner to move in next door. I don’t want people to be allowed to carry guns in my community. That means I wouldn’t want my nephew as a neighbor — but the thing is, I would, guns and all.

So the dilemma is: Is the love we feel for our family members so strong that we can accept things about them that push our buttons?

Jews within the same family circle are going to practice their Judaism differently. Interfaith families with patrilineal Jewish children will have family members who accept only matrilineal descent. Therefore, an interfaith couple needs to figure out how to live among those they love despite significant differences. We all need to figure this out for ourselves, because whether we embrace traditional halachah or not, we will interact with Jews who do.

I see more and more adults in my work who grew up with a non-Jewish parent. It is vital that our entire Jewish community stop speaking for this next generation and instead listen. For decades, many have said of interfaith families with patrilineal children, “Let them be Reform,” essentially avoiding the work of creating caring relationships. It is time to ask young adults from interfaith homes to share their experiences with us: What are we doing well, and what needs to change? It is time for both individuals and institutions in the Jewish community to be open to patrilineal children and observant coreligionists alike, without judging or condemning their beliefs.

I am currently involved in a study of the experience of those raised in interfaith families. Their Jewish practice is across the spectrum. In the Bay Area, they have been met with kindness by rabbis in all movements, although they have not always felt empowered to share their feelings about their upbringing with other Jews.

This is a time and opportunity ripe for learning. As we approach the High Holy Days, I hope we can all commit ourselves to love our fellow Jews, patrilineal or matrilineal, observant or secular, as members of our family.

Posted by admin under A meaningful life, Community, Mixed & Matched
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Yes, being different is a fine thing to be

I received this question to my column, Mixed and Matched:

I’ve heard people say that Jews shouldn’t refer to people who aren’t Jewish as “non-Jews.” Is that really a pejorative term? What should one say? Many of my non-Jewish friends don’t have a religion at all. I’ve seen researchers refer to people who have no religion as “nones,” but that sounds ridiculous.
— Want to Be Appropriate

Dear Want to Be Appropriate: I’m so glad you asked this question! Most of the people who are disturbed by the term “non-Jew” are Jews who have decided to attribute a negative overtone to the word. Frankly, I think it’s a fine word. I work with couples in which the non-Jewish partner is Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, etc. Some are atheists and would be most upset to have anything having to do with religion attributed to them. What do all these people have in common? They aren’t Jewish! And that’s about it. Some are Chinese Buddhists, some are African American agnostics, some are French Catholics and so on. Their common ground is not being Jewish.

Does adding “non” make a descriptor instantly negative? I say no. I’m rather fond of many such terms; my favorite is nonviolent, though there are plenty more: nonsmoker, nonabrasive, nonpoisonous, nonfattening, nonaddictive. So I can’t accept that something that is “non” is necessarily bad. It may be quite good.

Why do some Jews get bent out of shape by the term? Sadly, many of those people are working out some of their own issues. They want to be seen as “nice, open, welcoming.” It is really about their own sense of self. Am I a good person? Do interfaith couples like me? Am I seen as one of the good guys?

A great way to be the good guy is to have a bad guy to attack. The attackers have written articles and given talks with righteous indignation condemning the use of the term. I’m always suspicious of righteous indignation. Very few people use it for the good of others. If a word is truly pejorative, like shiksa, one should certainly take the speaker aside and ask, “Do you know what that word means?” They should be enlightened, but there is no need to get righteous about it — unless you simply want to aggrandize yourself and humiliate that person.

I note also that people who aren’t Jewish do not react to the word unless they are told to. Giving people a reason to feel that others are disparaging them is a terrible thing to do.

I had a Catholic woman call me and say, “Interfaith! I’m in an interfaith marriage! I finally found out what to call it so I look for resources.” The number of non-Jews married to Jews in America is a tiny portion of the population. Jews make up about 2 percent of American society. Even if half of them are married to non-Jews, that means only 1 percent of Americans make up this “non-Jewish” part of the Jewish community. It’s easy to see why the caller was having trouble finding resources.

I do agree that the most appropriate way to refer to someone is by who they are. So if you know someone is a Methodist, it is proper to call them that. If a person is an atheist or agnostic, you can use those terms. This doesn’t mean that any of us needs to ask the religion of everyone we meet in synagogue. If it comes up, fine, but no layperson has a need-to-know situation over the oneg.

Identifying the role of non-Jews in Jewish environments is very important and I urge every Jewish group or synagogue to be transparent about their policies. In any religious environment, it may be that there are activities performed only by the members of that religious community. It is so much more welcoming for a non-Jewish person to know right from the website just what they are permitted to do. Imagine walking into a Muslim religious service and wondering, “Is it appropriate for me to do what everyone is doing? Or is that insulting?”

The most important thing we all can do is simply use good manners.

Posted by admin under In their own words, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Synagogues
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One of the challenges for people who have grown up in an interfaith family that has created its own little universe is that there’s not necessarily a community that one can join that reflects your choices. Here’s one woman’s difficulty.

My mother was raised Jewish and converted to Christianity when she married my Christian father. They raised us kids Christian, and my mom celebrated all the Jewish holidays in our home. I would like to marry a guy who also has fond memories of Jewish holidays so I went to a Jewish singles event. But as soon as I mentioned that I wanted to raise my future children as Christians they basically stopped talking to me. Why is no one interested in my kind of upbringing?
— Confused and Single

Dear Confused: I am sorry that your mother didn’t explain more to you about how Jewish law and Jewish customs work. It is not at all common for Jews to desire to raise their children as Christians, even while retaining the holidays. As a minority people, Jews have historically worked hard at maintaining their family’s Jewish identity from one generation to the next. With that goal, Jewish singles events are typically seen as a place where single Jews can meet other Jews with the purpose of finding a partner. I suspect that the young men you met were at the event in order to find a woman who wanted to raise Jewish children.

There’s a bit of irony in your story because, as the child of a Jewish mother, you are Jewish according to Jewish law. There is no leaving Judaism; born a Jew, you stay a Jew. But since you are self-identified as a Christian and want to have your children identify as Christians — granted, who celebrate Jewish holidays — Jewish men who want Jewish children are unlikely to pursue a relationship with you.

For your own sake, you need to find a Christian man who shares your desire to have Christian children. You can certainly celebrate the holidays of your childhood as your mother did. Did your father enjoy the holidays with your siblings and mother? Your future husband could certainly do the same. Since Christianity grew out of Judaism, Christians typically don’t feel conflicted when engaging in Jewish activities. I’ve had Christians come to a number of my workshops to learn more about, as one woman said, “what Jesus did and why.”

However, I would strongly urge you to teach your children how they will be perceived by the Jewish community. Also, be clear that they are being raised as Christians and let them know some of the differences between the two religions so that they feel knowledgeable and prepared to encounter strong opinions about their identity. Be aware that your identity is confusing for many Jews and as such, it is at times interpreted as an affront. Your mother’s conversion to Christianity and the duality of your home celebrations may be perceived as a betrayal or loss by some Jews. The people you encounter may become abrupt or suspicious when you tell them your life story.

I feel it is important for you to know that your own children will be considered Jewish according to halachah (Jewish law) because Jewish identity is passed through the maternal line. Your daughters’ children will be considered Jewish also. But your sons’ children will not. I know this sounds complicated and perhaps odd and random, but it is a tradition that is ancient. For the most part, modern Jews know and adhere to these beliefs.

I want you to think about taking a basic Judaism class. Currently you are in the awkward position of knowing quite a lot about some aspects of Judaism, but feeling uncomfortable with what you don’t know. I think you’d enjoy having a broader understanding. Maybe one of your siblings would enjoy going with you. You’d have someone with whom to discuss the things you learn and to compare them to your own experiences. I could connect you with a sensitive teacher and have you meet with them before the class so that they can be responsive to your unique situation and needs. Let me know if you are interested.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In their own words, Mixed & Matched
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This common question for this time of year came to me via my Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly.

Congregation Emanu-el, San Francisco

Congregation Emanu-el, San Francisco

I am getting serious about my boyfriend (who is not Jewish) and I want him to understand what’s important to me about being Jewish. I’m thinking that this year I should take him with me to High Holy Day services. Chabad has free services and I was always treated kindly by the Chabad rabbi on my college campus, so I thought about going there. I was raised Reform; do you think I’ll be able to follow the traditional service and explain it to my boyfriend?
Wondering

My reply:

Dear Wondering: I appreciate your growing awareness that your boyfriend deserves to know more about what Judaism is and especially what it means to you. However, starting with the High Holy Day services is really pushing him into the deep end of the pool. I don’t recommend it.

In the 20-plus years I’ve been working with interfaith couples, I’ve seen exactly two people, both practicing Christians, who liked High Holy Day services. Two!

If you have grown up going to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, you are acclimated to the length of the service, the language and the atmosphere. But for your boyfriend it is utterly unknown and probably uncomfortable. The liturgy is unique; so is the music. The intention is to jolt Jews into a heightened state of awareness. Additionally, the reference to sins is heard by most Jews as “missed the mark,” but to most people raised in American culture, it can sound like the precursor to a quick trip to hell.

I suggest you take your boyfriend to a regular Shabbat service. At this time of year, many synagogues have outdoor services or services that include a picnic dinner or lots of music. Since you were raised Reform, I suggest you help him get familiar with a Reform environment. That is going to be most comfortable for you, and your comfort level will significantly influence his.

I would not recommend a Chabad or Orthodox service as his first experience because, for one, you would be sitting on opposite sides of the mechitza, which would preclude you from sharing a prayerbook and explaining things. Additionally, there are parts of a traditional Shabbat service that the Reform movement has deleted, so you too would be a bit confused.

I understand the concern about the cost of High Holy Day tickets, and I have a few suggestions. Rosh Hashanah starts the evening of Oct. 2. A couple of weeks before the holidays, this newspaper will print a long list of free services in the area (last year’s list at http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/75582 could give you a lead). Additionally, look at websites of Reform synagogues near you; many have lower prices for students, military and young adults. Or feel free to call me at (510) 845-6420 ext. 11; I can help you find options near you.

I also want to reflect on this idea you’ve formed: wanting your boyfriend to understand what is important to you about being a Jew. This is very important and he deserves to know. And you are doing the right thing by making this effort.

I want to you to consider the best way to go about assisting him. First, it is best if you and he learn together. Don’t make this a job for him with you as boss. Look for a basic Judaism class that you could attend together. Since most adult Jews haven’t studied Judaism since their teens, you’ll find yourself able to take in more of the details and the subtleties of Jewish history, practice and theology.

Many synagogues offer basic courses, and certainly Lehrhaus Judaica offers classes throughout the Bay Area, including an online option if you are located far afield.

Should you take him to services? Yes! But go easy. Find a service that is a bit shorter and has a lot of music. And, if you can, go with friends. Also, prepare a Shabbat dinner at home for him. Explain the elements of Shabbat at home. Demonstrate how Judaism is, in fact, a home-based religion. It is likely that the Jewish activities you will want him to do with you are home-based: Shabbat, Hanukkah, Passover. Have fun and be prepared to do this together.

Posted by admin under Couples, High Holidays, Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Relationships, Rosh Hashanah
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When a Jew Celebrates large

The following message was sent to me via my monthly column, Mixed and Matched

My dad is Jewish, but my parents raised me with no religion at all. I’ve always been spiritually minded and wanted a connection to God. I found a rabbi who was very kind and sympathetic. I told her that I didn’t want to convert just to convert, I want to believe in what I’m getting into. The rabbi guided me to a yearlong class on Judaism and also met with me privately. When I felt I was ready, she took me to the mikvah. I’m still learning, and I so very much wish I had learned about Judaism growing up. Is there no way for interfaith couples to give their children a Jewish education without committing themselves to being Jewish? I would have loved to have grown up around other Jewish kids. It was hard to do this all by myself. — Jewish Now and Forever

I answered:

Dear Jewish Now and Forever: I can’t tell you how delighted I am to hear of your kind and insightful rabbi! She is truly a blessing. I hope all rabbis will sit and listen to the adults from interfaith families, hear what they are seeking, teach them and help them find their own place.

To your question: Yes, there are ways for interfaith couples to give their children a Jewish education without deciding to practice Judaism. But I say this with caveats. Let’s begin with the “yes” part. Many synagogues allow members to enroll their children in Hebrew school while they are deciding what to do. Interfaith couples can meet with the rabbi and discuss their situation. Rabbis will not faint. They are used to the interfaith phenomenon. A local Orthodox rabbi told me that he believes that in order for a child to make a choice about which religion to choose, he or she must be knowledgeable about Judaism, which is a subordinate tradition in America.

Personally, I am one of many Jewish professionals who do not advocate a halfhearted attempt to send your child off to be educated without the parents doing anything themselves. This is disorienting for the child. So the “no” part would be that few rabbis are going to say, “Sure. Drop your child off and we’ll take care of everything. You just go shopping.” Couples are not surrendering their parental responsibilities.

Each synagogue has its own policies, so it is important to learn what they are. I have heard of some that give you a year to determine what you choose for your home. Others will educate a child right up until bar or bat mitzvah age and then ask the family to resolve the religious identity of the child.

Then there are the Jewish summer camps. Most of our local Jewish camps accept children of interfaith couples. At camp the child will have a fun, immersive Jewish experience and will learn Jewish songs, blessings, values and practices.

There are also Jewish community centers, which offer a wide array of Jewish activities and holiday celebrations, as well as preschool and summer programs for kids and families.

And let us not forget the many independent Jewish organizations that offer Jewish experiences. Locally there are organizations like Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah, The Kitchen, Jewish Gateways, EcoJews of the Bay and Edah. A number of Jewish concierge programs have a professional who will help couples find the Jewish environment that works for them.

As you say, it would have been nice for you to have been around other Jewish kids. Children get a feeling of being “normal” when they have friends who celebrate the same holidays and are familiar with the same foods, music and cultural references. If an interfaith family is able to find another family, interfaith or Jewish, it is great for the children to have playmates who can share these ideas and experiences with them. Children like to be similar to their family and friends and they like having it pointed out. It gives them a sense of belonging. Children don’t have to be raised as Jews to understand elements of their Jewish heritage and enjoy being included.

Finally, I want to commend you on your personal tenacity. You found what you wanted and you worked hard to get it. You are a blessing to the Jewish people. Having lived on both sides of the Jewish identity, you have much to share.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In their own words, Mixed & Matched
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In the June 2016 column of Mixed and Matched, I responded to a comment from a woman who had experienced what was described in the previous month’s column – having her Jewish authenticity questioned.

I can relate to your May 20 column “My father is Jewish and my mother is not.” My mother and I both had Conservative conversions when I was 9 years old. Still, all my life I’ve heard “You’re really not Jewish since your mother isn’t Jewish.”

I have always led a Jewish life. As an adult, I married and had children with a Muslim man, and both of my girls were raised Jewish. When I taught Hebrew school at my Reform synagogue, the director asked if I felt conflicted about the occupation of Gaza since my husband was Muslim. I told her that I felt conflicted because I am Jewish. She didn’t get it.

I have been divorced for over a decade. My daughters get comments all the time, saying “How strange to have a Jewish mother and a Muslim father.” Since my mother wasn’t born Jewish, I guess it makes my children not Jewish. We just keep living as Jews.
Oh well

***

Dear Oh well: Where to begin? I’m sorry that my column speaks to your life. I hope the day comes when this attitude goes the way of the woolly mammoth. You are a Jew, as is your mother, as are your daughters. Are there some who do not accept Conservative conversion? Yes. There are also people who are vegetarians and others who are carnivores. We are all free to believe what makes sense to us.

However, I find it disturbing that members of your synagogue, including the Hebrew school director, are so ill-informed about the Reform movement’s policies regarding both conversion and patrilineal descent. I am confident that your rabbis would not approve of these remarks. Sadly, many self-identified liberal Jews are not as open as they believe themselves to be.

In regard to the comment made to your daughters, many people are surprised that a Jew and Muslim would marry. But it does happen, even in Israel, and I wish others would stop feeling the need to say something about it. From what you tell me, your girls are happy as Jews and have been able to brush aside the questions and remarks. Good for them!

You raise the issue of “What is a Jewish name?” Two quick points on this challenging matter: Jews have all sorts of names in modern America; we are no longer just Goldsteins and Levines. And when you encounter a Jew whose last name shouts not Jewish, like Christensen or Church, that individual is likely the child of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother. This makes the individual halachically Jewish.

Many have said to me, “But I’m just curious, not malicious.” If you learned of a person whose child had died, would curiosity be a sufficient reason to ask the parent about the circumstances? No. Do not raise topics that are going to cause pain. If you are uncertain of whether a topic is appropriate, err on the side of kindness and don’t.

I brought your concerns to my friend and colleague at Lehrhaus Judaica, Reform Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, who reflected that Jewish tradition teaches the concept of tzniut, usually translated as modesty. He pointed out that it also means privacy and said all Jews could benefit from observing this mitzvah by respecting the privacy of others.

I would encourage you and your daughters to answer invasive questions this way: “I observe the mitzvah of tzniut, so I can’t respond to that.” If your inquisitor is baffled, suggest they query a rabbi who can explain more fully what this means.

I have no quarrel with traditionally observant Jews who believe that only a person born of a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox court is halachically Jewish. Within their community they should live and be well. They should also observe tzniut and refrain from talking about the identity of others.

For the rest of us, it’s important to examine our beliefs and be honest about what we think. Do we accept non-Orthodox conversions? Do we accept patrilineal descent? Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah.” It is hard to do, but we need to anyway.

Posted by admin under A meaningful life, Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Children, Conversion, Mixed & Matched
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couple's shoes

In my May Mixed and Matched column in the Jweekly I chose to address a question I hear regularly: “My father is Jewish and my mother is not. Where will I be accepted? Where can I go that they won’t quiz me?”

***

Ever since the Reform movement refined its views on so-called patrilineal Jews three decades ago, this has been a pervasive issue, in the liberal movements in particular — how do Jews with one Jewish parent fit into the community? Because Judaism traditionally is passed through the mother, the issue is particularly sharp for those with a Jewish father.

Not so, say many Reform Jews, who rush to tell me what patrilineal Jews should think or do. They say that people with a Jewish father shouldn’t care what others think; they should join a Reform or other non-halachic congregation. These individuals state adamantly and angrily that Jews who don’t accept patrilineal descent must change, must see the future and accept it or die out. They loudly support a person’s right to self-define and to choose how to be Jewish, except, of course, those Jews who choose to self-define and practice differently than they do. In other words: traditionally observant Jews. This derails the entire conversation, while ignoring the feelings of the patrilineals.

What have patrilineal Jews experienced? What do they want? Do they have a sense of what would reassure them? No one has asked about their feelings at all. How sad. We liberal Jews, and I include myself as a Reform affiliated Jew, need to stop lecturing and start listening, really listening — without judgment.

A number of patrilineal Jews have told me they chose to convert. Others told me, “I wish someone had offered to teach me, to guide me, to just tell me about conversion, just say it was an option.” Others have said that they went through a period of worry and reflection before deciding not to convert.

Yet, others have said that they have been hurt even in synagogues that purport to accept patrilineal Jews. “When I say I have one Jewish parent, people immediately ask me which one, and that makes it clear that it matters or they wouldn’t ask.” Several others said that Jews, affiliated and not, upon learning that the Jewish parent is their father, have said, “So you’re not really Jewish.” One individual who had chosen a Reform conversion because she’d been raised Christian had a fellow congregant say, “Wow, you’re so active, even though you’re not really Jewish.”

This Sunday I am moderating a conference in Oakland called “Growing Up Interfaith.” When I asked individuals who had shared their life stories with me to participate, one replied, “I don’t want to speak publicly, because members of my synagogue won’t think I’m really Jewish.”

On the other hand, one might think that at least the matrilineal Jews are fine; having a Jewish mother has given them clear passage into their Jewish identity. Sadly, that is not always the case. For some it’s been relatively easy. But for others, having a last name like Christianson or O’Malley has meant constant questioning.

And then there are ethnic and racial intermarriage issues. Between 15 and 20 percent of Bay Area Jewish families are multiracial. Many of them don’t “look Ashkenazi.” They too face constant questioning.

I’ve interviewed more than 50 adult children of intermarriage over the past four years. Many don’t know where to start the conversation. They talk about the barriers they face and try to sort out just where they want to engage. What would make them feel authentic? There is not one size fits all. Each person has to find his or her community. I encourage them to speak up and tell their rabbi the kinds of messages they are getting.

We can help. We can listen. We can show compassion and sympathy. We can ask how they want to handle their identity and how they want to engage. Then we need to speak up when fellow Jews are insulting — intentionally or unintentionally. Not with words of bitterness, but with calm, firm words that hold a mirror to the speaker. Let’s all become allies, no matter what Jewish movement we claim.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, Children, Mixed & Matched
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child-baptism medium

A message from a young woman soon to be a mother sent to my Mixed and Matched column in the J-weekly.

I was raised Catholic but no longer practice. I’m pregnant and happy to raise my children Jewish, and my husband and I belong to a Conservative synagogue. We plan to take our baby to the mikvah. My mom wants the baby to be baptized even though she knows we plan to raise our baby Jewish. Mom says it’s not that big a deal, and why can’t I just do it? Also, I don’t see myself as Jewish now, but what if at some point I do? — Anxious mom-to-be

Dear mom-to-be: If it really weren’t that big a deal, your mother could let go of it. Ask her to tell you why it matters to her.

If your mother fears that your child will not be saved, you should encourage her to speak to her priest, as the Catholic Church has been moving toward accepting the Jews as a covenantal people.

If she fears that Jews go to hell, let me offer a lovely paper written by the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations. In “A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People,” the scholars ask whether God would revoke a promise and conclude that the answer is no. Therefore, they determine, the covenant between God and the Jews remains intact, valid and eternal. Because the Jews are in a “saving covenant with God,” it means they are not going to hell. You can find the paper online.

If your mother’s desire is more of a gut reaction because this is how she was raised and how she sees the world, you will need to address her claim that this isn’t a big deal. It is obviously one to her, and she needs to understand that it is also a big deal to you and your husband.

Baptism is the ritual that officially says a person has entered the body of the Catholic Church. It is the wrong ritual for a child who will grow up as a member of the Jewish people.

Try to help your mom see that baptism, circumcision, receiving a Hebrew name and other religious acts performed to welcome a baby are in fact very important. The rituals that parents choose are a declaration of who their child is and the foundation of the child’s religious identity. Birth rituals affirm a baby’s entrance into a spiritual community. In return, that community accepts the responsibility of caring for the child.

Here’s another way to think about it: Is this ritual important enough to take pictures? Typically people have photos of their babies and family at christenings, brises, baptisms and namings. These photos are shown to children as they get older and explained as important moments in their lives. The pictures we use to fill our photo albums or display in our homes reveal what we value. Doing both ceremonies reduces the status of each. Hopefully your mother can see that for your child’s sake, one message is easier.

If she is worried that her grandchild will not understand her and her religion and therefore will not be close to her, please reassure her that this is not the case. Children naturally attach to grandparents based on love. Also, her grandchild will be raised in America, where Christianity is the dominant religion; there is no way the child will not come to know about it.

Additionally, this is a good time to discuss with your husband which holidays your family will share with your parents. I encourage you to include them in all of your Jewish celebrations and to identify elements from their tradition that will be shared with your child.

Finally, you mention that you might someday want to be Jewish. Indeed, that may happen. Have you given your mom subtle messages about this? Could her fear be more about losing you? If so, lavish some extra time on your mother.

If you are simply acknowledging that anything can happen — I say, time will tell. If someday you want to be Jewish, discuss this with your rabbi and other Jews by choice. Those who have chosen this path can help you figure out how and what to say to your mother.

Posted by admin under Mixed & Matched, Non-Jewish family, Parenting
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In her own words

One of the speakers at this Sunday’s Growing Up Interfaith Conference is Zoe Francesca. Zoe agreed to write an op-ed for the Jweekly. Here is her beautiful, heartfelt article.

I’m looking forward to the “Growing Up Interfaith” conference coming up this weekend in Oakland. It’s still a bit uncomfortable to reveal that I am a so-called patrilineal Jew, but maybe it’s time for more of us to come out. I’m turning 50 this year, and it took about 40 years for me to comfortably identify as Jewish. I know what it means to wander the desert for 40 years.

First came the half-and-half identity: half-Jewish on my father’s side, half-ex-Catholic on my mother’s side. But this, I was told by my peers, meant I was really nothing, because Judaism holds that the mother must be Jewish. (I was also repeatedly told that Hitler would have killed me anyway, an interesting, but not unheard of, way to be included.) My parents were fine with nothing because they had both decided to reject religion in light of the fact that “there is no God,” and “religion is the root cause of all wars” — and probably some other factors. My grandparents on both sides wished their son and daughter had married in, not out — causing another type of war.
But I wasn’t OK with nothing. I wanted to be something. I was a spiritual soul. I reached out again and again. My greatest sorrow and stumbling block to joining a church or synagogue service was that I didn’t know what to do in those services.
One time, my mother agreed to let me accompany a classmate to religious school. It happened to be near Rosh Hashanah, and the teacher was comparing the Jewish New Year to the Christian one. “The difference is,” he said, “the Christians have a party and get drunk on New Year’s Eve. We Jews fast and ask forgiveness for our mistakes.” It made me feel like if I chose Judaism, it would be tantamount to denigrating my Christian heritage. I never wanted to disparage my mother’s cultural gifts that way. I didn’t want to be a football between two religions, the same way children of divorce don’t want to be a football between their two parents. I didn’t go back to the religious school.
Each time I made a tentative step toward Judaism, I was told by various Israelis, rabbis and Jewish teachers that I wasn’t Jewish.
I sat before them, asking to be validated and accepted as a Jew-in-training. Why didn’t those rabbis and teachers explain the semantics to me? Offer conversion? Discuss halachah? Explain my options? I’ll never know. Each time, I walked away feeling rejected.
My mother taught me that churches could be sanctuaries of peace and beauty — though she never brought me to a church service, she sometimes brought me to sit in empty churches when no one was there — and that Christmas could be the same. My Jewish grandmother taught me that Israel was a place of profound hope for the Jewish people, and she nurtured my Jewish soul with her food, her Yiddish expressions and her humor. I could have gone either way, but I fell in love with the Hebrew language, the land of Israel/Palestine, and I even lived in Israel for a while.
I joined first one synagogue and then another. And still I would go to the rabbis and teachers with the speech about “Am I Jewish?” Then, finally, on my 35th birthday, I gave myself permission to start practicing Judaism as a religion. Soon afterward, my husband and I decided to raise our newborn children Jewish. After 35 years on this earth, I decided that I was a Jew, and that was that. Even if you still think I’m not really Jewish, I do.
Please don’t let my story scare you away from marrying a non-Jewish person that you love. Don’t let it stop you from giving your children your blessing if they marry a non-Jew. Instead, embrace patrilineal Jews and anyone who comes to you asking, “Can I join your tribe?” Find out what to do in a synagogue, and make sure your children know what to do. If your children ask for a spiritual education, please give it to them. It will save them from wandering in the desert for too many years.

Posted by admin under Adult Child of an Interfaith Family, In their own words
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