(This Mixed and Matched article was originally published in the J weekly in January 2018.)
My husband is not Jewish. He is not particularly religious but was raised Methodist and his parents practice the religion. He has agreed that we can raise our two little boys as Jews but he wants the boys to also understand his Christian background and what Christianity is about. I want to respect that. We don’t know how to do this in terms of hands-on parenting. How can we raise our boys as Jews with Christian heritage? They are 3 and 7 years old. Is this something we can do at home or do we need to join a synagogue? — Unsure of Next Step
Dear Unsure: Every child deserves to know who they are and where they come from. Whether the child is biologically yours or adopted, that little human being has the right to fully understand their heritage.
I want to point out that your inquiry addresses your husband’s need to be recognized as part of his sons’ identity, not the boys’ need to know their dad’s background. My first suggestion is that you separate these two normal, healthy needs, because they each must be addressed.
Let’s start with the boys. Since you are raising them as Jews, you should join a synagogue. Information about Judaism is not available on every street corner so it is highly unlikely that you and your husband know enough to give the boys a good Jewish education.
Additionally, Judaism is not a solo performance. Judaism is communally based. In many forms of Christianity — the religion with which most Americans are familiar — the focus is on you and your relationship to God.
Not so in Judaism. Most of the 613 commandments given to the Jews are ones that can be performed only in community. These include commandments like you shall: celebrate with the bride and groom, comfort the sick, feed the hungry, study Torah, relate the story of the Exodus. These actions can only be accomplished with other people. So your whole family needs the assistance of a community to do Jewish.
Your sons must know who their father is, how he grew up and became the man they know, and that includes his religious upbringing.
Yours would be an odd family if you did not pass down stories from both your childhoods to your boys. No doubt some of these will include your husband’s experiences in a church community, at Christmas and Easter and other memorable times that he experienced as a Methodist.
Now let’s look at your husband’s desire for his boys to understand him. Christianity is available throughout our culture. In fact, Western Civilization is based on Christianity and the stories of Jesus. However, your husband may want them to understand what is uniquely Methodist. It would be excellent if he sat down and made a list of the key elements that he wants them to grasp.
Additionally, it is important that you know what your spouse wants to communicate. You need to be on the same page with him so when the children ask a question you can answer it without conveying distress. This will be wonderful for your in-laws, as well. They will have the gift of a clear understanding of what their grandsons are being taught to believe.
This next step for your husband, of defining what he wants to transmit, may hold some emotional fallout. He may start to realize that what he really wants is for the boys to be “half” Christian in order to be “half” him. This is a normal biological urge for him as the adult and parent. But it is not the best thing for the boys. Children need the security of certainty when it comes to who they are. Being half of each of you would mean being less than a whole person on their own.
If their Christian heritage can be an added richness to their identity, a sort of cherry on top, they will be much better off than if it is a force pulling at them to “choose” one parent over the other.
Please focus on this process as a vital aspect of your boys’ lives. Put their needs first and you will naturally and appropriately provide them with information about their father and his heritage, religion and all.