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 hopeless, 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; my husband and I are coming up on our 12 year anniversary. And what I’ve found, for us, is that the message is wrong.
I know that we’re not technically interfaith. I converted to Judaism, and my oldest two children went to the mikveh along with me. Our youngest was born after the conversion, so her Judaism is assured as well. My oldest child knew she was Jewish from an early age, but 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 through an Orthodox rabbi. But I did all I could to make sure that she, her brother, and any future children would feel as at home and as comfortable in the religion and spiritual community we were raising them in as possible.
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, and it was always a good fit for what I had sort of figured out on my own.
While I still feel very much like we’re an interfaith family, we’re not. We’re an “interculture” family. As far as spiritually, we’re pretty much on the same page. My husband 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 horseradish 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 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.
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 matzah on Passover and singing the shema. They shouldn’t feel as though to be one, they can’t have the other.
I’m convinced that we, as a Jewish community, need to really think about the message we send when we claim that interfaith marriage is wrong. 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, and I don’t think that my marriage, and others like it, are going to stop it now.