For Jewish 'Third Culture Kids,' There's Both Challenges and Joys in a Multicultural Life – Kveller
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For Jewish ‘Third Culture Kids,’ There’s Both Challenges and Joys in a Multicultural Life

The experience of having kids in this situation is a fascinating learning process for me.

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Ever since having my own third culture kids, the topic of identity and belonging often lurks in my mind. The term “third culture kid,” credited to sociologist Ruth Useem, is used to describe a child being raised in a different country and culture than where their parents were raised. Third culture kids are either typically born in one country and then raised in another, or raised in a country where neither parent originally hails from. 

I wasn’t raised as a third culture kid myself and neither was my husband, so the experience of having kids in this situation is a fascinating learning process for me. I grew up in the United States to American Jewish parents and my husband hails from the Czech Republic with a family lineage there that spans at least a few hundred years back. Our kids, however, are being raised in Germany, where neither of us have any family or personal connections.

Many people raised as third culture kids can experience some confusion when it comes to identifying with a particular country or culture, whether it’s “what do I say when someone asks me where I’m from?” or what they consider to be their mother tongue. 

When Judaism is added to the mix, it adds yet another rich layer of both a religious practice and a community. (And in some cases, if third culture kids are also raised by interfaith parents, there’s multiple nationalities, cultures and religions as well.) In addition to having three national identities, my kids also have their Jewish identity. The way their Jewish heritage manifests in their everyday lives is rich and varied as a result. For example, some German Jews use special tunes for prayers that are unique to the country, but they also learn some tunes for Jewish prayers from my American childhood.

“I always felt the Jewish diaspora experience reflects very similarly to the third culture kid experience, in terms of sometimes feeling out of place and in between cultures,” explains a French-American woman currently based in Canada when reflecting back on her upbringing. Some Jews who have the TCK experience see a lot of parallels between being Jewish and having multiple cultures: “As Jews no matter where we live in the world — except Israel — we are third culture,” expresses Dale Braunschweig, an American Jewish grandmother married to a Swiss man whose grandchildren are being raised in Germany.

Some parents of third culture Jewish kids have some worries or concerns about the way their children view their Jewish heritage. “As they grow up, they might feel resentfulness or possible fear of not fitting in,” mentions an Israeli mom married to a Puerto Rican, living in the Southern United States. This can be a common concern among Jews living in locations with small to non-existent Jewish populations worldwide, but for third culture kids who have a more unusual ethnic or cultural background to begin with, they might even feel like a minority within the minority of their local Jewish community. 

There’s also a lot to celebrate and embrace when it comes to having Judaism as part of a multifaceted daily life. Third culture Jewish kids have the wonderful and unique opportunity of being exposed to a myriad of traditions and languages from their parents and local community. “My kids get the benefit of experiencing Jewish celebrations in both cultures,” says Lisa Naumann, an American Jewish mom married to an Italian who is raising children in Germany. However, “since we aren’t living in my home country, some traditions are different here and I have to work harder to also instill the traditions I grew up with,” Lisa mentions.

Speaking of languages, parents of Jewish third culture kids (when one of the parents isn’t Israeli, or the kids aren’t growing up in Israel) also have a potential dilemma about Hebrew. For families who are already multilingual, sometimes adding in yet another language feels intimidating, and other families worry that their lack of access to Hebrew speakers and Hebrew resources will make it hard for their kids to have exposure to the language. Some families with third culture kids opt to send their kids to a local Jewish day school not only for learning about their Jewish identity, but also for the purpose of learning Hebrew. Other families simply use Hebrew on occasion during rituals like Jewish holidays and don’t see it as a huge priority for their kids to acquire fluency in the language. 

All in all, while raising a third culture Jewish kid or having the personal experience of being one growing up, there are certainly many challenges. Sometimes it’s being far away from at least one of the extended families, or occasionally having the feeling that you belong to so many countries and cultures that it’s hard to pinpoint which one you feel most connected to. 

But within all the challenges, there is a lot of joy and wonder. My kids are growing up with fluency in multiple languages (I’m jealous!), have Jewish and non-Jewish friends from a myriad of countries including many fellow TCK peers with whom they can relate to. Their international pop culture exposure to literature and films will be a boon should they choose to pursue pub quiz championships someday. And holidays? Jewish third culture kids have an absolute bonanza — it might be safe to say that they get to celebrate the largest amount of holidays of any kids worldwide! (I can’t cite any analytical studies on this, but I’m going to put that theory forward.) 

Getting to raise Jewish third culture kids and watching them thrive despite the odds has been a privilege that I continue to be inspired by and learn from as a parent. 

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