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interfaith marriage

I’m Not Jewish, But I’m ‘Jewish-Adjacent.’ Here’s What That Means

I grew up in a small Ohio farm town on the verge of becoming the traffic-clogged suburb it is today. In 12 years of public school, I knew one Jewish guy (and one young woman of color). Diversity, at least to the young me, consisted primarily of Lutheran versus Methodist — and of course, the cool kids from St. Pete’s Catholic school.

And let’s be honest: Even after diving into a much more expansive college experience, offering a much more diverse population, I didn’t really know that much more about Jewish traditions beyond a few details, like dreidels and gelt.

That changed, of course, when I met and married my husband. He is so many things, but Jewish is certainly near the top of the list. Soon I was a welcomed to family Passover seder, sharing one of the world’s oldest stories.

That was 20 years ago. Early in our relationship, we talked about how we had grown up: the traditions we loved the most, hated the most, wanted to rekindle the most. It seemed easy enough. We decided we’d split the difference when it came to family traditions: He’d handle Passover, I’d hide Easter baskets; he’d light the menorah, I’d unscramble Christmas lights.

And yet.

It turns out that moms still run the show when it comes to family holidays and events. (I know, I know: Duh. But what can I say? We hadn’t had our babies yet.) What this means in a mixed family is that if you’re going celebrate anything — anything — then Mom is likely going to the one who has to plan for it, even if she know precious little about it.

And so, while my identity early in our marriage might have been “Protestant But My Husband Is Jewish,” now that we are a family of four — our kids our now 14 and 11 — it has since evolved into a much more direct “Jewish-Adjacent Parent.” Here’s what that phrase has come to mean in my life, in ways both big and small:

Prep it. When I first became a mom, I took to my new role as the Jewish-Adjacent Parent with the zeal of the never converted. Lunar dates? On it. Latkes made from scratch? Will do. Supercool Star of David etched glass candlesticks my mom gave us? Still love them. I gathered the goods and read up on the traditions as fast as I could as we nestled into our first nesting phase with baby no. 1.

Sing it. I set the rule that, whenever possible, we’ll do only one holiday at a time. That means we typically don’t “roll out” Christmas (or for that matter, Christmas music) until Hanukkah has had its time to shine. A corollary: It also means Mommy gets to belt out all every Hanukkah song on Barenaked for the Holidays before switching to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

Embrace it. Beyond the holidays, there are now Jewish traditions that deeply resonate with me. Among them, saying the mourner’s kaddish (a prayer recited in memory of the dead) and lighting a Yahrzeit candle lamp. We do this to remember those who have left us, including my husband’s dad and now, my brother. I’m truly thankful for this addition to my life.

Tell it. Storytelling has always been key to keeping my Irish family connected (and our contributions are at our top of mind always!). As my kids have grown, I have made the conscious choice to do the same for their Jewish connection — something that has become even more resonate since my stepfamily recently learned about its own hidden Jewish ancestry.

Stay open to it. Our family has seen conversions on both sides, from Catholic to Jewish, from Protestant to Catholic, and back again. I grew up the child of a Protestant mom and Catholic dad and ignored church until my 20s, when I ended up finding one of my own. Even as that practice has faded for me, the fact that our extended family’s faith and traditions continue to evolve is one that resonates with me — and one I’ll keep in mind as my children choose their own path.

Celebrate it. As we walked home the other day, our middle-school-aged son related that his school had gathered students together to talk about immigrant rights. The experience triggered, again, our ongoing family conversation about considering differing points of view, our responsibility to help those in need, and how everyone can be seen as different — even within our own family.

Stick with it. With so many holidays and traditions in our family, I’ll admit to burnout, especially come the end of December. (It’s a big reason why we spend every New Year’s Eve on the couch.) Yes, my husband and kids do their share but, still, it can still feel like I’m the one organizing and wrapping most of the gifts; buying and cooking most of the foods; preparing for and cleaning for most gatherings.

Safe to say, there are moments when I’m ready to let it all go. Instead, however, I try to stay focused on the traditions that mean the most to us — like maintaining moments of peace and  togetherness even when eating Easter chocolate for breakfast or inviting all our extended family over for Passover. (Oh, and I now follow the advice of my savvy aunts-in-law and use a latke mix instead.)

Because these are the traditions that mean the most, no matter who you are.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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