I once saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with a guy I liked. Hilarious culture-clashing antics ensue between the Greek protagonist and her WASPy fiancé, until the families begrudgingly accept each other—the groom immerses himself in Greek culture and the crazy protagonists live happily ever after. Adorable! Easy Peasy!
Afterwards, eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant, I compared the movie’s Greek father touting Windex as an infallible cure-all for everything, just as my Soviet-era Jewish immigrant father believes that iodine heals absolutely everything—all you have to do is apply it over the afflicted area in a checkerboard pattern.
There was a silence as my date took in this sage (or crazy) medical advice.
“We should raise our kids Jewish.” He said. Seriously—not as a terrible pick-up line.
“Excuse me?” I almost choked on my sweet-and-sour pork.
Although I genuinely liked him, a lot, this was only our second date. I was not even thinking of practicing baby making with him yet, let alone raising real ones. Oh, and he is a Lutheran who went to church on Sundays through college. Christians generally don’t raise their kids Jewish.
He scared me off for a while, but three years after that fateful date, I, the Jewish girl married him, the Christian boy. We both had the blessings of our families. No drama there. And one Saturday afternoon in an Afghanistanian banquet hall, an interfaith Rabbi performed a beautiful marriage ceremony under a chuppah handmade by my Catholic best friend. Mazel tov! Adorable! Easy peasy!
Here’s the thing, though I didn’t know what raising a kid Jewish even meant, and that’s what I had agreed to do. As the Jewish parent, how could I object to raising my kid Jewish? I didn’t want to object. But it was exponentially more important to me that my kids learn Russian. Though I was born in the US, Russian has always felt like my mother tongue, and it was how I connected to my family and its culture and history.
Being the daughter of Soviet Jewish emigres, I was raised as a cultural Jew with no formal religious instruction. Growing up, I went to church with my Catholic best friend sometimes and besides the whole Jesus dying for your sins business, I truly enjoyed it. Bonus: It was in English!
My family attended synagogue on the High Holy Days some years and went to a sporadic smattering of other holidays too; but I always felt uncomfortable, especially with the Hebrew. In high school, I joined our local B’nai B’rith, but never seemed to attend the events I was interested in. I spent an incredible summer in Israel on a Birthright trip where I became a bat mitzvah (my parents had given me a choice when I was twelve, and I declined.) In college I was active in Hillel and took all the Jewish classes, but I wasn’t sure how that late-life experience would transfer to my ability to create a Jewish home?
I mean, wouldn’t our home be a Jewish home by definition, because I, a Jew, am living in it?
We didn’t want to change our lifestyle. I don’t keep kosher at all, I don’t go to synagogue either. But I feel at peace with my spiritual beliefs.
On the other hand, kids need a strong background from which to rebel (or to embrace) when they become young adults. If they have a solid knowledge of history, religion, and spirituality they will have the tools to figure out what they believe and don’t believe.
Mostly, I don’t want them to feel that there is an empty space inside of them, or a lack of community and belonging. This is somewhat common for Jewish kids who are descendants of Stalin/Holocaust survivors whose families abandoned Judaism. Like that old joke where the Jewish Atheist says to his kid “There is only one God, and we don’t believe in him.“
So here’s what we did: After we married, we took an intro to Judaism class for interfaith couples and it enriched us both. My husband cemented his embrace of the idea that his children would be chosen. It’s not something he had been looking for (he had never dated a Jewish person before) but it certainly found him.
Then the first kid arrived. It’s a boy! I needed to figure out what to do, and fast—for him and his little brother who followed.
Circumcision? No. Tot Shabbat? Yes. Lots of Jewish books? Of course. Temple? Occasionally. Family Shabbat? Always. Russian school? On Sundays. Will the boys have bar mitzvah presented as an option? No. Will they someday go on dates with nice Asian girls and proclaim they will raise their kids Buddhist, or something similar? Maybe; probably not both at the same time—but at least they will know what they’re talking about.
Meanwhile, they’re fluent in understanding Russian and they can kind of speak it, too. The older boy can even read and write it a little. At his Jewish Day School teacher says he does well with Hebrew when he concentrates.
So this is how being Jewish looks to us, and it is ever evolving. I am thankful that my husband and I are taking this path in our journey together.