Up Close: Melissa & Marc Cohen – Kveller
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Up Close: Melissa & Marc Cohen

1. Are you raising your kid(s) with one religion, both religions, or somewhere in between?

Our children are being raised as Jews. When we first got married, I knew nothing about Judaism and was nervous about what that would mean for our family. My husband is Jewish, and his Judaism is central to how he defines himself. I knew that it would be a part of our children’s identities as well. I read everything I could get my hands on about Judaism.

The more I learned about Judaism, the more comfortable I was and the more I wanted to be a part of it. I don’t know that I was ready to convert when we got married, but by the time I did (five years later) it felt utterly anti-climatic. It felt like getting married, a confirmation of what we already were. We were reading PJ Library books before bed, and baking challah every Friday afternoon. We were members of a synagogue (my daughter was attending the same religious school that my stepdaughters attended), and actively living a Jewish life.

That being said, I really want my children to feel as though they are a part of my traditions and family as well. I didn’t want a barrier between them. I didn’t want them to go to a holiday celebration and feel as though they weren’t as much a part of it as their non-Jewish cousins would be. We still celebrate Easter and Christmas as a family, because that’s my tradition. It’s a secular celebration. They believe in Santa like they believe in the tooth fairy. While we are Jewish family, we are a Jewish family that celebrates Christmas and Easter.

2. Can you think of a particular day when it felt especially difficult to be an interfaith family?

The whole month of December is especially difficult. Because that’s a time when I feel really isolated from everyone. It feels as though there’s an enormous amount of judgement around putting up a tree from the Jewish community, and judgement of the non-Jewish community because I’m celebrating Christmas entirely as a secular holiday and nowhere near as elaborately as I would be if we weren’t Jewish. Putting up the Christmas tree, for me, is a way to share a beloved tradition with my children, and it would devastate my mother if we didn’t. The commandment to honor your mother and father means, for me, not deliberately hurting my mother. To not allow her to share her holiday fully with my children is something I’m not willing to do. But we’re Jewish, and raising Jewish children, and so much of the Christmas season for much of our Jewish community is about NOT celebrating Christmas.

3. How do you feel about your family being labelled “interfaith”?

I’m much more comfortable with the “interfaith” label than not. Which is ironic, because technically, we aren’t interfaith at all. Judaism is the only religion in our home. But I didn’t grow up Jewish, and a lot of Jewish cultural references go right over my head. I don’t know Hebrew, I have no experience with growing up Jewish, so sometimes it’s hard to not have that history to fall back on when my own kids are approaching these milestones. Planning my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a lot easier, I think, if I could fall back on memories of what my own was like.

My kids aren’t growing up in a culturally traditional Jewish home. Half of their heritage isn’t Jewish. My heritage isn’t Jewish. While we’re religiously united as a family, culturally, my kids are definitely the product of two very different backgrounds.

4. What’s your word of advice to other interfaith families?

The most important word would be communicate. All the time. Because things that you thought were etched in stone can change over time, and you have to be able to talk through things as they come up. The other part of it that goes hand-in-hand is to remember that this is the person you chose to create your life as a family with, and he’s on your side more than anyone else is.

If you start off a conversation with that as the basis, the conversation is a lot easier. Both of us want the same things, a happy, healthy family with a strong Jewish identity that also allows for both of our heritages to be valued and appreciated. It’s not always easy, but I don’t know of any marriage that is. I know of a lot of marriages where one partner feels isolated and not connected and that’s never happened with us. As challenging as it is sometimes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Up Close” is a photo and interview series on Kveller aiming to put a face on the interfaith conversation. We’ll be highlighting interfaith families and hearing their stories all month.

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