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I’m a secular Jew, my partner is Episcopalian …
My partner is a church-going Episcopalian. I’m a secular Jew. As we think about starting a family, one problem I’m having is how to balance not just the two religions, but our different levels of observance. My partner would probably be willing to participate in a synagogue and give our children a formal Jewish education, but those seem as foreign and alienating to me as church or Christian Sunday School. My parents, both Jewish, raised me with a strong Jewish identity and passed down the important elements of my Judaism — a commitment to social justice, a love of Ashkenazi culture, a knowledge of and devotion to Jewish history — without the aid of institutions, but I don’t know how I can do that when the Christian side has such strong institutional support. My partner sees in me how a secular Jewish identity can be valid and strong, but she can’t help me in figuring out how to transmit it to our kids. Any advice on how to pass along my strong secular Jewish identity to the next generation in an interfaith house? —Confused in Cambridge
Grow and Learn With Your Kids
JAMES PONET: Your partner’s church-going commitment can challenge you to find new ways to construe and convey a strong secular Jewish identity to your children. I imagine that your partner also lives out a commitment to social justice, but one which does not require terms like tikkun olam or names like Emma Goldman, that your personal love for Ashkenazi culture flows from Yiddishisms and foods you tasted at the family table, that your devotion to Jewish history issues from appreciation for your own story of origin.
Your children will absorb and exude a different native Jewish vernacular. While not all Jews can or choose to speak “Jewish” as their primary tongue, there have always existed second and third language Jews. In the Jewish family you will build with your Episcopalian partner, you will probably help educate children for whom “Jewish” will not be their mama loshen .
I urge you to let yourself grow and learn with your children, to listen to their questions and be guided by their perplexities. For through your children you will rediscover the contours and expressions of your own Jewish identity, your own way of participating in a multi-generational, spiritual-political community’s commitment to live in the world with love, memory, and responsibility.
I think you will want to find your way into some sort of Jewish group and/or you will create your own. I hope you will consider exploring traditional Jewish rhythms which may not have informed your childhood (like marking Shabbat as a weekly day of rest) and that you will exercise your right to choose, alter, innovate. Hillel’s 1st century wisdom seems most relevant: 1) Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a friend. 2) Go study. 3) If not now when?
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 2 grandchildren.
Don’t Let the Kids Pick
LAUREL SNYDER: Yasher koach to you for asking this question. I’ve met many couples who faced this moment without honesty, and they’re almost all divorced now. Often what happens is this:
Christian partner wants to take the kids to church. They like church!
Jewish partner feels weird about that. Jesus being the son of God. Wine to blood. Crucifixes.
Christian partner says, “Well, then you take them to synagogue.
Jewish partner says, “That’s not the kind of Jew I am.”
Christian partner says, “Still, I want them to have something. If only to rebel against.”
Finally, Jewish partner, motivated largely by discomfort, forces everyone to go to a synagogue nobody loves. For the kids, this models that religion is an uncomfortable thing one must do. For the parents, it’s a chance to fight about whose turn it is to drive the kids to Hebrew school.
My best advice: DON’T DO THAT.
Synagogues have changed, and you might find one that fits you better than you’d imagine. Beyond that, there are a ton of new models. Look for a havurah that will offer regular events with like-minded/intermarried people. (Our havurah has been a critical piece!) Check out camps and adult education classes (Israeli cooking? Jewish history?). Volunteer to work at a Jewish film or music festival. Here in Atlanta we have an amazing new non-synagogue Hebrew school . Join an organization that fits with your social justice interests. Take an interfaith trip to Israel. There’s so much happening. Seriously, get online and see what’s out there in your town.
And then do me a favor. Don’t “do both and let the kids pick.” If, at the end of the day, your partner is driving this train, be prepared to ride. In my experience, what will hurt the kids most is dissonance, not Jesus.
Kids Are Easy
CAMILLE DIAMOND: Truthfully, there is no need to worry about how to pass along your strong secular Jewish identity to your children. The most surprising thing about being a parent is how eagerly your children want you to tell them about who you are, what you learned as a child and what you believe now. You’ll naturally teach them the way your parents taught you.
My parents were Jewish and Christian, and today my Jewish husband and I are raising two technically three-quarters Jewish children who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and Passover. They understand that they are Jewish and that Christianity is important to members of my family, and that I grew up both. In my experience, children take pride in the whole of their heritage. I certainly did!
The important thing is to keep talking to your partner, because it is surprising how strong the urge to recreate for your children the traditions you experienced as a child can be. More than anything, you’ll want to keep the lines open so you can make sure you are aware of one another’s feelings. Ultimately, being in an interfaith family means that you both get to decide what is meaningful to all of you, and practice it just that way.
Camille Diamond is The Director of Community Engagement and Communications at the 14th Street Y, and an ordained interfaith minister from One Spirit Interfaith Seminary.