The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m the Only Observant Jew in an Interfaith Family
As an adult child of intermarriage, I grew up feeling religiously “confused” but decided to fully embrace my Jewish heritage in college. Now I often feel tension with non-Jewish members of my family who are not always supportive of my Jewish practice. One relative joked that I was a “born-again Jew.” Another tried to proselytize me to Christianity. How do I strike a balance between my Judaism and not alienating my non-Jewish family?—Lonely in Los Angeles
This Isn’t Just an Interfaith Thing
SCOTT PERLO: Let me channel Bill Clinton: my friend, I feel your pain. I am also the only observant Jew in my family and am in constant negotiation with my family about Judaism. My latest debate with my brother-in-law, with whom I’m exceedingly close, was whether the fat from his frying bacon was going to get into the pan of my kosher eggs if they cooked on the same stovetop.
Though you justifiably feel lonely, know that you are, increasingly, not alone. More and more of our families will be made up of this blend of Jewish, observant, secular, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic members. We just can’t expect religious cohesion within our extended families. A year ago, I met a very observant woman who was also a Jew by choice and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Of her 11 children, 6 were Black-Hat Orthodox and 5 were atheists. That is the new American Jewish family.
I’d encourage you to accept this multifaceted situation for what it is. Family will always be family, but we will rarely be able connect through shared religion.
Acceptance, however, won’t do a whit for the loneliness. As best you can, own the Jewish practices that matter to you within your family structure. Invite the family to your place for the holidays with your friends; make them feel welcome; show them your love and care for Judaism so that they respect your investment in it. Don’t force them in, just hold the door open. Should others want to hold Jewish celebrations, negotiate out who gets which holidays. Be flexible. Do it with a smile.
Lastly invest in them: support their spiritual lives as an outsider who loves them. If it means kosher turkey at Christmas dinner, so be it. At the very least, it’ll make for a great column in the Forward.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.
Get Your Parents to Help
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: Religion can be confusing, even to those who grow up in single-faith homes. Each of us, whether raised with one religion or two or none, chooses in adulthood how and whether to religiously affiliate. Meanwhile, each of us attempts to gracefully accept the religious choices of family members. And parents come to realize that they do not control the religion of their adult children, any more than they control any other aspect of their children’s lives. These tensions occur even in same-faith families: for instance, secular Jewish parents may struggle to understand a child who chooses Orthodox Judaism, or vice versa.
You don’t mention how your parents feel. Yet they are the links between you, and the rest of your family. Your father married a Jewish woman, and presumably has respect for the religion: he can act as an interfaith bridge, communicating with and attempting to educate Christian relatives, and supporting you in your choice. Your mother presumably has extended Jewish family — can you find support from them? I recommend that you speak honestly with your parents about your need for their support.
That said, extended family members with intransigent, exclusivist attitudes about religion may be people you need to avoid, just as you might choose to keep your distance from a family member with intolerant attitudes about sexual orientation, race or politics.
Finally, you can choose your friends. People raised in one religion, even those who intermarry, may never completely understand the worldview of interfaith children. I urge you to find other practicing Jews from interfaith families on your Jewish journey. There are many such people now: a significant percentage of students in progressive rabbinical schools are from interfaith families. Those who share both your Jewish choice and your interfaith background may provide understanding, when family cannot.
Susan Katz Miller is both an adult interfaith child, and an interfaith parent. She is a former Newsweek reporter, and the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press).
Show Relatives that You Have Chosen a Different Type of Observance, Not Family
JANE LARKIN: When my non-Jewish husband and I introduced more Jewish practice into our life, we became “too Jewish” for my Jewish family. They were uncomfortable with our Shabbat ritual and choice of a day school for our son. A sibling accused me of proselytizing after sending him and his wife handouts from a program I attended on communicating with parents. We were labeled “Super Jews” by extended family that felt excluded or threatened by our Jewishness.
To manage these issues, we learned to set expectations and show respect. When family comes to visit, we are clear that, on Friday, we celebrate Shabbat at home. When a relative suggests that we go out to eat, we remind her of our practice. We describe the rituals we perform and assign everyone a part, within his or her comfort zone, to be inclusive.
When we visit extended family, we adapt to their lifestyle and we respectfully participate in their traditions. We don’t hide our Jewish observance, but we don’t impose our choices either. If our family eats out on Friday night, we go and use a Shabbat app to light candles on our own afterward.
We try to show our relatives that we have chosen a different type of observance, not a different type of family. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But we continue to try to find a balance because we want a relationship with our family, not a holy war.
You can celebrate Judaism, and honor and respect your interfaith heritage. Sometimes it can be challenging doing both, but don’t give up. It’s worth the effort.
Jane Larkin writes about parenting for InterfaithFamily.com, a website that supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.” She lives with her family in Dallas, TX.