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Five years ago I married a half-Jewish man. When we met, he was fairly Jewishly engaged, but over the years his interest has waned. We have recently started a family together and he has agreed to allow me to raise our children as Jews. Question is, how much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays? Or does it really need to be a family affair? —Singing the Prayers Alone
LAUREL SNYDER: I think you’re asking two very different questions here. The first is about your marriage in particular, and the second is a more general question about best practices.
How much should I… ask him to participate?
The answer to this part is about your marriage, specifically. My husband and I are really independent from each other in lots of ways, and our household reflects that. For instance, I leave town for writing conferences, and he goes to see a lot of music without me. It follows that sometimes I’m interested in Jewish observance and he doesn’t attend. I don’t feel hurt by that, and so it’s okay. Because I know when I do care, he’ll come along. But that’s not the right way to be, it’s just our way to be. I think you probably want to be honest with him about how much it matters to you, whatever that means. Repressing those desires will likely backfire.
Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?
Yes and no. In my opinion, the issue here is whether the kids see you guys both feeling happy and respected. Every marriage is an intermarriage, in a sense. Plenty of inmarried families have one parent more deeply invested in religious life. So I’d say you should take the lead and not worry about it too much.
My other bit of concrete advice is to look for Jewish activities that your husband might find more meaningful. Are there things that might connect to outside interests for him? Whether it’s a reading series or a softball league, he might just need a new way to connect.
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: In my experience, children experience a deep sense of pleasure when the whole family practices rituals or observes holidays together. This does not mean the parents need to have identical beliefs, or even the same religion. It does mean they respect and love each other enough to want to share these moments of cultural or spiritual importance with each other. My mother is not Jewish, but she goes to synagogue with my father, prepares the Passover Seder, and sings Rock of Ages (that’s Ma’oz Tzur, not the Christian hymn) at Hanukkah with us. It is hard for me to imagine what it would have felt like to have her “sitting out” on those occasions. My husband and I took another pathway, participating in both family religions, together, with our children.
Some non-practicing adults return to deeper practice when they experience religion again through the eyes of their young children. So don’t assume your husband does not want to participate, just because he hasn’t been going to shul lately. You don’t mention why your husband’s interest in Judaism has waned, but I think it’s important for you to find out how he feels. If he is now an atheist, take a look together at some resources from Humanistic Judaism. You identify your husband as “half-Jewish.” It is possible that the agreement to raise Jewish children is causing him to feel alienated or pressured. It might be helpful to discuss together all that is positive about being part of an extended interfaith family, and assure him that you want your children to respect and honor the family’s full religious history, even if the children are being raised Jewish.
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).
JAMES PONET: There is no single rule or formula today for bringing up Jewish children. We no longer know what constitute the critical components of a Jewish identity or the necessities of Jewish education. I urge you to start with yourself.
The arrival of your children has triggered in you important questions and has opened for you new opportunities. Why do you want your children to be Jews? What is it for you yourself today to be a Jew? What interests you, scares you, perplexes you, offends you and intrigues you in the notion of living as a Jew? Are prayer and holiday observance an active part of your own self-understanding as a Jew? What really is at stake for you in raising your children as Jews?
These questions do not have easy, fixed answers. But they are your questions with which I urge you to live, hopefully with other young families who are also questing. If your husband is presently unmoved by these questions, I urge you to cut him slack, love him more, and live true to your feelings, not your judgments of him or yourself.
There has always been mystery, wonder, joy, wisdom and love at the heart of living as a Jew. Bring those elements into the life of your emerging family. And do not get trapped by focusing only on what makes them specifically Jewish. Rather learn to name them and know them as intrinsically Jewish.
By the way, if there were but one Jewish song, or story, or prayer, or saying, or celebration, or teacher, or place, or book, or dream—just one—that you could convey to your child, what would it be?
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.