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Almost 30 years ago I married a woman who converted to Judaism before our wedding. I have no regrets, but there were many struggles I didn’t anticipate along the way in terms of feeling like my home was truly a Jewish one. Recently my son, who is in his early 20s, has begun dating a non-Jewish woman. My instinct is to tell him that he should end things before long and really try to find a Jewish woman — he cares a lot about Judaism and may not understand what is truly at stake here. I know this is hypocritical, but as his father I feel it is my duty to share with him the wisdom I gained in my life. Do you think I should say something? — It could have been easier
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: In general, it is not particularly effective to tell someone else to end a relationship, even, or perhaps especially, when that person is your adult child. Your opposition is not going to dissuade your son, at least not without emotional repercussions. Rather, it could alienate him (from you, and from Judaism), not to mention the young woman in question. Also, keep in mind that even the children of converted Jewish parents come from interfaith families, in the sense that they have interfaith grandparents and extended family. And as children of interfaith families, we tend to react negatively when instructed that love cannot transcend religious boundaries, because we know that it can.
You could certainly have a heart-to-heart with your son about the challenges you have encountered in your own life, without crossing the line into the “normative” (what he should or should not do). I am sure he will take an interest in what you have gone through, as part of your shared family story. And he would probably benefit from listening to his mother’s perspective as well.
But also, consider the reality that in the 21st century, your son’s experiences will inevitably be very different from yours. You were married in an era when there was still very little support from family members, clergy or religious institutions for interfaith families. And this lack of support certainly made life harder for interfaith families. Today, there are many ways for interfaith families to engage with Judaism if they choose to do so, and many Jewish communities ready to welcome and support them, whether or not the partner or spouse converts.
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).
JIM KEEN: At one of my book signings, a woman asked me the question, “What if your Jewish daughter starts dating someone who isn’t Jewish?” I felt a brief moment of pain—and I’m Protestant! So, I do know where you’re coming from.
I know that you said your instinct is to tell your son that he should end things. However, just the fact that you’re asking also says that you think doing so might be a bad move. My father-in-law struggled with my not being Jewish when I began dating his daughter. Over time, when he realized that we were serious and thinking of marriage, he said to me that it’s more important to him that his daughter finds someone who makes her happy. I could be Jewish, but if I don’t make her happy, what good is it?
Besides, who’s to say that your son can’t continue to have a Jewish home and raise a Jewish family? I never converted, but we are raising our two daughters as Jews. They are just Jewish—not “both.” They went to a Jewish preschool, religious school, Hebrew school, and have both become B’not Mitzvah.
Even though I am still Protestant, I have been integral in their Jewish education. I take great pride in their Judaism and in being a part of their religious and cultural life. Just take a look at my reaction to that woman’s question.
Jim Keen is the author of “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family.” He has been in an interfaith relationship for 28 years, and has been an active participant with his wife in raising their two Jewish daughters. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Jim teaches in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
SCOTT PERLO: Yes, you should talk to him. However, I don’t think you can just tell him not to do as you have done.
The nature of parental advice has shifted. Time was, parents — most people, in fact —felt free to tell you what they thought you should do. And it used to be that you wouldn’t take their advice amiss. Whether or not you listened to them, straightforward advice-giving used to be a normal, rather appreciated fact of life (well, except for that one relative who won’t give it a rest. That guy has been around since the dawn of humanity).
I’m not sure when, nor why all that changed, but changed it has. To flat out tell someone what they should do in our time - it’s not that he’ll get all that angry, it’s that the advice just won’t penetrate.
In our time, the bridge between people is built not on advice but on stories, and you should tell him yours. Tell him what it’s been like for you, not as a declarative sentence, full stop, but in a way that demands a kind of vulnerability that is difficult between fathers and sons. Don’t declare, relate.
The most courageous way to do it would be with your wife, as an open conversation about what it was like creating a family out of two different backgrounds. From that conversation your son will see the two of you as real people, with blood in your veins, just trying to figure it out. That is the story from which he will learn.
Some people would say that it really isn’t anybody’s business but his, and that you should stay out of it. To that I am opposed. We face a pandemic of silence about issues of identity, religion, and spirituality within families. Talk your son; if you treat him like the man he is, he’ll thank you for it.
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.