When my daughter Emily was sixteen, she started to date an observant Conservative Jew. One night she was invited for Shabbat dinner. By that point she knew all about our Reform movement’s policy on patrilineal descent, under which she is recognized as a Jew. However, I thought I should remind her that in the eyes of some other Jews, because her mother is not Jewish she would not be considered Jewish at all. When I did point that out, Emily very defiantly stated, “No one is going to tell me that I’m not Jewish!” This was a bittersweet moment for me. I was happy and proud of how strongly she felt. But I was, and still am, pained about this–why would any Jew want to reject, to exclude from the Jewish people, my caring, intelligent, beautiful, and very Jewishly committed daughter?
I’ve talked quite a bit recently with Emily, who is now twenty, about how her Jewish identity was formed. She remembers feeling, when she was little, that she was “half and half.” She also remembers that while she and I were walking hand in hand one day, I told her that she wasn’t half and half, that her Mom and I had decided that she was all Jewish. She says that from that point on, that’s what she felt. It’s hard to believe it was that simple, but I guess our children do pay attention to what we say, and at least some of the time it has a real impact.
I do think it’s important for parents to make sure to communicate their thoughts on religious identity to their children. When Emily’s Bat Mitzvah approached, she asked, “Why is it so important to you, anyway?” (By then she had stopped accepting everything I said). I remember being really taken aback, because I assumed that she knew why it was so important to me. But I hadn’t told her. So I ended up writing a long letter to her, about how I loved my immigrant grandparents, how I experienced some anti-Semitism growing up, how I was one of the rare people who enjoyed Hebrew school and Jewish learning, how I felt about Israel, and more. I learned that we can’t expect our children to know what’s in our heads if we don’t express it to them explicitly.
I’m pretty confident that both Emily and my son Adam, who is sixteen, have strong Jewish identities. Emily was the co-leader of the Yale Hillel Reform Chavurah last year. Adam has read most of the novels of Leon Uris and Herman Wouk, and every once in a while, when he hears a positive story in the media about Jews, he says, “There’s another one for us.” He loved Israel when we went as a family five years ago, and is looking forward to returning next summer on a NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) trip.
I’m very fortunate in that my wife does not practice another religious faith and that she fully participates in our family’s Jewish experiences, even though she has not converted to Judaism. Of course, we’re as close to my wife’s parents as we are to mine, and our children clearly know that their mother and her parents come from a different tradition. They’re certainly reminded of this every Christmas, which we have always spent at my in-laws. Yet they aren’t confused about being Jewish themselves.
If you had looked at our behavior early in our marriage, you might have wondered whether our children would have a Jewish identity. I think I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted the children to be Jewish, but in their earliest years I didn’t do much about it. For example, when my daughter was born, I didn’t even think about giving her a Hebrew name, and my parents didn’t raise the subject either. She got her Hebrew name, Tirzah, one day at the Boston Children’s Museum, which was having a multicultural festival. One of the activities involved learning the Hebrew name that had the same meaning as your English name. The person at the booth looked up the meaning of the name Emily, found out that it means industrious, then looked up the Hebrew name that means industrious, and found Tirzah. She then calligraphed Tirzah in Hebrew, and we still have the paper that Emily was handed that day. (When she was ten, we had our rabbi over and he did a somewhat more official naming ceremony for her and Adam.
As another example, I was never comfortable with the idea of having a Christmas tree in our house, but when the kids were pre-school age, we did have a Norfolk pine all year long, and at Christmas time we did put a few ornaments on it. By the time the children started school, though, they also started at Jewish religious school. By then, I think all of us were uncomfortable even with that degree of “decorating” a tree, and we stopped. Looking back now, our Norfolk pine with ornaments seems a little foolish. But my point is that our attitudes and our practices evolved. When our children were younger my wife and I were still negotiating how we would adjust our individual traditions, and that takes time. I think that my agreeing to put some ornaments on the Norfolk pine showed my wife that I respected her tradition and helped to enable us to reach a mutual decision later on.
Although my children have strong Jewish identities now, my confidence is qualified because one can never know what the future will bring, and I suppose the real test of their Jewish identity will be whether they will want to raise their own children as Jews. But our experience to date is one example of many that show that it is very possible, and very rewarding, to raise Jewish children in an interfaith family.