So, a confession, since it’s that time of year. I, your faithful JewishBoston parenting reporter, am only half-Jewish! Yes, it’s true. My dad is Jewish. My mother is Irish-Catholic. She was educated by nuns. She even went to a Catholic college!
They were married by a rabbi and a priest, something that I imagine was somewhat radical for 1970. My very Catholic grandparents, and my very, very Jewish grandmother, were probably not delighted that neither my dad nor my mom showed any desire to convert to the other’s religion. My mom says that my dad’s mom would always leave Jewish conversion pamphlets around the house whenever she would visit, hint hint, but that was about it. They all moved on, more or less.
I grew up celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, but that’s it. We just weren’t a religious family. My parents had grown up with Hebrew school, Sunday school, and all the rest, and I think there was a certain amount of ambivalence on their part. It wasn’t on my radar whatsoever, although I’d accompany my grandparents to church occasionally, or go to a wedding or a funeral (my mom has a very large extended family) and feel fascinated by the pageantry and ceremony of it all. When people would go up to take communion, I’d feel a bit left out. Later, in college, I was invited to a professor’s house for Passover. I felt like I’d missed out all those years. I mouthed along during the prayers and pretended to harbor a long-held passion for gefilte fish, but let’s face it: I had no idea what I was doing. I wish I did.
After college, I reconnected more with my Jewish side. My dad’s family is small, and there were never the same family gatherings that we had on my mom’s side for Christmas and Easter. So I compensated. I tagged along to friends’ Passovers like a half-Jewish orphan. I worked on a Jewish website, the Jewish Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (There are a surprising number of Jewish rock stars. Shande!) I joined Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters. It felt right.
Now I’m at another juncture: Just how Jewishly will I raise my kids? And many of my friends are in the same boat. Three close friends in my neighborhood alone are married to Jewish men and have half-Jewish kids. Another guy friend of mine, who is Jewish, is married to a non-Jew; two more Jewish friends, both with young kids, are married to Catholics, though the degree to which they identify as religious definitely varies.
This mirrors what’s going on in the broader Jewish community: 31 percent of all married Jews are intermarried. One of my friends has chosen to raise her children as Jews. Another is slowly wading into it, trying to expose her kids to Judaism with kid-friendly, age-appropriate classes and services. I’m considering the same thing, though part of me fears that I’ll be considered an interloper or look silly. I grew up believing in Santa Claus! But there’s a very real part of my identity that feels kind of fuzzy, and I don’t want my kids to feel the same way.
I think what’s holding me back is that I don’t want to over-identify with one religion or another: I was very close to my Catholic grandparents, for example, and Catholicism was a huge part of their identity, even if it wasn’t part of mine. There’s a funny part of me that feels like by exploring a different element of my background, I’d be rejecting theirs, which isn’t rational (but it’s honest).
We’re a mixed bag, and I know many other families are in the same boat. It helps to know many other friends who are in the same position and are slowly finding what fits for them. Acknowledging a faith isn’t the same as it was for my parents, I don’t think; it can be embraced in many different ways. As for my kids, we’re starting small: I’ve begun browsing some interfaith resources. We’re going to help friends break the fast after Yom Kippur this week. Small steps that feel right for our family.
If you’re part of an interfaith family, how do you balance it? What feels right? I’d love to know. (By the way, these days, I absolutely love gefilte fish.)