Can kids be raised in a mixed marriage as proud and conscious Jews?
Parents of intermarrying offspring, columnist Helen Latner tells us, fear it cannot be done and that the kids will be “lost” —to them and to the Jewish people.
But the Jewish spouse can raise her/his children to be Jewishly identified, as these five success stories demonstrate.
These first-person accounts fill an important gap on the current scene of dire prophecies and gloom by telling how it can be done—and substantially illustrate Latner’s advice to the grandparents to “be there” for the mixed couple and for their grandchildren.
Sharon Lieberman is a 40-year-old teacher, writer and activist for women’s health issues now living in New York City. She and her husband, Dale Good, have one son and are expecting another child shortly.
It is Friday evening, Erev Rosh Hashana, 1982. The three of us walk the eight blocks home from our synagogue after our first Friday evening service as a family. Dale, my husband, leans over the yarmulked head of our 3 1/2-year-old son, Aaron, and hisses in mock horror, “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I didn’t know, I really didn’t,” I apologized. (Tonight, as my husband entered the main sanctuary, he had just pulled his tallit (prayer shawl) out of its bag when the shammas (sexton) bustled over, and kindly pointed out that the tallit was not needed. I was unaware that the tallit is not worn on Friday evenings, except on Yom Kippur.)
Dale’s embarrassment had implications beyond the minor gaffe: How can he raise a Jewish child when even his Jewish wife is ignorant of ritual, especially that applying to males? We laugh together, the clumsy leading the awkward. I wonder aloud what tallit lore is buried in our many do-it-yourself Judaism books.
If our attempt to raise a Jewish child is self-conscious, it is because my Jewish identity was acquired unconsciously. It was absorbed through the heart and spirit; I don’t have a book of rules. I did attend a Conservative synagogue and I was even confirmed. My mother and father were, and still are, active leaders in their suburban Jewish community. We celebrated Shabbat, and observed major Jewish holidays, but we were not a religious family; ritual, law, and liturgy did not dominate our observances. It was the specialness of those times, the smell of food cooking, the buzz of cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents around the table that formed my tradition of a Jewish family in a Jewish home. We are also second and third generation Midwesterners, and as children my brother and I hung Christmas stockings and awaited Santa Claus.
My husband was reared in exurbia in what he terms an “a-religious” home. His memories are of Christmas and Easter with no religious context at all. His much older sister married a Jew. Dale matured alongside his brother-in-law’s large, exuberant extended family and his sister’s Jewish children, learning, as he puts it, bagels-and-lox Judaism—that is, some of the superficialities of the culture but little of its moral and ethical foundations.
We are both from the Midwest, from cities a mere 60 miles apart; we first met in New York City. Both families were delighted when we married, in our mid-30’s, to start a family. He converted enthusiastically, though his conversion was not rigorous. Conversion or no, there was never a doubt that I would raise a Jewish child, with or without the father’s active support. A Jewish home and Judaic ethics were all that I knew. And, in truth, I wanted my future children to be welcomed into my family.
Aaron’s birth a year and a half later signaled the start of the serious work of creating a Jewish home. We got off to a good start. Dale arranged for a mohel, my parents and their rabbi came to town laden with boxes of homemade baked goods, and we made a bris (circumcision ceremony). It was, in effect, an announcement to our gathered friends that from now on, we were—officially—a Jewish family.
We immediately did as parents what we never did as a couple: We began celebrating Shabbat and we joined a liberal Conservative synagogue. We prepare Aaron and ourselves for each Jewish observance with stacks of books. Dale has begun teaching Aaron Hebrew letters and words. In fact, Dale is teaching himself Hebrew from a series of programmed texts and now knows more about Jewish law and liturgy than I do.- His studies excite his intellect, and appeal to his scholarly mind. One might think that he displays the zeal of a convert. Yet as his enthusiasm begins to resemble sober commitment, I sometimes balk. I am afraid of being left behind.
We face that together—just how Jewish is our child going to be? I have come to understand my Jewish-ness as a cultural and ethnic identification that is often transmitted in intangible ways. Dale cannot bring that to his parenting because he never experienced it. But he is finding his own way through study. So now I wonder if, ironically, I will transmit the smaller part of my son’s Jewish identity, the part he may come to regard as less valuable than his father’s contribution. I would have to give up a great deal of worthwhile secular activity to keep up with Dale’s interest in teaching our son the nuts and bolts of Judaism.
Dale and I agree on most aspects of Aaron’s Jewish education, however. Aaron will go to Hebrew school, he will celebrate Bar Mitzvah. Dale is adamant that we remain in a city where a large Jewish community and liberal attitudes can bolster his efforts to parent a Jewish child, and where he and Aaron can more easily be accepted as Jews.
We make frequent visits to my family despite the geographical distance. It is Dale’s decision that his son join his gentile cousins only at times when they are not gathered for Christmas and Easter. He himself ceased to enjoy these holidays after the age of twelve, and he believes that Aaron would be confused by the differences between our celebrations and theirs. I disagree. I think Aaron should know, and eventually experience, the occasions that are meaningful to his father’s family. But I understand Dale’s reasons, he is in the process of establishing his own relationship with Judaism and wants his son to follow us.
I, too, have behaved as if I must defend our son’s introduction to Judaism against the seduction of… what? Christianity? Gentile genes? I don’t know, it’s unreasonable of course and my early heavy-handedness with him —taking every opportunity to remind him of his Jewishness—is abating. But when we recently viewed my old family films showing several Christmas stocking scenes, I felt uneasy; I was allowed what Dale and I deny him. Will he think we are hypocrites?
I have to confess that there are moments when I am overwhelmed with the insight into how much easier and more natural it would be to raise a Jewish child with a Jewish man. What is Shabbat, after all, if not a sharing between the generations, and the retelling of a common history? Dale and I must create some new traditions that will bind the three of us to my history and Dale’s.
And what does our child make of all this? He loves Shabbat, the flickering candles as the three of us recite the bracha (blessing) in unison, the songs from my childhood, and the atmosphere of a special family night when we’re all home for dinner. He looks forward to Chanukah (which we are careful to celebrate very modestly), Sukkot, Simchat Torah, and Purim. When the competition for his attention in the secular world becomes cacophonous (as for example around Christmas and Easter) he sometimes remarks, “We’re Jewish, right?”
And last year, when not quite three, he would sometimes explain to the presumptuous that “We don’t celebrate Christmas, we’re Jewish.” He questions with the thoughtfulness of any young child involved in the perplexing task of sorting out family ties, gender, and racial identity. He recently took a long, hard look at the Black man who operates the elevator in our apartment building and whispered to me, “Bennie’s not Jewish, is he?” Well, of course, Bennie could be, and we reminded Aaron that there are Black members of our synagogue, and all over the world.
As he gets older there will be those who will challenge his right to call himself a Jew; he has heard, “but you don’t look Jewish” from Jews, an ironical remark since many people are surprised to learn that Dale was not born or raised Jewish. We hope that Aaron will be a conscious, deliberate Jew because of his parents’ intermarriage.
Zahava Jacobson (pseudonym), 43, lives with her actor husband and two sons in Manhattan. Born in New York City, she lived in Israel as a teenager, returning to the U. S. at 19. She is currently doing graduate work in arts administration.
I have two sons. One has just celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in New York and Israel; the second is eight-and-a-half.
My husband’s paternal grandfather was a Jew. His father was raised as a Jew until he was five, when the grandfather died and the Jewish relatives rejected his non-Jewish widow. My husband was raised in New England as a “soft-shell Baptist.”
At the time we met, I was struck by his interest in his Jewish roots and his desire to know more about Jews and Judaism. But he wasn’t sure he wanted his children to be brought up as Jews. This was a bone of contention between us.
After many discussions on the subject, he read Treblinka. Its description of Jewish suffering and losses had a powerful impact on him. He told me, “I don’t want to take away more people from the Jewish people by having my children born of a Jewish woman but not raised as Jews. I want my children to be part of the chain of Jewish history.”
We are members of a Reform temple, and a few years ago we were members of a Conservative synagogue. But we don’t really have a Jewish community. Yet there are two things I have banked on in raising my children Jewish. The first is Israel. My family lives there, and I grew up there. We have been there many times as a family and my older son has also been there on his own. So there is a definite relationship to that country for all four of us. For my children, the community is Israel— the connection to the Land.
The second thing is that somewhere along the line, I acquired a love of Judaism. I don’t have as much knowledge as I would like, but I have a love of it and I think I impart that to the children. Being married to a non-Jew has forced me constantly to question and evaluate what aspects of Judaism are important to me and how to transmit them to the children in a meaningful way.
At some point—I don’t remember exactly when—we started lighting the candles every Friday night. We say the blessings on the wine and on the challah. One summer, when, due to other plans, we skipped a few Friday nights, my younger son complained, “We have a family tradition, and we have to do it.”
We hold seders at home and have a Rosh Hashanah dinner. A few years ago, I started holding a Tu B’Shvat [New Year for the Trees] “seder” at home, using four kinds of fruit juice. On Purim, we usually attend a synagogue service. On Chanukah, we light candles and invite neighbors to play dreidel and eat potato pancakes with us.
My husband, who did not convert to Judaism, joins us at the temple on occasion. He encourages the children’s sense of Jewish identification. But when he initially agreed to their being raised as Jews, he did not anticipate all the nuances of what being a Jew means. Occasionally, when the children and I get very engrossed in organized religious expression, he fears they will become strangers to him. But these feelings are fleeting and temporary, and overall, I know he appreciates the beauty of the Jewish celebrations and heritage.
I didn’t want to have a Christmas tree in the house, but early on in our marriage, my husband said he didn’t want to give that up—the tree reminded him of pleasant experiences. I understood that for him to give up the Christmas tree would be as painful as for me to give up having a Passover seder. So I agreed to the tree, which led to the problem of how to prevent Chanukah from becoming a “poor man’s Christmas.” I have tried to resolve this by keeping Christmas and Chanukah as two completely different holidays. Christmas is the one day a year the kids get indulged with more gifts than they can handle. We approach Chanukah more like in Israel—we exchange token gifts—Chanukah gelt—and read stories and invite friends over.
When my older son was in the second grade, we enrolled him in a Hebrew school. It was held once a week, which was minimal, so we supplemented it with private Hebrew lessons with a small group. His Hebrew and Jewish education since then have been sporadic; however, this past year he has gone to religious school at the temple to which we belong, and received private tutoring from a woman cantor for his Bar Mitzvah.
He became increasingly involved with his Jewish identity through his Bar Mitzvah studies. For example, he has put up a mezuzah on the entrance to this bedroom and kisses it each time he goes in and out, and lays tefillin periodically. He plans to continue his Hebrew and Jewish studies, and to return to Israel for his sophomore year of high school.
When my younger son was in the second grade, he went to a Yiddish schule organized by parents in our building. When the schule was disbanded after one year, we enrolled him at the religious school of our temple.
The kids feel they are Jewish and also that they are very much involved with the larger society. They don’t feel isolated; they are comfortable in Israel, comfortable with Jews and comfortable with non-Jews. The older boy is quite an activist. He has a sense of responsibility toward the larger social ills of the world. To me that is a major part of what Judaism means, and I’m very proud of his involvement.
William Bly is a 34-year-old controller for a major U.S. corporation. He was raised in the Bronx, New York, and now lives with his wife, Susan Brede, and two daughters in Jackson, Mississippi.
In 1979, my wife and I moved to Jackson, Mississippi. We were the proud parents of a 20-month-old daughter. I was looking forward to increased job responsibilities with a company I’d been with for six years; Susan was looking for opportunities to continue her career as a librarian, and for a good place to raise children.
In the six years we had lived in Connecticut, we had avoided any contact with religious institutions. We had enough family and friends to keep our social life busy since I had grown up in New York, and Sarah was too young to be asking questions about religion.
My own religious background was very limited. I attended the Workmen’s Circle’s schule for five years and got an education in Jewish culture. I also learned to read and write Yiddish. My parents did not belong to a synagogue, and the only time I attended services was at friends’ Bar Mitzvahs. I did not have a Bar Mitzvah myself, because I felt the religious significance of my friends’ Bar Mitzvahs was far overshadowed by the parties that followed.
At one point in my life, during my four-month army reserve training, I did become more involved in Judaism. I was stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky and would attend Friday night, Saturday and Sunday services. The Sunday service was followed by a day at the Louisville Jewish Community Center. The Hadassah ladies served us bagels, lox and scrambled eggs, and then we spent the rest of the day reading or playing sports. The main reason I attended the services was to get out of Saturday training and to get some decent food. The rest of the company was restricted to the barracks for the first six weeks of training.
My wife Susan was brought up by religious Catholic parents in Dubuque, Iowa. She had attended parochial schools through high school, but turned away from Catholicism during her college years. When we met in graduate school, she had no religious identification. Since Susan had no religion, and I felt a cultural attachment to Judaism, we decided to raise the children as Jews.
We apparently discussed this before we were married. I have no memory of the conversation and was pleasantly surprised when, after Sarah was born, Sue reminded me that she had agreed to raise the children as Jews. We were not married in a Jewish ceremony, nor did Susan convert prior to our marriage. A personal friend, a woman who is a Presbyterian minister, performed an essentially non-denominational ceremony.
When we moved to Jackson, we joined the temple there immediately, since the churches and temples are the main centers of social activity in the community. The Jackson Jewish community is composed of about 250 families; about 90 percent belong to the Reform temple. Jews make up less than one percent of the Jackson population, and the religious fervor of a large segment of the Christian community ensures that Jewish children will learn about Christianity through their contacts with other children.
The Jackson Jewish community has been very welcoming to us and has accepted Susan as one of their own. Over the last three years, both of us have grown closer to Judaism and have developed a greater concern and appreciation for Jewish issues and religion.
Sarah attended the temple nursery school, which is the only non-sectarian one in town, and started Sunday school last year at the age of four. Sarah already perplexes us with religious questions like, “Where does God live?” I think Sarah perceives her mother as also being Jewish, although she recognizes that her grandparents are not.
When our second daughter was born, we had a traditional Reform Jewish naming ceremony for her at home, something our first daughter had not had in Connecticut.
Our social involvement with the Jewish community has exposed us to a world that we had ignored in Connecticut. Susan is active in the Sisterhood and in Hadassah. I have been active in B’nai Brith and am treasurer of the Jackson Jewish Welfare Fund. I usually attend Friday evening services and do not work on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. We light Chanukah candles and give the children presents. We also enjoy a seder, usually with an adopted family in Mississippi. We do not celebrate Christian holidays.
As our familiarity with Judaism deepened, Susan began thinking of conversion. We were part of an encounter group for mixed-marriage couples which our rabbi organized. We discussed various facets of Judaism, how to celebrate holidays, how to raise children and how to handle parents. Susan has done extensive reading about Judaism, and finally converted this past summer.
Our daughters did not convert, as I consider this a legal requirement to satisfy Orthodox law that is not necessary in Reform Judaism. We have not contemplated a Jewish wedding ceremony. I didn’t perceive any basic conflict in raising the children as Jewish, either before Susan’s conversion or afterward. The kids interact well with their non-Jewish relatives, and I believe Susan’s folks are happy to see them being raised in some religion rather than as atheists.
Eileen Berry-Harahan, 39, lives in Reston, Virginia, where she works for an architectural and building firm in Reston as their “Jane Of All Trades.”
I have a son Alec (age 17) and a daughter Rachel (age 15). My first husband, their father, died ten years ago. He had converted to Judaism before our marriage, having already considered conversion for some time. My present husband, Sam, has two sons from a prior marriage and comes from a Presbyterian-Catholic, Southern background … a far cry from my New York, Orthodox-Conservative upbringing.
My husband and I consider ourselves more spiritual than religious. Sam never felt a strong bond to any particular church and I spent many years uncertain about my own Jewish identity within the traditional setting of most Jewish communities. We knew though, at the time of our marriage, that I would continue to raise my children as Jews. The ties were still there, and the children were taught many traditions through our family celebrations.
A turning point for all of us was joining a small alternative Jewish community called Shoreshim (“roots”) here in Reston. The Hebrew school that the children attended (I use the term Hebrew school for lack of a better description) stresses history, culture and tradition. The focus of the curriculum has been (and still is) to give the kids a sense of being part of a Jewish community and a knowledge of their heritage. The community is totally lay-led and composed of about 35 families.
The openness, flexibility, and fellowship of Shoreshim has permitted not only my children, but both myself and Sam to take active leadership roles in a variety of activities. We have yearly retreats, Sabbath services in our homes, adult study groups as well as holiday celebrations. Sam has found a structure within this community to support and express his values and also meet his spiritual needs without any inner conflict. My personal identity as a Jew is far stronger now and these positive feelings have helped Alec and Rachel develop a wonderful sense of pride about their own Jewish identity.
Ted and Chris, my stepsons, join in with many of the activities. While they do not consider themselves Jewish, they will join us for Sabbath services and Passover Seder when they are staying with us. Their participation has been no different than my own “joining-in” other friends’ celebrations regardless of their ethnic or religious background.
A wonderful experience for us as a family were Alec’s and Rachel’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. They were homegrown celebrations for which we wrote the service, very different in that our energies were not directed toward a “catered affair.” We put months of work into a service that was meaningful to us which far out-weighed our concerns over other logistics or symbols. For example, my daughter chose to design a tallis (prayer shawl) for herself, and since I knew all the chants I was able to teach her the haftorah.
As easy as all this has been for me in some respects, this blending of two backgrounds has its hurdles. The biggest for me was the first Christmas tree in our home. It was important for my husband and his children and I couldn’t deny them that pleasure, especially given the year-round support I receive for our Jewish celebrations. It was a very difficult time for me during Christmas the first year I was married to him, yet we have learned to rise above any disapproving glances or comments.
I think my parents, having experienced with me the tragic death of my first husband at a very young age, have changed priorities in terms of what is important. How I celebrate Passover isn’t important anymore, it is important that I want to celebrate it. Not having a rabbi at my son’s Bar Mitzvah wasn’t important, my parents were just proud that my son wanted it. Our priorities have changed with our situation and I suppose in many respects we’re a bit wiser and stronger.
After all is said and done, what makes things really work for us is that the people we’re close to have been supportive and accepting. Secondly, and almost equally important, is that we’ve had an opportunity to make choices.
Inge Lederer Gibel
Inge Lederer Gibel is a writer and intergroup relations specialist. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s, Judaism, The Christian Century, Response, Worldview, Israel Horizons and many other publications. She is on the staff of a major American Jewish organization and is a progressive Zionist activist.
In 1951, just before my 21st birthday, I married a Jamaican immigrant whose mother, a wonderful woman, was devoutly Catholic. My husband, however, rejected Catholicism, and for all intents and purposes, religion. Before I agreed to marry him, we discussed my very strong Jewish commitment, which included, of course, the Jewishness of any children we would have. Since Jewishness, then and now, means everything to me, and color has no relevance within Judaism, I felt no conflict; since religion, as such, was irrelevant to him and since he knew that I could be trusted to imbue our children, as well, with a strong sense of their Black heritage, he accepted this demand.
We have two children: a daughter who is a graduate student in African Studies and research assistant at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she lives with her Israeli husband and their two boys; and a son, in New York, who works as a placement officer for a Wall Street personnel agency. Our daughter is biological, our son is adopted.
We were very poor when we were married, and I was a working mother by necessity, not choice. I had been quite ill in my pregnancy and didn’t dare risk a second pregnancy while my job was so important. At that time, Louise Wise (adoption) Services decided to begin trying to place interracial children who were halachically Jewish, i.e., where the mother was Jewish and the father was not. This was my way of getting the second child we wanted and also doing what I considered an important mitzvah—saving a Jewish child, because every Jewish child who is not raised as a Jew is a loss to us, and in the age of the Holocaust we can’t afford that loss.
My husband honored our agreement and our children were raised as Jews, with his full cooperation—attendance at all normal synagogue functions where parents are expected to show up during the course of Hebrew school, the Jewishness of our home, and, later, understanding their involvement in Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist Zionist youth movement. At the same time, our children were fully exposed to and involved with the civil rights movement and in learning about their Black heritage.
Our children were raised to believe themselves to be—as indeed they are—all Jewish and all Black, and although the time came, as they were growing up in the sixties, when both Jewish racism and Black anti-Semitism were realities to be dealt with, they believed that such manifestations were the result of outside exploitive forces who had much to gain from turning two oppressed groups against each other, not from an innate conflict between Blackness and Jewishness.
They were strengthened by the fact that, unlike some children of mixed marriages, they were never taught and never believed that they were half anything. I don’t think interracial children should be raised as half-Black and half-white. Nor do I think it is fair to pretend that one can be half-Christian and half-Jewish. There is no such thing. It is wrong to tell children that somehow, Judaism and Christianity can be incorporated; it is wrong to pretend you can have a Christmas tree and a Chanukah menorah.
In many cases you don’t know how committed you are to your religious roots, your cultural roots, until the children are born, until perhaps a parent dies and you are feeling all that guilt and all that need for continuity. Then I’ve seen people who loved each other very much tearing themselves and their children apart as one becomes more Jewish or more Christian. Then the child feels that, in being forced to choose one or the other,s/he is rejecting one or the other parent.
My husband felt, and I think still feels, very positively toward Jewish religious and cultural values, and very good about the commitment he was making. Nevertheless, in fairness to him I have to say that many people who enter a relationship where this kind of commitment is made do not fully understand what is involved. Even the Jewish partner who is asking for that commitment doesn’t always understand what will come out of it.
When I married my husband, my consciousness and commitment as a Jew in the Prophetic tradition and as a Zionist were very strong and very complete—but I wasn’t a mother. I had come to America from Vienna as a child of eight. We were refugees, experiencing anti-Semitism in the areas where we lived, and alienation from our Jewish neighbors who were trying to assimilate and become affluent and were not welcoming to us as refugees from Nazism.
I was an isolated child. I lived in books, and my Jewishness developed in relation to my parents and to the people we were forced to leave behind, to whom I felt a tremendous responsibility even as a child; and to my heroes, Biblical, Zionist and revolutionary heroes. I learned to be a Jew by myself, on my own since my parents couldn’t afford to send me to Hebrew school; and being a girl, it didn’t seem important enough for the rabbis to offer us a scholarship.
In my late teens, we moved to an area where I finally found Jews I had something in common with. Although they did not share my deep faith in our religious values, they were Socialist Zionists and people who tried to live the Prophetic tradition through a commitment to social action. Through them I became involved in Habonim, and considered aliyah, but the continuing illness of my sister, and my parents’ need to have me near, made that seem impossible at the time. It is still my goal.
When my daughter went to a Jewish religious afternoon school, my isolated Judaism wasn’t enough any more because she came home and began asking: “Couldn’t we keep Shab-bat? Couldn’t we light candles?” At first my attitude was, well, I am a very good Jew. I am a better Jew than a lot of people who light candles and keep Shabbat and aren’t decent human beings and, therefore, are not decent Jews. But she needed the ritual, and out of her need I did it. Once I did it for her, I found I was doing it for myself.
I must say that then there was a problem for my husband, because he hadn’t counted on lighting candles on Friday night and maybe staying home with the family instead of going out as most American Jews do.
A second dimension of the problem might not exist for many American Jews, but it does where the Jewish partner is Israel-oriented and feels that Zionism is very much a part of being a Jew, as I do. I raised my children, with his full knowledge, to think of Israel as one of their options, as I think all Jewish children should be raised. But when my daughter chose to live in Israel, that was a problem for my husband. To see his daughter—a beautiful young Black woman, graduate of a very good private school, with many doors open -to her in America—going off to what some people consider a crazy little Middle Eastern country where there is a war every five years, was the limit. He wasn’t going any further and that, of course, did create a conflict, and eventually caused us to separate.
Overall, I would say that we were very well received wherever we wanted to be in the Jewish community—and that was as true for my husband as it was for my children. Many Jews are against intermarriage because historically—and here I absolutely agree with them—Jews who have married out have been lost to the Jewish people and have often turned into enemies of the Jewish people. But once Jews realize that you are a Jew who is not only committed to being part of the Jewish people but also to bringing in your children to strengthen the Jewish people, they are very happy about it.
I think it is very difficult to raise children in a totally isolated environment where it’s just you and them. I am sure it can be done, but I think it is much more difficult that way. My parents really helped to raise my children and we were very close to them.
Their lives were enriched by the fact that not only did we have among our good and close friends all kinds of people of various ethnic and racial groups and various professional backgrounds, but also a variety of Jews. They didn’t have the feeling that there is only one way to be a good Jew or for that matter, only one way to be a good Black person, or a good human being.