About Being an Interfaith Family
They Found Faith in Interfaith Lives
by Lucy Gellman
Sitting in a drafty, castle-like Presbyterian church on Easter Sunday with my partner’s family, I could feel anxiety bubbling up with each hymn I didn’t know. Around us, the white walls of his church stretched out toward the ceiling like long, sinister fingers. The organ struck a round note. A light wind pressed at the side door, rattling its heavy handles.
My God, the God I had grown up with as a Reform Jewish kid – who wasn’t a being at all, but a set of principles around social justice and tikkun olam – was nowhere to be found. And that scared me, because it meant that there wasn’t room for another faith in my life or the life of my potential children.
If it came to Judaism, it was my way or the highway.
Or so I thought until this fall, until I started interviewing members of our area’s robust interfaith community. Nestled within it – at people’s kitchen tables, on their couches, talking to their kids and debating the occasional Hanukkah bush – I found myself face to face with the extraordinary power of compromise, and of two partners of two faiths sharing traditions without derision.
An interfaith family can work seamlessly, I learned. Although it’s not always easy.
“You Gotta Keep Paddling”
In 2013, a study done by the PEW research center estimated that of 6.8 million total American Jews – and that number is on the upper end of population estimates, with the lower number closer to 5.4 million – 58 percent of adult respondents (the study was done by phone) had married non-Jews.
When that number was closer to 41 percent in the late 1980s, I was somewhere in those statistics, the product of a lapsed Catholic and a Reform Jew whose midlife crisis turned him toward Buddhism.
Even as one of the only Jews in my middle and high school, I loved growing up in the Reform tradition. Every Sunday, my mother would pack my brother and me into a beat-up Honda Accord and drive 15 minutes to a local athletic facility in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where a tiny group of Midwestern Jews had decided to rent out space for Hebrew tutoring and grade-specific courses on the Torah, holidays, and guiding principles of Judaism (my favorite of which was, and remains, not needing to believe in God).
If we were celebrating a holiday, we got to try a cooking demo in a cramped kitchen, where our ten or so small bodies would crowd around a food processor or frying pan to watch ingredients transform into a cultural dish, giving off a heavy smell that was supposed to connect us with our history.
There, our faces in the warmth of the stove, it was as if we were all confirming: We were different from most of our peers, and that was OK.
It was more deliberate than I could have imagined at the time. Someone – probably my mother, who had broken up with Catholicism years before – had made the conscious decision to pull us out of Christianity and plunge us into the principles of my dad’s faith, which his parents still practiced avidly, but he did not. Friday nights morphed into twice monthly Shabbat dinners and 7:30 pm services. Weekends were for tutoring. A few of my classmates became close friends, bound by a shared sense of faith, a budding moral compass.
There are Elm City analogues to this. In the midst of raising an interfaith 7 year-old and 10 year-old, New Havener Bruce Ditman recalled listening to his mother tell him to marry a Jewish girl as she tucked him into bed each night. Their community, she maintained, was in crisis, and it was his obligation to carry it on.
He didn’t heed that sweet but needling voice. But even in an interfaith marriage – which became an interfaith divorce – that voice kept him involved in Congregation B’nai Jacob. He was firm on keeping his kids moving forward in the tradition.
“Raising interfaith kids is like you’re paddling in a pond,” he said. “You pick up your oars, you stop moving. If you’re not actively engaged in the Judaism of your interfaith kids, they become Christian by default. Christmas break, Easter break, Santa Claus, Christmas trees ... So in order to raise kids where there are two faiths, you gotta keep paddling. Always. Because if you stop, it goes away.”
There Is Such a Thing as a Hanukkah Bush
Not everyone I talked to saw it that way. Mandi and Scott Jackson, who belong to Congregation Mishkan Israel and have decided to raise their sons Max and Eli Jewish, bringing symbols of both Judaism and Christianity, with which Scott was loosely raised, into the home. In the winter, they celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. In the spring, Easter and Passover. It’s how Mandi did it growing up. She said the practice increases family members’ understanding of themselves, and each other.
“The notion that there’s some opposition or competition is not something that I think is real, and therefore not something that has ever come up,” said Scott, whose mother frequently attends Shabbat services at Mishkan in addition to Sunday mornings at church. “We celebrate everything.”
Which has made for some interesting juxtapositions. Sitting back into her living room couch, Mandi recalled one winter when Hanukkah, arriving late, had overlapped with Christmas preparations. She pulled up a video of 7-year old Eli singing “Hanukkah oh Hanukkah!” triumphantly as she played the piano and Scott decorated the tree behind them. In the middle of the room, a menorah burned brilliantly for the eighth night, filling the frame with light.
“I always thought of myself as a Jewish person who was part of a complicated family, and part of the traditions of a really rich, diverse family where we did a whole bunch of different things,” she said. “I think our kids have the same experience, where ... [the Christian holidays] are sort of the default holidays that we all have, whereas the Jewish holidays are something that is more special to them.”
And I knew, immediately what she meant. It opened a well of magnanimity in me that had been dormant for years, when some bad brush with Christianity – something I had not accepted because I assumed (incorrectly) that it would not accept me – had left me uncompromising. When my mom married my dad in 1987, I’m pretty sure they cut some sort of similar, partially unspoken deal: All-in Judaism was OK, and would forever win the adoration and approval of my grandparents, but the Christmas tree and stockings with which my mother had grown up would stay. As long as we could recite the Hanukkah story and light a menorah with our eyes closed.
The Santa Battle
There are, I imagine, a million ways to navigate this. I found one of those ways a few miles away in the Spring Glen neighborhood of Hamden, where Steph Slattery and her husband Brian (who, in full disclosure, is the arts editor for the New Haven Independent) were recalling a different discussion about religious rituals.
Some had been simple: Jewish holidays happened in the nuclear Slattery home; Christian holidays happened outside of it, with Brian’s folks. Their son Leo was welcome to learn about and partake in the rituals of Christianity outside the house, but Judaism and its teachings governed within.
But one conflict, around a certain guy in a red suit who was not allowed past the front door, had turned into a bit of a battle of wills – and then a teachable moment.
The discussion over Santa had started nine years ago, when Leo was a baby. Brian’s mother had wanted the magic of Christmas to extend to her grandchild. As in, that cherry-nosed, merrily dimpled rotund fellow from the North Pole.
Steph, who is Jewish, was open to Leo attending mass with Brian’s parents, Easter at their place, a discussion of the Christian holidays, and a post bar-mitzvah decision to choose the faith tradition that was right for him. But she drew the line at Santa Claus.
“I’m not telling him that there’s some guy in a red suit bringing him presents,” she said. “I’m going to tell him that we’re celebrating this holiday because it’s important to his grandparents, and we’re going to teach him about the reason for the holiday, and we’re going to have him thank his grandparents for the presents they give him.”
But Steph, who also belongs to Mishkan Israel, sees that kind of discussion – and the compromise reached therein – as a special feature of Judaism, in which argument and civil discourse may be the most genuine displays of faith. It was important to her to raise Leo Jewish and to get reintegrated into the customs herself. But she wanted to also honor the Catholicism with which Brian grew up, and to which his parents still subscribed.
She’s far from alone in that thought. Reaching his arms across the Slattery’s breakfast table, Leo recalled how his Judaism affected the choices he made when it came to telling the truth about Santa, or lying to protect his peers.
No Need To Reconcile
Across town, New Havener Sarah Murphy, a lapsed Catholic who had become culturally Jewish through her marriage to Adrian Haimovich, remembered how moved she’d been after hearing a service on LGBT rights from a female rabbi. She was motivated to incorporate that into her own practices as someone who had forgotten about faith.
Even Ditman, who is still paddling furiously against the current, said he would open himself to the possibility of another interfaith relationship.
Their narrative thread is the same: They operate in a language of thoughtfulness and compromise.
Or as Scott Jackson said: “I don’t feel a need to reconcile [Judaism and Christianity].”
I don’t either, I think. For now.
The article was originally published in the New Haven Independent, November 25, 2016.