Keeping the (inter)faith
A year or so before we got engaged, Paul and I had the "big religion talk." We'd discussed religion before to one extent or another -- it's kind of hard to avoid when you're constantly traveling to one family for Passover and the other family for Easter, but this was the official conversation. We were on our way home from my parents' house, where Paul had come to join my family for dinner to break the Yom Kippur fast. The rabbi's sermon that day had been about interfaith families and their role in the Jewish community and I was thinking a lot about how to bridge the gap between the future I saw with Paul and the past I felt duty bound to honor as a Jew. I'm sure he knew this conversation was coming -- we'd been living together for a few months by then and it was no secret that we both expected to live happily ever after together. Neither of us were foolish enough to think that we could do this without first addressing the issue of our differing religious values, and as I described the sermon, it provided the starting point we'd needed for our own discussion.
By the time we arrived home, we'd agreed on some basic guidelines for a future family. I would raise our children Jewish, and Paul would support me from the sidelines. I would never ask him to come to temple except for Bar Mitzvahs and he would never complain about the cost of temple dues. We would show our children a world beyond Judaism -- there would be Christmas in our house because it's Paul's holiday and the kids wouldn't exclusively go to Jewish schools, Jewish camp, etc. If our children wanted to quit Hebrew School and not be Bar Mitzvahed, that was their choice, but once they'd signed up for a year of classes, they'd be committed until the following year -- no quitting mid-stream. It all felt very fair and equitable in a far-off fantasy kind of way.
That conversation took place over 7 years ago, and so far, we've done a reasonably good job of sticking to the rules. From our interfaith marriage ceremony to the annual blended Christmas/Chanukah celebration that we host for both sides of the family each year, we've worked hard at making this interfaith thing work. We've both bent the rules a few times... Evan didn't have a bris because it made Paul too uncomfortable and Julia attends a Jewish preschool because it was frankly the best educational option available to us. But for the most part, we've stuck doggedly to the plan, even when it's felt a little uncomfortable. I'm sure that hearing Julia identify as a Jew probably rubs Paul a little wrong, but I can't know for sure because he's kept his mouth firmly shut about it. And while the Christmas tree in our home and excitement over Santa's visit feel terribly awkward to me, I gamely do my very best to make Christmas every bit as special for my children as the Jewish holidays we celebrate together.
This past weekend, I took Julia to Tiny Tot Shabbat at the temple for the first time. It was a special Mommy/Julia outing, and she loved every second of it. So did I. Singing the songs of my youth and exposing Julia to the elements of my culture was surprisingly emotional for me and I found myself wondering why I'd waited so long to start to do these things with her. The answer is that it's simply hard to do alone. I had to crawl out of the warm bed I share with Paul early that morning, knowing that I was taking our daughter on an outing which neither interests nor appeals to her father. He listened cheerfully to her excited description of our outing when we returned home, but he truthfully didn't share any of our enthusiasm, nor would I have expected him to. I think we're both starting to realize that while our compromise sounded good in theory and can definitely work if we want it to, it's never going to be as easy as it sounds. We've only just begun on a long path of child rearing, and the uncomfortable differences between our personal philosophies are going to come up over and over and over again in the coming years.
As hard as this is turning out to be, though, I'm also slowly discovering an additional benefit to our situation that I never could have anticipated. Owning sole responsibility for my children's spiritual education forces me to question my own Jewish identity, clarify the real importance of religion in my life and identify the elements of Judaism that I truly feel strongly about sharing with Julia and Evan. I am aware of the value of what I'm passing down to my children much more acutely, I suspect, than if I simply raised Jewish children by rote with a Jewish partner. Singing Adon Olam with my daughter on Saturday nearly brought tears to my eyes because it felt like such a big deal to me. That would probably never have been the case if I just went to temple with a Jewish husband and our kids on a regular basis.
I can only hope that I'll continue to strike the right balance between passing my religious pride and identity along to my children and honoring the promises I've made to my husband. Even if, in the end, our children choose soccer over Hebrew School or decide to identify as atheists like their Dad, I think that this experience will still help to strengthen my own Judaism and my ties to my community. I hope Julia and Evan will be there beside me as I attend services in the coming years. But I realize now that I'll be going with or without them. And ironically, I might never have felt this way had I not married a man who isn't Jewish.