September is a time of contradictions. Warm, sunlit days are followed by cool evening breezes, drifting through open windows, foretelling the arrival of fall. Days are fuller, yet darkness spreads earlier across the sky. Similarly, every September, contradictions creep into my own life, as I struggle with the arrival of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For me, the high holidays are a time of reconnecting with my faith — while recognizing it’s only part of my children’s legacy. Of feeling proud of my past, yet anxious about the future. Of reflecting on how much of my faith I want to — or should — impart to my half-Jewish children.
Growing up, my family followed the traditions of the past. We lit candles at Hanukkah, searched for the afikomen at Passover. But we weren’t necessarily observant. We acknowledged and reflected on the high holidays, but we didn’t go to temple. As I got older, I appreciated the traditions, the sacrifices. I knew there were branches missing from my family tree, lost to us in Europe decades ago — victims of the uglier side of humanity. I was Jewish, but I didn’t consider myself religious. And so, when I fell in love with a nice Catholic boy, who was also fairly non-practicing, I didn’t see a problem. If religion wasn’t important to us as individuals, how much could it matter to us as a married couple?
And yet, in many ways, I never felt more Jewish than when I intermarried. Suddenly, I was faced with the challenge of holding on to a faith I’d never fully identified with, for fear of losing it amid boisterous Christmas mornings or Easter feasts. And, of course, things only grew more complicated after having kids. I found myself engaging with my faith in ways I never had before, taking my kids to temple on the high holidays, out of a sense of responsibility to my family, to my faith, to centuries of nameless Jews before me. There have been questions I haven’t known how to answer, contradictions I’ve hoped my kids have failed to notice.
So, what does it mean to raise a half-Jewish child? It means:
- Being asked time and again, “Aren’t your kids Jewish if you are?” and not knowing the answer… or what you want it to be.
- An insane number of gifts every December. (Turns out, toys take up just as much room whether they’re wrapped in red and green or blue and white.)
- Biting your tongue as a guest leads a Catholic prayer at your dinner table, while your daughter awkwardly attempts to imitate the sign of the cross — and feeling, for the first time, like an outsider in your own home.
- Your daughter performing a wedding ceremony for her My Little Ponies, and instructing the boy pony to break the glass — because she saw her Catholic father do it in your wedding video.
- Being completely responsible for carrying out your faith’s rituals in your home — even if you don’t necessarily understand them any better than your non-Jewish spouse.
- Learning about your child’s other faith, so that you can answer questions about those traditions as well (even the ones your spouse can’t).
- Going to church to support your kids’ other identity… and feeling relieved when your baby cries, distracting people from the fact you have no idea when to stand or the words to any of the songs.
- Feeling blessed that your children have so many opportunities to gather with the people they love, making wonderful memories and celebrating shared values of love, family, and kindness to others.
- Wanting your child to value her heritage and those traditions entrusted to you by the previous generations — even though you know, just like you, she’ll probably end up marrying someone of another faith. And then dealing with that guilt every holiday.
I know the time will come when my kids’ questions will grow more complex, when we’ll have to explain all the contradictions of our multi-faith home. For now, I’ll keep taking my kids to high-holiday services, and carrying out the traditions of my childhood. And I’ll just hope that, as they grow older, the smell of brisket, the dancing lights of candles, and the joyful cadence of Hebrew songs will remain a part of them — no matter where their beliefs may lead them.photo credit: Paul Jacobson via photopin cc
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