By Alyssa Frank Reichman
I hadn’t given interfaith issues in the Jewish community much thought until I met the man who is now my husband.
I was 33 and had moved to Boston from Brooklyn and decided to swipe right on a man with a great smile, nice eyes, a killer head of hair, and a job in public television. (Good values, I thought; I was right.) We grew closer quickly, and right away, our relationship posed an interesting challenge for me: I was falling for a man who was neither Jewish nor not Jewish.
The primary religion in my husband’s family is rebellion from one’s culture of origin. Ben’s father grew up in an affluent Jewish community in Westchester, where his love of classical music wasn’t understood. His mother grew up in a large, loving Protestant family in suburban Chicago, in an environment she often found stuffy and conformist. They fell in love and pursued their love of art and music in Florida, New Mexico, and then Alaska, combining their traditions. Ben grew up eating shipments of Zabar’s bagels, listening to Theodore Bikel, and being called “boychick” by family friends, one of whom helped officiate at our wedding. He also grew up celebrating Christmas and Easter, in a way that centered Santa, kindness, peace, and egg decoration – alongside meals of bagels and quality Alaskan smoked salmon.
When I asked him if he was Jewish on our third date, he said “kind of?” Years later, we are members of a very accepting Reform synagogue, regular observers of Shabbat and Jewish holidays, but Ben still isn’t sure how to answer this question. And I’m still left feeling frustrated by the lack of good language to describe the decisions we have made for our family.
Our family’s traditions and practices are not all Jewish, but we aren’t interfaith – not that I think being so is a problem; it just doesn’t accurately describe us. Interfaith implies that we have two faiths interacting, which we don’t. We celebrate American and Jewish holidays, but we also observe a secular Christmas which includes a tree, Santa, and the Colbert Christmas special, but no Jesus, angels or moral overtones, because our moral roots are Jewish and civic. To my husband, Christmas is a lot like Halloween: joyful and filled with decorations and delicious food. It just did not feel right to me to tell him to abandon his favorite holiday, when he was such an eager participant in Jewish communal life – something he didn’t really do before me.
The term interfaith is additionally problematic because it relies on a binary notion of identity, suggesting that one partner is “Jewish” and one is “something else.” This binary notion is distressing and unhelpful for Jews of patrilineal descent who didn’t grow up with Jewish communal life and those who grew up in families that embrace diverse traditions. Moreover, it feels very 1990s to approach identity this way. I work with teenagers every day, and I can count on one hand my students who only identify as one pure identity category. People shouldn’t have to leave behind parts of who they are to participate in Jewish life and count; neither should their partners. It is also dismissive of Jewish history and the fact that there have always been people in Jewish communities whose Jewish identities are more complex than simple binary categories.
Finally, it drives me nuts that many see my marriage and my family as a threat to the continuation of Judaism and the Jewish community. I care deeply about Judaism and believe that it is my commanded responsibility when I am a parent to teach Jewish traditions to my children, but my decision to marry someone who is Jew-ISH and celebrate secular Christmas in my home doesn’t contradict these things. When we cite intermarriage as our demise we are missing the real threat – namely, the lack of Jewish involvement and literacy. If our homes, interfaith or otherwise, are filled with vibrant Jewish practices and traditions, our Judaism will not be threatened by the embrace of the other traditions that members of our family or friends bring to our lives. Our community and our children can handle a little complexity – they do in all the non-religious aspects of identity that we welcome and embrace. And I don’t think that we should be building meaningful Jewish identity purely on the basis of things we “don’t do.” For these reasons, we have and will continue to host Shabbat dinner in December with the blue and white lights of our Christmas tree glowing next to our Shabbat candles.
Alyssa Frank Reichman is a former Jewish communal professional who now works as a college counseling director. She lives in Boston with her husband and kitten, Jerome Zabar.