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Doing It by the Book

I have a confession to make. I go to group therapy on the second Thursday of each month. My husband and children think I’m going to my book club meeting. But, to be honest, only about thirty minutes of the two hours we meet are spent discussing the book. The rest of the time we talk about the challenges and complexities of being wives and mothers, particularly in interfaith families.

The book club wasn’t created to dive into interfaith issues. At least I don’t think it was. It began when my friend Staci invited five friends to read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and meet to discuss it. On the first evening, as we introduced ourselves, I noticed that all of us had young children and all of us were raising our children Jewish.

I’m a Catholic married to a Jew and I knew that Staci, who is Jewish, is married to a Catholic. Being curious, I asked more questions. It turned out that three of us were in marriages in which one spouse was not Jewish, two women had converted to Judaism prior to marriage, and only one was in a marriage in which both spouses were Jewish by birth. From the first evening, it was clear that Judaism was a significant factor in all our lives and that it had a defining role in our own identities as well as the identities of our children. (I think it is an amusing coincidence that we had chosen to meet at Zingerman’s, the only Jewish-style delicatessen in town!)

Each month our book club follows the same routine. The first twenty minutes are for settling in and getting food while waiting for everyone to arrive. We then begin to discuss the book of the month. It doesn’t take long for comments about the themes of the book to be peppered with remarks of a more personal nature. These exchanges range from specific ways we’ve handled situations to general observations about life.

For example, Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif, was one of the first books we read. The book’s plot time-travels between a modern-day relationship set against the Israeli and Palestinian conflict and a romance between an English woman and an Egyptian Nationalist set in 1900. In the latter plot line, they marry and she stays in Egypt, giving up much of her own culture and past ways of life. When he dies, she takes their children and moves back to England.

Our discussion began by exploring the historical and political themes of the book and the author’s biases, as well as our own perspectives on the current situation in Israel. We moved on to discuss characters. A general question arose: How much can a person compromise for a relationship before she compromises her sense of self? Then things became more personal as we began to share our own stories.

My husband and I were in the midst of trying to figure out whether to encourage or discourage our daughter’s awakening awareness of Santa Claus. Would our daughters have a “truly” Jewish childhood if Santa visited them and left stockings? Maybe not, but stockings are one of my favorite childhood memories and I want our children to experience some of my traditions as well as my husband’s. Luckily, my husband was all for it, I was the one hesitating. How did the others handle the holidays? Bonnie and her girls help her husband to celebrate his holidays and always are able to go to his parents’ house for the full-blown celebration of Christmas. Staci’s family makes December 25th a special family day without including Santa or a Christmas tree.

Helen, who converted before marriage, shared how she had seen evergreen boughs decorating the mantle of a Jewish friend’s fireplace. Loving the smell and how it looked, she mentioned the idea to her husband as something they might do in their own home. She was surprised to find that he was adamantly against it. So, why are evergreen boughs offensive to her husband but not to her friend?

Claire, who also converted, agreed with Helen’s husband that evergreens in December are strongly associated with Christianity. In fact, she had registered a complaint about the “Mitten Tree” that her private secular pre-school puts in the front hallway each December. The school children decorate the artificial evergreen tree with new mittens and gloves that are donated later to a local shelter. What offended Claire was that her children had no choice but to be greeted each day by this exclusionary symbol, which was being thinly disguised as a secular act of charity. Staci and Cindy, Jews-by-birth whose daughters both attended the same school, confessed they had also had a problem with the tree but had never said anything to the preschool director.

We returned to the book, but that only raised more comparisons to our personal lives that begged to be explored. Should the main character have returned to England with her children or continued to raise them in her beloved adopted land? Faced with widowhood and young children, how would each of us choose to raise her own children? Would I, a non-convert, continue to raise my children as Jews?

The next month we read The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis, in which a widowed Jewish convert moves to the Memphis, Tennessee, neighborhood where her husband grew up in a small and tightly knit Orthodox community. After much discussion about the book, we asked the two women in my book club who were Jews-by-choice why they made the choice to convert. In answering us, Helen and Claire shared tales of their mikvah (ritual bath) experiences. Another question led us back to the book, but again the conversation slid to the personal. Why were all of us raising our children as Jews and what does it mean to do so?

In the month that followed we read Black, White, and Jewish by Rebecca Walker, an autobiographical account of having to shift identity while shuttling between two divorced parents and their very different worlds. We discussed the book and, of course, talked about our own children and how to minimize any potential identity confusion they might experience. Later, Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok prompted a debate about the differences in the religious school programming between the local Reform and Conservative synagogues.

Each month, the conversation moves in a similar fashion–from the book we have read to our personal stories, from sharing anecdotes to asking questions that dig deeper into the meaning of our personal choices as well as the meaning of the books we’ve read. The choice of books with Jewish themes began by coincidence, but now continues by choice.

The bonds of friendship that began in our monthly meetings are growing stronger as we now have begun to gather as families, often for Jewish holidays. Staci hosted a break fast after Yom Kippur. At Sukkot, we all ate dessert under the stars in the sukkah (wooden hut) constructed by Bonnie’s Protestant husband Jim. Hanukkah was at Helen’s house (without any evergreen boughs in sight).

So, is this a book club or a Jewish/interfaith marriage therapy and study group? If this group had been billed as an interfaith support group, I wouldn’t have joined. Tucking my girls into bed each night is one of my top priorities, so I make few commitments that require me to miss bedtime on a regular basis. For this same reason, if the group had turned out to be a typical book club, I probably wouldn’t have stayed with it either. However, the mix of good books, conversations that enable me to reflect on issues of great interest, and growing friendships is exactly what I need right now. I listen, share, ask questions, laugh, and eat. And, I leave feeling recharged for the month. It is thought provoking for me

Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.


Author: Teresa McMahon