Forty years later, I can remember my father telling me, “No, you can’t go out with boys who are not Jewish, and that is the end of the story.” Of course, that was not the end of the endless arguments, discussions, pleadings, and badgering that went on in our household in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There were only about 300 Jewish families in Tulsa when I grew up there in the fifties and sixties, and only fourteen people in my confirmation class at our Conservative synagogue. Of course, I didn’t want to date those few boys who were my age nor did they want to date the few Jewish girls.
We were the minority amongst the Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and evangelicals. No Jewish holidays were recognized as official days off school. We still had to be careful to be extra good to avoid anti-Semitic remarks. My father tried to protect us from the “outside world” while trying to keep our Jewish values intact for generations to come.
On rare special occasions, my father did give in. He let me go to the senior prom with the guy in my government class whom I had swooned over all year. It felt like it had taken an act of God to get that permission. Yet for my younger siblings, the fights were less intense and less frequent. I paved the way for my sister to have a boyfriend from a different faith background in high school who actually could come in the house and sit in the living room without being treated as the invisible man.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. I am now married to a man from a different faith and the mother of two twenty-something children. Both of my children are in committed relationships with partners who are not Jewish. My daughter was married in July 2005 under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) but without a rabbi officiating. There were vestiges of Jewish tradition in the ceremony, but it was clearly not be a Jewish wedding. Neither my daughter nor my son dated anyone Jewish in high school or college. They both attended Sunday school and Hebrew school, had B’nai Mitzvahs, were confirmed, went to Israel as teens, attended universities with large Jewish populations as undergrads and graduate students, and consider themselves Jewish.
While my father made interfaith dating a major battleground, it was never an issue in my own northern California family. There were more Jews in our children’s Hebrew school and confirmation classes and in their high school than in mine. My children’s shared B’nai Mitzvah had three times as many teens from other faith backgrounds in attendance as Jewish friends. Their lives revolved around school activities, sports, and community work. They were not involved in Jewish youth groups, nor did we celebrate Shabbat (the Sabbath) on a regular basis. Their Judaism was confined to the times that they went to temple for school or religious ceremonies or when we observed holidays in our home. Yet, they always proudly say, “I’m Jewish.”
The role of Judaism in the family goes much beyond the dating patterns for the kids. It goes to the fundamental core of who your children are. My parents raised us with strong Jewish values of charity, social action, concern for others, generosity, caring for those less fortunate than us. I carried those values into my interfaith marriage and into the raising of our Jewish children. While we didn’t repeat over and over to our children that these are significant values obtained from Mom’s Jewish upbringing, certain values were stressed throughout our children’s lives. One of the most important was something I consider to be a Jewish custom–talking. We discussed social, political, moral, and community issues over dinner. Our children talked to each other in front of us and with us. Even though they now live across the country from us, we speak to them regularly on the phone. We are connected to them long after they are no longer dependent on us.
I look today at the people my adult children have become. I know that they are absolutely outstanding individuals who have chosen wonderful life partners. I wish that I could know that I will have all Jewish grandchildren, but this is a decision that my children and their future spouses will decide for themselves. They will factor in my wishes, but they will make decisions that work for their new nuclear families.
My father made interfaith dating a battleground, yet four of his five children are married to spouses of different faith backgrounds. Most of his grandchildren are Jewish, but they themselves are in interfaith relationships. My husband and I didn’t make interfaith dating an issue in our home and the results will just about mirror that of my parents.
The dilemma surrounding interfaith dating is generations old. In our secular world, there seems no reasonable way to set the limits that my father thought would make sure that his children would marry within the faith. My differing approach to raising my own children did not change the pattern. The big issue that results from interfaith dating and interfaith marriage is whether or not the new couple will choose to connect with the Jewish community and raise Jewish children–something that I did and that I hope my children will also do, in small or large ways.