My husband, Scott, is African-American and Christian. I am Jewish.
Our two sons are African-American and very cute. And also Jewish.
The question is: What does that mean exactly?
Are they Jewish because each had a bris? Because we go to temple on Saturdays? Because we celebrate Jewish holidays?
Or is it something deeper than that? Are my two sons, ages five and one, Jewish because of the values their father, who isn’t Jewish, and I instill in them? And, if that’s the case, what exactly makes a value Jewish?
Jews certainly haven’t conquered the market on charity. Many other cultures make it a priority as well. However, when I talk to my boys about the importance of donating clothes and toys to children who don’t have any, or volunteering to work a booth at an adoption fair, or contributing money to the schools that once gave scholarships to my husband and me so that others might have the same opportunity, I can’t help believing that I do it because of the “tzedakah” (righteous giving) values instilled in me at a young age.
As immigrants from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, my parents, once in America, took me to protests calling for the release of other Soviet Jews because they believed they had an obligation to pay the favor once done to them, forward. They may not have necessarily seen this as a Jewish value, but it’s a value that came as a direct result of them being Jews.
In that same vein, respect for your elders is hardly an exclusively Jewish value, but Scott and I strive to make sure that our boys are polite, especially to those older than them. We want them to say “please” and “thank you,” and to look people in the eye when they say “hello.”
Education as a value is something that the world, for better or for worse, associates with Jews and Judaism. (At our first Passover Seder, Scott couldn’t stop laughing when a guest explained, “School wasn’t for me; I only have a bachelor’s degree.” After Scott pointed out that in most other places that would qualify as “school being for me,” he heard back, “Well, you’re among Jews now.”
Yet, how can I claim that our devotion to the written word and to the accumulation of knowledge (useful and otherwise) is an exclusively Jewish value, when my husband, who isn’t Jewish, holds a nuclear engineering degree from M.I.T. and was once an elementary school teacher? (In the interest of full disclosure, this is the part where I must confess that, when he was growing up, Scott was often accused of “acting Jewish.”)
Another Jewish value our family practices is Christmas. Not the one that proclaims Jesus to be God’s only begotten son who gave his life for all our sins and those who do not believe this are doomed to go straight to Hell. The Christmas value we practice is the one where we agree that Scott’s parents have the right to celebrate their holiday with all of their family, which includes their youngest son and their two grandsons, who aren’t Christian. When we take our children over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for Christmas we tell them that we are helping them celebrate Christmas just like they help us celebrate Passover.
Our children know that celebrating another person’s holiday is no different from celebrating another person’s birthday. Just because it isn’t your special day, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show your respect by commemorating the other’s occasion.
So while the circumstances might be Christmas or Easter or a newborn relative’s baptism, the values that drive us to attend those functions are respect for family and for others. And those again, to me, are Jewish values.
I suppose another way to approach the question of what is a Jewish value would be to see if there are any values we are instilling in our children that actually aren’t Jewish? But that begs yet another question: is there a popularly accepted value in America today that doesn’t have, in some way or another, a connection to Judaism?
After all, even in cases of divisive issues like the Iraq War, abortion, gay marriage, the environment, school vouchers, affirmative action, the right to die, or even gun control, both sides believe they are coming from a place of values. And those values are traditionally such Jewish ones as compassion, loyalty, fairness, protecting the weak, self-defense, justice and freedom–however each may define those in practice.
In the end, I found I couldn’t answer the question what Jewish values I try to teach my children, because any value I can think of as worthy of conveying to my children is, inevitably, a Jewish value. It turned out that I couldn’t think of any other kind.