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Keep the Faith; Share the Food

Dawn Kepler from Oakland, California, has run informational and support groups for interfaith couples for years. She strongly recommends sharing each other’s food traditions and cultures as a means of generating good will and greater understanding between interfaith couples. “Food is a big way of coming together as a community and family,” she says.

“I know an interfaith couple in which the mother is Chinese and raising the children Jewish. She has slowly been introducing Chinese recipes for Jewish holidays.” Another man who attends Kepler’s interfaith group is from Guatemala. South-of-Mexican-style foods regularly show up in his family’s holiday meals. When Kepler’s parents traveled to France for their son’s wedding to a woman from Tunisia, they were treated to a Shabbat meal consisting of a traditional stew baked in rice and couscous.

Here are some ways to integrate food into your interfaith holiday celebrations.

Start off simply. Tanya Keith from Des Moines, Iowa, is Jewish and married to a Lutheran. They have a 2-year-old daughter named Aviva whom they are raising Jewish. “The High Holy Days are good to cook for because there is not a lot of overlap between interfaith holidays. They are conflict-free festivals.” The Keiths serve apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and make the holiday very child-oriented. “We also serve with special tableware and candlesticks to differentiate the holiday from the regular weekday.”

The next thing is to think beyond Jewish and Christian. Each one of us is more than our specific religion: We are also part of various cultures. “Food was always an important part of every holiday,” says Rosemary DiDio Brehm, an Italian Catholic from Tampa, Florida, who is married to Bill who is Jewish. “Every Christmas we served a ‘bonata’ that was passed down through the generations of my family.” Brehm describes it as a ‘stromboli’ made with bread dough, stuffed with olives, sauce, garlic and scallions. “And we still serve it on Christmas Eve as a tradition.” The whole family prepares and loves it, including the couple’s two daughters Stephanie, 17, and Danielle, 15, says Brehm.

“I was brought up by a Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father,” says Tanya Keith. On Passover, we integrate a lot of food cultures. We have more than a dozen people at our seder–and the Christians usually outnumber the Jews. We serve Sephardic and Greek-style recipes. One of the best was a Greek lemon chicken we cooked for Passover.”

“Cooking like this,” says Keith, “makes me feel like I am practicing ‘thoughtful Judaism.’ It’s very important to me to maintain the other parts of my heritage. It makes life very rich.”

This Easter Keith plans to introduce a Greek egg ritual to her family. It’s called “Egg War” (using hardboiled eggs dyed red), and was a game she played as a child.

How do interfaith partners get accustomed to each other’s food? A great way is to attend meals at the other family’s home on a holiday or go to parties hosted by people of the partner’s religion.

Rosemary DiDio Brehm and her husband Bill go to a lot of Hanukkah parties. “On the Saturday before Hanukkah,” she says, “we get ten pounds of potatoes. For about three or four hours, we make the latkes. I do the batter and Bill fries them. And it’s fun because we can cook outside in Florida.”

Where do you turn to if you want to learn how to prepare your partner’s favorite holiday foods? “I recommend that a non-Jewish person join a synagogue or Jewish Community Center and take a cooking class,” says Dawn Kepler. The same holds true for a Jewish individual who wants to learn recipes for Christian holidays. A church may offer a special holiday cooking class. Or you can turn to a friend who has experience cooking the food you want to try. And you may even give your mother-in-law a chance at teaching you. “I learned how to cook latkes from Jewish holiday cookbooks that were given to me for our wedding,” says DiDio Brehm.

“When interfaith partners learn how to make each other’s traditional foods,” says Brehm, “it’s a way of showing that you care about the other person. The good thing about food is that it usually has little to do with doctrine. So it is non-threatening and it’s something that the whole family can participate in.”

Ilene Springer

Ilene Springer is a freelance writer based in Dover, New Hampshire.