Before our wedding last month, my husband (Jewish) and I (Catholic) decided to raise our future children Jewish and that I would maintain a separate religious identity. Why? The answer to that question involves me as well as my whole family.
As to why I have decided not to convert, I think some insight can be gained from an online quiz I recently took. I had to answer a series of questions related to my philosophy of life and my response would tell me what they considered the best religion for me. My responses came with 90% alignment with the beliefs in Unitarian Universalism. I’m not going to be affiliating with that religion soon, but I think the survey results illustrate my viewpoint on religion. I am a spiritual person and can appreciate many different beliefs and rituals. I don’t like belief systems that exclude others or impose judgment on them. I believe in an accepting God. I reserve the right to be skeptical of religion and to keep an open mind as I learn new information.
Kim and Aaron’s interfaith ketubah
As I’ve talked to some people over the past year about their religious upbringing I’ve noticed that several people who were raised in interfaith households do not have a clear religious identity. When asked their religion these people often end up speaking about the religion of their parents rather than their own. One woman said her mother was Catholic and her father was Episcopalian and she was raised with no religion and was “nothing.” The way she said it made me feel great sadness for her, like there was an emptiness to that part of her life.
My children will be Jewish regardless of other religious influences around them. Even though I am not Jewish, they will have a Jewish father and a Jewish last name. I want their religion to be something they are proud of. It’s important for children to have an identity and a strong grounding in who they are. When they grow up they can question their religious upbringing and see if this identity holds true for them, but while they are in their formative years I want to provide them with a philosophy that will guide them when they are looking for answers about what it means to live a good life.
Raised Catholic, even though I wasn’t raised in a very religious household, I went to weekly religious classes called CCD and occasionally attended Sunday Mass. I had an outlet to develop my spirituality as well as a community with other students who were participating in the same rituals as I. As an adult, even though I have opinions that differ with those of the church, I have a point of reference that informs my spiritual life.
While I want that grounding for my children, I am unable to choose Judaism for myself. It comes down to commitment. If I were going to convert to a new religion I would take it very seriously and couldn’t do it half-heartedly. I would have to come to terms with how I wanted to practice my new religion. When one is born a Jew, one can choose to take it or leave it as I do with Catholicism. But when one converts, the individual agrees to live with a certain level of observance and practice–something I am not comfortable with for myself.
Even though I am not Jewish, I can still enjoy Judaism because it is part of my husband. I can explore what it has to offer–lessons on family, home, tradition, food, prayer, how to live in the world. I can do this because I am just visiting. But if I converted I would be claiming a new religious identity and that would require a commitment and responsibility that would have repercussions throughout my family of origin.
As much as I disagree with a lot of the teachings of the Church, I am not willing to revoke my identity as a Catholic and to separate myself in this way from the family I grew up in. I come from a large family of Italian Catholics. We have a shared lifetime of holidays and life-cycle events. After more than 30 years I cannot dissociate from them. I can raise healthy Jewish children more easily just being who I am than if I try to become Jewish.
I have learned a lot about Judaism by spending many holidays with my husband’s family–including less frequently celebrated holidays like Purim and Sukkot, in addition to weekly Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners. My husband and I also took an Introduction to Judaism class together in the fall of 2005 that gave us a deeper comprehension of the religion and culture.
In my limited experience with Judaism, I appreciate its philosophy that stimulates critical thinking and learning. It is amazing to me to go to services at the Reform synagogue where the rabbi’s sermon is a story that is based on encouraging children to ask questions and to look at a situation from many different viewpoints. Often you will hear in Judaism that it is important to study Torah, the first five books of the Bible. This doesn’t mean to memorize what is in them, it means to study the stories and interpret them to see what they mean to you. You can go to the Talmud and read the various arguments from the different rabbis; there is not one consensus. Additionally, at the time of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah one has the opportunity to read from the Torah and to recite one’s own interpretation of the Torah portion. Those are all aspects of Judasim that I value and look forward to having my children benefit from. I’ve also appreciated seeing a strong female rabbi leading with inspiration and influence while starting a family of her own at home.
“L’chaim”–“to life” in English–is a phrase that encapsulates a large part of what Judaism means to me. It’s something that is often said when giving a toast. It emphasizes a focus on the here and now. It brings urgency to living in the present and celebrating what we have in life. Rituals, such as lighting candles on Shabbat and celebrating the many Jewish holidays, bring spirituality to everyday life and emphasize family connection. Judaism also values tikkun olam, a notion of repairing the world or doing good deeds, continually improving conditions for the people of the world.
With the knowledge I have gained from my involvement in the Jewish community over the past few years as well as my own personal study, supported by my husband, who is committed to learning and growth, I am confident my children can be grounded in Judaism and their identity as Jews and also enjoy the benefits of having an Italian mother.
We look forward to experiencing many joys as well as challenges in the coming years as we attempt to navigate the complexities of our family composed of members of two different traditions. Our interfaith ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) will hang prominently on the wall and guide us in our commitment and love. The watercolor painting is an image of two trees that are very unique and distinct, growing side by side as they branch and intertwine together. You can clearly see that there are two trees but then you notice that there are parts where you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, they have seamlessly come together. In our relationship the bonds continue to become stronger as we grow separately and together, preparing to weather any storms that may come our way.