One of the great sources of chizuk (strength) I have found in my life as a converted Orthodox Jew has been meeting other families where one or both partners are converts to Judaism. Sometimes they have a Jewish father, like I have, and sometimes they traveled the long and winding road to Judaism without the beacon of their own heritage to guide them.
A friend of ours recently wrote a piece for The Jewish Week entitled “Beyond Conversion: Becoming a Jewish Family,” addressing interfaith marriage from the vantage point of someone who, with his non-Jewish wife, made the journey from an interfaith marriage to a marriage in which both partners are now Jewish, living traditional Jewish lives (in Israel) and rearing their children as fully identified Jews. The jumping-off point of the article is the new interfaith haggaddah being promoted by high-profile intermarried couple John and Cokie Roberts (Cokie of National Public Radio fame), and their promotion of intermarriage as “the new normal.” Our friend Harold Berman’s piece, which makes important points about what kind of Judaism is being offered to interfaith couples and the fact that interfaith marriages don’t always end up where they begin, especially when children come along, takes issue with the Roberts’ version of Judaism as a way of life that coexists naturally alongside other faiths in the same household.
When the piece was published, Harold contacted me and provided the link to the Jewish Week‘s page posting his article, but also gave me the “uncut” version, which contained a few points he’d wanted to make but which didn’t make the final edit for publication. Here was a deleted portion that I found particularly meaningful:
Several years ago, before my wife became Jewish, she taught music to a Harvard undergraduate who had grown up in an interfaith family. One day, as they were talking about her background, the student said wistfully, “It would just be nice to know who I am, to have a clear religious identity.” Not every interfaith child feels this way. But as a community, we should have the confidence that if they immerse in Judaism, their lives will be better.
The times are changing, but not in the way many people think. Orthodox synagogues are burgeoning. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who grew up with little Jewish background have transformed themselves into observant Jews, as have increasing numbers of non-Jews. Intermarried-to-Orthodox families like mine are becoming more and more common, and can be found in virtually any Orthodox synagogue, and among our neighbors in Israel where we live.
And increasing numbers of intermarried families are searching for a substantive Judaism they don’t always find in their temples and JCCs. Just go into any Chabad and you will see them. It’s time for us, as a Jewish community, to expect more of ourselves. The way forward will not be found in a feel-good Judaism, but in a meaningful one.
I felt through much of my childhood and young adulthood the same way that Harvard undergraduate felt, uncertain of my religious identity. At the age of nine, when I told my parents I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew, they scoffed and said, “You’d hate it. They’re not allowed to do anything. You wouldn’t last a week.” I never spoke of it again, but I continued to think about it, and when I eventually decided to take the plunge and convert, my parents were surprised, but I wasn’t. It was what I’d always wanted to be. The interfaith household in which I grew up, which was never truly committed to either Judaism or Christianity, wasn’t enough for me. I needed more, went out, and found it.
Harold’s point that while there is a strong trend toward assimilation in America, there is also a movement of secular Jews and interfaith couples toward more traditional Jewish practice, is an important one. Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman has noted that in interfaith relationships, the Jewish partners (especially male partners) tend to downplay the importance of their Jewish faith for fear of offending or pressuring their non-Jewish partners, giving rise to a belief by the non-Jewish partner that Judaism is less important to their partner than their own religion is to them. By taking Judaism seriously, delving into its wisdom, practice, and ritual, families searching for meaning gain a greater appreciation of Judaism’s profound substance, rather than the notion among many non-religious Jews that since Judaism is part of the foundation on which democracy is based, it is nothing more than American liberalism.
I agree with Harold that it is essential that Jews of all stripes welcome interfaith couples into their midst. By showing interfaith couples that Jews are a people rather than a band of “a few good men,” traditional Jews have the opportunity to provide a window on how Judaism is lived day-to-day, and offers as much learning, meaning, history, community, and spiritual connection to the Divine as anyone could need. My acceptance by Reform Judaism allowed me to enter the Jewish world from non-halachic, secular Judaism, and the welcome I received by Orthodox Jews in Israel, and later in Newton, Massachusetts, was what allowed me to find my resting place at last. Not everyone will necessarily gravitate toward Modern Orthodoxy as I did, but knowing that the world of tradition is fulfilling, accessible and welcoming may help other families not content to negotiate their identities to find one they can all share.