A “December Dilemma” discussion at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan captured the complexities of living in an interfaith family from the perspectives of grandparents, parents, and adult children.
Sitting around a single table on Nov. 15 for a discussion facilitated by Rabbi Melinda Faith Panken were five adults and two young people, from a range of backgrounds.
With the winter holidays approaching, they discussed how to respectfully and fairly treat non-Jewish family members when it comes to Christmas and holiday trees, and in general how to balance the seasonal tensions affecting blended families.
Jayne and Irwin Lieberman said they initially wrapped their holiday gifts in reindeer paper, in consideration of their non-Jewish son-in-law. But their daughter caught them up short, reminding them that their gifts were not Christmas gifts, but Hanukka presents.
“We worry about the non-Jewish spouse, but really if you raised your children with a good sense of Jewish identity and love of religion, you can sit back and relax a little bit that they are not going to give it up,” Jayne said.
Jennifer Fessler said she is raising her two boys Jewish although their father, from whom she is divorced, is Roman Catholic.
“I try to respect both faiths because that is the way to respect my children’s other half,” she said.
But when the boys crossed themselves at the dinner table she made it clear that “we are Jewish and don’t do that,” she said, and gave them the alternative of folding their hands, lowering their heads, and saying their own prayer. Fessler said she uses the phrase “helping Daddy celebrate.”
When the topic turned to how the non-Jewish spouse is welcomed by synagogues and in-laws, Jayne Lieberman shared a lesson she picked up at the temple’s December dilemma workshop some time ago. If she did not welcome her son-in-law, and his parents welcomed her daughter, the family would be less likely to identify with Judaism.
Irwin Lieberman added that they never opposed their son-in-law putting up a Christmas tree, and after a couple of years he stopped. Now they light a menora for each family member, he said.
Tricia Krietzberg, who recently converted to Judaism after 20 years of marriage to a Jewish man, emphasized how important it had been for her to be welcomed by her husband’s family. Despite being a practicing Catholic, she said, she had no trouble letting go of that practice and agreeing to raise her children Jewish.
But Tricia had trouble with one thing: giving up the Christmas tree — largely because of what it had meant to her as a child. Her family had five children and not a lot of money. “We knew there wasn’t going to be a lot under the tree,” she said, explaining that her parents “created the magic with the tree itself.”
Realizing how difficult it was for her to give up the tree, she said, “my husband made a conscious effort to welcome me putting up a tree.”
For Tricia the mix of religions in the family presented no problems — and in fact had seemed positive to her. “At the time, we thought we would have the most tolerant kids in the world, who would be welcoming and loving to all,” she said.
Once she decided to convert, however, her daughter Lily, now 16, revealed that the mix had confused her. “When I was really little, I always answered, ‘I’m both’ or ‘I’m half and half,’” Lily said. But as she got older and the family joined Shaari Emeth, she decided she couldn’t really be both. “I didn’t want a tree, and I became comfortable with my Jewish identity,” she said.
‘It’s OK to be different’
Sally Magrino, married to a non-Jewish man, was wrestling with how to honor her husband’s religion, also part of her nine-year-old son’s heritage. Before they married, she said, “I explained that the Jewish religion was very important to me, and if we got married it would be important to me to lead my children to a Jewish life.”
Impelled by a sense of fairness, they had both a christening and a Jewish baby naming for their son. And Magrino is not concerned when her son calls himself “half-Catholic,” viewing it as his way of identifying with his father.
Rabbi Panken told the group that when she counsels interfaith couples, she suggests they choose one identity. She also emphasizes the importance of symbols. When a Jewish child imitates his non-Jewish family and makes the sign of the cross, she asks, “Is it something you do because you want to fit in or because it has meaning to you?”
Marianne Disick and her daughter Arielle offered the perspective of a non-Jew who is raising a Jewish daughter. Educated in a cloistered convent and raised as a daily churchgoer, Marianne still found the choice to embrace Jewish culture easy even though she never felt a need to convert. In part this was because she had studied comparative religion in college, a part of her “spiritual journey as an adult.”
But also important were her parents, who recognized the value of immersion in one religion. They encouraged Marianne to join a synagogue and send her children to Jewish preschool, telling her, “If you are going to do something, do it well” and “make them be fully embracing of it; it is a good and wonderful tradition.”
Arielle, now a student at Cardozo School of Law, faced her own challenges with her Jewish identity in college, when Jewish students she met at Hillel at Binghamton University labeled her a Catholic because her mother is Catholic. Eventually, after two rejections from Birthright, she did go and “made a nice group of friends” with whom she went to Hillel.
Tricia Krietzberg put the question facing intermarried Jews simply: Do we want to be like everyone else, or do we want our kids to understand we can be different?
She said, “One of the challenges is not watering down our Judaism to be part of American culture, but affirm it, and help our kids to learn it is okay to be different and to share our differences with others and that you can embrace them.”