Christian, Chewish, or Eschewish:
Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium
by Reeve Robert Brenner
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CHAPTER FIVE: THE FOUR PATHWAYS: JEWISH, CHRISTIAN, CHEWISH (Both) or ESCHEWISH (Neither)
It is axiomatic that a home where children are to be raised should be well grounded in a rich, cultural/religious heritage to uphold, in a personal/family history that is worthy of pride and in an identity/self-understanding that is seen as of great consequence, that is experienced as nurturing, and that feels secure. In the context of this presentation, we mean “identity” as distinguished from the sacred and the devotional - often referred to as “spirituality.” It is essential to distinguish between Identity and Spirituality or whatever term or phrase we choose to give to the religious quest and to the human yearning for transcendence and meaning beyond our selves. Secular Jews – no less committed to their Jewishness, an “ethnicity” perceived as deeply embedded in mission (social action/mitzvah) and in devotion to the sacredness of life and creation – most especially would insist upon making that identity-spirituality distinction. We might at this point anticipate drawing another relevant distinction to which we will return at greater length in chapter nine, on comparative (Western) religions, by advancing the logic of the thesis that, by contrast, there are no secular Christians; there are secular former Christians.
There is also wisdom in the awareness that identity issues, while comparable in sum and substance, are not interchangeable with, or equivalent to, philosophical and metaphysical issues such as the concept of a supernatural intelligence governing the universe. Still, identity issues are not to be thought of as necessarily divorced from spirituality, that is, from the felt human need to search out eternal verities.
Quite the contrary: Identity affirmations, grounded in, and informed by, an unambiguous upbringing in a proud, vital and enduring heritage, may in fact enhance the human capacity for perceiving whispers of the transcendent and may advance the ongoing and compelling pursuit of ultimate truths. Many individuals, precisely because they feel themselves secure in identity, will allow that truths, however formulated, are tentative at best, inasmuch as they stretch, shrink, shift and mutate so often over a lifetime. Identity may therefore be seen as more unshakeable and substantial than spirituality.
We are not here attempting to uncouple identity from ideology and detach the “who you are” from the desirability of establishing a spiritual and morally harmonious household that is nurturing to children. But the identity-ideology points of departure are quite different, even dichotomized.
Spirituality is essentially inward and need not involve others. It is primarily understood as an intuitive experience of the holy – the kaddosh; the wholly Other - that is neither rooted in, nor likely to be especially affected by or necessarily deepened through, or dependent upon, interaction with others. Nor does it build community, as do the components of identity. Identity - the self - is even to be abandoned altogether for the sake of achieving spirituality, according to certain religious mystics.
But it is identity not spirituality that addresses the question: "who am I?" Identity speaks of belonging. It speaks of behaving. It also establishes a foundation stone for building self-awareness and self-understanding by providing answers to the critical questions: “Am I a part of something larger than myself? To which religious group do I belong?” “How shall I conduct my life?”
What follows is an exploration of the pros and cons of four possible approaches to raising children with regard to religious identity. Raising children in an entirely different religion, unfamiliar to either parent, will not be explored to any great extent in these pages. This choice is not in reality a fifth pathway. Rather, it falls within the domain we have called Eschewish because it is another variation of none-of-the-above. Selecting an entirely new religion can be seen as the compromise approach of last resort. Agreed to by parties who realize that they have reached an impasse and can’t get past it, or by individuals who have experienced discontent and disappointment in their religious upbringing, or for any number of reasons, their decision suffers greatly from lack of connection, passion and commitment. Furthermore, the traffic signs and directional markers along the unfamiliar route will likely grow faint and increasingly indiscernible when neither knows the way. Neither party will be capable of taking the hand of the other with the necessary confidence that they can make out the points of their newly purchased compass.
The four foremost and pre-eminent religious choices or pathways are laid out here as a kind of surface map displaying the potential navigational contours of a newly established family’s future. The bride-to-be and the groom-to-be must identify and work out their differences of religious background by selecting a specified future course. They are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that they have arrived at an intersection presenting them with four crossroads each heading in divergent directions. Their determination concerning the route to take, arrived at as a loving couple, will be based on mutual understandings and accommodations that first carefully and respectfully researches, surveys and charts out the territory ahead for them as a family. The process will likely bind them as a couple more tightly as me-me-me thinking gives way to we-we-we coming together. And they will see one of the four pathways as constituting their preferred choice of the religious highroad they will traverse together.
The four pathways are:
1 - The Christian pathway (the majority course in America today and therefore the most prevalent or widely held of the four choices),
2 - The Jewish pathway (understood by many couples as the minority choice, a counter-culture decision, sometimes understood as the “exotic,” by which is meant a different path),
3 – The Chewish pathway (which is often called the Both or the Dual faith approach that merges Jewish and Christian religious identities, practices and traditions),
4 – The Eschewish (often referred to as the Neither or "none of the above," coined from the word eschew, to shun, evade, or turn away from).
Regarding the Jewish pathway, Dr. Elizabeth Marincola would require we make the additional observation that “while it’s true that Jews are the minority culture, that culture can also be seen as an ‘exclusive,’ ‘select’ culture, a culture that confers wealth, influence, intellectualism (especially in academic communities) – real or perceived.” Without doubt, Jews are different. Despite the prominence of many Jews in high profile walks of life, they constitute only about one to two percent of the U.S. population. Therefore aligning oneself with the Jewish people is a decision requiring considerable justification and a serious rationale.
The analysis and discussions of these four options – the Jewish, Christian, Chewish and Eschewish - have been distilled from interviews with many of the couples I have been privileged to counsel and befriend. My perspective is a rabbi's and is, by definition, subjective; but I am on no mission to convert people to Judaism. No rabbi ever is. I care deeply about Jewish survival, of course, but a rabbi's job is not to save souls or to impart “The Only Truth.” Jews are respectful of all cultures and honor all religions, which we feel all contain elements of truth. We never hear Jews suggest that you are better off or that you will have attained eternity or salvation were you to change your identity and become a member of the Jewish people.
Experience has brought me to the conclusion that each of these four decisions involves a trade-off - there's no escaping it. But every couple contemplating marriage – whether intra or interfaith - needs to know the upside and the downside of the various trades-off inherent in each route. Before they make their decision! Each party relinquishes something desirable, for a benefit or advantage regarded as even more desirable, such as marriage with a loved one and the need to come together to make a unified decision which impacts so profoundly on their future together.
No matter what they choose, or whichever course they eventually take, the decision-making process itself can potentially strengthen their relationship and unite them even more unequivocally paired in harmony and unambiguously linked together as a couple. After all, these are life-long religious - meaning momentous - decisions. They are best made decisions when thought through carefully and seriously. Each pathway taken requires a different set of ideas and a particular way of thinking whose purpose, among others, is to help people best cope with the many and various conditions of modern life.
Let us now take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of the four possible pathways intra and interfaith couples can choose once they reach the crossroads of marriage. They will be discussed in the following order for ease of presentation: 1-Eschewish, 2-Chewish, 3-Christian, 4- Jewish.
1- Eschewish: The Neither Route
Neither is the easiest path. Or so it seems. By choosing the path of least resistance, or of greatest avoidance, you blend by default into the majority. It is the least costly and least troublesome route, the pathway with the fewest detours, obstacles and barriers to overcome and with no church or synagogue to join and no formal education in a heritage necessary.
Whether the question is spoken or inaudible, inevitably the child of an Eschewish family asks, "Mommy, you are a Christian, and Daddy, you are Jewish, but what am I, Jewish or Christian?" You say, "You're an American. You don't have to be anything else. Even though Mommy was raised Catholic and Daddy was raised Jewish, neither of us were particularly religious so we wanted to leave the choice up to you. You can be Christian or Jewish, whatever else you want to be, or nothing at all. No one is forcing you to be religious or to have a religion or to be a member of a religious community. And we are not going to invest in providing you with a religious school education because you are neither Jewish nor Christian. We will give you other lessons, guitar or karate, whatever you want.” One wonders how, based on which life experiences, such a child can decide what is best and what self-identification might be affirmed.
Couples do consciously choose the Eschewish pathway. With respect to religious identity, there is little or no conflict in this choice. There is no trading off carpooling duties to a religious school and no faith community responsibilities to attend to. There are also no out-of-pocket expenses such as dues to temples or contributions to churches. A born-Jewish partner, having made the none-of-the-above decision will likely, at his/her wedding ceremony, whisk away the symbolic canopy revealing an Eschewish future for the new family.
Unfortunately, in my experience, the weaknesses heavily outweigh the strengths of the Eschewish path. The child of an Eschewish family lacking an identity and something to call him or herself, invariably is, and eventually feels, deprived. I often meet these children when they become adults. They report that when their parents said they could be anything they wanted to be, they soon began to realize, "My friends are either Jewish or Christian. I'm neither. I'm nothing."
And they do mean nothing. There is an empty place where a culture should be. No sense of belonging, which reinforces self-worth and identity, has been achieved. Also no rites of passage which mark life-cycle events of growth and maturity are commemorated in community. There are no festivals and special days, no celebratory moments to validate puberty, the arrival of children and the like. For an Eschewish family, there are few moments regularly set aside for reflection and self-evaluation along that pathway of life. A great deal is missing.
“For the vast majority of the world’s population,” writes Theodore Pulcini, associate professor of religion at Dickinson College, “religion is not just a private matter, but a pervasive cultural and political force that shapes entire societies. To be an educated person in the modern world, one must understand the power of religion in contemporary cultures.” 
The Eschewish route that ignores or excludes religious rituals, rites of passage, ceremonials and observances appears to be the “easiest” choice but it usually gets much harder and more complicated as the child grows. How does the youngster answer identity questions asked by friends, family and new acquaintances? An Eschewish child often becomes resentful, because rather than feeling lucky that he/she has a choice, the child feels shortchanged in the awareness of not belonging anywhere.
Those that choose this pathway are likely to be confronted by their children one day with what I hear so often related to me in words to this effect years later: "No fair, Daddy. When you grew up you knew what you were and who you are. You had the church, the priests, Easter egg hunts, Christmas trees, Sunday school. Mommy knew who she was when she was growing up. She had a bat mitzvah and learned about the Torah and celebrated the festivals like Passover and Chanukah. She was part of a history and a heritage.
“Each of you got all this great stuff growing up and you gave me nothing. Thanks a lot! It’s like: You couldn't choose between giving me a baseball or a basketball, so I got no ball at all. You couldn't make up your mind between ballet and piano, so I got neither and never got to study dance or learn to play. You might at least have flipped a coin; then I would have had something, and I would have been something. This way I’m nothing!” And the child may justifiably add as an afterthought later in life, “I don’t even have anything I know well enough to reject.”
A couple deliberately selecting this path, or arriving there by default, has retreated into inaction and indecision. They collude in their silence, and in what they eschew, to the detriment of their offspring.
The none-of-the-above decision, that is, choosing neither of the parents’ religious traditions, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or perhaps settling for a vaguely uneducated amalgam - which I like to call the “Eschewish” pathway - is a very poor choice - although quite popular. As the path of avoidance, it is the easiest way to go. However, the family, for whatever reason, is depriving the child of an identity and a spiritual heritage. Flipping a coin makes better sense.
Another consideration is that there are many important health benefits to take into account concerning the establishment of a religious identity for a family. Dr. Andrew Newberg, came to the conclusion that,
“Religious beliefs and behaviors turn out to be good for us in profound and pragmatic ways. A considerable body of research tells us this is true.” He cites the many studies disclosing that being a practicing member of any conventional faith community conduces to longer life. Religious people suffer fewer strokes, evidence less heart disease, stronger immune system functioning, and lower blood pressure than the population at large. Judging the results of hundreds of published findings on the positive health side effects of religion, Dr. Harold Koenig, director of Duke University’s Medical Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, informed readers of The New Republic that “lack of religious involvement has an effect on mortality that is equivalent to forty years of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day.”
It may be instructive to quote Dr. Newberg’s conclusions more fully. “Religion,” Dr. Newberg writes, “seems at least as good for the body as it may be for the soul, but the health benefits of religious behaviors do not end with physiology; a growing body of research is making it clear that religion can also be linked to superior mental health. This idea comes as a surprise to much of the modern psychiatric community that, still following in the footsteps of Freud, has long regarded religious behavior at best, as a dependent state and at worst, a pathological condition. Until 1994, for example, the American Psychiatric Association officially classified “strong religious belief” as a mental disorder.
“New data, however, indicates that religious beliefs and practices can improve mental and emotional health in several significant ways. For example, research shows that rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, and suicide are much lower among religious individuals than among the population at large, and that they recover more quickly when they do. Other experiments have linked specific religious activities to positive psychological results; spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, or participation in devotional services have been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression significantly, boost self-esteem, improve the quality of impersonal relationships, and generate a more positive outlook on life.
“Research has produced no conclusive reason for the healthy effects of religion, but it’s a good guess that the behaviors and attitudes fostered by religions play an important role. By frowning on promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol abuse, and other risky indulgences, for instance, and by encouraging lifestyles of moderation and domestic stability, most religions automatically promote behaviors that are inherently healthy.
“The strong social support networks that characterize religious communities are almost certainly another beneficial factor. The emotional support of friends and family members is an obvious and important element in anyone’s mental health, but strong communities can exert a positive and very practical effect on physical well-being, too. These benefits are specially important for the elderly who, in close-knit communities, are less likely to fall into isolation, and more likely to have help with meals, medications, transportation to doctor's appointments and other day-to-day activities which contribute to better physical health.
“Religious behaviors may also contribute more directly to good health through the effects they exert upon the body’s arousal and quiescent systems. A quiet prayer, a stately hymn, or an hour spent in meditation can activate the body’s … immune system function, lower heart rates and blood pressure, restrict the release of harmful stress hormones into the blood, and generate feelings of calmness and well-being.”
A large number of studies have been conducted not to prove that a deity exists. Rather, the studies have shown that individuals who attend religious services and pray regularly stay healthier and live longer than those who rarely or never do – even when habits, health, age, demographics and other factors are considered. A Duke University study of 4,000 men and women of various faiths, all over 64, found that the relative risk of dying prematurely was 46% lower for those who frequently attended religious services.
Another study showed that individuals who attended religious services had healthier immune systems than those who did not. Dr. Harold Koenig reports that prayer “… boosts morale, lowers agitation, loneliness and life dissatisfaction and enhances the ability to cope in men, women, the elderly, the young, and the sick.”
Affirming a clear and unambiguous identity supported by the kind of spirituality conducive of emotional growth and physical health, celebrating life-cycle events, joyous festivals and solemn, meaningful ceremonies, are persuasive reasons for a family to eschew the Eschewish route in favor of choosing an alternate pathway.
2 - CHEWISH: The Both or Dual Religion Route
The Both approach, which I like to refer to as "Chewish," appears to be very promising as a balanced, even-handed, wholesome and potentially interesting solution to the dilemma. In each parent’s mind, neither loses out or gives anything up. Both parents sincerely believe that they will be able to pass on their religious identity to their children and make their own parents less troubled, even if not entirely happy, with their choice. The Chewish route feels good for the parents but feels not quite so good for the children. The parents are still stuck at the ‘me, me, me’ stage of their relationship: what they perceive as best for themselves; but they have not yet progressed to the ‘we, we, we’ stage which focuses on what’s best for the family.
Here is how I put it to them: The first year or two you'll try to celebrate both sets of holidays and it will be fun. Chanukah comes, you spin the dreidl. Christmas comes, you decorate the tree. You do Passover, then Easter. By the third or fourth year, either stress takes over or imbalance takes over. You are trying to do it all: both synagogue and church and all the holidays and soccer, piano and Tae Kwon Do and everything else a child requires - and you're going out of your mind. You want to “cut back, give up a lot from both sides to achieve symmetry in order to come out even,” as one dad put it.
Life becomes a pressured balancing act from constantly trying to stabilize things religiously. Instead of enjoying the holidays, you are juggling like crazy, attempting to be spiritually in two places at once.
These families soon find that Christmas in America completely overwhelms the most joyous Chanukah celebration. What can compete with citywide decorations, special store windows, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and carols piped through every elevator in town?
I point out to couples contemplating that way of life: “Perhaps you eat matzoh brei on one day of Pesach, but it is difficult to do so the full holiday not only because matzoh is yucky after a few days but because Easter usually comes in the middle of it and there's Easter dinner to fix. You’ll end up having a Passover dinner and an Easter dinner but no one knows who they are. And the sense of being a member of the Exodus community along with previous and future generations is missing as are all the core meanings of Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. But you go through the motions as is so frequently reported to me by adults whose childhood resembled this ambiguous approach to addressing interfaith problems.”
Some Chewish families skip Purim with all its fun because there is no Christian holiday at the same time except for Mardi Gras and they feel that things must even out. The Jewish High Holidays are usually observed in some manner, but the closest their children come to a Sukkah is perhaps at religious school. And even there it comes across as strange to them without reinforcement at home. The interior of the hut takes on the exotic symbolism of aimless desert wanderings to a half broken promise land. Nevertheless, you have a little of this and a little of that… and a whole lot of confusion masquerading as equilibrium for the household. The marriage has been set in its conflicted course and it is likely to produce a tense, strife-ridden household.
I have gotten to know quite a number of Chewish families. At a congregational Passover Seder when I asked the mother and daughter, “Where are brother and dad?” the answer was “they are celebrating Easter, we are celebrating Passover.” A split family! With a palpable measure of competition between parents! Soon it becomes apparent that both religions are followed with shallow commitment and limited depth of knowledge; at times with exhibiting traces of anger, resentment or wistfulness. And the Chewish household begins drifting towards none-of-the-above Eschewish. After all, it's a full-time job experiencing double holidays through the years, duplicating life cycle milestone family events and observing both religions equally.
Often, ironically, it is a path selected by the most non-religious Jews and Christians who would rather, in truth, have less than more religiosity in their lives. And they get more than they bargained for and far more than they can sustain over the course of years.
I tell couples contemplating such a direction, “You are embarking on a very stressful life, and your children will probably feel it most. They are likely to be thoroughly and terribly confused. They are also good candidates for playing out years of inner conflict: they will be experiencing long periods of internal tugs-of-war and, by domino effect, indecisiveness will characterize their kids, your grandchildren’s childhood. Contradictory messages are very troubling. They create a domestic culture that is both neurotic and alienating.”
For some maturing youngsters that fact is the most prominent feature of their childhood recollections. For many who experienced such a childhood, it may not be seen quite as “paralyzing” - what some describe as “the minefield of their upbringing.” But the time and energy spent at doing both - seen as a kind of duplication - most certainly displaces other important and wholesome elements of childhood – like sports and play, music, art and dance - which do not require similar on-going justifications and explanations. Something’s got to give way. It brings me to ask, “Will these children see their parents, apart from being loving, as being there for them in the sense of being trustworthy, capable and dependable?”
Here’s how the Chewish route plays itself out: let's take a baby boy. On the eighth day the Jewish covenant (brit) ceremony is celebrated when he is circumcised and his Jewish identity is conferred publicly. Days later or earlier, there is a baptism, making him Christian. Since each ceremony signifies the exclusive initiation of a new member into a single indivisible religious inheritance or a single faith community, the child starts life with incongruity and indirection. Not only are life-defining statements being made which are at bottom contradictory; this approach to interfaith issues is also misleading, perhaps even deceitful, fooling yourself, your family, your children, the two religious traditions and at times the rabbi and minister or priest who officiate at the ceremonies.
On the rare occasions when the religious leaders are aware of what is going to happen, and if they nevertheless agree to participate, it is with the idea that - knowing how untenable and self-contradictory such a plan will turn out to be - they will "straighten the situation out" later on. But the tension has already begun. At birth!
In the ongoing surveys I have been conducting, I found that few parents would prefer, as an outcome of a Chewish upbringing in an interfaith household, that their children remain Chewish all their lives. And even more distasteful to the overwhelming majority would be that their children “split spiritually as siblings and end up as members of different religions, or one of one religion and the other a follower of none-of-the-above,” as one parent put it. They would rather their children have more not less in common.
Parents “going dual,” or Chewish, with their kids, most likely do expect that their children will choose one path or the other, Jewish or Christian, one day. They do not wish for their children to choose between them as parents of course. A child’s upbringing is not a sporting contest. But what they get is precisely that: children placed in a position of having to choose between them.
They may wish that their children decide among religions one day in some objective or personally meaningful manner. However, such a choice cannot be made without experiencing a full lifetime from birth to death exclusively within one and only one particular religion. How else can a judgment be made concerning so profound a question as the most suitable religious choice? How else can each religion be evaluated for its efficacy for any individual? And seeing that it is precisely because the different ways of life are intended to be lived from the cradle to the grave, to assess which is best requires that someone must live several lives to conduct that evaluation: one life fully as a Jew, one fully a Christian or whatever and then a third life to reflect the preferred pathway. Unfortunately from the start of life to its end, we pass this way but once.
Some interfaith parents, aspiring to avoid having their children choose between them, will – whether consciously or inadvertently - delegate the responsibility of helping children determine their choice of religious identity to others: teachers, charismatic preachers, professionals, peer groups.
Other parents will leave the results to, in the words of one (Debra) recalling her childhood, “an informal process which I like to describe as pell-mell, willy-nilly, helter-skelter, pot-luck, hodge-podge, mish-mash and up for grabs – meaning, subject to the haphazard unpredictable vicissitudes of life.
“My parents were incapable of a vision of the years ahead or of thinking about the future. They lived only in the immediate present. Long range expectations were deferred in favor of short-term thinking concerning the most profound considerations of life.”
Ephraim Rosenbaum’s parents, in the words of his Jewish sister, Sara Rosenbaum, “had no strong preference and provided therefore no guaranteed upbringing. They wished not to pre-determine their children’s religious faith except that they be monotheists.” They expected, and perhaps even preferred, that their children be of different religions when the dust settled. It did not matter to them. In any case, they were raising children in a university setting and perhaps identity and bonding on campus served to replace various religious community functions and identity needs.
Predictably, the three children went three different ways: Jewish, Christian, and none-of-the-above Eastern mysticism. For good or otherwise who can say (which, in the end, is perhaps a subjective call for each family)? But it is safe to say few parents and fewer grandparents would place “total mix religious diversity” on their favored outcome to-be-desired A list. They would rather have their grandchildren sharing a common heritage and united in identity. They’d rather their grandchildren “hang out together when it really counts.”
On Being Raised Chewish
Debra, briefly referred to previously, a Bethesda resident and member of a Jewish congregation, was raised Chewishly. She makes the observation that “the near certainty of a superficial outcome” is foreshadowed by the Chewish pathway:
“The acknowledgment of such superficiality will not be readily forthcoming; after all, no one will care to admit to a shallow upbringing, but how can it be otherwise? Besides any probe beneath the surface of such an individual as an adult or as a child reveals without too deep a study or too much probing and poking around, that very little Jewish and very little Christian heritage got through. I’m a perfect case in point, but different in that I feel no shame or reluctance to admit to the shallowness of that pathway – and now I’m making up for it in my studies. Others cover up and pretend that they are better off somehow being shallow in two religions or ‘exposed’ to two religions rather than having achieved depth and integrity in one or the other.”
Ephraim, a Manhattan scriptwriter and editor – and the son of Dovetail editor Mary Rosenbaum (Christian) and Ned Rosenbaum (Jewish) - also was raised Chewishly. He writes, in a Dovetail article, “My Secret Life As the Child of Interfaith Parents,” that he was well into his teens before he realized that being Jewish was not a matter of having a religion (like being a Christian) but was rather more “like being a part of a self defined community” and a link in a chain of a people’s history and continuity.
Most Jews know and understand this – that there is more to being a Jew than professing a faith or religious convictions - as self-evident and indisputable when they are still children and long before they begin preparation for their bar or bat mitzvah celebration.
Ephraim writes about his grandmother: “What began to dawn on me¼I was about fourteen at the time¼was that she (my grandmother) considered our Jewishness to be not so much a matter of religion as of ethnicity.” He writes further revealing his lack of fundamental information: “I was as much a Christian as a Jew.” Wrong!
Despite the fact of his Chewish upbringing, his “utterly assimilated” Jewish grandmother told him that he is a Jew even though he was not brought up a Jew, was never taught the differences between identity and ideology and believing and belonging and never acquired a sound education as a Jew or as a Christian. He writes that he did not think of his Jewish grandmother as a Jew herself because of her own lack of knowledge, as though ignorance forfeits identity: “I was flabbergasted. My grandmother didn’t know the difference between a mitzvah and a mikvah [a good deed and a ritual bath]; it seemed to me that not only was I not Jewish, but she wasn’t either. (I wisely refrained from mentioning that last point to her.)”
Writing now as an adult and still giving no evidence of understanding why he was wise for not mentioning it, shows how shallow the Chewish path remains even after childhood is left behind. Unquestionably, the grandmother is Jewish: she declares herself to be Jewish, her grandson does not; she was raised as a Jew by Jewish parents who conveyed an unambiguous Jewish identity to her. He was raised Chewish or Eschewish, not Jewish; her religion was exclusively Judaism – even if she was sadly deficient in knowledge and had never previously gazed upon a Torah scroll. His religion: none of the above.
More accurately, her grandson’s religion can best be characterized, in Debra’s words, as “a shallow, vaguely-understood blend of Catholicism and Judaism.” He himself writes that his friends thought of him as “being ambidextrous.” The only similarity between the Jewish grandmother and her Chewish grandchild, in Debra’s view, is that “they are both woefully ignorant – she of her Judaism (apparently never having been provided with a serious Jewish education) and her grandson having the same deficiency in two religions.”
When Ephraim was somewhat older, he attended his sister’s Jewish wedding. She had adopted Jewish identity fully by conversion. Another brother has opted for a meld of Eastern religions and claims to be neither Jewish nor Christian – three children, three different religious identities. For most of the couples I counsel, this outcome is not desirable because in their minds the siblings’ religious segmentation does not characterized a united family.
Oblivious of what is required of a Jew or what is inappropriate for a non-Jew, Ephraim writes that, “at the morning service for my sister’s wedding, someone assigned me an aliyah [being called upon to recite Torah blessings]. Although I didn’t mind participating in the service, I dimly understood that this was not something I ought to be doing.” The defining words here are, “dimly understood.” He writes that someone had to explain to him “that I was not allowed to accept this honor¼I literally lacked standing in the community to engage in that ritual.” And he is astonished and perturbed that his completely non-observant uncles and grandmother were fully and unambiguously qualified to accept the honor of being called to the Torah.
Of course, an educated Jewish person knows that deficiency in knowledge and in religious behavior do not change the matter of identity. His relatives who were raised exclusively Jewish, and understood themselves to be Jews, rightfully belonged in the place alongside the Torah reader reciting the words affirming Jewish identity and he did not because he does not. A Chewish person is not a Jew. That person does not affirm Jewish identity exclusively. For Ephraim the question loomed: “who, or what, am I?”
Ephraim writes, “I didn’t believe that Jesus was my personal savior, so I figured I could pretty safely say I wasn’t a Christian. But then again, if I thought about it a little more, made a leap of faith, perhaps the Christian God would reveal himself eventually. As for being a Jew, I hadn’t had a bar mitzvah, and couldn’t have one without converting (unless I wanted to be Reform, which I didn’t).”
In point of fact Reform Judaism –which would recognize as Jewish the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother if the child was raised solely Jewish – would also require a conversion ceremony which includes the stipulation that the prospective proselyte “accept(s) Judaism to the exclusion of all other religious faiths and practices.” He is quite mistaken about the requirements of Reform Judaism. But he is otherwise quite right, without a conversion, he would not be considered Jewish by any of the branches of Judaism including Reform Judaism. Nor would he be so considered by entirely secular Jews belonging to no contemporary Jewish movement. Were he to eventually marry a Jewish woman, then he might attain the status of a ger toshav, a Settled Sojourner, should he and his wife decide to raise Jewish children.
The issue of shallowness and ignorance is compounded and further complicated by his having been put in a position of choosing between parents. His dilemma is a familiar one to others also raised in the bewildering, muddled and mystifying “choose-ish” maze by parents unwilling or unable to decide upon a distinct and circumscribed path, the one most likely to keep their family intact. Ephraim, who is evidently a talented writer well attuned to the ironies played out in real time, adds:
“There was also the issue of not wanting to hurt either of their feelings by choosing one religion over another. (Or, conversely, thinking something like: ‘Boy, won’t Dad be sorry for grounding me when I become a Christian.’) In my mind each faith was inextricably linked with the parent associated with it, even to the extent that my parents’ personalities seemed to mirror the qualities of their respective religions. My Jewish father is very interested in Justice: he who breaks the law will be sentenced to prison; he who offends God will alienate himself from Him; he who left a damp towel on the back of the nice upholstered chair will be sent to his room, etc.
“My Catholic mother, on the other hand, is much more forgiving about that sort of thing, although when faced with incontrovertible proofs of my guilt some sort of contrition is generally called for. I am to this day uncertain as to whether this was a function of my mother’s knowledge that our sins are cleansed by the blood of Christ, or that she just doesn’t want to be the bad guy.” We are not informed if, in his opinion, his mother’s behavior and attitude came about as a result of her personality and character, or of not wishing to lose in the competition for her son’s religious allegiance.
An interfaith couple's intentions in establishing a Chewish household are undoubtedly sincere and honorable. They feel that they will have enriched their child by providing a double dose instead of a single heritage. They have also made an effort to satisfy both sets of grandparents who may be able to relate to their grandchildren in the way that means the most to them. But now the grandparents are in competition – consciously or otherwise. Everybody feels apprehensive. They know that sometime in the future, the other shoe will drop.
When and because the well-meaning and loving parents of a newborn child deny the enormous contradictions that exist between Judaism and Christianity, neither religion is fully realized. They have to dilute these two traditions drastically to make them work together. So everybody loses. In order to have harmony in their home, they will need to leave out or ignore big chunks of each religion. Either Jesus is the way and the truth and you have to believe in him to be saved, or he was a rabbi who was undoubtedly charismatic, but certainly not divine. Either Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was God’s prophet negating all others, or he was not. There is no middle ground on which to stand erect without leaning – and soon enough to be brought down and out! The only way you can conduct a dual religious home is to cut the heart out of both.
Unfortunately but predictably the entire dual undertaking becomes less meaningful and increasingly superficial as you go on. In some Chewish homes the subject of the quality of the religious household is deliberately ignored for the sake of avoiding disharmony. In other Chewish homes, as has been noted, an inordinate amount of time, focus and energies are devoted to the maneuvering required for the religious balancing act to the detriment of other worthy, but necessarily neglected, subjects and pastimes – such as sports, art and music. Enter the something’s-got-to-give-protocol. The older a Chewish child gets, the more squarely the child is confronted with his or her own limitations-by-complexity and with the various unanticipated disadvantages as a Chew.
After all, the truth is that each tradition stands for something crucial, precious and unique, and each contradicts and denies the religious belief system of the other. In this way religious communities are similar to nations which impose geographical borders to define themselves. There is no real straddling religious borders; there is only a very narrow no man’s land which cannot support its inhabitants.
Social workers, psychologists and clergy persons say, in one experienced voice, as follows: As a Chewish family, you may believe that you have the best of all possible worlds, but you are teaching opposing theological doctrines that can't both be right, nor do they feel right when they are combined. Stress and confusion escalate for the family.
You may believe “it works if you are flexible” (Gary Magenta). But you can't very well teach the child on Saturday morning that Jesus was a nice rabbi and a good guy, but "we Jews don't see evidence that he was the Messiah since peace, harmony, and a just world have not yet been achieved." Then on Sunday, you teach him that “yes, Jesus was the Messiah and he will return; Jesus was also the Son of God and believing in him brings salvation in the next world.” Are Christian doctrines such as virgin birth, resurrection, a triune deity, original sin stigmatizing humankind, and faith in Jesus as God incarnate, to be believed and disbelieved simultaneously or on alternate weekends? It's not fair to the child. The Messiah either came or he didn't. Jesus was God’s son sent by the Father to die for our sins or was not. Best: choose to teach your children one way or the other, meaning select one of the highways, not several at once.
Eleven-year-old Dancia Gordon alludes to the dilemma and tries to present a positive, if strained, farce concerning her own Chewish upbringing. But the shallowness and conflictedness comes through distinctly in her poem, “Both Christmas and Chanukkah”:
“I celebrate both Christmas and Chanukkah
It’s great because I get to be with both my dad and mama
On Christmas Eve I hope to stay up late
Cuz I’d like to see Santa. That would be great
But somehow I always manage to doze
And before I know it, he comes and goes
I always look forward to Chanukkah gelt
But if I don’t eat it fast, it’s liable to melt
I won these beautiful chocolates in a dreidle game
And when the game is over, everyone’s won the same
My dad is Jewish and my mom is Christian
That’s how I turned out Jewistian.” 
It is virtually certain that parents who want to “expose” their children to both Judaism and Christianity do not necessarily expect or desire that they remain committed to both religions all their lives, celebrating a little of this and a little of that and saying, "I am a Jewish Christian or a Christian Jew." Most expect them, at some point, to choose one of the two religions - choosing one of the parents, really. The parents say they do not want to selfishly impose their own personal choices on their children. These parents fail to understand that in the parental role one does not impose or enforce but tenderly guides, inculcates and teaches. And makes decisions!
The point requires emphasis. It simply isn't fair to dump such a heavy decision on a child. It is the parents' responsibility to make these tough choices for their child. Five-to-ten-year-olds should not be required to choose their own religion; after all, their parents choose their school, their diet, books to read, suitable television programs to view, internet sites to visit, and the like. Are these of greater or lesser importance?
In other words, parents should be lovingly transmitting a coherent culture to their offspring, encouraging its comprehension and affirmation or “confirmation,” without "ramming it down their throats.” In short, the best advice is: do not throw religious identity up for grabs as though indifferent or disinterested in the outcome of so vital a decision as this.
After all, parents are not prepared to have their children answer "exposed" on a form that asks about religious preference. Nor do parents plan on seeing their children, as one Rockville attorney put it, attend the "First Church of Exposure" later in life. But Chewish couples say they plan to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah, Pesach and Easter, giving their kids as much exposure to, and experience with, each tradition as possible so they can make their choice.
The most obvious question is not whether or which but how a child will choose. There certainly will be a choosing. That choice will be made by the child with the knowledge of probably disappointing – perhaps even with the fear of wounding – one parent. It is equally obvious that neither parent wishes to have the child sometime in later childhood or early teens – at Confirmation or at another life cycle event – be faced with a choice between mother and father. They earnestly and seriously prefer to avoid that dilemma for their offspring.
Assume that parents are willing to invest the considerable time and energies – not to speak of the costs – of raising Chewish children. How then do the parents assure that when the children arrive at that inevitable crossroads, they will not be placed in a position of siding with one parent and not the other? Some respond that they will avoid any sense of competitiveness between parents by introducing other “more objective," non-parental influences. They might decide to enroll their children in a school taught by representatives of competing faiths, by teachers professing their own personal convictions or advocating the abandonment of all allegiances or, for all we know, by “educators” espousing deranged sectarian religious views. In short, they will rely on others to sort it all out for their children.
These parents have concluded that it would be best to consciously step back from influencing their own children’s decision making. They prefer to abdicate their responsibilities to make religious and identity decisions for their offspring. Instead, their children will make their determination by various other means. They will be left to their own devises.
Invariably, the consequence of this non-decision will be a Choose-ish child. That child will choose between parents or, for the sake of playing it safe, will decide on none-of-the-above, Eschewish, remaining heritage-less. As far as I can tell, there are virtually no adults or youngsters past the middle teens who remain Chewish. I have conducted a search through the various interfaith newsletters, such as Dovetail, and spoken with other clergy and many interfaith parents. My finding is that Eschewish adults are numerous; Chewish very few, if any at all. That means that virtually all such kids become Choose-ish sooner or later. They will choose between parents.
Numerous questions invariably arise: Would a school teaching a balanced, “objective,” presentation – assuming such a thing could exist - approximate the ideal objective? Would the painful and conflicted turmoil of choosing between parent and parent be avoided? Would it ever come down to a contest in the abstract among Judaism, Christianity, Islam or some other creed? Can there be such a thing as contrasting religions in the abstract? Are decisions for Jewish identity or Christian identity to be determined by a forceful, beloved or charismatic teacher, mentor or friend? Do we really wish others to be the “critical others,” such that they emerge as the pivotal personalities channeling or affecting a child’s lifelong persuasion, rather than having parents assume responsibility in such a matter? Have the parents delegated their own responsibility for providing their children with direction to some professional surrogates? Does this foster in a child a sense of vulnerability or of reassurance? Are the parents not throwing the issue up for grabs? Are they not abdicating their parental role of aiding their offspring to reach a sense of identity and self-worth during their formative years?
The passionate commitment to the integrity of a single heritage and to a coherent and consistent way of life are absent in a Chewish home. Instead these ideals are replaced by a certain different kind of passionate zeal akin to those creating another religion, one which is neither Christian nor Jewish, but Chewish, an entirely novel faith. This relatively recent confession of faith may one-day even achieve greatness and many devoted followers. But it will not be Jewish and it will not be Christian. In the future it may earn, and perhaps deserve, a more suitably respectable and positive name. One need only look at the history of Bahaism, a relatively recent illustration of the process of blending faiths into an entirely newborn religious identity.
The problems and uncertainties children face in the transition from Chewish to Choose-ish can be better understood perhaps by reference to an analogy in the world of sports. Basketball coaches in the National Basketball Association, the brothers Jeff Van Gundy and Stan Van Gundy, recount how they and their parents have faced an ongoing dilemma concerning which son’s team to root for and support when the teams they coach face each other in the playoffs. One announcer made reference to the situation in which “Stan, (then) the Miami Heat’s head coach and Jeff, (then) the New York Knickerbacker’s head coach, have not spoken to each other during the entire series. At most the brothers exchange pleasantries when they see each other in the hallways and ramps. They do not talk to each other.
“Neither wants to call home to their parents because neither wishes to be placing them in an untenable position knowing it will be difficult for their parents because their parents do not know whom to root for.” Stan is quoted as saying, “I only want people in my life who are rooting for me so I do not call my parents.”
The Van Gundy brothers are adults and not children. Nevertheless they too have difficulties with their parents in the matter of competing siblings engaged in professional rivalries. It roils the children’s emotions in their efforts to shield and protect their parents from the hurts parents experience from family competition. When the competition involves siblings who have decided upon rival faiths the issue is compounded, the dilemma penetrates ever deeper, grows continually more distressing and is long lasting.
That anxiety, reflected in the interaction between a Chewish child and his Jewish grandmother referenced above in the narrative by Ephraim Rosenbaum, suggests a lifetime of similar conflict, pressure and arm-twisting within the family for the child’s religious allegiance. As a consequence, grandparents are also placed in an unwelcome position as adversaries of the other grandparents, “vying for the souls” of their grandchildren. Who can predict what hang-ups will later arise? Will they all come together at a bar/bat mitzvah rite of passage celebrated in a Chewish temple?
The cautionary note bears repeating: Eventually the Chewish child will likely choose one faith community or the other, but the child won't be choosing between Judaism and Christianity. The child will be choosing between mommy and daddy and often between the respective sets of grandparents. A child will not know enough about either religion to make a true choice between them. But the child will crave connection and bonding not at some later time but now, will want to know who she/he is now, during childhood, when identity matters most! Children want and need parents to tell them who they are, to help them establish their identities. Instead, conflicted, they feel forced to choose.
You may one day hear these children say, “It always felt like I had to choose mommy or daddy and not like having to choose between two religions.” And this is one of the most compelling reasons not to go the Chewish route. Return again, if you will, to the reflections remembered by Jonathan whose parents made a project of raising monotheists in the general.
Is it possible for parents to remain neutral as their children choose between them or between their respective religions? How important can their identities, their faith and their convictions, be if their parents are indifferent or dispassionate or aloof or nonpartisan in these matters of such great consequence? We have also called attention to a further result of the uncertainties and the pitfalls of the Chewish path in that grandparents often display more competitiveness, as well as perhaps more honesty too, in their willingness to vie for the religious allegiance of their descendents. This is another compelling reason not to go the Chewish route.
It is no surprise that while there are Chewish children in abundance to talk to, there are very few as adults to interview. If they come to accept Jesus as messiah as well as other Christian doctrines, that individual raised Chewish is today a Christian. If having rejected both Christianity and Jewish identity, that person is today Eschewish. If, having denied Christian doctrine and deciding for self identification as Jew, Jewish. Gary Magenta, who was raised Catholic, as were his brothers, took on Jewish identity at bar mitzvah. Following his mother’s Jewish identity, he and his brothers are self-declared Jews, despite their upbringing. Gary is now married to a Catholic woman and their children are being raised Catholic-Jewish. But the Magenta parents do not expect, nor prefer, that their children remain Chewish as adults. They fully expect that their children, ages four and six, will grow out of their Chewishness into Choose-ishness by deciding on their own to be Christian or Jewish.
They are not concerned (yet?) that the choosing process may pose an emotionally painful dilemma of having their children declare a preference for one parent over the other and for one of two incompletely experienced and inadequately understood religious persuasions professing opposing world views. Gary Magenta observed that “We send our children to a school offering some Judaism and some Christianity but there are no children I know who have retained their dual religious identities into their late teens. This means they have pretty much all selected either their mother’s religion or their father’s religion to follow.”
Deborah Fosberg Neher: “Being raised exposed to two religions is like living a life sitting on a fence. For example going ‘united’ to church on Easter and Christmas was extremely uncomfortable for me because my mom insisted we ‘go as a family.’ But my dad went grudgingly and was not really participating. He did not sing and did not say the prayers.
“I felt I was a half-breed, like the Indian ‘half breeds’ in cowboy and Indian movies. I was always ‘half-Jewish.’ My mom was also really ‘half Christian,’ I thought then as a child, in that she made it clear she didn’t believe in the Virgin Birth, the Trinity and other Christian miracles of Jesus so I did not really buy into it either.”
Clearly, the term Chewish is an invention coined tongue-in-cheek for readers of this discourse and is not meant to augment or update the religious sociological lexicon. There are a number of adult children of interfaith Jewish-Christian parents who prefer to call themselves “half-Jews.” There is no evidence that there are those among them who call themselves half-Christians. Brad explains that “I used to say, I’m a half- Jew but never did I introduce myself as the other half. I never said I was half-Christian. Besides, whether half-Jewish or Chewish, neither has an especially pleasant ring to it. At least “Chewish” is kind of funny. ‘I am a half-Jew’ is almost always flung out in defiance. In your face! Take that! Do me something – that’s what I call myself. So there! Better than, ‘I was raised nothing, or I am nothing.’… Granted and acknowledging that being wholly one-hundred percent Jewish or wholly Christian is far more desirable.
“Sometimes the remark, ‘I am a half-Jew’ is offered to elicit sympathy, sometimes as a kind of sharing by up-front admitting inadequacy, a deficiency, or a flaw beneath the surface. Kind of charming. Most adults - if not when they were children – know that whoever believes Jesus is their savior are Christians, those who deny that are not. They may see themselves as ‘no religion.’ And one in every four or five, if I have read the published surveys correctly, sees themselves as Jewish – fully Jewish.”
Jen Chau of Swirl, Inc., “an anti-racist, grassroots organization that serves the mixed heritage community,” addressing her remarks to a newly formed organization calling itself, “Half-Jews,” writes,
“I have to say that I have always had a real problem with the term ‘Half-Jew’. It implies that one is not as authentically Jewish as someone who is ‘full’ Jewish (whatever that means). I grew up with a Jewish mother and an atheist father and have been identified as Jewish for all of my life, only to have people correct me, “oh!! So you are actually ‘half’ Jewish!” No. I am Jewish.
“I would like to challenge this group to really think about terminology (‘especially’ if you are beginning to create community). We wonder why children of interfaith marriages are left out and have been turned away/off by the Jewish community? I am sure the label of ‘half’ isn’t helping move people toward a more inclusive ideology. No matter what anyone says, half implies less than whole and calling some ‘half’ will always create a hierarchy within the Jewish community where some members are valued more than others (BTW, I used to identify as half-white/Jewish and half-Chinese because that was the terminology I was taught and saw others use…until I realized that it merely made room for others to make assumptions about me – to assume that I was not AS Jewish as the next person at shul or AS Chinese as the next person at the Asian Student Union in college. I am Jewish and Chinese, period. I am not half of anything). I hope you will honestly consider what I have said.”
Stacey Rossman, raised as Chewish, never was able to bring herself to inform her parents of her choice, not wishing to upset her Christian mother. But she deeply regrets she was unable to tell her father, before his premature death, that she had selected Judaism. It is not difficult to see the consequences of this path eventually piling profound distress upon teenaged children “caught in the middle,” however benign that appears when the children are still young.
Many couples try it and discover that the Both routine splits up families. One child aligns with one parent and the other child, often for reasons of sibling rivalry or compassion, for the other parent. I have seen these "half families" in my own congregations. The families soon stop trying to convince each other, themselves and me, that they are united and happy this way. They are in fact fractured and divided. Members of these families aren't celebrating holidays together in the same way and with the same meaning. The consequence is that they become more like spectators in their own households than co-celebrants.
Siblings share a very special bond and sibling relationships are precious and unique, providing sisters and brothers a source of great strength and comfort. Robin Beckhard James  observes that “over the 11 years since my former husband and I separated, the bond between our two children has helped them navigate the shoals of two different homes, different rules, different styles. The sibling is the constant, the touchstone, the reality check.
“Two very different people, they have their disagreements, but they are fiercely supportive of each other. Not only am I grateful to have my children – I am also grateful that they have each other.” Clearly, children benefit from time spent with siblings.
When siblings are of different religions, perhaps attending different schools for religious training and celebrating different home-based and synagogue/church-based festivals and events, their togetherness will not be nurtured or enhanced. In fact, as a consequence, they will spend much less time together.
These siblings are not nearly as close as they could be because they have taken different religious directions. Nor will their children feel as “related.” And for the rest of their lives, particularly since they do not celebrate festivals together, it will be a struggle to stay close. I cannot see anything positive for a family in any of this. This is not the road to travel.
The previously mentioned Ephraim Rosenbaum, brought up Chewish by parents who advocate the both approach, writes about his confusion and conflictedness and sheds light on a family with three siblings who have separated out into Christian, Jewish and a devotee of Eastern mysticism. They might still think, two out of three monotheists, not bad. But predictably, an unfortunately split and disunited family is the unintended outcome – a house divided.
Growing up in the modern world is hard enough. The Both path, Chewish, as has been stressed, eventually becomes “Choose-ish” since it leads to choosing between parents and their religions. That direction appears to the child as laid out like an obstacle course. It presents a constant dilemma for the youngsters. They will tell you this themselves if you ask them, and when they become adults they will say it again. Often it will be said gently and lovingly, sometimes angrily, frequently sadly and remorsefully (as expressed by a dual-faith daughter at the occasion of her father’s funeral) and often ultimately forgivingly. (“He dearly desired Jewish kids but he was too much of a mensch to insist upon it to my mother whom he dearly loved.”)
Every religious leader and every social worker I meet shares this negative judgment of the Chewish track because they, too, have seen where it leads - at best to confusion. They have also witnessed the frequent anxiety and inner turmoil during the early growing up years as well as at important occasions and religious milestones along the way. However well meaning and honorable this way starts out, the paths split and it’s like trying to walk two divergent paths simultaneously. They arrived at the fork in the road and they took it.
Religions, we are again reminded, are meant to be followed from cradle to grave. The strengths and depths of these religious ways of life are increasingly understood and appreciated by an individual progressing through the years. Therefore, at any given juncture of life, a judgment based on anything other than living fully within a single religious tradition would be based on quite limited experiences and knowledge.
When you meet the “exposed” children as adults, many say that they wish their parents had flipped a coin and decided on one religion or the other. They say that they never knew who they were and that the experience of growing up “exposed” was tumultuous, chaotic and painful for them. Some of them deal with their pain with humor. Others remember having endured a clashing and confused upbringing.
Some say that this was a long-term, troubling issue that overshadowed their whole childhood, not just something that cropped up around bar/bat mitzvah and Confirmation time. Many report that they envied their friends whose religious identity was established and secure, particularly at the bat/bar mitzvah and Confirmation events of friends.
Ephraim Rosenbaum writes in Dovetail: “I was always unable to answer when my friends asked what I was.”
Eric was raised “exposed” in a dual faith household. He had no identity-conferring ceremony as an infant or as a child and was never enrolled in a religious school. No baptism and no brit, bar mitzvah or Confirmation or any religiously-oriented life cycle commemoration affirming identity. Eric says:
“I was not provided with a Jewish education or a Christian education but I was exposed by way of family celebrations, not my own. My family had many members of various religious persuasions so I didn’t feel the need at the time. There was plenty of religion around so I thought I did not need one of my own. I knew who I was, as my parents taught me, I was a human being. But it is true that I did not really know who or what I was growing up. I really did not know how to answer the questions my friends asked, or questions I asked myself. But whatever I wasn’t, I was defiant about it.
“My own kids are going to be of one faith although we have not yet determined which path to take. Problem is, I cannot read Hebrew or understand it. I was not educated much to my regret and I do not really know enough to train the kids in Judaism or how to celebrate Jewish festivals. We know more about Christianity because my wife-to-be is Christian and because I grew up in America and was exposed more to Christianity than Judaism.
“Still, I intend to have my children know about all the religions even though we will choose only one because it is simply less confusing. I also don’t wish to take away from my kids the certainty of knowing who they are and what group they belong to. The alternative, as I know from experience, will not do.”
Matthew was raised “exposed but Jewish.” By this “I mean that I was taught because my mother was Jewish, so was I. But that is about it. I never had a Jewish education or anything else. Then I began a journey that still has miles to go called ‘finding myself.’ I was seeking, without realizing it, an immediate spiritual high that would be like an epiphany revealing the Truth. I was on a kind of breathless, superficial sort of shopping trip in search of a particularly elusive commodity, religious identity. I was looking in all the wrong places for the wrong thing, some decisive, transformative experience that would change my life rather than the small, incremental practices of a lifetime.”
Rabbi Rosalind Gold, wary of the speed-bumps along this path, composed a prayer published in Reform Judaism: “I pray that parents of different religions will see the wisdom of making a choice for a single religious heritage to practice in their homes and to teach their children: that is indisputably the best thing for the children.”
Dr. Eugene J. Fisher, Associate Director, Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, reflecting on Rabbi Gold’s prayer ( responded with an amen:
“From a Catholic point of view, which officially discourages intermarriage though will accommodate it pastorally, I think I am safe in saying that Rabbi Gold’s remark strikes true. It is the parents’ responsibility to choose. Naturally, we believe that the choice of Catholicism is the better one, just as the Jewish community naturally believes in the choice of Judaism. And naturally both of our communities will push our own folks in the preferred direction. But, failing that, I think most Catholics would on reflection concur that it is far better for children to be raised as confirmed, convinced and committed practicing Jews than to attempt a ‘both/and’ approach in which the children, really, will be raised as neither. Rabbi Gold, most Catholic pastors would concur, is right: the question is what is best for the children.”
For these many valid reasons, it's not surprising that the Both and the Neither routes are so roundly discouraged by virtually all psychologists and social workers as well as the clergy and religious educators. The alternative - raising a child fully Jewish, fully Christian, fully Muslim, or fully whatever - is preferable for being harmonious, unadulterated, distinct and much less expensive.
Such a decision, to traverse a sole religious pathway rather than arriving at "a fork in the road and trying to take it," adds a clear sense of identity and an unambiguous code to live by. Such a decision also strengthens and reinforces an uncompromised and undiluted world culture that serves to enrich and stabilize a child's upbringing.
I think there is great wisdom in the statement that you can boil down the disadvantages of going 50/50 (half Jewish, half Christian) to this: on every test we know, 50% is failure and 100% is excellence. Kids understand this; adults might, too.
It is in this spirit that we turn to a discussion in greater detail of the “alternative” approach, the single religion choices. Let us now unfold the roadmap detailing the discrete and separate pathways, the Christian and the Jewish routes.
As a rabbi, while I make no pretense at being entirely objective, I can observe reality, as can others, impartially, like the proverbial "fly on the wall." What I have seen is this: in both Judaism and Christianity, the music, poetry (prayer), art, festivals, religious observances, and responsibilities are beautiful and of great value in an individual’s life.
The Christian route is a very good choice. It's the dominant Western religion, the majority choice. Therefore it's the easier choice. It’s everywhere. You don't have to go out of your way very much since Christianity is all around you in the world (there are hundreds of millions of Christians and only approximately thirteen million Jews). Christian churches are everywhere. The Christian child won't be self-conscious in any way, will never feel the disadvantages of being a member of a societal minority, and will never face anti-Semitism and its related sting of bigotry. There's a lot to be said for the Christian route.
The tough part, of course, for the Jewish parent is that he/she does not believe in, or subscribe to, any of the powerful and important Christian doctrines. Raising Christian children means teaching the child beliefs the Jewish parent disavows, beliefs that inevitably come between the offspring and that parent. In addition to the feelings of forfeiture of Jewish continuity, to many Jews each doctrine is seen like a brick in the wall of separation between the Christian child and Jewish parent.
The child is being taught to believe in certain articles of faith knowing one parent denies these beliefs: in fact, "dad is not a belief person at all; he's a Jew!" This statement of a 14-year-old is not a put-down at all. Jews are, in fact, far less a believing people than a behaving and a belonging people, a folk taken with history and community, not doctrine and faith.
Certain Christian parents can not be expected to go through life without transmitting the profoundly esteemed articles of their faith to their children. Jewish parents in the same situation see their child being surrounded by a wall of doctrine they can't climb over. "Mommy, how come you don't believe in Jesus as your Savior and the Son of God? Aren't you going to be saved? After we die, will I never see you again? If you don't believe in these things, are they really true?"
These are only a few of the many very difficult questions that a Jewish parent of Christian children of all ages must answer. They must speak honestly to their Christian offspring and not deny their disbelief of Christian doctrine. Nor should their natural Jewish skepticism be withheld from loved ones. Their responsibility is to communicate their doubts and misgivings in such a way as not to undermine the family’s religious integrity. No easy task. Nor should questions regarding Christian “truths” asked of a Jewish parent be evaded with, "Go ask your father. He’s the family’s believing Christian, not me."
There are some Jews who have handled reasonably well the problem of raising children with beliefs they reject. Many are happy, from what I can tell. Others have expressed heart-rending remorse to me that they are the last in the line of their family’s Jewish continuity and that the four-thousand-year chain snaps off and ends with them. Often, feelings of sadness, regret and guilt intensify, as one grows older.
Unfortunately, the wall of doctrine is difficult to breach and, in fact, widens over the years as it shapes the child's life experiences and consciousness. Often I am told that it is precisely because of the articles of Christian faith that the Jewish partners feel that over a huge chunk of their lifetimes they have been left out, or, in the words of more than a few Jewish parents of Christian children, "marginalized."
Despite this, for certain families, the Christian route is unquestionably the right decision, especially when compared with Chewishness, and particularly if the Christian partner believes that, unless the children are raised to believe in Jesus, they will not be saved but will suffer in the world to come. In these circumstances I have pointed out to the Jewish partner - who, as one young Jewish man put it, "felt his ancestral blood rising to the surface" when he thought about having kids who would be taught to believe in the redeeming blood of the cross – that salvational beliefs are so visceral and fundamental, they are not easily relinquished, sublimated or overcome.
From the point of view of the Christian spouse, when one thinks in terms of eternity, the survival of the Jewish people in this temporal world doesn't feel quite as urgent as Personal Salvation in the next world. Salvation registers as Eternity, paradise itself, the ultimate prize - citizenship in the City of God. Judaism does not attempt to beat that offer.
Judaism’s focus is on how we are to conduct our lives in this world. Furthermore, if there is a next world, articles of faith, deeply held beliefs, and religious pietism will not get you there. Perhaps deeds will. Perhaps there is no afterlife at all. Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not rise and fall on the doctrines of salvation and the afterlife.
Put another way, Jewish identity, while for Jews important for this brief life span, can’t count as much when compared to the endless mystery of eternal life. Jews say that, "Judaism offers culture and continuity," Christians say “Christianity offers truth and salvation.” It is not surprising that religious Christians who believe in salvation through Christ find it very difficult to raise children who are not taught and "indoctrinated" with Christian beliefs. They believe that personal salvation and eternity itself are at risk.
Better by far for the child than an amalgam of Chewish or Eschewish (but nevertheless extremely difficult for the skeptical and non-believing Jewish parent), the Christian course is “A Tough Choice.” But if that direction is the right one for a particular family, I say to the Jewish parent of Christian children-to-be what I say when the shoe is on the other foot: get with the program. For the very sake of the “we, we, we.” For the sake of family unity and the peace of the household!
I also say to the Jewish partner that, assuming no conversion to Christianity takes place, you remain always a committed, practicing Jew. I also point out “that your Jewishness need not, indeed should not, be reduced to a vague shadow or a mindless sham and it should certainly not be discarded, neglected or abandoned. Wear your identity proudly, join a synagogue on your own and bring the family from time to time to understand where you, the Jewish parent, are coming from. Make a genuine effort to remain informed in Jewish matters and observe the Jewish festivals at home with enthusiasm as your celebrations even as you join joyously in the primary faith of your household.
When you go the majority route the minority route does not travel along for the ride unless you consciously take it with you. There is no resultant confusion because Christianity is a Jewish religion as is Islam; you will remind your kids of this fact as they grow older. Judaism is eternally the foundation stone of whatever heritage a family chooses." There will be much more said regarding the differences between Judaism and Christianity in a later chapter on that subject.
Now for the Jewish route. The Christian route is clear: it's the easier way in a Christian society, the majority way, and is particularly compelling and appropriate if the Christian partner strongly believes in salvation. The Jewish route has a lot of downsides. “We have always been,” in the words of Rabbi Edward Feinstein, “the anomaly to someone’s absolutes. And we have suffered for it…Because we are the anomaly we complicate matters. We spoil the uniformity. We don’t fit the formula.” Anti-Semitism is a good example of the downsides. The Internet is a hotbed of anti-Zionism, Holocaust deniers, and white power supremacists. We will return to the subject of anti-Semitism in the chapter dealing with Conversion and Convergence.
One thing is clear, a non-Jew considering conferring Jewish identity upon his or her children must be reminded that anti-Semitism is an unfortunate reality. At times this form of bigotry is encountered as a mere pothole in the pathway of Jewish life in America but too many times, at various periods and places in the world, as a gaping abyss. Consider the century just past. The question, “is America different and if so in what way and why?” will also be addressed further on in this book’s final chapter.
Also bear in mind that Judaism is, after all, a minority way, and as such requires a special effort. You would not teach your child to say she is a pianist unless she learns to play the piano. Otherwise you are inviting the embarrassment which your child is sure to face sooner or later. Similarly, it's not reasonable or fair to call your kid a Jewish kid without a Jewish education and the concomitant investment – in time, energy and expense - that goes with it. You cannot evade the obligation to teach your child what it means to call yourself Jewish. And, in truth, there’s a lot to know: Jewish thought, Jewish history, Jewish responsibilities. Therefore, you must send your children to a Jewish supplementary school, and both partners must take the necessary steps to further your children's, as well as your own, Jewish cultural enlightenment. These are among the obvious negatives/difficulties.
Often, in the words of cultural anthropologist, Joel Streicker, “there is little appreciation that engaging with Judaism requires commitment and effort – the antithesis of casual dabbling – and that the personal benefits also often take a long time to register.” It is important for all parties that they not long remain “oblivious to what is required as a Jew.”
There are other self-evident unattractive contingencies such as your Jewish child is less likely to ever get elected president - except perhaps in a synagogue (and in some Jewish congregations non-Jewish persons - the Gere Toshav - also take their turn and serve in that position if they are capable and willing). Moreover, times are changing: it is relevant remembering John F. Kennedy and his Catholicism in the 20th century and the Jewish vice-presidential candidate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman in the beginning of the 21st. But any Jew, even one not necessarily committed to standing among the passionate advocates of intensive Jewish living, is likely to agree that the negatives/difficulties of a Jewish home and upbringing are well balanced by the considerable positives of the Jewish way of life.
We have pointed out that there is but one single article of faith or conviction which all Jews must hold if they are to remain Jews and ensure Jewish survival. It does not relate to God at all since atheists, agnostics and others can affirm it. (In fact it is a conviction shared by all people about themselves, not only Jews.) The conviction has been formulated above in this vein: Jews maintain that the overriding principle is that they are entitled to exist, to live as a people, and no one may challenge that right. It is a belief articulated by an affirmation stating that, “we as Jews are entitled to our lives as a people no more and no less than anyone else.
"No one has the right to require us to justify our existence. It is a right, not a privilege deriving from others. We exist; therefore we need no permission to be." That is the single conviction shared by all Jews or they would not be Jews. Absent that conviction a born Jew will have assumed a position outside the fold of Jewish identity and continuity.
Since Judaism recognizes that beliefs often change radically over the course of one's lifetime, it chooses to focus instead on belonging and behaving - that is, identity substantiated by ethics and actions, but not by immutable beliefs. Jews talk about acts (mitzvahs, mitzvot): deeds, not creeds. A “pious” Jew is referred to as a “keeper” or “guardian” of the commandments (a shomer mitzvot) not a man of faith. Behavior and not correct belief is the test of Jewish identity. In the Jewish world view, heresy hunting disappears. Judaism teaches that it is better to inquire about the acts a person performs than how many of Maimonides’ articles of faith one subscribes to, because what you do, not what you believe, takes precedence over theological tests and doctrines.
A big positive for the non-Jewish partner raising a Jewish child is that there are no must-believes and no doctrines. Jewishly educated children, and adults, are not told what to think, they are taught what to do. As a Jew, there are very specific and appealing acts you are urged to perform to be part of the Jewish people and their rich culture and way of life. We would be inclined to call these acts “the mitzvah system,” as in “do you keep the mitzvah system?” and “what deeds do you do? What practices do you keep?”
For Jewish parents of Christian children, there are many "roll your eyeballs to the ceiling in despair" moments over doctrines being taught to their children. There aren't any theologies or articles of faith required in Judaism that would cause Christian parents to roll their eyeballs towards the ceiling in despair. For example, it's not a contradiction – even if it isn’t easy - to be an atheist and a Jew (as will be discussed later). There is no way you can be an atheist and still be a Christian.
The point has been made that for a Jewish person, identity precedes ideology, belonging comes before believing, and the emphasis is on the folk, far more than the faith. Jews see themselves as a community. They have created a religion or a religious civilization referred to as Judaism. Their religion comes across more as an incomparably convincing ethical and behavioral system, based on how to treat people, than as a lesson in religious piety. It incorporates a rich culture of festivals and life-cycle events, a shared history that has produced many great thinkers, doers and shakers, a chain of continuity stretching over thousands of years, and a rich and enduring legacy to pass on from generation to generation. Judaism is not a collection of beliefs. It offers a code of conduct and a heritage of values and traditions to live by and transmit.
Samantha and Benjamin
When Samantha was younger, she recalls, she used to tease her Jewish best friend Allison that she would end up marrying a non-Jew with blond hair and blue eyes. Her friend, Allison, in turn, would tease Samantha, a Methodist, that she would "marry Mr. Schwartz," playing on her fascination with the Jewish culture and religion.
And sure enough, some years later, Samantha became engaged to Benjamin. As usual, however, the obstacles began early on for a Jewish man marrying a Christian woman. Benjamin, whose parents have both passed away, has an orthodox Jewish sister and brother-in-law, who, apparently, were not as accepting as the couple may have hoped.
"They were delightful," says Samantha of her first encounter with these relatives. However, after she left, Benjamin's sister admonished him that she didn't like Samantha and said she “didn't want to have a Christian in her family." However, after a time, they learned to live with the fact that Samantha wasn't going anywhere.
Besides, Samantha says she does not plan to be "a nominal but not a believing Christian" forever. Intent upon marrying a Jewish man, Samantha also grew up surrounded by Jewish family friends. Over a relatively long period of time, she experienced “a strong attraction to Jews and Jewish-ness.” She entered her marriage to Benjamin already predisposed to converting to Judaism. At first, he discouraged her, more as an attempt to keep her choice an unbiased one than anything else. But Samantha still plans to convert before the couple has children.
When they do have children, both Samantha and Benjamin declared emphatically, the children will be raised Jewish. Neither parent is especially religious in the popular sense of the word. Samantha was raised by a mother who did not favor formal religion. Like her mother, Samantha has always thought of herself as spiritual, with a belief in God, but any Christian rituals or holidays she enjoyed in her home growing up were celebrated more for reasons of family togetherness than by virtue of any sort of religious conviction.
Similarly, the Jewish religion was a part of Benjamin's life growing up, but as he says, he was not raised as religious as his sister. He feels that in that regard he takes after his father, who was not a religious man, and thought of religion as a "big business."
However, despite relatively non-committed religious pasts, both Samantha and Benjamin feel that religion is important and should therefore play a large part in their future children's lives. Both agree that fundamental traditions, such as Hebrew, bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, and some sort of temple attendance will be crucial to their children’s Jewish upbringing. It will be clear to them, says Samantha that "mommy's parents are still having Christmas and Easter, but it's not our Christmas."
The couple anticipates that some conflict or difficulty may arise in this matter but they will deal with it thoughtfully and gently. "I can't imagine a little child seeing the trappings and trimmings of Christmas" says Samantha, "and not being jealous." To help resolve this, the couple plans to emphasize the beauty of Chanukah, as well as such holidays as Purim and Simchat Torah. After all, Samantha says, her children may be presented with some conflict as a minority faith member, but "sometimes those things actually help develop character."
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© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved
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