At JOI, we don’t pretend being raised in an interfaith home is not without challenges. We know from both studies and anecdotal evidence that children of intermarriage often struggle with their religious identity, which can lead to confusion and, sometimes, contention. But for intermarried parents who are trying to raise Jewish children, there are incredible opportunities to embolden Jewish identity around almost every corner. This was a point made by Nina Joyce in the Jewish Advocate (subscription required). Sitting around a Christmas dinner with her Jewish mother and Christian grandparents one year, an argument over a Christmas tree at the local library gave Joyce deeper insight into the Jewish identity of both her mother and herself.
Joyce explains that growing up, being Jewish was “only a phrase.” Yes, there were Passover dinners and Hanukkah candles, but that’s as far as it went. At the time, Joyce had never considered that her mother “might feel differently about it.” Even when her mother started insisting on attending synagogue, Joyce and her sister “viewed her actions in the same vein as all other things that separated adults from children, like chores and a taste for ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’” But watching her mother explain how a Christmas tree at the public library made her, as a Jew, feel left out, these past experiences took on a different light. Joyce writes:
With the benefit of hindsight, however, I realize it should have been obvious that my mom felt strongly about her Jewish roots… My mother lost both her parents while I was still young. She was the only Jewish person in my dad’s extended family, and other than a brother who lived far upstate and whom I had never met, she had no family. She liked knowing where she came from, and wanted my sister and me to appreciate it, too.
Joyce’s story is a vivid reminder that traditional options for establishing Jewish identity in children of intermarriage – like attending synagogue or celebrating Jewish holidays – might not always work best. For some, those will simply be actions with no deeper significance. Instead, families should try to recognize those moments where they can demonstrate the value of Judaism and its meaning in their lives. Creating those kinds of connections to family and heritage can sometimes be the most powerful approach in encouraging a Jewish lifestyle.