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The Minyan: Non-Jewish Spouses

A roundtable discussion about interfaith marriages, raising Jewish children, navigating Jewish and non-Jewish holidays, and where people do—and don’t—feel welcome

by
Abigail Pogrebin
September 15, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
The Minyan is a series of moderated roundtable discussions about the state of the Jewish community in America from a variety of perspectives. By bringing together at least 10 people from a shared demographic or background—everyday” people with personal opinions, not “experts” or titled professionals who earn their salaries by crafting statements on these issues—we hope to foster conversations that will illuminate how different kinds of people think about the larger Jewish community, and their own place in it. Read other installments of The Minyan here.
The Minyan is a series of moderated roundtable discussions about the state of the Jewish community in America from a variety of perspectives. By bringing together at least 10 people from a shared demographic or background—everyday” people with personal opinions, not “experts” or titled professionals who earn their salaries by crafting statements on these issues—we hope to foster conversations that will illuminate how different kinds of people think about the larger Jewish community, and their own place in it. Read other installments of The Minyan here.

Many non-Jews in interfaith marriages do not feel connected to Judaism or the larger Jewish community—and many don’t seek those connections, perhaps because their Jewish spouses are themselves less engaged. But others are interested: They study Judaism, join synagogues and communal organizations, and celebrate Jewish holidays with their spouses. Some self-identify as Jewish, although they have not converted. And, perhaps surprisingly, most of them raise Jewish children; a full two-thirds of intermarried couples are raising their kids Jewish—something that requires significant involvement in Judaism and the Jewish community.

According to a 2020 Pew survey of Jewish Americans, 42% of married respondents had a non-Jewish spouse. Those numbers are on the rise: According to the same study, among those who got married since 2010, 61% were intermarried—and excluding Orthodox Jews, among whom intermarriage remains rare, 72% were intermarried.

In this installment of The Minyan, we wanted to find out how non-Jewish spouses find Jewish connection—or not—and when and where they feel welcome. When we set out to ask non-Jewish spouses about their honest experiences in an interfaith union, we deliberately narrowed the field to those married to Jews who care about being Jewish. Our curiosity focused on partnerships in which religious practices had to be discussed or negotiated at some point in the relationship.

THE PARTICIPANTS

Their ages, locations, the religions they were raised with, and how they identify now

Neil: 51, Memphis, Episcopalian. “I identify with Judaism now even though I did not convert. I think I’m a card-carrying member of the tribe.”

Kavya: 31, New York, Hindu. “I self-identify as Hindu.”

Marie: 63, Boston. “Raised Catholic, but my father was Lutheran. I identify with Judaism and will probably convert.”

Paige: 30, Seattle, Catholic. “I identify as J.I.T., or Jew in Training.”

Andrea: 53, Maryland. “Raised Presbyterian and would now self-identify as interfaith.”

Charles: 59, New York City, Catholic. “Card-carrying Jew, wholeheartedly.”

Christina: 53, Denver. “I identify neither as Christian, nor Jewish; I’m somewhere else.”

David: 60, Virginia. “Grew up with my family attempting to make me Catholic—didn’t work.”

Brendan: 49, New York City. “I’m a lapsed Catholic, have no affiliation, and no guilt about my lapsed Catholicism.”

Margaret: 78, Tennessee. “Grew up Catholic, but we have a Jewish home.”

Dinah: 68, Manhattan. “Grew up in a devoutly Catholic family; I would now consider myself part of a Jewish family.”

Benjamin: 35, Brooklyn. “Grew up mostly Catholic, but I self-identify now as leaning toward Judaism.”

How many of you had met very few Jews before you met your spouse? Raise your hand. I see five out of the 12 of you: Margaret, Brendan, Dinah, Christina, and Paige.

Margaret: I grew up in a pretty WASPy environment. Protestant, Presbyterian. There were some Jewish kids at school, but not really close friends. My family was very Christian, very religious. So I kind of looked at Jewish people as “not saved.”

Neil: I don’t think I ever ran across anybody Jewish on the eastern shore of Maryland. There weren’t any synagogues or Jewish community centers. Where I went to college, you just didn’t see Jewish organizations on campus. I don’t think I met anybody Jewish till I met my wife. And that’s when this whole new world opened up for me.

Dinah: My neighborhood was ethnically diverse, but not religiously diverse. Almost everyone was Roman Catholic.

Brendan: I grew up around a lot of Catholics, went to Catholic high school, Catholic college, went to church every Sunday. So I didn’t really have much visibility into Jewish people and Judaism my entire life until I met my husband, Eyal.

Raise your hand if you think that your spouse’s parents or family felt disappointed they were not marrying a Jew. I see only one: Christina.

Christina: Disappointment would be too strong. It would have been the preferred direction. I have to give my mother-in-law credit, though, because she said, “You’re 99% perfect.” [Laughs.] I’ll take it.

Dinah: I always felt extremely welcome, but my husband was 36 years old and his parents were so desperate for him to get married, I could have been an Irish setter.

I don’t think I met anybody Jewish till I met my wife. And that’s when this whole new world opened up for me.

Who has a Christmas tree in your house today as a matter of course? I see four: Charles, Andrea, Neil, and Paige. Did I miss anyone?

Christina: We just started the past couple of years after our daughter hit 21.

Kavya: The Christmas tree is a strange tradition in my family because we are Hindu, but growing up in the U.S., we had nothing else to celebrate when everyone had time off during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. So we always had a Christmas tree. Ironically, my [Jewish] husband always had a Christmas tree, too. So we continue the tradition in a way that is meant to be celebratory and festive, not religious by any means.

Charles, was the tree a discussion in your relationship?

Charles: It was. I had twin girls on my own before I met my husband, and they were 4 1/2 years old when I met my husband. I was definitely separated from Catholicism and exploring Unitarianism at the time, but we followed the tribal rituals: Easter egg hunt and the Christmas tree. I have eight brothers and sisters and we grew up Catholic, so it’s what I did with the girls. Once my husband and I were married, the tree and Easter were a discussion because the girls were 8 at the time and already connected to those rituals, which were actually nonreligious, because I didn’t attach religion to them. My husband accepted it, didn’t love it. Then eventually all the Jewish rituals were integrated into our lives as a family. We converted the girls to Judaism and my husband adopted them and they recently had their bat mitzvahs. So we are now full-in, but there are vestiges of those things that still exist.

Does there remain some discomfort for your husband, or are the Christmas tree and Easter egg hunt now just part of the routine?

Charles: A story might answer that. We were a year into our relationship, we did the Easter egg hunt, and afterward he said, “I think I’m going to head home.” I was so crushed. Later I said, “Help me understand what happened when you just left.” And he said, “I was so deep in this other world that I kind of panicked.” We’ve since talked through so many other moments like that in order to understand one another; I feel very lucky that we can. We even joke about it now: Escape from Easter.

The Easter Exodus. [Laughter] Paige, I see you raised your hand?

Paige: We have a nonreligious tree that I like just to make our house more festive. We do have a Star of David tree-topper for our Hanukkah bush, so it’s definitely not a Christmas tree, but it’s something green around the holidays.

Andrea: I think the first time that we had a tree was 12 or 13 years after we got married, after we had two kids. The first was like a [miniature] Charlie Brown Christmas tree that my husband had picked out. No judgment. The tree has since grown—correlated to my husband’s comfort level. Now I have a full-size Christmas tree, but we did uncouple the tree and traditions from consumerism. We have a Christmas tree, but we handmake all of our ornaments together; they all have a story within our family. We make homemade presents for each other. So the tree itself is part of that scaled-down-but-homespun holiday.

Neil: Well, now I feel like a complete jerk speaking after Andrea, because I am all consumerism when it comes to the holidays in our household. [Laughter.] We are not making our gifts!

This is a safe space, Neil.

Neil: For me growing up, Christmas was more about the celebration of family, exchanging gifts, the joy of Santa Claus, that magical morning. It took a little bit to get my wife to have a Christmas tree. We decorate the house, much of it in Hanukkah themes as much as it is snowmen. Not religious decorations, but more like winter.

Which Jewish holiday has become meaningful to each of you?

It was very new for me to experience religion in the home setting; the home is itself a small sanctuary in Judaism.

Andrea: For me, for sure, it would be Passover, in part because that was the first holiday where I joined my husband after a year of dating. It was so different from my experiences with religion growing up, where religion happened at church; reverence meant being quiet, observant, listening to other people. It was not so participatory. Then when we went to Passover Seder at our extended family’s home, it was lively. There were puppets used in the retelling. Lots of laughter. People singing together at the table, something that would never have happened at my house growing up. And the Passover story itself can be poked, prodded, interrogated, and connected to current politics, refugees, or other marginalized populations. That all was so different for me. I loved it. It was, at times, raucous. People were talking over each other and telling stories. It was very new for me to experience religion in the home setting; the home is itself a small sanctuary in Judaism. You can observe or celebrate a holiday at home. It doesn’t have to be in a synagogue or a house of worship, and it is still so meaningful and reverent, even though there’s irreverence thrown in.

Margaret: Passover is also my favorite. There are so many things that you can relate to that holiday about the world today. It’s not just about the Jews; it’s about a lot of people that have been oppressed.

Brendan: I enjoy the Jewish holidays that are largely food-based. Passover is actually my least favorite because it takes just so long to get to the food.

Marie: Passover has definitely been a big part of the family. We don’t eat bread the week following the Seder; that’s an important part for me, too.

Do you also mark the High Holidays?

Marie: We go to temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and we also fast on the day.

Dinah: We fast also.

How many people here fast? I see five hands: Charles, Benjamin, Dinah, Marie, Neil.

Brendan: We were invited to a really nice dinner by a friend of ours on Yom Kippur. This friend had a client—a very wealthy woman in town from Texas who was taking all these folks out to a great restaurant. Our friend said, “I need fun gays at this dinner. Please come.” So we went. Amazing restaurant. Great spread. It’s the kind of Italian restaurant where there’s a waiter per person—they’re just tripping over each other, and the food’s coming out, all sorts of …what’s that mushroom that gets shaved over risotto?

Dinah: Truffles!

Brendan: Yes, the waiters are asking, “Oh, would you like truffles?”—for $100, $200. Just the most amazing meal. And my husband, Eyal, to his credit, is sitting there in the chair having only ice cubes because it’s Yom Kippur, while everyone else is eating. I ask him afterward: “How were you able to do that?” And he says, “That’s the point: As I’m giving all this up, I’m actually reminded what this holiday is about.” And I said, “I’d like to say that I feel terrible that I didn’t do that fasting along with you, but ... you know ... at least we don’t have a tree.”

One of the things you described in our pre-interview, Brendan, was how you had to adjust to the rhythms of a Jewish family.

Brendan: I come from a nice Catholic family. My parents have been married 50 years, three kids. We would have dinner in New Jersey, and the way the conversation goes in my family, one person speaks at a time. Everyone else listens. There’s no interrupting, no speaking over. You kind of wait your turn. Then I meet Eyal. His family is Israeli, and the first time I go to their dinner, we’re sitting in the kitchen and everyone is literally just yelling at each other. It’s like shouting, interrupting, and you think you’re having a conversation with somebody, then in mid-sentence they cut off and they’re talking to somebody else. It was jarring for me. It’s been 17 years in my relationship. It’s taken a long time to adjust to the idea that this is just what happens. So I started doing it: I started getting loud. And then everyone’s like, “Why is Brendan yelling?”

Before we move beyond Yom Kippur, is there anyone who might want to talk about why you’ve chosen to fast or not?

Yom Kippur is one of my most treasured moments for reflection.

Margaret: It just doesn’t mean anything to me. For people for whom it means something, that’s wonderful. But just to make yourself miserable—which some people are when they fast—it’s not really about the religious part for them, they’re just going to get through the day because it’s a challenge.

Dinah: How do you join your family to break a fast if you haven’t fasted?

Margaret: No problem. You just eat.

Kavya: I go to services. Yom Kippur is one of my most treasured moments for reflection. I don’t fast, though my husband does, because fasting has relevance in Hinduism and I try to both support my husband while also staying true to how I identify religiously.

Can you tell me why the holiday is reflective for you?

Kavya: I find the occasion very thoughtful—contemplating the year prior, wanting to be inscribed in the Book of Life. All of that is very universally resonant to me and how I want to approach the world. I feel very lucky to be part of a community and a synagogue that’s Reform that welcomes me to partake in those sorts of observations.

Charles: I felt very much as Kavya did: Yom Kippur is such a moment for me—the visceralness of self-reflection and taking responsibility for my own actions, really being honest with myself about the parts of how I am and how I act that I’m not so proud of, what that means in the world. The fasting helps make that more acute. Listen, the whole thing is not a party. It’s not a comfortable moment to look into yourself. The fasting was hard at first, but it helps me connect with the honesty. It’s very powerful.

Paige: I don’t fast, but I do really like Yom Kippur as a day to reflect on the previous year. Sometimes my husband and I talk about our reflections—before he gets too grouchy from fasting. But it is a really nice pause.

If you go to synagogue at all during the year besides the High Holidays, raise your hand. I see seven of you: Marie, Dinah, Neil, Charles, Andrea, Margaret, David. And I see Christina is gesturing “sometimes.” Let’s start with David—you told me you value synagogue services; can you say why?

Every time we go to synagogue, the quality of the sermons is amazing. For that reason alone I wish every Christian could go to one of those services, honestly, because they would be blown away.

David: What I’ve heard so far in this conversation is that a lot of people are looking for things that feel universal or familiar. But I’m also looking for those things that are unique. When I go to services I’m listening for those moments during prayer or a sermon where there’s something new for me, some insight into the journey that is the Torah or into the nature of what it means to be human. I’m looking for those moments when there’s something new that I can bring back to my life, not just something that’s familiar from some other context.

Do you consider study to be a large part of your Jewish path?

David: Yes. I approach it from primarily an intellectual, spiritual perspective. One of the holidays that our family has really joined in fully is Simchat Torah, where you get that sense of the vastness of the Torah. The rabbi hits on key moments and you realize just how gigantic all this is. And then you dance and have food.

Marie: I grew up in France going to French cathedrals, which were very cold. There was no community. My mother took us, we dutifully did our thing. The experience of going to a Jewish service was hugely different. What I have taken away from services is the ability to question everything. When my kids were growing up, we celebrated Christmas at my sister’s house with my mother and we would go to church … The sermons were so thin. It was really about, “Believe this because I told you so.” There was no questioning. When my kids went through their bar mitzvahs and were confirmed, one of the young men who was being confirmed was able to say, “I don’t believe in God, but I identify with being Jewish.” And I thought, “That is so great.” Every time we go to synagogue, the quality of the sermons is amazing. For that reason alone I wish every Christian could go to one of those services, honestly, because they would be blown away.

Can I go to Christina for a second? Was there a moment in your experience with Jewish life that was not so warm or welcoming?

Christina: My very first experience in a synagogue was when I went to Rosh Hashanah services. It was the biggest house of worship I’d ever stepped foot in, in a big city. There were very wealthy people there, dressed to the nines—nothing like what I experienced going to church growing up. I already felt like a fish out of water. This was in the early ’90s and the study had come out from the Jewish Council of Federations about how Jews marrying non-Jews was becoming the new crisis of American Judaism. I’m sitting there, 22 or 23 years old, first time in a synagogue. And that is what the sermon is about: how what my fiancé and I are doing is ending Judaism. It was pretty awful.

I’m sitting there, 22 or 23 years old, first time in a synagogue. And that is what the sermon is about: how what my fiancé and I are doing is ending Judaism. It was pretty awful.

But you still chose to join a synagogue—a different one, where your daughter became a bat mitzvah?

Christina: Yes. Even before she was born, my husband said it was very important to him that she be raised Jewish. I agreed, for a lot of the reasons people just talked about: being able to question, connection to heritage, and having a wonderful extended family. I really wanted her to understand—when we sit down to Passover Seder, what is going on and how do you fit in? As we were looking for a synagogue, the choice was entirely up to me. My husband said, “I just want you to be 100% comfortable.” We found a wonderful temple here that is mostly interfaith families.

Is anyone else comfortable recounting a time—either related to synagogue or in the Jewish community—where you did not feel particularly welcome?

Neil: I’m on the board of a Jewish organization here in Memphis. Matter of fact, I was the first non-Jew to be a part of the board and be part of the executive committee. In one of our board meetings, we were having some breakout sessions focused on the challenge of the organization, which was that its membership was becoming more non-Jewish than Jewish. There was a big debate about how we can get more Jewish membership into the organization. Someone said, “Well, I can tell you that it’s really going to go downhill when we have a non-Jew on the board.” And my head just flipped around. I said, “Well, then we must be going to hell, because you already have it: That’s me.” That really ticked me off. I am 100% invested in this organization, I’m on the executive committee, giving my time, and then to hear that come back to me … I was ready to just be done with it. I went home, talked to my wife and a couple of other board members and they said, “You’ve got to remember, that was an older Jewish member of the community who thinks about that organization in a different light than where we’re going today.”

Did you stay involved?

Neil: I’m still part of the board. But that really took me aback, because one of the things I think Judaism is about is this message of tikkun olam. We are all here to make the world a better place, no matter what you come from as a religion. Our rabbi here in Memphis is phenomenal at that, always reaching out to others. And to hear that come back within the Jewish community was really shocking to me.

After years of feeling very comfortable and accepted by my Reform synagogue, by my husband’s family, and my own family, I realized the wider world doesn’t accept us in the same way.

Benjamin, do you have thoughts on the Jewish welcome?

Benjamin: Yes. I grew up in France and my wife is also French. I met her here in New York, and when she told me she was Jewish, there was absolutely no question—is this right or wrong? For me, it was just: I love this person. But when it was time to meet her parents, I was starting to question: Is her family going to accept me? After we met them for the first time, they said, “It’s as if you were always part of the family.” I felt immediately welcomed. My wife is not really observant—she doesn’t do Shabbat, but we do the big holidays like Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Pesach. And I started doing a little research about Judaism and found this course [Exploring Judaism] at Central Synagogue in New York that Rabbi Lisa Rubin was offering. I reached out and I told my wife, “I want to understand a little bit more about your religion.” I followed this course for six months. We did it together. It was such a great path. I keep exploring.

It sounds like your experience has been positive so far.

Benjamin: I never had a bad experience. I think the weirdest experience I had was the first time I went to a synagogue for Yom Kippur. It was a lot more traditional than a Reform synagogue and I went with some friends and my wife was there as well, but we were separated. I ended up in the men’s space and initially had absolutely no understanding of what was going on. After I took the Central course, I really understood the meaning of this holiday. Now we observe it.

Dinah: After years of feeling very comfortable and accepted by my Reform synagogue, by my husband’s family, and my own family, I realized the wider world doesn’t accept us in the same way. One of my children had an experience that was very difficult. He was traveling in Israel, and there was an opportunity to wear tefillin. The rabbi who was instructing a group of kids traveling together suddenly turned to my son and said, “Is your mother Jewish?” And when he answered no, ripped the tefillin off him. It was a really unfortunate experience. I’m wondering if anybody else has that sort of experience, where yes, we feel like we belong, but not everybody agrees that our children are part of the Jewish family.

Marie: Yes. When we got married in the ’80s, my father-in-law had been president of a temple in New Jersey, and the rabbi wouldn’t marry us. The cantor, who herself was interfaith and had converted, wanted to marry us, and he wouldn’t let her. Then we had trouble when our son was born: The mohel asked me what my Hebrew name was and I didn’t have one, so he refused to do the bris. That was the only time and I was so upset.

Kavya, has there ever been a time where you felt the Jewish community had expectations you weren’t comfortable with?

Kavya: I’ve experienced a similar dynamic. I have felt very welcomed by my husband’s parents, who are Conservative, and his community. It’s only now, since he and I have had our first child together, who is 7 months, that in some ways the rubber is hitting the road. We got married in an interfaith way where the rabbi and the pandit both co-officiated. It was clear to me that there were hang-ups with respect to traditional and Conservative Judaism, with respect to our union. My husband knows a number of Conservative rabbis who essentially told him, “I’d love to marry you, love you and your family, but essentially, I wouldn’t be able to operate as a rabbi were I to do this, so unfortunately, I can’t co-officiate the wedding.” To me, I felt sad on behalf of my husband.

And now that you have a child, how are you navigating the question of what makes your child Jewish according to rabbis?

If you think about Judaism in America and the fact that, of marriages that are happening right now, more than 50% are actually marriages with a non-Jew, there needs to be more change more quickly.

Kavya: The concept of matrilineal descent is one that we’re contending with. My husband’s Conservative clergy have advised him that if you really want your child to feel completely Jewish and not have their Judaism questioned, then you should give them a mikvah, which is essentially a conversion. This is something that we struggle with. Reform Judaism does actually honor patrilineal descent. But even in the context of Reform Judaism these rabbis will concede it is very possible that experiences like what Dinah outlined would be quite common were our child not to be converted. We struggle with that. I think it’s structurally unwelcoming and that’s a challenge. If you think about Judaism in America and the fact that, of marriages that are happening right now, more than 50% are actually marriages with a non-Jew, there needs to be more change more quickly.

Charles, I know that your husband has a brother in Israel who is ultra-Orthodox. Can you talk about how you’ve managed those interactions?

Charles: He left his family in California to move to Israel in his early 20s and he’s super ultra-Orthodox. His kids don’t speak English and his parents couldn’t be alone with them when they visited for fear of unduly influencing them. It’s been a point of pain for his family. I went to Israel for the first time this summer with my husband. His parents sold their house after 35 years in Pasadena and moved to Jerusalem—into the same neighborhood as their son, who called the house while we were there and gave a lot of excuses about why he couldn’t come. My husband didn’t tell me until later that on that phone call, his brother said, “I can’t visit you because you’re with Charles.” It wasn’t shocking to me. It was just hurtful. I sort of don’t care about what his brother thinks because I have a Jewish life with my husband, our daughters are Jewish, we have the most remarkable community at our temple. But I was surprised at how much it hurt. I saw how much it hurt my husband.

Brendan: Kavya’s story really hit something in me. I feel completely loved by my in-laws and completely accepted. But the thing that has become apparent to me over time is that that would not be the case if we were not in a same-sex relationship. If I were a woman and he were straight, there is no way that we would be together. I’ve seen the family dynamics with his nephews who are starting to date. It is expected that they will marry a Jewish woman and hopefully an Israeli. It is a hard and fast rule in that family. The only reason we’re together is through the miracle of the exception that we’re gay and that we can’t have kids without a lot of work and a lot of money. So I feel like it’s this miracle that’s happened inside this family.

Christina: I wanted to touch on the matrilineal aspect. I can’t speak to Kavya’s experience exactly, but I do know that after my daughter went through Hebrew school and despite all of her family attendance at Passover, fasting, her bat mitzvah, Birthright, and all the things that she felt really made her Jewish, she goes off to college and is told she’s not Jewish. She has a friend whose mother is Jewish, but this girl has not gone to synagogue or done anything in the Jewish community, and it was said to my daughter, “Oh, so Abby’s Jewish, you’re not.” It just blew her away. She was like, wait a minute, I put in the work. So it’s good to have such an accepting, warm, and welcoming family, but you run up against these things out in the world that are so painful.

Religious identity does not have to be formed in opposition to something else. It can be part of this very complicated identity that we all have.

Paige: Sometimes relatively small slights by family members can hurt a lot more than you realize. My husband’s immediate family is amazing—they’re super welcoming. But some of his extended family are Orthodox, and when it came time for our wedding, because I wasn’t Jewish (but a rabbi was marrying us), their rabbi said that they could not come to our ceremony. They were absolutely not allowed to. They could come to our reception, but they would be somehow tainted by coming to our wedding. I had put in all this work—we had a pretty Jewish wedding—and it was just so hurtful. It’s interesting how much these things can get to you, especially when you’re trying to put in the work to be part of the tribe.

How many of you have kids? I’m seeing all 12 except for Brendan and Paige. And how many are raising those kids as Jews—not interfaith at all? I’m seeing eight out of the 10 who have kids; Andrea and Kavya have an interfaith approach.

Andrea: We’re raising our kids as intentionally interfaith. They have an understanding of both religions. They’re both deeply felt. When you do that, it requires a nuanced understanding. Religious identity does not have to be formed in opposition to something else. It can be part of this very complicated identity that we all have. My kids and I have some sense of being on a spectrum in terms of religious identity, being able to code-switch, depending on who we’re with, what we’re doing. I think that kind of bi-literacy, bilingualism, can increase our understanding in the world. Everything is so fractional right now, so divisive. I just have hope that people who are in interreligious marriages are maybe a microcosm for how the world can bridge difference.

Kavya: This idea of having a multifaceted identity, I realize this might strike some as sacrilegious, but it’s not that novel, the idea that our children can celebrate two deep lineages and backgrounds. We want our children to feel equally entitled to both of those birthrights, not have to choose and be half this or half the other. I think our biggest challenge and struggle is consistent with what so many have said here: It’s possible that our children will go through hurtful experiences because they don’t fit cleanly in a box. But I view this multifaceted approach as distinctly Jewish, where we are always questioning and trying to find our place in an evolving time.

It’s possible that our children will go through hurtful experiences because they don’t fit cleanly in a box. But I view this multifaceted approach as distinctly Jewish, where we are always questioning and trying to find our place in an evolving time.

I know you are all aware that the history of suffering and persecution in the Jewish story is often discussed in the Jewish community as something that confers a kind of responsibility, a mantle that the next generation is carrying in terms of continuity, honoring ancestors, particularly those who perished simply for their identity, regardless of their observance. I’m wondering, for those of you with children, do you feel like there is some kind of narrative there that you can’t be part of, that your kids will be part of—a sense of responsibility, connection to the past, something inherited and owed?

Marie: One of the reasons I didn’t convert was that I just felt like I hadn’t earned the right to be Jewish … It’s not just a matter of slapping a different name on myself. Now that my kids have been raised Jewish and have close relationships with their Jewish relatives, they can take that on. It took me this long to figure out that I could, too.

Margaret: My roots aren’t Jewish, and I don’t think I can ever feel as Jewish as my children do. I know a lot of Jewish history. I’ve done a lot of studying, immersed myself in learning the history of the Jews. But I still don’t have the roots that I think someone who’s born Jewish does.

Charles: I feel a little bit of that. The whole thing is a warm embrace in my life. But once in a while I’ll be in the pew or at a meal or in a conversation and I get a twinge of like, “This isn’t—I wasn’t born this way,” much as I have adopted and adore it in my life. The feeling comes on as a surprise once in a while.

David: Guilt is universal. Catholic guilt, Jewish guilt. We can all share that.

Paige: This is something that I’ve really struggled with in the context of converting: You can convert to a religion, but how do you convert to a peoplehood? We were recently on an organized trip to Israel and a speaker from Hillel International suggested we think about conversion to Judaism as adopting into a family; you’re not going to have the genealogical background that links you to slaves in Egypt, but you’re part of the family now, and any responsibility for the family comes with you as a new member. That actually was helpful to me because I never wanted to feel like I was co-opting Jewish peoplehood. This adoption framework has been really helpful to me lately.

You can convert to a religion, but how do you convert to a peoplehood?

As you all weighed the decision to convert, why have you chosen not to?

Margaret: I think part of it was that I didn’t want to hurt my parents, my family. Even though they knew we had a Jewish home and our kids had b’nai mitzvah and Jewish weddings, it’s just something there. I haven’t felt compelled to do that. We live a Jewish life. I consider myself Jewish. I guess maybe conversion is a public thing that I just don’t want to do.

Benjamin: It’s not that I don’t want to do it, it is that I’m still in the process of learning about it. I don’t want to just take a course and have a piece of paper. I view it as a long-term approach. Obviously my wife is Jewish. We have a son who’s 10 months old. We have decided to circumcise him. We decided that he was going to be raised Jewish. But for right now, I don’t feel the need to convert. Will I ever do it? I cannot give you the answer because I don’t have it myself.

Brendan: I love Benjamin’s answer there. For me, I get to be part of another culture, family, and people while being able to retain my own identity, history, and personhood. You can celebrate one without actually becoming it yourself.

I get to be part of another culture, family, and people while being able to retain my own identity, history, and personhood.

Neil: I was going to add a couple pieces of humor. First, I’m just lazy, so I just haven’t gotten around to doing it. Second, I joke with my wife: She and I both are on our second marriages. And in her first marriage, he was Protestant, he converted, then they got divorced. So I figure if I convert, she’s going to leave me to go get the next one, because she’s just bringing in more Jews into the tribe. I agree with Benjamin and Brendan: I feel that I am Jewish. I follow all the Jewish rituals and traditions and don’t have a strong need to go get the certificate.

What do you feel you don’t understand about Judaism?

Andrea: Gefilte fish.

Marie: Orthodox Judaism. I don’t get it.

Margaret: It’s pretty amazing to me that the Jewish people have survived, and that people still choose to be Jewish in spite of all the suffering, discrimination, and hatred.

Christina: For the longest time I just could not get my head wrapped around the idea that someone could be Jewish but not believe in God. I was just like, I can’t. I grew up thinking, “Religion means you believe in God.” But for Jewish people, it’s not religion; it’s bigger than that: personhood, culture, lineage. I’m more comfortable with it now, but it took me forever.

For most Jews, what makes you Jewish? Is it having a Jewish mom or having a Jewish family for 40 years?

Paige: It’s interesting to hear people on this call who say they feel Jewish, because this is something I’m still trying to figure out: For most Jews, what makes you Jewish? Is it having a Jewish mom or having a Jewish family for 40 years?

What would you want others to know about the non-Jewish spouse?

David: There’s a great well of love in all of us for the Jewish people and the religion.

Dinah: Remember that we chose the chosen people. We didn’t have to. Maybe we’re more adaptable than we are convertable. But we made a choice.

Charles: Share and be patient with the non-Jewish spouse. Judaism is so dense and there’s so much complexity. The questioning is the beauty but also the struggle. There’s so much to understand. I had the benefit of my husband and loved ones, who have unfolded it for me and been patient.

If the concern is that the non-Jewish partner will pull your Jewish child or the Jewish partner away from the religion, flip that on its head and maybe think about being more embracing, more welcoming. It might turn out just the opposite.

Kavya: I love my husband and I don’t think he’d be who he was if he wasn’t Jewish.

Paige: Having a non-Jewish partner is a great way for the Jewish partner to learn more about what you really want out of being Jewish. Looking at it with new eyes can be powerful.

Brendan: My introduction to Judaism came because of the relationship, but the exposure to the culture and the people has been a wonderful addition in my life.

Marie: Give us the benefit of the doubt. Dinah said it best: We chose and that should be honored and supported. Also: One of the biggest differences is I don’t order enough food for parties. [Laughs.] So make sure the non-Jewish spouse orders enough food.

Christina: If the concern is that the non-Jewish partner will pull your Jewish child or the Jewish partner away from the religion, flip that on its head and maybe think about being more embracing, more welcoming. It might turn out just the opposite.

Neil: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Benjamin: I’m going to echo what Dinah started with: We chose. It’s really the most important thing to me, the decision that we made. In our case it was mutual.

Andrea: I would just say this: You may have to teach us how to safely slice a bagel.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.

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