Must Read for Any Interfaith Couple
A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family
by Jim Keen
135 pages, URJ Press, $15.95
I know it’s a horrible cliche to use the phrase “If you buy only one book about… ,” but indulge me for a minute. If you buy one book about intermarriage, let it be this one.
I knew this might be the perfect book for me from the very beginning. You see, I’m not what most people would consider to be the “typical” person to get into an interfaith relationship. I’m a Conservative Jew. I went to Jewish day school. I keep kosher. Being Jewish is a big part of my life and the way I identify myself. Unfortunately, most people think of Jews who date non-Jews as those for whom Judaism doesn’t mean much. This may be true in some cases – but not in mine.
That’s why I was so glad to “meet” Bonnie Keen, wife of Jim Keen, who wrote the drably titled but useful “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family.” Bonnie considers herself Conservative, like me. Her father was raised Orthodox. She celebrates holidays a lot of non-Jews don’t even know about. And her family didn’t take lightly the news that she was engaged to a Protestant.
Sure, her story has a happy ending – her father came around, and her reluctant grandmother attended the wedding after all – but there were more than a few bumps in the road. Bonnie, however, isn’t the voice of the book – that would be Jim, her husband. “Inside Intermarriage” is billed as “the first and only book on intermarriage written from a Christian father’s perspective.” The viewpoint of the non-Jewish partner is rare in interfaith literature. That Jim has written an entire book about raising his family Jewish is truly admirable.
Jim explains early on that, while he loves his wife and respects her traditions, he doesn’t want to convert. At times I found myself asking “Why not?” as Jim tossed around Yiddish phrases and described his love for Jewish customs like Shabbat dinner. But for the most part it’s pretty obvious: Jim observes Jewish customs sometimes because he enjoys them, but mostly to honor his wife and make her happy.
He starts with when he met Bonnie, describing their courtship, meeting the parents and eventually proposing. From there, the book branches out to lifecycle events (starting with the Keens’ wedding), then segues into parenting. Jim discusses their decision to raise their two daughters Jewish, and how they navigate the difficulties that come with that. Another section covers some of the major Jewish holidays.
The last section of the book is devoted to Jim’s faith. In these chapters, he discusses his needs as a non-Jew and how he fits into the Jewish community.
While most books about intermarriage are primarily focused on the Jewish angle, it’s refreshing that Jim discusses why being a Christian is so important to him – a reminder that sometimes a partner who doesn’t want to convert isn’t just trying to avoid the hassle. One of the best things about this book is that it’s so easy to read. Jim writes in a conversational, casual tone and is pretty funny – without dumbing down anything. And although his explanations of Jewish customs might be somewhat repetitive for readers already familiar with them, they are mercifully brief.
I did have a few problems with the book, though, staring with Jim’s tendency to present an idealized version of an interfaith marriage. Yes, the Keens sometimes have problems, but they always seem to understand each other perfectly and solve their issues in ways they are entirely content with. It was all just a bit too neat for me.
And let’s face it – Jim’s attitude toward Judaism, while maybe not in the extreme minority, is certainly more accepting than most. He seems to take almost effortlessly to many of the more arcane and esoteric Jewish customs that I would guess many Jews have trouble explaining to their non-Jewish partners (much less convincing them to participate in). And he occasionally veers into Pollyannaism, like when he says he admires Bonnie’s great-uncle for refusing to attend their wedding because he was standing up for what he believes in. It took him “a few days” to realize that, he acknowledges. Still, it seems a little too forgiving.
Despite its minor flaws, I would put this book on the must-read list for any interfaith couple. It’s hard not to be charmed and inspired by the Keens, even if they do seem a tad too perfect.