For Kids of Intermarriage, Choices Are Complex
Robin Margolis was in her 30s when she found out her late mother was Jewish. It was 1984 and she was cleaning out her mother’s closet when she found a bag of old documents. The woman she knew as Marie Margolis was born Marie Levine.
The revelation, though sudden, was somehow comforting. “I’d been drifting toward Judaism for years,” Margolis says. “I had Jewish friends, dated Jewish men, even thought about conversion. When I found out I already belonged, it felt natural.”
Today Margolis belongs to a Jewish Renewal congregation in the Washington area and advises synagogues on how to reach out to the adult children of intermarried parents. But she also runs The Half-Jewish Network, [www.half-jewish.net] an online support group for anyone with a Jewish parent, whether they identify as Jewish, Christian or something else. “I don’t push anything,” she says. “All I can do is offer them warmth and welcome.”
Margolis’ story, though extreme, illustrates the emotional complexity of growing up with parents from different religious backgrounds. Even those raised unequivocally as Jews have an entire side of their family that is not Jewish.
And while in past generations they may have been cut off from that other half, in today’s more tolerant world it’s likely they share holiday traditions, family lore and ethnic cuisine with their non-Jewish relatives.
Margolis, 56, is from a generation in which interfaith marriage was rare and the Jewish side often got lost. She says today’s young adults from intermarried homes, who have grown up in an era of outreach and welcome, don’t understand what she and her peers went through. “These Gen-Xers were raised as Jews in the ’80s,” she says. “They look down at us older ones who weren’t raised Jewish, who identify as ‘half.’ But as they get older they’ll learn there’s another side of themselves that needs to be cherished and respected. And it won’t make them any less Jewish.”
Joelle Berman, a 23-year-old Bostonian with a Sicilian Catholic mother and Jewish father, says she grew up with Jewish religion and Italian culture. Berman says she has “a strong sense” of her Italian background, but considers herself Jewish and even works as a Jewish professional.
Even conversion doesn’t erase family ties. “Of course I’m Jewish, I made a legal conversion, but that doesn’t undo that other part of my life,” says Laurel Snyder, 33, of Atlanta, editor of “Half Life,” a collection of essays by writers from intermarried homes. “There’s a big difference between walking away from Jesus and walking away from your grandmother.”
Snyder says the “half-Jewish” moniker used by Margolis and some other activists “is a tricky word,” but it expresses the duality many people feel. “Of course halachically there’s no such thing,” Snyder says, “but that doesn’t matter.”
Jewish outreach to intermarried families, no matter the denomination, is predicated on the hope that the children will be raised as Jews. Experts stress the importance of giving such children a good Jewish education, as research shows that this makes them much likelier to become committed Jewish adults. But it’s no guarantee. Children ultimately choose their own path, despite their parents’ carefully laid plans. Siblings from one family, raised the same way by intermarried parents, sometimes make different religious choices.
Margolis’ three younger brothers are all “sincere, committed Christians” following the Protestant faith in which they were raised. One is even a minister. None chose her Jewish path. Margolis suggests a “family Jew” resides in every intermarried family, one child who is innately drawn to the Jewish side.
Researcher Pearl Beck, who conducted a 2005 study for the Jewish Outreach Institute [www.joi.org/flame] of young adults from intermarried homes, says she came across anecdotal evidence of siblings making different religious choices but doesn’t know how widespread it is. Siblings that Beck interviewed for her study attributed their different choices to “different personality characteristics,” she adds.
Jill and Tom Docking of Wichita, Kan., raised their children, Brian and Margery, as Jews, sending them to Hebrew school and Jewish summer camp. “I had a much more dominant relationship with my religion,” says Jill, noting she was the only one of her 24 Jewish cousins to “marry out.”
Tom, the son of the former Gov. Robert Docking, was less tied to his Christianity, though the family always puts up a Christmas tree. When Brian became a bar mitzvah, the Dockings pulled 8-year-old Margery out of Hebrew school after what Jill calls an unfortunate encounter with a visiting rabbi who spoke sharply about the dangers of intermarriage. “Tom said, ‘If this is what they’re getting at temple, I don’t want them there,’ ” Jill recalls.
Brian had never cared for religious school, but when Margery was 13, she asked to go back. Tom agreed willingly, and Margery had to work on her Hebrew with a private tutor. A year and a half later, she celebrated her bat mitzvah at Masada in Israel.
Today Margery identifies as Jewish. Brian, 27, is more equivocal. “If people ask, I say I was raised Jewish and I leave it at that,” he says. But Brian says he has a “Jewish sense of humor” and is culturally Jewish. “I love matzah ball soup,” he says.
For many children of intermarried parents, choosing a religion can smack of favoring one parent over the other, with attendant feelings of guilt, anger and abandonment. That’s particularly true, and hurtful, when parents divorce. “Religion becomes a battleground at a time when everything else is a battleground, and the kid has to pay,” says Snyder, who says she has met hundreds of adult children of intermarriage in her professional career. “The Jewish parent going through a breakup becomes much more emphatic that their child should be raised Jewish,” she says. If the kids are lucky, circumstances help make that choice for them.
Marty Wasserman converted to Judaism after her divorce two decades ago in Santa Fe, N.M., and began raising her two children, Max and Meredith Murray, as Jews. Max, now 26, dropped out of Hebrew school after a year, saying he didn’t bond with the other kids. He ended up spending most of his teenage years with his Catholic father. He attended a Catholic high school, chose Catholic University and today considers himself Catholic. Meredith, now 24, stayed with her mother and flourished in Hebrew school, where she made her closest friends. She celebrated her bat mitzvah in Israel.
Like her brother, Meredith went to Catholic high school, but unlike Max she always felt Jewish. She stood back when the other students took Communion or intoned Christian prayers, even when it embarrassed her to be singled out.
Meredith, like her mother, identifies today as Jewish. “Honestly, it’s a Mom-Dad thing,” Max says. “I had more allegiance to Dad’s side of the family. And I think it was also a young adolescent boy not wanting to do what his mother wanted.”
But there was also something inside each sibling that resonated to a different spiritual message. “I’d go to synagogue with Mom and try to be respectful, but I didn’t feel this is who I am,” Max explains. “In Catholic Mass, I felt I can associate with this better.”
Some intermarried couples are unable to choose between their religions, particularly when both spouses observe their own traditions. In many homes the mother’s religion wins, as more often the woman sets a family’s religious tone. Some couples choose a third option, raising the children Unitarian or Quaker. Some split the difference.
Samantha Facciolo, 23, was raised Jewish by her Jewish mother, while her younger brother was raised Catholic by their father. The parents made that decision as each child was born. All four lived together, celebrating each other’s holidays at family get-togethers, but splitting up for religious practice. “It was pretty clear-cut,” Facciolo says. “I went to synagogue with Mom, he went to church with Dad. He was baptized and had First Communion. I had a baby naming and bat mitzvah.” The siblings retained the identities their parents gave them: Facciolo was active in her college Hillel and is now a Legacy Heritage Fellow with the Israel on Campus Coalition in Washington. “I don’t question the choices they made,” she says.