Is 2007 the year of interfaith utopia? Consider the facts: it’s in vogue to dabble in Kabbalah one week and Scientology the next. Friends of mine, a Hindu and a Jew, are raising their children as “Hin-jews.” I’m betting “Chrismakwanzacah” will be in the dictionary by next year. Mix, stir, and voila! A seamless self-concept and a fully formed identity in minutes. If only it were that simple.
I’m skeptical when cute conjunctions and spiritual dilettantes fuel a pop culture oversimplification of interfaith families and individuals. I know firsthand that recognizing the value of both parents’ religious beliefs (and coming to terms with my own) was infinitely more complicated than displaying both a menorah and a Christmas tree around the holidays. I can only speak from my experience as a Jew growing up in an interfaith family, and my struggle to understand why in some situations differences coalesce, while in others they mix like oil and water.
My parents divorced when I was young, and consequently their respective religions were separated by the vast distance between the distinct worlds of my mother and father. Perhaps the fact that each religion was sheltered in its own sphere helped me to see Judaism and Greek Orthodoxy as separate moons orbiting my family planet, not scorching stars competing to be the center of my universe. When I was little, if asked my religion, it seemed natural to recite the faiths of my parents without claiming either as my own. My first distinctions between the two were sensory: Judaism tasted of apple juice and bagels mixed with a spoonful of horseradish I accidentally swallowed. Greek Orthodoxy was butter cookies and chicken with oregano and lemon.
As I grew older, I told others that I was half-Jewish and half-Greek Orthodox. It did not occur to me that there was anything wrong with this hybrid label until a friend raised her eyebrows at my answer and said with accusation, “You can’t be half of a religion. You either believe in Jesus or you don’t” (a direct quote). I felt sick and indignant, as though I had been convicted of a crime I never committed. I said, “No, I don’t believe in Jesus (which was the truth), but what you believe doesn’t decide who you are.” Or did it?
Thus began my exploration of my religious identity. I had lived with my Jewish father throughout most of my childhood, and I knew I felt more connected to Judaism. Still, my mother was initially upset when my sister and I decided to have a Bat Mitzvah, in part because my father had not allowed her to baptize us. “You know, you’re Greek Orthodox too,” she’d remind us. My self-concept was shaken when I learned that I would have to officially convert to Judaism just before my Bat Mitzvah because my mother was not Jewish. I felt insulted and ashamed by such a requirement. Although my rabbi assured my sister and me that the conversion was no big deal, I seethed with anger that pressed out through stinging tears.
I came home, announced that I no longer wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah, and assaulted my father with a barrage of questions: How would I be any different after dunking in Lake Michigan and saying a blessing? How could I be Jewish when we attended a Reform synagogue and suddenly not Jewish at a Conservative one?
Of course, I did have a Bat Mitzvah. In retrospect, I believe that having any sort of religious foundation was better than none at all. Yes, had my parents made clearer choices on how they were going to raise their children, some awkward situations and temporary confusion could have been avoided. When I have my own children, I intend to raise them as Jews. I trust that by providing children with a moral port to firmly anchor themselves–and a copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret–they will come to understand their religious identity in their own time, just as I did. It was the freedom to make choices within a structured environment that allowed me to eventually claim Judaism as my own.
I believe my exposure to different religions made me keenly aware of the common truths in all spiritual teachings. I feel blessed to have grown up in an interfaith family, for this circumstance of birth took me down a path of questioning and discovery. My self-exploration did not stop at religion; it continued on to encompass the entirety of my identity. By grappling with the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” at an early age, I feel a tiny step closer to answering an essential question that affects Jew and non-Jew alike: “What does it mean to be me?”