We are at the Kotel. “Would you like to step forward and say a prayer at the wall?” I ask my 20-year old stepdaughter. “No thanks,” she replies. She seems impervious to the inherent spirituality of the place and moment. She turns her back on the wall and throws off the shawl someone had given her to cover her shorts and tank top.
As a woman who married a man with gentile offspring – or, as some refer to them, “half-Jewish” – I live with the results of the recently released Pew Research Center study of the U.S. Jewish community: my husband was one of the 58 percent of American Jews who have intermarried.
He met his first wife at a liberal university and, though he was raised with strong Conservative Jewish ties, he married her – with the caveat that they raise the children Jewish. The children all have Jewish names and went to Jewish preschool. They had bar and bat mitzvahs, according to the Reform tradition that accepts patrilineal descent. They celebrated abbreviated Jewish holidays, then went off to their non-Jewish grandmother and cousins for the Christian ones.
My husband tried to raise the children Jewish. He describes sitting on the floor in the hallway outside the bedrooms while singing the Shema prayer to his children at night, attending their JCC nursery school celebrations, and coaxing his children to sing “Mah Nishtanah” on Passover. As a busy medical student and eventual physician, though, he had to cede most of the child-rearing to his wife. Can one really expect a non-Jewish woman with virtually no knowledge of or belief in Judaism to raise her children Jewish? Optimistically, he did.
Now grown up, his children, though they “identify Jewish,” eschew all Jewish traditions and values. My husband, who became Orthodox in the later years of his marriage, just prior to his divorce, is heartbroken when none show up to Rosh Hashanah dinners because they have school or work the next day. It’s been years since they attended a Pesach Seder at our house; they say it takes too long and they have to be up early the next morning.
He is constantly accused of being the “bad guy” – a man who puts God above his own children, refusing to violate holidays in order to attend graduations, opting out of the children’s milestone celebrations planned and executed at non-kosher restaurants. The ultimate insult was fathering fully Jewish children with his new wife and setting them on a course to be raised observant and noticeably different from the first set of children.
Will that first set of children marry Jewish? His daughter is dating her high school beau, a lovely non-Jewish young man. It’s likely that one day there will be a wedding. Will the ceremony be conducted by a Reform rabbi and a priest? Will it take place in a church? Will it be on Shabbat? Will they refuse to cater it kosher?
And when they have children of their own, will there even be the pretense of raising them “Jewish”? Maybe they will light a menorah one night of Chanukah in deference to their presumed Jewish heritage. And at the end of the day, does it even matter? These children won’t be Jewish, not halachically, and, according to the Pew report, probably not even in a secular sense.
Ask his children about Israel and they talk about apartheid and the Palestinians. The Jewish nation has little meaning to them. On the way back from Yad Vashem with them, after an intense personal tour guided by renowned storyteller Rabbi Hanoch Teller, I shook my head and said, “The only safe place for Jews is Israel.”
My stepson looked at me derisively. “What are you talking about?” I forgot; this boy never wore a yarmulke in public or differentiated himself in any way from the society he was part of. Other than “identifying” Jewish, he hasn’t had the Jewish experience.
The Pew report distilled down to personal stories is horrific. I watch my husband try to cope and I see the pain he experiences knowing he almost chopped down his Jewish family tree.
Last year God blessed us with twin boys. When I announced I was pregnant, my father-in-law had a strange reaction. He told me he was upset, because we would consider these new children Jewish.
“But they will be Jewish,” I told him. “I’m Jewish.”
“What about the other kids?” he asked us.
“They are not Jewish,” we responded. “Unless they want to become Jewish.”
“But they are Jewish,” he insisted. “They are Reform Jews.”
Not according to halacha. And even if they consider themselves Jewish, they will not – again, according to the Pew report – be the progenitors of my father-in-law’s Jewish heritage.
Abraham had a non-Jewish son. So did Isaac. And they became mighty nations, though not Jewish nations. Only one son, Jacob, created a family that was destined to become the Jewish people. Ironically, my little boys can trace their paternal lineage directly to Levi, Jacob’s son. These are our Jewish children. These children will respect and emulate their father’s core Jewish values and Torah learning. These children will look forward to sharing the Jewish holidays and saying Shema and Mah Nishtanah. They will respect the holiness of the land of Israel.
These boys, God willing, will be my husband’s first to not only identify as Jews but as Levites – and will sing on the steps of the Beit HaMikdash. They are being raised as Jews because they are Jews. And with God’s help they will have Jewish offspring of their own and continue to build the family and the Jewish nation.Daphne Bergstein
About the Author: Daphne Bergstein is a writer whose work has appeared in national parenting and lifestyle publications. She has used a pseudonym for this article to protect the feelings of everyone involved.
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