Interfaith partner claims share of Jewish anxiety

As the non-Jew in an interfaith marriage, I appreciate Dawn Kepler’s advice to “Frustrated Dad” about making expectations around childrearing and religion explicit (Mixed and Matched, Jan. 10).

My wife and I agreed to raise our future children Jewish. We have talked about it and laid out expectations. But lately (and especially after reading Kepler’s column), I’m still not sure we’ve made it explicit enough. And even if we have, I’ve still got some anxiety about what will be required of me.

Despite acknowledging the goal as one we share, I’ve been imagining that my wife will set the tone for our children’s Jewish experience. My lazy side has whispered to me, “Let’s wait and see what happens. Let her take the lead in bringing Jewish culture and religion into the home. If she, as the Jew, doesn’t make it a priority, why should I?” I realize that isn’t fair, especially because it hasn’t been said out loud. What was said out loud was: “We will raise our children in a Jewish home.”  

Is it fair for me to expect her to take the lead? We both made the commitment. Isn’t my commitment valid whether she steps up or not?

Fair or not, on some level we have to admit that my enthusiasm for creating a Jewish household doesn’t come from within me. It comes from my love and respect for my partner and her commitment to Judaism. So, I like that Kepler recommends that “Frustrated Dad” lead by example, so his enthusiasm can show his partner how important it is to him.

I think many people in my position have some anxiety about raising our children in a tradition that isn’t our own. When we get there, if our Jewish partner is stepping up and making it clear that she wants an active, rich Jewish experience for our children, then we’ll have to step up too. When that time comes, I’m worried about how much will be required of me and what I’m going to have to learn and do.

For example, I worry about my ability to create a strong Jewish experience for my children. I see the way my male Jewish friends interact with their children during prayers and blessings. They are deeply engaged and that engagement must carry through to their children’s experience of being Jewish. It’s difficult to imagine that I’ll be able to generate that level of enthusiasm for a tradition that is not my own. And if I can’t generate that enthusiasm, how will I engage my children in that way?  On a more practical note, how will I learn the songs and prayers? If I’m not able to participate in the rituals, will my children see me sitting apart from them and think it’s OK not to engage in their (our) traditions?  

Despite not being particularly religious myself, I have seen that parents’ commitment is what opens children’s eyes to the possibility of faith and deep understanding of their traditions.

Most of what I’ve said here about raising our children are things I’ve been thinking about, not things I’ve discussed with my wife. Your article made me realize it is time to talk to her about these issues and make sure we are on the same page because I’m not sure she realizes I expect her to lead by example. Also, I need to figure out if that’s even fair.

It’s easy to see why “Frustrated Dad” is frustrated, but both positions in the interfaith relationship have their anxieties. Ultimately, it will be clear communication, commitment to our values and compassion that will make it work.

Peter Gardner lives in Berkeley with his wife, Juliet, and their flock of chickens.