Dawn Kepler is the director of Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces interfaith families in the Bay Area and helps them negotiate religious and cultural choices. Her advice column appears every four weeks. Send your letters to email@example.com.
I’m Jewish, my wife is not. Our two daughters, who have been to Israel, were raised Jewish with all the Jewish lifecycle events. They have left California for college in New York. There they encountered New York Jews and have found them to be “awful.” Now they repeat numerous negative stereotypes about Jews. One is happy to “pass” and the other wants to identify as “half and half.” They say Bay Area Jews are different and they still like all the people at our home synagogue. Their mom, who learned Hebrew, drove to religious school, hosted seders, sees this as amusing. I’m worried they won’t date Jewish men. What can I do? — Sad Dad
Dear Sad Dad: I’m so sorry this has hit you so suddenly and so hard. Your girls are experiencing a new part of the Jewish world that may be strange to them. They would be equally surprised by the differences between their Bay Area experience and the Jews of Mexico City, Paris or Morocco. But since the Jews of New York are American, they expected to feel a sense of familiarity. Additionally, they are in school with Jewish peers, who bring their own culture of origin with them to college. I suggest you do three things:
• Talk with your wife. Why is she amused? Does she perhaps have some insight into your daughters? Does she see this as a time of exploration, but feels confident of the girls’ Jewish identity? Can she comfort or reassure you?
• Talk to your rabbi, who may reassure you with stories about other young members and their parents who passed through this and now have a next-generation Jewish family.
• Talk to your girls. It is important that they not harbor stereotypes and prejudices toward any group, including Jews.
Begin by asking your girls why they say these things. Are there events that have caused them to respond with these negative thoughts? Have people been cruel to them? Do they feel defensive with other Jews? If they feel embarrassed to be identified as Jews, what caused that? You need to get to the heart of this. It would be best if your wife could join you in this conversation. It is possible that they have encountered some nasty people who happen to be Jews and in the college social group, they don’t want to be associated with them.
How do the girls define the difference between good Bay Area Jews and the bad New York Jews? Do they feel positively about Israeli Jews? Can they see the difference between Israeli culture and Bay Area Jewish culture? Can they see that every Jewish group or community may be unique? Would they be open to dating an Ethiopian Jew? Or an Italian Jew? Is it just New York Jews that they find distasteful? It may be that you and they simply need to clarify what it is that they are rejecting.
Have you told them that you wanted them to date Jewish guys? If this is the first they are hearing of it, expect some pushback. They may be surprised for many reasons, the first that since you married their non-Jewish mother, they may take your message as an insult to her. Be ready to explain exactly why you want them to date, and I’m assuming marry, a Jew. They may feel that it can work out equally well for them in an interfaith couple, as it did for you. You need to have a sound reason that doesn’t insult their mom.
I know an interfaith couple, a Jewish dad and non-Jewish mom who, upon hearing that their son was engaged to a non-Jewish girl, sat them down and had a heartfelt talk about the challenges of interfaith marriage and raising Jewish children in an interfaith home. I was told this story by the non-Jewish fiancée, who thought her in-laws’ frank sharing was wonderful. The goal here is to assess with your wife what you want for your girls. Do you want them to raise Jewish kids, but your wife doesn’t care? Get that out in the open. Your daughters can sense what you each want, and being honest is best. From there, you and their mom can explain why you each feel as you do, and the girls can feel respected. You’re welcome to contact me if you need help with the conversation.