Do you pick one religion when raising your kids in an interfaith marriage? Neither? Incorporate both into your family life? When author Elizabeth Weil met with Rabbi Larry Kushner to discuss her interfaith marriage, she got some unexpected advice that was not welcomed by her husband, Dan. From No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make It Better.
I laid out our basics: Dan and I were raising our children as they were-part Jewish, part Christian. Given that neither of us was devout, we'd turned over the girls' religious training to our parents. Jewish holidays we celebrated with mine, Christmas and Easter with Dan's. My folks, predictably, took their job very seriously: children's services at their temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; a monthly subscription to the PJ Library book club, with kids' titles like Hanukkah at Valley Forge and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! Up until the day I met Kushner, I felt solid and calm about our system. I helped trim the Christmas tree. Dan read at the Passover Seder. We didn't argue or question much. Our children were part Jewish, part Christian. Who were we to tell them otherwise?
Hearing this, Kushner slowly stroked his beard. Then he asked, "Would you like your children to be Jewish?"
This was a deft question, probing into my desires, and in answering it I made a tactical error. I said, "Sure, I'd love that."
I meant Sure, I'd love the girls to be Jewish in the same way I'd love a lot of things. I'd love for them to be great athletes. I'd love not to worry about money. I'd love to have a long neck. I also believed, apart from the neck, that I could make any one of these things happen if I cared enough. But I didn't care enough-at least not now. So the desires remained idle. That felt okay to me. That felt like life.
Kushner forwarded a different view. "Well, there's going to be a shit storm," he said at our small table, quietly and with utter confidence. "I'm not working for your father here, I want you to know that. But you would never tell your children, 'Today you wear pants, tomorrow you wear a dress.' Children need to be told who they are."
Work for my father? That hadn't even occurred to me. My father had recently boasted that he was Kushner's second-best student. "You can choose to deal with it lovingly now," Kushner said. "Or wait until it really hits the fan later."
I felt ten years younger than I usually felt, and very confused. "Okay, wait. What about Dan's family? We're very close to them. They're a huge part of our life. They're not exactly devout, but I'm worried they'll feel alienated if . . ."
Kushner took control of the conversation. "What's more important, your children or Dan's parents?"
That was the bargain? Later I could not believe I hadn't challenged Kushner, demanded different terms. But I didn't, I just sat there, receptive, as Kushner suggested we dispatch the problem of Christmas (which we would no longer celebrate) by building a sukkah each autumn in our backyard.
A sukkah? As in a straw hut hung with harvest fruits? This would replace the girls' baking and decorating gingerbread houses with Dan's mother; the Nutcracker and Nutcracker-re-creation in our living room; the annual party at the Duanes at which Santa arrived, exhausted on the night of the twenty-fifth, his reindeer desperate for dog food? Kushner really believed that we could remove this beam from our family architecture and the structure would still stand? He had faith that a major rift was not going to form between Dan's parents and me when we informed them that our children's religious identities would not include them?
I felt outwitted, confused. All right, Sukkot, no Christmas. I supposed the girls would enjoy the exotic fruits if I could marshal the enthusiasm. Dan had once brought a citron home from the farmer's market; it looked like a lemon octopus, a thrill to the girls. Finally, to complete my self-immolation, I told Kushner I wanted the girls to feel Jewish. As I explained, I liked feeling Jewish myself. But I didn't want to send the girls to religious school.
Kushner didn't think much of this reasoning, either. "Have you ever seen the stained glass in Temple Sherith Israel?" he asked.
I shook my head no.
"It shows Moses with the Ten Commandments, on Half Dome. Half Dome! This isn't New York. Nobody just feels Jewish in California. You need to send them to religious school. You have to train them to be Jewish. That's how a person feels Jewish-you teach them Jewish ritual!"
At home I found Dan chopping asparagus stalks and artichoke hearts into tiny cubes for some absurdly complicated recipe from Le Bernardin. "Don't you want to hear about my day?" I asked, pulling a stool up to our kitchen island. "It was pretty weird."
"OK," Dan said, still chopping. I could hear in his voice that he already suspected my day had led me nowhere good. "How was your day?"
"Well, I sort of realized that I do care if the girls grow up Jewish. I think maybe it means a lot to me."
Dan set down the knife.
"I know this is not what we agreed originally, but the rabbi really thinks we need to deal with it now, instead of waiting around until the girls are twenty-five and not Jewish and I'm wondering how I let this happen."
Dan allowed this sentence to dangle for a moment.
Then he said, "You've got to be fucking kidding me."
I could hear Hannah and Audrey jumping on the trampoline next door, shrieking and bouncing with their friend Cuya, launching themselves toward the canopy of the brush box tree, occasionally smacking skulls. Their school year was winding down, their little bodies relaxing, their progress through another grade certified by the return of a ziplock bag filled with emergency school clothes that no longer fit. Then Dan exploded.
"Who the hell gave that guy the right to tell us how to raise our family? He meets you for twenty minutes, and he decides the best thing for us is to dump my family over the side and raise our kids as Jews? How can he even in good conscience say that? He doesn't give a shit about what's good for me or our kids or our marriage or even for you. He wants one thing: Jews. And everybody else can fuck themselves."
I tried to sit still, on the wooden stool at our kitchen island, letting this sink in. I did not like this aspect of Judaism, either. I liked the contentious, anti-didactic part, what Tony Judt called the "collective self-questioning... the awkwardness and dissent." I also realized, for the first time in our marriage project, I'd crossed an important line. I'd gone badly out of bounds. I'd confused the idea of working toward a better marriage-a decidedly joint proposition-with straining to grab more of what I wanted, or been convinced I wanted, for myself. You'd think, by then, that I would have settled this confusion, that I would have grown accustomed to the idea that Dan was a particular person with particular needs and that I had to account for those needs, always. I couldn't bluster or bullshit. I couldn't put things over on him. This was one of the most difficult parts of marriage for me: accepting Dan and his eternal specificity. He was never vague, nor was he optional, a convenience to take or leave as I wished. He was not an extension of myself. I sensed the core difficulty of this in my twenties, before I met Dan, when I memorized a line from one of Lorrie Moore's short stories. Marriage, Moore writes, is "a fine arrangement in general, except one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically."
My specific husband was prickly and gentile. He did not want his edges rounded off. And despite this, I'd told a rabbi that I would love for my children to be Jewish. Then I'd allowed that rabbi to convince me I needed to act, to fight for what I wanted, irrespective of Dan.
"I don't want my daughters being told they are different from me in some fundamental way," Dan said after a few moments of silence.
"Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry," I said. I knew he was right.
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