March 13, 2013

Dual Religion Reality Check

There are internet cats for everything.
When M and I were first engaged, I was talking to my sister about our plans to have children. "Would they be Jewish?" she asked me.

"Well, I'm Jewish," I hedged.
"Yeah, fine. But will they be raised Jewish?"
"They'll be raised both."
"Do you really think that's going to work?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean- can they really be Jewish if they're raised half Christian?"
"Well, they can make a choice when they're old enough. If they want to."
"But you'll want them to."
"And if they're raised with a Christmas tree, if they're raised learning that Jesus is the messiah, can they ever really be Jewish?
"I don't know."

And I didn't know. And M and I had a lot of long talks about religion, about what parts of it were important to us, and why. I put my foot down on Hebrew school. I told M, I don't always believe in God, I don't always know that I believe in God, and I am certain that I don't believe in God the way he's described by the majority of religious people, but I believe in my culture.

And I tried, vainly, to explain that Judaism isn't really a religion. Or isn't only a religion. That it's a community and a heritage and a birthright. That being Jewish doesn't mean speaking Hebrew or making aliyah, but that those things are important because they help Jews connect to each other.

And M was perplexed and exasperated, but understanding.

And then we had kids, and now they go to Hebrew school, and things are a little different. They're different because our children play Shabbat, light their little wooden candles and mumble their Hebrew prayers, and sing silly songs about challah on the sabbath.

And M feels that this has nothing to do with his own culture, his own heritage.

At first, he tried to tell himself that Judaism is the precursor to Christianity, and therefore anything that Jews did was in some way related to what Christians do. He has quickly learned how incorrect that assumption was.

Shortly after Channukah, we had a conversation that seemed eerily familiar to me. The kids were all sleeping in the back of the car, and M and I had started talking about his desire for the girls to go to Sunday school. He said he wanted them to go, but he didn't know why.

"Is it because the girls go to Hebrew school?"
"Yes, sort of."
"They can do both."
"That's not what I want. It's just... hard, to feel like there's something important in their lives, and in your life, that I don't have any connection to."
"Yes, you do."
"No, I don't. For you, it's a culture. It's your identity- and I don't have anything like that. I'm just... sort of boring. I don't have any traditions. I don't have any culture."
"You're not culture-less. You're American."
"Gee, thanks for that."
"Really. You can't know what it's like to grow up Jewish, because you've never been part of a minority. You're a white, Christian, American male. Your culture is THE culture. You don't know what it's like to feel like an outsider in your own community. No matter how many Jewish people I knew, every time Nickelodeon played a Christmas special, I felt weird and different. Every time the teachers handed out candy canes, every time I went to a friend's house and they had Christmas lights or a Christmas tree, every time Christmas songs came over the radio, every time they put up a Christmas tree downtown, I felt like I didn't belong. Like I wasn't welcome. You might not have any sort of cultural identity that you SEE, but I see it. And because of that, your kids will never feel as alien as I did. And maybe that will make them less Jewish. Maybe part of being Jewish is cultivating that feeling that you're not the same as everyone else. It's the whole "chosen people" business. But it sucks feeling like you don't belong in your home.
"Your kids are going to grow up with a Christmas tree, with a dad who watches claymation specials or whatever it is you do, with a sense that the phrase 'Merry Christmas' isn't actually a subtle way to say 'Fuck you if you don't celebrate Christmas.'"
"That's kind of harsh..."
"Yeah, but it can feel that way. More and more it feels that way."
"I'm sorry."
"I don't want to make you feel bad, I want to make you feel better. I might be giving our kids a sense of cultural identity that you don't have, but you can give them something that I never had, and that's feeling safe and welcome in their own country. I can never give them that. I can never make them feel that way."

Then we carried our three sleeping children up to bed.

Lighting candles
The thing is, neither M nor I is particularly religious, but we're both fairly spiritual people. And the problem with religion in general is that it's divisive.

Most Jewish kids in the United States are familiar with a short conversation. It starts with the Jewish kid doing/saying/having something foreign to the other, and the other asking why. The Jewish kid answers, "Because I'm Jewish," and the other kid says something like, "Oh, I guess that you're going to Hell, huh?" because that's what they've been taught- that without belief in Jesus you go to Hell.

This year, I googled "Channukah Cookies" and found a site completely dedicated to trashing Jews who were trying to "cash in" on the "Christmas tradition" of making cookies. This isn't an isolated incident. This is what it's like to be Jewish in America. This is what it's always been like to be Jewish- to always be a minority.

Jews are all about history. We can trace our family tree back to which son of Jacob we were descended from. We can trace our direct lineages back hundreds of years. Our shared history and shared culture is what is important to us.

We know that the Passion Play was a tool to rile up mobs to attack Jews hundreds of years ago. That's history, but when the news is covering the local churches' performances, it still makes me worry that my Catholic neighbors are getting ready to enact some sort of punishment against me. Because I'm Jewish, and the lesson that used to be taught about the Passion is that all Jews are responsible for Christ's crucifixion.

M will never know what that feels like, but our kids will.

Every time I see a Confederate flag, I think about the people attacked by White Supremacists, and I worry for my children.

I don't know if M has ever felt that fear from those symbols.

Right now, my children are watching Lambchop's Passover special. Shari and Dom DeLouise are singing about the items that go on the seder plate, and my kids are playing with their very strange baby Moses story book doll.

Here's the thing- around Christmas, there are HUNDREDS of movies to choose from about the holiday. And another three or four come out every year in movie theaters

Every year M can take his children to go look at Christmas light displays at the zoo, and harbor no resentment that his tax dollars are paying for something that is fundamentally denied to a minority- a minority he isn't a part of.

M doesn't feel that he has a culture to share with his children, but he does. It's a culture of inclusivity, despite my own exclusion.

So I have no idea if my kids can really be Jewish if they've grown up being included. Being part of the Christian mass of the American public. Trimming their Christmas trees, going on Easter Egg hunts, being told by their parents that there is such a thing as Santa Claus, having Santa Claus play any kind of role in the story of their childhood. They'll grow up ingesting the constant messages about Christ and Christianity and especially Christmas that America is utterly saturated with.

Visit from Santa
Most Americans don't see it. They don't see how Christianity is fundamentally a part of American culture. They decry the "War on Christmas" because they don't understand how thoroughly it is already won. Already, to be an American, really an American, you have to be intimately familiar with a subtle language that pervades everything. The "War on Christmas" is non-Christians asking not to be forced to participate in Christmas, that their children not be forced to participate in Christmas, that they can live one day of their lives between October and the New Year without having to know what "the reason for the season" is.

But my kids? They will never feel that way. My kids are part of this, thanks to their father. And that makes me feel distant, alien.

I don't like that feeling. Just as I know that M doesn't like the feeling that the girls and I are part of a culture that he can't share.

The fact is, M and I will never really be able to ignore our cultural differences. M will always have the culture of his family, his childhood, his nation. I will always have mine.

But our kids? Who knows. Who knows what happens when you teach your kids they are members of a group that is fundamentally separate from all others, and when you simultaneously teach them they are members of the collective whole.

Who knows?

I don't. I don't know what it's like to be Jewish and to feel completely included in the culture of the majority.

I don't know if it's possible to be Jewish and to feel that American culture isn't constantly attacking you.

But I suppose we're going to find out. And no matter what, M and I always address these issues the same way- with love and kindness and open minds.

Maybe watching us struggle to explain Passover and Easter in the same week will teach our kids something greater than religion. Maybe it will teach them to transcend religious divisions. Maybe it will teach them to cherish their heritage and cultivate their sense of history on both sides. Maybe they'll become militant atheists, who knows.

What we know, M and I, is that we really don't care about religion. What matters to us is the peripheral stuff. For us, it's about us, nobody else. So if the girls grow up with a sense of awe for the universe, respect for life in its myriad forms, and a strong moral compass... we've done a good job.

We just need to keep that in mind as we try to teach them our own histories, our own faiths, with consideration and respect for each other's.

You'd be amazed how little of an example is out there for how people can do that.

1 comment:

  1. You put so much thought into it- I think that will help your children be comfortable with whatever decision they make about this.



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