When I was a kid, I never would have predicted that one day I’d be purchasing the economy-sized boxes of Shabbat candles at the supermarket.
How could I, when I barely knew there was a Jewish Sabbath? Indeed, had I been asked to identify a Shabbat candle, I probably would have mixed it up with a Chanukah or yahrtzeit one.
The main significance of Friday night back then was that I could revel in the upcoming weekend, have friends sleep over and stay up late watching “Dallas.”
Nonetheless, for the past three years, nearly every Friday evening has been marked in my apartment with candle-lighting, blessings, wine and a meal around our dining room table.
I won’t claim it’s the most traditional or most beautiful Shabbat dinner. We don’t refrain from electricity use, sometimes the sun has been down an hour or two before the match touches our wicks and we have been known to say “hamotzi” over a plate of Saltines. Our meal is frequently (non-kosher) take-out, although lately my 4-year-old and I have been making pizza together almost every week.
I’m pleased that 4-year-old Ellie now associates Fridays with her dad coming home early from work and with being lifted onto the kitchen counter to watch while, overhead lights dimmed, I light the candles and sing the blessing. When in the mood she joins in for all the Hebrew blessings — although in her rebellious moments she sings “Happy Birthday to You” when I start in with the “Baruch atah” and then sneaks sips of grape juice before the kiddush. Our 20-month-old daughter Sophie is also beginning to recognize Shabbat; she loves slipping quarters into the tzedakah box slot, is captivated by the flames flickering above our blue-and-white candlesticks and is an ardent fan of challah. (She likes Saltines too.)
Our Friday nights are both comforting and uplifting, and the credit goes to my husband. One night back in 2005, when I was lamenting that we weren’t synagogue members and thus not doing enough to expose Ellie to Judaism, he suggested we commit to having Shabbat dinner every week. His motivations were not entirely altruistic; he was hoping to prevent me from dragging him to services on a regular basis. But he’s become quite dedicated to our rituals and successfully pushes them even on nights when fatigue or laziness has me tempted to skip them.
Interestingly, there are quite a few of us die-hard candle-lighting interfaith families. A recent study by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies found that (at least in the Boston area) 54 percent of interfaith families who are raising Jewish children light Shabbat candles “all of the time” or “usually,” compared to 36 percent of Conservative families and 20 percent of Reform families in which both parents are Jewish.
As Ed Case, the publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, explains it, “many intermarried families take Jewish involvement more seriously, and try harder than in-married families who may take their Judaism for granted.”
Amen to that. I’ve heard over and over from intermarried Jews that their interfaith relationship has actually strengthened their commitment to Judaism and spurred them to be more proactive in bringing Jewish rituals into the home. But I also suspect that Friday night dinner is so popular because it seems to resonate with gentiles, particularly lapsed Catholics like my husband Joe.
Abi Auer, a Catholic who prepares a Shabbat dinner complete with homemade challah each week for her Jewish husband and their two small children, tells me she likes “having that weekly tradition, having an established religious event.”
Joe points out that — while their theological meaning is obviously quite different — the candles, wine and bread of Shabbat reminds him a little of the rituals at Mass, but “without the hierarchy.”
Shabbat was just one detail in the Boston study, which mostly found that — contrary to popular belief — there are few differences between intermarried households raising Jewish children and non-Orthodox households in which both parents are Jewish. The interfaith families are less likely to have a bris or naming ceremony for a newborn than are the in-married ones, but their children have bar and bat mitzvahs at the same rate, they are equally likely to belong to a synagogue when the kids are school-age and they actually participate in home-based rituals like kashrut and lighting Chanukah candles at slightly higher rates than their in-married counterparts.
Obviously, in many ways the in-married homes look “more Jewish.” They tend to begin their children’s Jewish education earlier, are more likely to continue it on into the teen years and they are dramatically less likely to have Christmas trees in the house. Also, it’s important to remember that the study doesn’t look at the entire universe of interfaith families, but rather the 60 percent who say they are raising their children exclusively in the Jewish faith. And had the researchers compared these families to the entire Jewish population rather than to other liberal Jewish families, the results would have looked different.
But the purpose was to get a better understanding of intermarried families who are raising Jewish children and to find out if they differ from their in-married peers; obviously, no study is necessary to learn that they (like most American Jewish families) differ dramatically from the typical resident of heavily Orthodox communities such as Monsey, Teaneck or Midwood.
While I found the Boston results encouraging, I suspect that the new study with the greatest implications for the Jewish community is actually the one whose focus went well beyond the Jewish community: the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s “U.S. Religion Landscape Survey.” It found that religious affiliation in the U.S. is “extremely fluid.”
According to the study’s executive summary, more than one-quarter of American adults “have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion — or no religion at all,” and “every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents.”
Why is this important? Because, while Jewish communal leaders have for decades been trying to foster “continuity” by getting Jews to marry each other and give birth to more Tribe members, the Pew report shows that one’s given religious identity determines only so much. In the end, American children grow up and make religious decisions on their own. Some Jews opt out, some Christians fall in love with Judaism and/or Jews — and some folks, like me, intermarry yet end up raising our children with more Judaism than we grew up with.
The Pew study uses the phrase “competitive religious marketplace,” and some pious people may shudder at the implication that faith is merely a brand preference, something to be sold. Nonetheless, it’s an apt way of looking at it: to thrive, Judaism has to advertise aggressively, must respond to needs and cannot take its existing customers for granted.
Perhaps most importantly, it should never turn away a potential customer — especially when, as the Boston study shows, interfaith families are among those most eager to explore Jewish traditions.
“In The Mix” appears the third week of the month. To read previous columns, go to http://intermarried.wordpress.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org