My friend Laurel Snyder, editor of “Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes” and author of numerous children’s books, has a thoughtful piece out this week on Killing The Buddha about intermarriage, divorce and the Reyes case.
Laurel who, like me, has divorced parents and is herself intermarried, explores a lot of the same issues I’ve been thinking about (some elaborated on a column to be published in next week’s Jewish Week), vis a vis how interfaith issues play out when marriages implode. In emphasizing how she advises interfaith couples to discuss their differences before they become problems, she writes
If raising a Jewish family is important to you, you need to ask your non-Jewish partner what will happen to your Jewish kids if you are hit by a bus. Will they raise Jewish kids on their own? What if they remarry a non-Jew?”
Because the single greatest problem I see in Jewish intermarriage is not a Christmas tree, it’s this—the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed. In all the most troubled cases I’ve encountered, this is the unifying narrative. Mom turns orthodox or Dad is born again. Dad moves to Israel or Mom marries a minister. Usually, divorce stands in for the lethal bus accident.
There is a polarizing force in divorce that attaches itself to religion. Religion helps to soothe the jangled soul of the newly single parent, creates automatic community and home. So divorce drives us into the bosom of faith. But for a kid who has grown up with one set of rules and signifiers, the sudden shift, the change in terms, can be brutal. At a time when things are already baffling enough.
Laurel also examines one of the most troubling aspects of the Reyes case — the fact that Joseph Reyes, who had his daughter baptized without his estranged wife’s permission, was a convert to Judaism:
But now, I can’t help reflecting on the situation and thinking that what upsets me most is not that Joseph Reyes took his kid to church. What upsets me most is that he was a Jew! He’d converted. I can’t help wondering if maybe that contributed to this awful scenario somehow. Clearly he wasn’t a Jew in his heart. He was the furthest thing from it. I wonder at how that incongruity affected him as his life unraveled and anger replaced love. And I can’t help but wonder about the years before his marriage, before his daughter’s birth. I can’t help but imagine the grandparents, who might very well have met me at a book event and asked me, “What can we do to get him to convert?”
The pressure that we, as a Jewish community, place on conversion and absorption, on quieting the multitude of non-Jewish voices in our midst is a problem for me. I fear it is leading, in some ways, to a kind of dishonesty in our cultural identity, an incongruity.
I could not agree more. While I think conversion to Judaism can be a wonderful thing, too often the Jewish community pushes it in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage — about making things look good, about covering up the non-Jewish partner’s embarrassing heritage and making the Jewish family feel like good Jews, rather than about encouraging real soul searching. I wonder how many of these cosmetic conversions actually last beyond the marriage that spurred them.
Last week, on my flight home from Kentucky, the passenger next to me, upon learning what I do for a living, told me she had converted from Catholicism to Judaism when she married a Jewish man. Several years ago, they divorced.
“Am I still Jewish?” she asked me. “I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’m anything really. But I go to church with my mother.”