The Interfaith Family Blues

Image: The six members of Poor Man’s Whiskey and the band logo. My son is the fellow with the big beard. They and their fans are one congregation in the Church of Making Music.

I love my interfaith family. Linda and I are Jews. Our sons, Aaron and Jim identify mostly as “None of the Above.” Our daughter-in-law and her family are Catholic, my cousins are Presbyterians and Catholics, and Linda’s family identify as Christian.

We get along very amicably most of the time. Our big family holidays are Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and birthdays. On Christian holidays, family scatter to the Christian households. On Jewish holidays, Linda and I celebrate at home and with my students and Jewish friends. And that’s all good.

The place where it gets tricky are the conflicts. The secular world is very helpful about most of the big Christian holidays and secular holidays. The tricky bit are the Jewish holidays and Shabbat: sometimes it’s hard to draw boundaries around them that work for all of us, and this year I’ve felt it particularly strongly.

Jim’s a musician (see more about him at and his busy times for work are weekends and holidays. That’s just a reality for musicians. You might say that he belongs to the Church of Making Music. Linda and I love going to listen to him, when he’s in an accessible location, but when those concerts fall on Shabbat, we have to make decisions. This year, when a particularly big one fell on Rosh Hashanah, it was tough. He had one of his last appearances with Poor Man’s Whiskey, at one of the few accessible venues around. I had to draw a line: I may sometimes go hear him on Shabbat but Rosh Hashanah was just too big a holiday to miss. Jim understands why we weren’t there, and he’s gracious about it.

I’m “all in” as a parent, and “all in” as a Jew, and when those conflict, it bothers me. I make my choices on a case-by-case basis, and they are never simple. Shabbat is important. Holy days are important. Family is important, too.

So when someone talks to me about how their household is “both” and assures me that it is “not a problem,” forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical. Being Jewish takes time, effort, and boundaries. Being Christian (or a musician) takes time and effort, even if the boundary issues are less onerous. When there are conflicts, something has to take second place.

My own experience is an interfaith family requires sacrifices. I didn’t go to the PMW concert because Rosh Hashanah comes once a year. I felt sad that I couldn’t do “both.” Jim’s church is the Church of Music and the conflicts are always going to be there. I don’t pretend that it is “no big deal” when I miss shul for his music, or miss his music to be at shul. Both are a very big deal, but I’m a grown woman and I can take responsibility for my choices.

If you are in an interfaith family (of whatever configuration) I’d be very interested in hearing, in comments, about how your family makes choices and sets priorities. When there’s a conflict, how do you choose? When one kind of observance conflicts with another kind of observance, what are your priorities? What sacrifices have members of the family made to make this work?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

One thought on “The Interfaith Family Blues”

  1. Hi Rabbi Ruth,

    I feel like you answered your own question in this thoughtful essay. You and your spouse are of the same religion, so your choice to practice only that religion makes perfect sense. But as you explain here, as part of an extended interfaith family, you still end up having to make tough decisions, make sacrifices, and feel occasional sadness. All families (not just interfaith families) have those experiences. Imagine a family in which some are Orthodox, and some Renewal. You would still have to make tough decisions. No two families have identical practices or beliefs, and each family is interconnected with other families through marriage and through the generations. We all have to figure out how to treat each other with empathy. So if someone is telling you that choosing to practice more than one religion is “no problem,” they apparently believe the joys of that choice, for them, outweigh the challenges. All families have problems. We all have sadness. I can never fully know why others have chosen a given pathway. All I can do is try to explain my own, to try to shed light on our infinite forms of family, and of love. I appreciate that you do that in sharing stories of your lovely family with the world.

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