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?

Sacrifices for Shabbat?

I was delighted to see that sjewindy at A Humanistic Jew in Indianapolis left a pingback this morning to my post, Why Can’t Jews Get Married on Shabbat? entitled Jewish? Want a Saturday Wedding? Find a Humanistic Jew. He’s right about that; a humanistic Jew is one of the alternatives if you want a Saturday wedding.

However, I have an issue with something in his summary of my post, and I think it merits a post of its own. He wrote, “traditionally this [foregoing weddings on Shabbat] is a sacrifice Jews have made.” [emphasis mine]

Jews went out of the sacrifice business in 70 CE, when the Romans pulled down Herod’s Temple and burnt the broken fragments. As a Reform Jew, I am not praying for or looking forward to a restoration of that edifice, although there are folks in other movements of Judaism who are. (There’s another post for another day.)

Things I don’t do on Shabbat are not sacrifices in any sense of the word. For example, I don’t do my shopping on Shabbat. That is my practice because the day is a break from acquisition. I’m not sacrificing shopping in the way a Catholic sacrifices eating chocolate for Lent. I’m taking a break from shopping because it’s a distraction from Torah and relationships with people, and those are the focus of my sabbath.

I draw my boundaries around Shabbat differently than a halakhic Jew (a Jew who regards the contents of the medieval codes as a binding set of rules given by God and handed down through the generations.) For me, Shabbat is a day to refrain from creation and acquisition, a day profoundly different from the other six, a taste of the world as it should be. It is absolutely not a day for sacrifice in the sense of “going without.”

One of the most famous descriptions of Shabbat is in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. He describes Shabbat as “a cathedral in time.” It is time set aside for openness to the numinous, when we put away anything that might get in the way of that activity. While Heschel himself was a halakhic Jew who kept Shabbat in the classic fashion, keeping Shabbat in the 21st century means different things to different Jews.

Sjewindy and I are largely in agreement. There are lots and lots of different ways to be Jewish. But sacrifices? Not since 70 CE, and never on Shabbat!