There's a growing number of books and resources addressing interfaith relationships and marriage, and I was glad to receive a copy of this new addition to the genre. With intermarriage rates for American Jews at 58% (and at 71% for non-Orthodox Jews), not talking about this phenomenon would amount to some serious denial. Some of these books, while presenting information about options, challenges, and historical Jewish thought, are fairly neutral, such as those by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky in conjunction with the Jewish Outreach Institute. Others have a much more cautious tone. In political commentator Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent book, Til Faith Do Us Part, she writes “Fuzzy romantic ideas that obscure the very real tensions of interfaith marriage, she charges, are also at fault in the lack of realism that many couples bring to their relationships.” Jane Larkin’s new book, From Generation to Generation: a story of intermarriage and Jewish continuity, celebrates her very positive experience with intermarriage. She understands and articulates the particular challenges of interfaith couples, yet celebrates the growth and transformation that they can bring. I think that most of her points are important considerations for all modern Jews, whether they are part of interfaith relationships or not.
Throughout the book, Larkin emphasizes that being part of an interfaith relationship (her husband is not Jewish, though the two agreed to keep a Jewish home and raise their son as solely Jewish) has strengthened her Judaism in ways she would not have predicted. When she and her husband were dating, the fact that they were different religions forced Jane to reconsider what Judaism did mean to her. She realized that “I was not confident in my opinions because I did not feel I had studied the Torah or other Jewish texts enough to make a strong counterargument…it was understandable that I did not feel like I came to this discussion from a position of strength.” Embarking on a course of Jewish learning as an adult can indeed be an empowering and enlightening experience for many, and a far cry from whatever unhappy Sunday or Hebrew school experiences some may vaguely remember from childhood. Larkin’s reading of chapter 32 of Genesis, in which Jacob literally wrestles with an angel, helped her feel comfortable with her own struggle to believe in and understand God. Her experience seems to underscore the point that many rabbis are making when they require both spouses – both the Jewish and the non-Jewish one – to attend “Intro to Judaism” courses when one spouse is considering conversion.
Larkin also highlights the importance of choosing one religion for her home (a point she also hears made by rabbis in her home temple, one of whom told her, ‘I’d rather you choose to raise your children as Christians than choose to do both or nothing.’). A reverend at an interfaith panel she attended made it clear that for young children “being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between red and green or blue and white [for a school holiday project], it is a choice between Mommy and Daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.’” Larkin repeatedly appreciates the loving acceptance of Judaism both by her husband and by her in-laws, something which added to the joy of her experience.
I mentioned that many parts of her book contain good advice and pointers for all Jews, not just those in interfaith relationships. Her husband, in agreeing to raise their child Jewish, understood that they would have to make extra effort to do this: “ ‘In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christan,’ he added…’ ‘For our children to be Jewish, they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.’” Whether one likes it or not, and whether or not there is any of-the-moment outcry over school prayer or crèches, the fact is that we live in a country that is predominantly Christian. At the same time, we live in a time in which individual identity is of the utmost importance. So yes, I agree that all Jewish families today should and will have to make concerted effort to create a Jewish home. Certainly all Jews should be cognizant of findings such as the one Larkin quotes from the 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, that “lack of involvement coupled with Jewish education that ends at the bar or bat mitzvah is leading to substantial disengagement from Jewish life by the time these young adults get to college.” And leading to, perhaps, to Larkin’s own situation of being unable to articulate to her non-Jewish fiancée exactly why Judaism might be important (though obviously, she figured it out).
Her efforts to create a Jewish home, such as baking challah, having a festive Shabbat dinner, and setting up a Sukkah, however, confused her own Jewish mother. Larkin acknowledges that some of her mother’s discomfort with the outward displays of joyful Reform Judaism may come from living in a different time in which diversity and tolerance were not such catchphrases: “Sociologist Will Herberg pointed out in his late 1950s piece, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, that the ‘great mobility of American society encouraged’ assimilation….Foreign language and culture, outward signs of difference, were shed first…many children of immigrants, said Herberg, ‘developed an uneasy relation to the faith of their fathers…’” This phenomenon, in which “what the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember”, is probably common in many Jewish households in which the changing style of Reform Judaism, such as the inclusion of more and more ritual objects and Hebrew, can be startling to an older generation, and for understandable reasons.
I was glad to see Larkin write about her attempts to understand more about Christianity, too. Being part of interfaith relationships surely requires understanding on both sides, and knowing where your partner is “coming from” religiously is probably helpful in creating meaningful and helpful discussions. As one who has always enjoyed learning about other religions, and has had (mostly) positive experiences in interfaith programs, I loved that some of Larkin’s earliest introductions to interfaith relationships were at panels taught by both rabbis and priests or reverends. I hope that her continuing education in this realm is a positive one, and that it helps her – as it has helped me – further understand her own faith.
Whether or not books on interfaith relationships take a specific stance “for” or “against,” they bring very important conversations out into the public sphere. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues today have extensive programming designed to welcome and encourage interfaith couples to participate in Jewish life. Some synagogues and rabbis feel differently about the issue, and prefer to focus on other methods that encourage Jewish life. Whether one is in an interfaith relationship or not, and regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, these programs and books can stimulate all Jews to consider why they are Jewish. I'm so glad that Larkin generously gave me the opportunity to read her new book, as From generation to generation is a welcome contribution to the discussion.