Posted tagged ‘Senator William Cohen’

Interfaith Identity: More Than One Box

October 15, 2009

Little Boxes, photo Aimee Helen MillerMost interfaith Jewish/Christian children share a set of pivotal moments, epiphanies that help to forge our interfaith identities. These realizations well up in response to confrontation with the following facts:

  • Hitler targeted interfaith children as well as full-blooded Jews.
  • Hitler did not make a distinction between matrilineal and patrilineal half-Jews.
  • Many Jews (sadly, even Reform Jews) do not recognize patrilineal Jews.
  • Israel does not recognize patrilineal Jews or allow interfaith marriage.
  • Standardized forms do not allow us to check more than one religion box.

The shared experience of confronting these facts marks each of us with a sense of common interfaith identity which transcends our adult choices about affiliation. I think of Maine’s Senator William Cohen, who studied for a Bar Mitzvah but was then informed that he couldn’t have one because he was patrilineal. For Cohen, that epiphany was a turning point: he later became a Unitarian.

In contrast, being forced to check one religion box on a standardized form does not seem like a big deal. But just yesterday, my 15-year-old daughter had this experience for the first time, and it made an impression on her. She was taking the PSAT at high school, the first of the college admission tests, and the information they gather to match colleges with potential applicants apparently includes religion.

“It had Episcopalian. It had Jewish. But I wasn’t allowed to check both.  I could have checked “none” but that isn’t right,” she reported. “None” would indeed be all wrong for a child who has studied Hebrew, learned the stories of the Hebrew and Christian bibles, can recite prayers from both traditions, and now gets up early every Sunday morning to teach interfaith Sunday School.

So she checked the box that said, in essence, “none of your business.” A wise choice for many reasons. But it certainly made her think about her interfaith status. She reported, “Mom, they were trying to force me into one little box, just like you’re always writing about…”  I felt gratified that for a moment she understood my obsession with the interfaith topic. And I felt a strengthened bond with her, a fellow member of the growing interfaith clan.


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