Interfaith Identity: More Than One Box

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.

4 Replies to “Interfaith Identity: More Than One Box”

  1. However one chooses to define a Jew, it seems morbid (and warped) in the extreme adopt Adolph Hitler’s definition. It may be very emotionally compelling to say that patrilineal Jews, converted Jews, descendants of Jews, etc. all went to the gas chambers together and that Hitler didn’t make any distinction so why should we? But just what is contained within that claim? That if Hitler said someone was Jewish, who are we to offer a different definition?! Sorry, but whatever standards (or lack thereof) I might ultimately use to define Jewishness, I will not look to Adolph Hitler as the arbiter of all things Jewish.

  2. Chanya–

    I am interested in whether you are an interfaith child.

    My point in this post was not that this argument is “emotionally compelling” or that Hitler should be the arbiter. The point is that for many interfaith preteens and teens, their Jewish identity is strengthened in that moment when they gain knowledge of the historical reality of what happened (to people with their same halachic status) in the Holocaust, just as it is for children with two Jewish parents. You may find this morbid, but it is a fact.

    As a result, many of us find it to be “warped” that in spite of the fact that Judaism was patrilineal throughout the Biblical era, those of us who are patrilineal Jews are rejected today.


  3. how did I miss this post?? Your point to Chanya is so empathic and resonant for me. The holocaust slaughter of patrilineal jews was an important discovery for me that helped me claim my own heritage. So, you are not taking Hitler’s definition. I think you are an incredibly articulate about the stew of emotions in the mixed heritage person’s experience .

    Also, I did not know this story about William Cohen. Where did you find it? Or how did you know about it??

  4. Thanks Charlotte. The Cohen story is well-known: it is in the book he wrote with his wife about their marriage (she’s African-American). Click on the embedded link in my post on the words “William Cohen” to take you to a good story on it in the Christian Science Monitor. He ripped the mezuzah from his neck and threw it into a river!

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