Gabrielle Giffords: Jewish Congresswoman, Interfaith Child, Interfaith Spouse

At first, it seemed somehow inappropriate to write about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her interfaith family. We have all been in shock, hoping or praying for her survival and recovery, mourning for those lost in Tucson. As a Washingtonian, I have many friends who work on Capitol Hill, and some of them know Giffords and knew her aide Gabe Zimmerman. To write about Giffords’s parentage and interfaith connections seemed frivolous, off-topic.

And yet, the moment I saw her photo, heard the name of the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona, my half-Jewdar went off. The confirmation came immediately. Gabby Giffords, like me, is a patrilineal interfaith child married to a Christian spouse. Her mother was a Christian Scientist. Giffords chose Judaism in adulthood after an epiphany in Israel, and has been accepted into a Reform Jewish congregation.

Within hours of the shooting, the religion blogosphere lit up with the eternal debate. She’s Jewish, how dare you say otherwise at a time like this? She’s not Jewish, her mother’s not Jewish, she didn’t convert, sorry for what happened but nonetheless she’s not Jewish.

As always, those of us who are interfaith children must relive the sting of rejection from those who adhere rigidly to a tribal law written thousands of years after the Biblical era, an era when the great intermarried patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism often seemed to enjoy a more inclusive and expansive and fluid definition of belonging.

And as always, we struggle with the hypocrisy of those who claim beautiful interfaith celebrities (such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who is actually a cousin to Giffords), top athletes,  and political heroes as Jewish, and then turn around and refuse to marry interfaith couples, or refuse to accept their children into religious schools, or refuse to bury them together in cemeteries. Although an editorial this week in the Jerusalem Post advocates for accepting Giffords as Jewish inspite of her halachic status, an inevitable and promising shift from a major Israeli newspaper.

Giffords represents proof that interfaith couples, even when they allow their children to choose a religious path, even when their children face rejection from Jewish institutions, can give the world children who wind up as outspoken and committed Jewish leaders, rather than confused or alienated non-participants.

But I was not going to weigh in, partly because it has seemed fairly clear that mental illness is the main culprit in this tragedy, not anti-Semitism, so why view this tragedy through a religious lens at all? But then Sarah Palin pushed me over the edge with her bizarre reference to a “blood libel.” For a deep and nuanced analysis of the way the “blood libel” has been used against Jews, read history professor Susannah Heschel’s piece from yesterday. We can only hope that Palin actually did not understand the meaning of the term “blood libel” when she used those words to describe how she feels journalists have blamed her for violent rhetoric. As we head into Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday weekend, it seems particulary appropriate that Heschel, the daughter of Dr. King’s dear friend and colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is weighing in.

Tomorrow in Washington, at an annual interfaith Shabbat, Jews and Christians will join to celebrate the non-violent activism of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King. The timing could not be better to reaffirm our ardent communal dream for a time of peace.

For me, it remains clear that interfaith children can play a special role in bringing us closer to that dreamtime. In Giffords, a Democrat elected in a Republican district, a congresswoman known for reaching out at public events, reaching across boundaries of race, class, religion and politics, I see the hallmarks of someone raised outside the box. I acknowledge the Jewish label she chose for herself, I acknowledge the danger of applying labels to others. Nonetheless, I cannot help noting our shared experiences as interfaith children who insist on staying connected to Judaism.

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.