My Boyfriend Is A Jewish Atheist And Wants His Children Raised Jewish. Should I Convert?

 

I’ve been with my boyfriend for nearly two years. He was raised Modern Orthodox Jewish, but is a secular atheist like yourself. My father was raised Jewish and my mother was raised Christian. Neither is religious, and I was raised secularly but celebrating Christmas (and occasionally latkes on Rosh Hashanah, etc.). They’ve been happily married for 25 years. I’ve been to church maybe once in my life, and synagogue twice. I don’t like organized religion, but do consider myself spiritual.

We’re both in our early 20s and very committed to each other, though neither of us wants to get married until we’re more financially secure. There is nothing that would make us break up except for possibly the question of religion, and I’m determined not to let that happen.

I really love this guy. I don’t particularly care one way or the other about what religion we raise any potential children, as long as we teach them to think for themselves and be intelligent, ethical people. And we celebrate Christmas (not in a religious way, just in a Santa Claus way–it used to be a Pagan holiday after all). That’s it.

He wants to raise Jewish children because it’s important to him to pass on the traditions he was raised with. He doesn’t keep kosher, pray, keep Shabbat, go to shul, or wear a kippah. I have seen more Woody Allen movies than him and probably speak more Yiddish.

But I know a thing or two about Jewish law and I know that any children of mine would not be considered Jewish unless I were to convert. This is a major source of tension within his family, and I’ve actually overheard his mother say things to him about how I can’t be a “serious girlfriend” because I’m not Jewish.

My question is: since I don’t really care one way or the other, should I think about converting to Judaism for him in the long run, even though he isn’t religious himself?

I’ve read online that converting requires living in accordance with strict Jewish standards to satisfy both the Rabbi and the Bet Din, and it seems that those standards wouldn’t be things he is comfortable with in his own Jewish practice. On the other hand, I like his family and don’t want to cause undue tension there, my dad thinks it would be hilarious if I were to become Jewish, my mom has said she doesn’t care, and I know the idea of Jewish children is important to my boyfriend.

Does it make sense to look into this process and consider conversion even though he isn’t himself religious? Is that dishonest? It seems rather unfair of him to not be a practicing Jew himself but to want to have his children be Jewish but also to not want to go with me to things like Shabbat dinner. I’m just not sure how I’m supposed to navigate this. Help?!

Sincerely,

Confused Semi-Shiksa

You sure came to the right place.

Before I get started in sharing my very personal feelings about this topic, I want to frame this post by saying that if you disagree with anything I’m saying, that’s absolutely okay. Just spare me the shouting. Every couple has to create its own compromises and I’m outlining one that worked for me in a similar situation.

First, a little education for my many non-Jewish readers:

There are 800 million Protestants in the world
There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world
There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world

There are 13.9 million Jews in the world (0.2% of the population)

In the United States, which has the second biggest Jewish population outside of Israel, the percentage of Jews is only 2%.

So when people ask “What’s the big deal about being Jewish?” there’s your answer. Jews have been persecuted for millennia, they do not proselytize, and outside Orthodox families, they rarely have a lot of children. As a result, there is a danger that the religion might disappear from the planet – which is why secular Jews are pretty sensitive when people ask them why they care about being Jewish.

Next, Jews, on the whole, have a different relationship with their religion than most other religions. On the whole, Jews question their religion but value the culture and history of their people.

1. 22% of Jews by birth don’t consider themselves having any religion.

2. For most assimilated Jews in America, being Jewish is far more about culture than religion. 62% of U.S. Jews feel that way, vs. only 15% who feel that it’s mainly a matter of religion.

3. The intermarriage rate between Jews and non-Jews is up to 58%, from 17% in 1970.

In short:

There are a lot of agnostic/atheist/cultural Jews. 75% of them marry outside the religion, thus making the already dwindling numbers dwindle even further.

His family has no vote. “Jewish law” has no vote. The only vote that matters is what makes you happy as a couple.

My own anecdotal evidence reveals something similar. I have four older male cousins; all of them married Catholic women. My four best friends from college are Jewish; they all married gentiles as well.

For each of us, being Jewish is a cultural thing – far more akin to being black or Greek or Italian, than to being, say, Presbyterian. The same way African-Americans can nod and assume they “get” each other based on a similar upbringing, so can Jews. This identity – formed by years of persecution, education, values, rituals and shared sense of humor – is extremely powerful, and needs to be intellectually separated from the religion itself.

My wife – who spent 12 years in Catholic school – didn’t understand that when she met me. And she was surprised, when, after six months, I let her know that if we were going to continue the relationship, I wanted to raise the kids Jewish.

It could have been a breaking point. Instead, it was an easy compromise.

    • • My wife agreed to raise the kids Jewish.

• I agreed to allow her to teach the kids a concept of God – even though I don’t believe in it myself.

• I didn’t ask my wife to convert, because who am I to tell her what she should believe in private?

That was our solution, and it’s worked out extremely well for us.

Our kids go to preschool at a conservative temple across the street, where my wife has been embraced by the community. She is actively involved in social planning and takes great pride in witnessing our kids getting a sense of the Jewish culture.

I sometimes bristle when my kids mention God or say a prayer before a meal, but I always realize that my wife made a much bigger sacrifice than I did.

The only one who seems to have a problem with this is my mother-in-law – and if you’re reading this, Nana, I’m sorry. She is a true Catholic believer and was extremely upset that the kids were not going to be Catholic as well. I can understand and empathize with her feelings.

However, the moral of the story for me – and for you, Confused – is that whatever compromise you make has to work for you and your husband.

His family has no vote.

“Jewish law” has no vote.

The only vote that matters is what makes you happy as a couple. Which is why – if my Mom had a problem with me marrying Catholic, I’d tell her to deal with it. And why, if the conservative temple made an issue out of our kids not being Jewish by birth, I’d find another synagogue to attend. And why, despite my mother-in-law’s sincere and heartfelt protests, our kids are 100% Jewish.

Therefore, your boyfriend has to take a strong stand against his mother and tell her to get on board the Shiksa-train before it leaves the station.

My wife and I made sense of our own internal contradictions, and if that means that my kids celebrate Shabbat on Fridays while I’m busy on my computer, and my wife attends temple more than I do, so be it.

Same goes for your secular husband who wants Jewish kids.

I know I used this space to hijack your question and tell a very personal story that I’ve wanted to tell for awhile, but really, it doesn’t matter what I say.

This is between you and your future husband.

Sounds like you’re both on board with Jewish children.
Sounds like his Mom is not on board with a Gentile wife.
Sounds like you’re on the fence about the conversion.

Therefore, your boyfriend has to take a strong stand against his mother and tell her to get on board the Shiksa-train before it leaves the station.

And you have to figure out if you want to go through the grueling conversion process just for appearances.

You may determine that the path of least resistance is to convert because it would make your in-laws happy and answer any questions about your children’s religion.

But personally, I don’t think you have to “prove” yourself to anybody. Whatever works for you as a couple is what the rest of the world will have to deal with.

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Comments:

  1. 1
    Julie

    Why is it necessary for children to be raised in any faith?  I just don’t get this.  My parents were Protestants by birth, but in our household there was never any mention of God or religion, we never went to church, did not have a Bible, never prayed.  I was simply raised to be a good, moral person.  Being an honest, decent human being has nothing to do with religion or religious upbringing.  I will be forever grateful for having been brought up in a secular home.  It has allowed me to explore all spiritual paths and find the one that resonates.  Organized religion in all forms is increasingly irrelevant.

    1. 1.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      It’s not necessary. It’s a personal choice. If you choose not to, I’m all for it. I’m a good moral person regardless of being Jewish. As I said at length in the post: I take great pride in my Jewish heritage and culture and wanted to preserve that.

      1. 1.1.1
        jon

        I always thought being Jewish was primarily an ethnic identity rather than a spiritual identity. It wouldn’t really matter if your children attended a temple or not, that would never take away them being half-Jewish. No priest or rabbi can say he or she is not Jewish just because they don’t attend services. Also, if you live in a town without a synogogue, there is nothing stopping you from home-schooling your children in Jewish culture, food, or holidays at home. An Italian person does not stop being Italian if they don’t go to an RC church. A Jewish child can self-identify as Jewish. However, some rabbis don’t think a child is Jewish if their mom is not Jewish. I’ve seen a few couples break up over Judaism or religion. It is what it is. Its also ironic how atheists can be both open-minded and close-minded when it comes to discussing religious differences. It comes down to the individuals personality and whether they can accept/live with their spouse’s personality, beliefs, and cultural lifestyle.

  2. 2
    Isobel Matheson

    Surely one ‘converts’ to a religion because the beliefs, values, and principles of said religion has deep, meaningful resonance, and not because it is the thing to do to keep other folk happy?

    Does your partner want you to convert? If he does, I would still say it is an intensely personal choice. Your kids can be raised to honour and respect their Jewish heritage, and decide for themselves when they are old enough how much of a Jew they want to be (which is the same for all religions IMHO).

    This could be a deal-breaker, and I think you need to sort it out before anyone commits to anything lasting (marriage, children, life, family etc etc).

  3. 3
    JJ

    I might be wrong but I believe if you go to a reform temple as long as one parent is Jewish, the kids are recognized as such. You can do all the Jewish holidays and ‘raise’ them Jewish. At least where I live…

  4. 4
    Mrs Happy

    I don’t know what the OP should do, but I can tell you my story.

    I’ve been married twice. Once at age 30 for less than a year, and once at age 36, still going strong 6 years on.

    I have been an athiest since the nuns at my Catholic school told me the Easter story during my second year at school, again, even though they’d already told it the year before. I was 6 years old. I didn’t have the confidence to tell anyone I was an athiest until my early 30’s. Most of the intervening years were spent nodding politely or keeping silent whenever anyone, including the teachers and priests I encountered, spoke of God/s or their beliefs. In retrospect, I was trying to be polite, but it was a subjugation of who I was and how I thought.

    My first wedding was a full Catholic ceremony at a Catholic church, primarily because his and my families were Catholic. Whatever. I didn’t care, I’ve never been big on weddings, the marriage was the more important thing to me. But the ceremony had a background of feeling false for me personally.

    My second wedding ceremony was not a religious event. And it felt real. It was for us, not anyone else. It was clearly our announcement to the world (our friends and family that made up our world): this is who we are and we are together.

    But here’s my main point: my 2nd husband and I are both athiest, and as time has passed, this has (surprisingly) been important. In lots of little ways including how to educate our children, our similar analytic way of thinking, our appreciation of science, what we do on weekends, the background ethics that shape our actions. I wouldn’t have thought it mattered if people of differing religious beliefs raised a family, but now I wonder whether it sometimes really does. I’ve now come to realise that I wouldn’t have much respect for a husband who believed a whole lot of extremely unlikely things just because he had been told them in earlier years and had not thought logically since.

     

    On the other hand, a friend of mine who was raised Catholic but is now agnostic, continually refuses to have his children christened/baptised, though his parents keep begging him to. His parents are staunch Catholics and they truly think his gorgeous little children will not get to go to heaven if they are not christened, and this makes them really anxious and unhappy. He refuses, but I am of the opinion he should get them christened. It means nothing to him, it’d just be an excuse for a family party, and his parents would be hugely relieved and soothed; christening isn’t going to hurt them or be a risk to their health in any way, like a circumcision would. From an agnostic’s point of view it’s a bit of water on the forehead, so what, is my way of thinking.

     

    My only suggestion to the OP is she and her boyfriend talk about what he actually practically wants when he says he wants his children raised Jewish. What does that mean he wants the children to do or be exposed to, and which parent will be responsible (or will both) for the work of doing those things. I wouldn’t want to marry a man who said, I really want this and this and this because these are terribly important for me, but I’m not going to do much/any of it, I want you to do it all.

     

     

    1. 4.1
      Helen

      Mrs Happy, your last sentence nails the issue.

  5. 5
    SAL9000

    Oh, wow. I think this is a sad situation. There are PLENTY of tolerant and accepting secular men out there with tolerant and accepting families.

     

     

  6. 6
    Elly Klein

    Evan, this was absolutely exceptional. I’ve never been more excited to share an article on social media and via my email list. I, too, am a Jewish atheist. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. And this article explains, better than I ever could, why Jews feel so strongly about retaining their culture and passing it onto their kids, even if they’re non-believers who marry non-Jews. Good on you and your wife for arriving at a compromise you’re both happy with. Mazel tov.

  7. 7
    L

    (1) Don’t convert unless you want to.  Religion is an intensely personal decision.

    (2) Be absolutely 100% sure that you are ok with raising the kids Jewish BEFORE you get married and before you have kids.  Sometimes, things that seem like a good idea before you get married are hard to live with in practice…   If things don’t work out with your marriage, it is very confusing to the kids and creates a very hurtful situation if you decide that you no longer want Jewish children and change things mid-stream.  I’ve seen this happen to people in my social circle more than a few times – be convinced this is what you want.

    (3) Different religions is a huge source of conflict.  Marriage is hard enough before adding in two different religious traditions.  It is not true that love can conquer all.  Intermarried couples are far more likely t get divorced than same religion couples.

    Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but as a divorced woman (dealing with the fall-out of an intermarriage gone wrong) who has met a good half dozen other people who have dealt with the same situation, I tend to look at the possible downside.

  8. 8
    Ben Iyyar

    I am a religious Jew, and I am curious as to what sort of Judaism these two would practice, if the woman did make a conversion.  Since it is unlikely that this couple would go through the lengthy, difficult, and life changing process that an Orthodox conversion to Judaism would entail, they would most likely approach a Reform rabbi and have a some sort of conversion, which of course would not satisfy a religious Jew.  One more thing is that no religious Jew would ever recognize the child of a Reform woman  convert as Jewish in any way, shape, or form.

    I only have one more point to make and then I will drop it.  Let me suppose that ten or twelve years into the marriage, this “convert” decides that she does not want to impose the deficits of being Jewish, you know discrimination, bias, prejudice, and that fact that most non Jews are not that wild about marrying Jews.  Or after a bitter fight, she takes the kids and in her anger raises them as non Jews, the future of a married couple is tough enough as it is without the religious differences.

    Evan, as a believing Jew I am very disappointed that you decided to abandon Judaism our shared, beautiful, pure, and holy Faith and Heritage, Judaism, by marrying out and having non Jewish children.  But if you so choose, then good bye, you are depriving yourself and your children of a truly wonderful experience, the membership, the havruta, of the Jewish People.

    1. 8.1
      Joe

      And Evan claims Jews don’t proselytize…

    2. 8.2
      Evan Marc Katz

      Ben,

      This couple would be Reform Jews with a secular worldview (which is just about the most common kind of Jew). They would not care if Orthodox Jews “recognized” them or their children as Jewish, no more than you spend time worrying about whether Muslims recognize your beliefs as valid.

      Next, you make a bunch of semi-wild “if” statements… IF she converts… and IF she later decides in a decade that being Jewish is too hard… and IF she does a 180 from her current openness and decides to raise her kids Christian. You know that saying, “If your aunt had balls, she’d be your uncle”? That’s kind of what you’re doing here. Seems to me that the OP is very comfortable with her boyfriend and his take on religion; she’s just not sure how his family is going to take things. I told her to ignore her family and do what’s mutually agreeable to her and her partner.

      Finally, if you think that sending my kids to a conservative temple for preschool is “abandoning” Judaism, I’m not exactly sure what I’ve got for you. Maybe we have different definitions, but just as I will not criticize how you live your life, I’d appreciate if you just respect the fact that if my wife and I are happy, that’s all that matters.

      1. 8.2.1
        L

        I agree with you on most of this, but the what ifs are a very valid concern.  It is not uncommon for this to become a point of contention years later because deciding to raise children on a different religion than the one you grew up with has life changing repercussions that are hard to understand until those actual children are growing up.   Thus, in general, having had a failed intermarriage (my ex husband went back to Christianity) and having dated numerous men who are divorced from non-Jewish wives (most of whom went back on their agreements to raise jewish children), I firmly believe that if a person values having jewish kids, that person should marry a born Jew.

        1. Evan Marc Katz

          “I firmly believe that if a person values having Jewish kids, that person should marry a born Jew.”

          Wonderful. Except for the fact that 98% of America is made up of non-Jews, which is a pretty restrictive dating pool.

        2. L

          @Evan, I can’t reply directly to your post, but this is my response to your 2% argument:  Yes, it is restrictive, but if you care about religion, you should choose a partner of a similar background to you.   Fact is,  intermarried couples are far more likely to separate and divorce than non-intermarried couples.  First, it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will be happy to raise YOUR children Jewish if that person isn’t also Jewish.  They may change their minds down the road, as reality sets in.  And family opposition can create tension.  Can the couple withstand pressure from Christian relatives who want to see their grandchildren have first communion, a baptism, etc.?  And having different family backgrounds is a complicating issue and can easily become a source of conflict down the line, even if it isn’t initially. How is a person raised Modern Orthodox going to feel when his wife decides that she really misses Christmas and wants to put up a Christmas tree, even if she promised not to when they got married?    In reality, even if a person agrees to it before marriage, if the marriage unravels, religion suddenly can become a weapon that can be used against you.  As people get older and have families, religion (not necessarily the God part, but the cultural part) becomes increasingly important.  Not to sound bitter, but having looked at intermarriage from the other side (i.e., divorce), my advice is to think very carefully before jumping in.

        3. Evan Marc Katz

          “if you care about religion, you should choose a partner of a similar background to you.”

          Yes, if you care about religion.

          I don’t. I care about Jewish culture. My wife doesn’t. She cares about the concept of a higher power. The OP doesn’t. She’s open to anything. The OP’s boyfriend doesn’t – he’s a secular Jewish atheist like me.

          So if your point is that religious Jews should not marry religious Christians, you’re absolutely right. But by repeatedly emphasizing the differences and potential problems – when the two people involved AREN’T religious, you’re only making it clear that you’re not hearing/respecting/understanding their situation, and instead trying to treat them as if they’re some wildly mismatched couple with different values. They’re not. There is one issue here: the guy’s family. If he can stand up to his family, the couple will be fine. If he can’t, the couple may struggle. Everything else you wrote is a distraction because the OP IS bought into raising the kids Jewish and converting… Your relationship – while a cautionary tale to other couples – is largely irrelevant to THIS couple.

          By the way, we have a Christmas tree in our house, because it makes my wife happy. We don’t have lights out front, because that’s where I am uncomfortable. It’s all about finding a compromise that everyone can live with.

        4. L

          Evan, I’m not religious, nor are the people I am talking about.  I’d rather walk on hot coals than go to synagogue.  Yet, once my ex and I split, all of a sudden he found God and wanted the kids baptized to spite me.  I may not be religious but as the grandchild of holocaust survivors I wanted my kids to be Jewish.   Think I’m the only one?  Nope!  This is far more common than you’d think.

          It isn’t as simple for many people as you make it sound. It is a huge decision, one she may come to regret. Even a person who is secular today can change her mind about her religious views.  Christian traditions may be more important to her than she anticipated. Plus, this guy was brought up MO and even if he is secular now, his background is very Jewish.  His parents are very Jewish. As a Jewish person, I would worry about that because I know how hard it would be to deal with having MO relatives visit your home.

          What works for you (now) may not work for others and I think you are minimizing the potential pitfalls.  This is a committment she’d be making for decades and it requires serious thought.   Glad your situation seems to be working but don’t pretend that this is true across the board.

        5. jon

          @L Well, if your kids have a Jewish mother, which they do, then your kids will always be considered ethnically Jewish, even if they don’t attend Temple or become baptized. Or, you can wait until your children turn 13 to have a bar mitzvah, or let them decide their religion when they turn 18. I think to have the holocaust be your only reason to have Jewish children is not enough. You should enjoy living a Jewish lifestyle, culture, observing. Your ex-husband may have saw that you were atheist/non-practicing and wanted to instill a more religious belief system of Christianity in his children. If you really want your children to be raised Jewish, then you should also observe jewish practices, otherwise its weirdly selfish and hypocritical to force your children into a religion that you don’t even practice.  Let your children decide their religion when they turn 18.

      2. 8.2.2
        Ben Iyyar

        Evan, you sound very upset and defensive, as well you should.  I pointed out something which made you seriously think about the consequences of your actions in giving up your Judaism by marrying out.  The fact is that your children are not Jewish and they will never be considered Jewish by Jews who really believe in G-d may never matter. That is unless they decide to join the religious Jewish community, or marry some one who really is Jewish and they are hit with the  embarrassment and anger that you fooled them all their lives into thinking they were part of our People. Evan I have met many confused and angry Jews like yourself, who know almost nothing about their Faith, but everything about about celebrating every secular, materialistic, and soulless fad that comes along.  Why?  Because someone failed to provide you with the Jewish spiritual and moral compass, the mitzvoth, and the customs of the Jewish People.
        I am happy that I have been able to upset your calm and simple abandonment of Judaism that you committed by marrying out, you know what you lost, a Jewish home and family.   Yes those shikses look really good, but even you Evan know that you threw away the world of Life, the authentic Jewish life.  That’s why you are upset.

        1. Lily

          Ha, this is such bullshit.

    3. 8.3
      Kat

      He fell in love with a person, he didn’t abandon Judisim.

  9. 9
    Fiona

    There is a sweet and much loved sup plot in the last season of Sex and the City where WASP Charlotte converts to Judaism for her husband to be, Harry. At one point, they break up and her friends are surprised that she sticks with her religion. Though it started as something she did for a guy, it become something for her. They end up reuniting at a Jewish singles event.

    Don’t convert to Judaism for your boyfriend. Only convert if it’s something you want for yourself. Parents disapprove of possible spouses for a million different reasons. You can’t live to please other people’s parents, even if they are your future in-laws. If your boyfriend agrees with his parents that you are not good enough for marriage, then he’s not a very good boyfriend.

    1. 9.1
      Joe

      Hey, there’s also Walter in The Big Lebowski who’s still doesn’t roll on Shabbos, even though he’s divorced from his wife for whom he converted.

  10. 10
    Elle

    The OP asks “Does it make sense to look into this process and consider conversion even though he isn’t himself religious? Is that dishonest? “

    Converting to any religion with no sincere desire in your heart or genuine commitment to live your life by its practices and principles is both dishonest and unethical. And if you are sincere about it, why would you want to marry a man who clearly does not choose to live his life according to those same religious practices and principles?

    To me this kind of conversion doesn’t pass the smell test.  It appears to be taking place for the sole purpose of expediency, like immigrants who illegally marry someone in order to obtain citizenship in a country they want to live in permanently.

    If you have to throw your own integrity out the window to please someone you want to marry (or please their family), you are making a big mistake. Character and ethics trump everything else when it comes to decisions about marriage. Take the high road, always, and you’ll ultimately end up with the high quality marriage partner you deserve.

    You’re both relatively young (in your early 20’s) and you are quite committed to this boyfriend, so you probably don’t want to hear this … but it is possible there is a much better life partner match for you down the road. It is important to note that Evan and his wife made their religious compromises with each other when they were much older than you and your boyfriend are, and after a significant amount of life and relationship experience.

    Evan consistently advises couples not to get married in their 20’s, as the likelihood of divorce is so much higher. I agree with Evan, so my advice to you is to put marriage, and any marriage related questions like religious conversion, on the back burner until you are older and have more life experience.

  11. 11
    Elizabeth

    I’m having a heck of a time seeing where you compromised, Evan.  Your wife is the one who believes in God yet she was the the one who had to be kosher with raising her kids in a different faith than her own? I might be able to understand this if you were a hardcore believer but you’re a non-practicing Jew who laid down an ultimatum for a God you don’t even believe in.   That doesn’t make sense.  You compare Judaism to being black, Italian, and Greek but no one can convert to another race or ethnicity if they so choose.   (At least not yet…Rachel Dolezal springs to mind.)  With that in mind, it seems the spiritual one here, your wife, got bamboozled.  She may not have converted in the traditional sense but if she goes to Temple (more than non-believing you) and rears non-Christian kids, she kinda already did.

    On the other hand, had she been a true Christian she would have never married someone who wasn’t.  All major religions have a no-interfaith-spouse policy, Atheistic Jews included.

     

    1. 11.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      I’m guessing you’re religious, Elizabeth, so I’m not too surprised that you’re having a hard time understanding my perspective. So please try to understand: if you are an atheist, believing in God is a very uncomfortable concept. If you’re a Christian, it would be the equivalent of me telling you NOT to believe in God, or maybe to believe in Allah. You may not think it’s a compromise; I do. Also, understand: if my wife were uncomfortable with her compromise, she wouldn’t have done it. As it stands, she doesn’t care much for the Catholic dogma, but she does believe in a higher power. Marrying me doesn’t change any of that for her. So there is no bamboozling going on here: just two reasonable people from different backgrounds finding a path that works for us. Finally, please don’t misinterpret what I wrote: I didn’t lay down an ultimatum for God. I said I wanted my children to identify as cultural Jews, which is akin to being culturally black. The way to give them that identity was to raise them in the religion itself – despite the fact that I’m decidedly ambivalent about religion. My point is that we’re all happy here in the Katz clan – and if you choose not to raise your family in the way that we’re doing so, that’s just fine by me.

      1. 11.1.1
        Shaukat

        I think the fundamental difference between raising your kids as “cultural” Jews and being black is that the latter is based on a lived reality which is inescapable for African-Americans in the United States. If someone is black, it doesn’t matter if they “identify” with the race or culture, they may still face discrimination in the justice system, violence from police, a greater chance of incarceration etc. This is all backed up by studies, and often this is what shapes the African-American identity.

        When it comes to Judaism, however, or Christianity or Islam, it is impossible to raise kids as cultural Jews, or Christians or Muslims without in some manner reverting back to the religion itself, as you acknowledge in the above comment. Not trying to criticize your personal choice at all, just trying to make sense of it, because as an atheist myself, who was born into a culturally Muslim family (though my parents were also both atheists, thankfully) using religion to carve out a sense of cultural identity is not something I would ever feel comfortable doing. Frankly, I think that if all religions did disappear, as you suggest is a real danger in your answer to the  OP, that could only be a good thing. I just wonder if it might be possible to hold onto your Jewish heritage by educating your kids about the history of oppression which Jews have had to endure, and the origins of the faith, etc, without socializing them into any religion and then allowing them to make that choice themselves? Again, not trying to criticize any one’s personal religious choices.

        1. Evan Marc Katz

          Thanks for your comment, Shaukat. You’re a regular commenter and this is a respectful take. Alas, I think it exhibits a lack of understanding of modern diaspora Judaism, and how it’s different than the other main monotheistic religions.

          a) You’re taking my comparing cultural Judaism to being African-American a little too literally. Change it to Greek or Italian if that makes you feel better. The point is that it’s an ethnic CULTURE, which may or may not have ANYTHING to do with religion itself. That is how over SIXTY percent of Jews feel about their “religion”. Which is why I reiterate – for Christians/Muslims who want to attempt to understand secular Jews – our identity stems from summer camp in the Catskills, appreciation of Woody Allen, overbearing mothers, emphasis on education, achievement and marriage, and yes, a history of persecution as well. The Old Testament? Not the thing that binds most modern Jews.

          b) So, to your claim that it is “impossible” to raise kids as cultural Jews without reverting back to the religion, you’re right…but still missing the point. I have my kids in a Jewish school for two reasons: because it can inculcate a sense of identity on a daily basis more effectively than I can…but, just as importantly, because it happens to be directly across the street from us. If there were a better school nearby, our kids would go there and get pretty much NOTHING but CULTURAL Judaism from me, without any religion whatsoever. So it CAN be done – and, in fact, I think most of my cousins and friends are doing it exactly that way. Maybe their kids will be bar mitzvahed, maybe not, but they will self identify as Jewish.

          c) The one place I firmly disagree with you is on the last point you make: teach them a little bit of history and let them choose. My head says yes to that. My heart says no. When you raise your kid with no religious identity or try to raise them “both” as so many intermarried families do, the kid ends up with nothing. It’s “My Dad is Jewish. My Mom is Catholic. I’m nothing.” That’s not what I wanted. I wanted my kids to FEEL Jewish in the way that I do – because it’s a source of pride and identity that I don’t want them to lose. Thankfully, my wife was open to this, without any arm twisting whatsoever.

          So to all the naysayers who tell me that:

          -I’m a disgrace to my religion for choosing a Catholic wife…
          -I can’t have Jewish kids because my wife didn’t convert…
          -My marriage is on shaky ground because my wife and I have different concepts of where we came from and where we go when we die…
          -I can’t take the culture of my people without taking all of the dogma of the religion, too…

          Guess what?

          I’m doing it – and my wife and I are both really happy with the choices we’ve made together.

      2. 11.1.2
        Shaukat

        Thanks for the response, Evan. The thought process behind your decision is much clearer to me now.

      3. 11.1.3
        Elizabeth

        Evan,

        You think I’m religious?  I told my friend that and he laughed.  I used to be a militant atheist but have since softened up a bit.  Because I do not have Jewish ties, I feel I can truly be objective about this issue.  The main religion in the US is Christianity and secular Christians don’t exist.  Well, that’s not true.  Instead of secular Christians they’re called secular humanists.

        You mentioned that you didn’t want the following to occur in your household: “My Dad is Jewish. My Mom is Catholic. I’m nothing.”   I see how one would be frustrated with that potential upbringing for a child. We all want what’s best for our kids.  That said, with the boundaries laid down by your religious deal breakers instead of cultural cohesion you may have created more confusion with…

        My Dad is a closet atheist. My Mother is spiritually confused.  I’m … gosh I wish I knew what I was but how can I when my parents didn’t even know themselves?

        And there it is.  Look, I get it. I’m no longer an atheist due to similar logic.  “Secular values” are laughable.  How can you have values and a culture based on nothing?  Foundations exist for a reason and you’re trying to teach your children what it’s like to feel like a group that identifies as outliers yet has an unspoken connection. In essence, tribalism.  Is this a good thing or bad thing?  Who knows.  Is it biological?  The fact that you married outside your faith and yet still demanded the kids grow up Jewish, I’m gonna say yes.  But all this cultural piecemealing, instead of following traditional, religious law, might be doing more harm than good.  You could just let go of your Jewish identity and identify as American.  Your wife had no problem letting go of her deep-seated Catholic upbringing to make her husband and children happy, why can’t you do the same?  Now THAT would be a compromise.

        You seem to be torn between Jewish culture and Jewish faith – and if your numbers are true so do many other Jews.  My original questioning was of your sheer intellectual dishonesty having kids grow up in the same environment as you but staying mute, “compromising”  on a God you forced on them but don’t believe in.  If anything, this conversation will hopefully have you question deeper the benefits of religion (or culture in your words) over atheism practiced as a lifestyle.

        1. Evan Marc Katz

          I’m Jewish, whether you like my brand of Judaism or not. In other words, I’m not torn about my choices, but it sure seems like YOU are. So tell you what: live your life the way you want, make sure you’re not hurting anybody and be happy. That’s what I’m doing.

        2. jon

          @Elizabeth I think you are trying to say that it would be hypocritical for any atheist to force his/her children to go to religious school. But there are plenty of closet-atheist parents/dads who still make their children go to sunday christian school for the moral education rather than belief in god. All Religions are a complex mix of history/culture/lifestyle that is difficult to explain.  It seem that what Evan wants of his children is to have an ethnic/cultural education of Jewish history, rather than a relationship with god. I don’t think there is much debate on not getting into heaven or sinning, as there is in Catholicism.  The real tricky question is whether Evan’s wife would have raised her children as catholics if Evan didn’t care. It might be more intellecutally-honest to educate inter-faith children in the 2 religions of Both parents so that neither parent has to compromise.

        3. Evan Marc Katz

          I’m just amused that strangers see fit to tell me what’s intellectually honest or what compromise would work best for my family. Again, my wife and I are both very much at peace with our decision. I’m not telling you that you have to live life as we do; only to respect the choices we made.

    2. 11.2
      Ben Iyyar

      Evan is very confused, as are most Jews who walk away from the only true moral path for us, HaShem and His Torah.  For a Jew to abandon the Torah is like tearing his heart and soul from him, leaving him empty, sad, confused, and angry.  The most disturbing aspect of this matter is that the woman is consider converting to Judaism to marry.  As a believing Jew I would ask this woman that if she wants to convert, do it out of a love for HaShem and to follow His Torah and the mitzvoth.  It sickens me that this shikse has so little respect for Judaism that she would pervert the conversion for personal reasons and not for religious ones. And it is worse when Evan supports this contemptible act, we Jews do not need any more counterfeit “Jews”, at least begin your marriage with real honesty, be the Christian and do not lie to your husband that your conversion has any religious or spiritual meaning to you or him.  Just admit you converted for personal convenience.  On this I will give Evan some credit, at least his gentile wife had the honesty to remain whatever she was, and did not make some phony baloney “conversion” but I wonder why Evan would allow his gentile children to study the Jewish Faith, our laws, mitzvoth, customs, and even a belief in the Al-lmighty, HaShem our L-rd.  Things which Evan himself admits he has no use for. Evan, if our Jewish religion has so little meaning or value to you, fine, sad but okay.  We Jews have enough tsores without you piling on with your pro assimilation and pro inter marriage propaganda among our less committed brethren. Frankly your excuses to justify these things sound more like an attempt to convince yourself that the mistakes you have made about the Jewish Faith and your family really are not mistakes at all. Good luck with that, it never works.

      1. 11.2.1
        jon

        @Ben If you watch the movie School Ties, it shows a Jewish guy trying to date a blonde wasp girl. There are many jewish guys that are attracted to and want to marry wasp girls.  America is a melting pot of different races, cultures, and religions. While some people choose an ethnocentric view, other Americans pursue inter-racial and inter-faith marriages. I don’t view inter-racial or inter-faith relationships as wrong, but I can understand how some minority groups want to maintain their culture and identity by only dating within their ethnic group. However, a truly tolerant and diverse society will eventually blur the lines between races and religions, as people choose to marry based on personality and erase the historic barriers of race or religion.

  12. 12
    Elle

    Here are two interesting perspectives on conversion and interfaith marriage.

    I recall reading about a North American man who was raised Christian, then later in his adult life converted to Buddhism. He decided to become a Buddhist teacher and progressed through the various levels of training and Buddhist spiritual practice to do so. I believe he was on the verge of the final level of certification when he was travelling on a plane, and the plane hit really bad turbulence. There was a real danger that the plane would crash, and in that moment, he found himself praying to Jesus, and not turning to Buddhist practices. As a result, he realized no matter how much Buddhism appealed to him, his Christian roots went far deeper and he could not therefore continue on as a Buddhist, as he would be lacking in integrity if he did so.

    Here’s another perspective from a Christian interdenominational marriage. I know a man who was raised protestant but married a Catholic and agreed that the children would be raised Catholic. His parents were okay with this. So one day he was visiting his mother with his two little girls on a Friday afternoon in the summer. She asked them what they wanted for lunch – a grilled cheese sandwich or hot dogs. They chose the hot dogs. Later on his wife called to check in and then got really angry with him for giving the kids meat on a Friday, which is apparently not permitted by her form of Catholicism.

    The grandmother had no clue this would be a problem because it isn’t part of protestant culture. So maybe the guy forgot. Maybe he felt that he was in his home environment and didn’t want to adhere to Catholic dogma. Maybe he was being passive aggressive toward his wife and various Catholic practices he doesn’t have any loyalty to because they aren’t part of his own concept of Christianity. In any event, hot dogs became a flashpoint that cast a pall on what up until then had been a really enjoyable day and he also got an earful about it when he went home later that day.

    Evan is an optimist about interfaith marriage. He is shining out a beacon of hope to interfaith couples and saying, hey, we navigated it and have come up with a solution that works for us. I do think that is a valid perspective and should be respected. There are interfaith marriages that stand the test of time and work well for all involved.  That’s a fact.

    On the other hand, others are more pessimistic about interfaith marriage. They anticipate or have had direct experiences with interfaith marriages that become problematic down the road. They advise caution when choosing to go down that road. There are interfaith marriages that don’t work well for all involved, that end up in divorce. That’s a fact.

    No marriage comes with any guarantee that it will survive whatever life eventually throws at it. Add to that the fact that human beings change over time. Their values change, their interests change. Having kids changes everything as well.

    For me, my faith as a protestant Christian has helped me weather some terrible storms in my life. I am a far better person because of my deep commitment to live out my life according to the teachings of Christ. I’ve had mystical experiences that have proven to me the reality of the existence of God. And my abiding connection to God’s divine messengers, the angels, has given me so much practical help on a day to day to basis:  they have protected me from car accidents, helped me get jobs in miraculous ways when I was desperate for income, and comforted me with their love and strength when I felt like I could not go on any longer. I know there are times when I would have committed suicide had it not been for their intervention.

    Lots of people misuse religion in destructive ways. But that doesn’t change the fact that the core values of religion, and those who seek to extend those values to change the world, like Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, have also had a profoundly positive impact on the world. Thousands and thousands of Christian charities alone, not to mention the charitable works of other faiths, have helped the most marginalized and destitute people in our society. Those who casually denigrate religion should note that there are no atheist sponsored shelters for homeless people, etc.

    What makes the news is the religious rotten apples, not the thousands of ordinary people of faith who quietly live out their faith in ways that are positive and peaceful. And yes, secular leaders like Stalin and Hitler have also killed millions through their particular brand of inquisitions and crusades.

    I am just thankful that in North America, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. are free to live out their faith in peace and harmony. The Katz clan is a microcosm of that peace and harmony. Kudos to you, Evan. May it ever be so.

  13. 13
    Britt

    “Which is why I reiterate – for Christians/Muslims who want to attempt to understand secular Jews – our identity stems from summer camp in the Catskills, appreciation of Woody Allen, overbearing mothers, emphasis on education, achievement and marriage, and yes, a history of persecution as well. The Old Testament? Not the thing that binds most modern Jews.”

    This statement, and all o your above statements about the topic of “cultural Jews” really cleared up a wonder I’ve had about that for a long time. I (raised secular, atheist by choice, with secular parents) always thought, logically, that someone being Jewish denoted their religion, but as I grew up, I came to view it as more of an ethnic/cultural thing, but I was never SURE that that was a correct way to view it. I had Jewish friends who were, like you’d said, “culturally” Jewish, but non-practicing, and though I thought I understood – I didnt know for sure. I never asked, mainly because I wasnt sure if that was an offensive way to view it, and because I never really wanted to discuss religion/my lack thereof belief. So, thanks for really clearing that up!

    “It’s ‘My Dad is Jewish. My Mom is Catholic. I’m nothing.’ “

    No offense meant to anyone…but a good friend of mine who would identify with this statment use to refer to himself as a Cashew (as in Catholic / Jew)…or he’d say, “I’m Jew-ishhh” and do the wavering hand the world knows as “so-so”. LOL.

  14. 14
    Ames

    Great response, Evan! Relationships are a series of trade offs, compromises and choosing battles wisely. I’m an athiest who would gladly “convert” and attend services with my partner if it was important to them. Similarly, I would attend football, nascar or golf games I don’t enjoy or understand if they were important to him. We will always be ourselves but stepping outside of our comfort zone to embrace our partner’s unique story and convictions are part and parcel of being a couple. Well done.

  15. 15
    Julie

    Evan:  I’ve been thinking about your response to my earlier post.  I may disagree with your “choice” to raise your children in the Jewish faith in order to preserve your Jewish heritage (there are many other ways to preserve Jewish culture aside from sending your children to a Jewish school), but here’s the bottom line: If it works for the Katzes–and you clearly have a warm, loving and cohesive family–that’s all that matters.  It’s none of my business how you raise your children nor anyone else’s.  We all make compromises in our personal lives/relationships.  Again, if it works, that’s all that matters.  All best to you and yours from a devout agnostic.

  16. 16
    Rudolf Kastner

    “Jewish ethnicity” or “ethnic Jewish culture” is an anti-Semitic concept. Just pointin’ out. Mazel tov.

  17. 17
    RealityChic

    Confused Semi-Shiksa:

    Short answer: No, you should not convert…now.

    1) BIG QUESTION: Make sure the boyfriend intends to put in some work as your ‘potential husband’ raising the ‘potential kids’. This notion can seem so easy when you are in your early 20s. By the time you are in your 30s, schlepping kids to synagogue while your husband sleeps in, you may begin to question the logic of such imbalance.

    2) BIGGER ISSUE: You will change a lot in the next 5 years. It may be too early to commit your entire life to someone without more perspective on who you are. And perspective on what a conversion really means. (what you gain and loss).  You should definitely investigate — including talking to other women who have converted to understand the REALITIES of what you would potentially be signing up for. But don’t rush into this.

    When I read your letter, it triggered thoughts about an Ex boyfriend I had who is Jewish but was the biggest heathen I personally knew. He sprung the same thing on me over a year into our relationship (after we both agreed on date 2 or 3 that religion was not an issue). Here were the problems:

    a) ALL of  the sacrifice was to be on my shoulders. ALL the work of converting, practices and “raising” kids. He had no intention of changing his lifestyle.  I was supposed to commit to doing something he could not / would not do himself.

    b) My Ex rationalized that we could also raise the kids “black” because I am of African descent. Here is the difference between ethnic culture and religion: there is no rigid belief system, practices/observances required for being ethnic. Certainly there are traditions but they require no exclusivity. Religious practice, on the other hand, takes much effort and as you can see from the posts, requires exclusivity.

    c) My EX insisted that the kids could not have any affiliation with religious or secular Christianity. Jewish camps, yes. Church and Christmas, no. I felt it was disingenuous for me to make empty pledges to posture as Jewish to replicate his upbringing. Only to have to deny myself and my off spring any exposure to experiences from my upbringing. And most importantly, this meant not teaching them the spiritual beliefs I truly hold – which are not centered around the exclusive practices of the major religions.

    It was a deal breaker from a relationship standpoint. But we are still friends.

     

     

     

  18. 18
    Observer

    Been a long time since I commented here, but the subject matter of this blog certainly hit home for me.  I too am a secular atheist Jew, and my wife (of 31 years now!) was raised Catholic.  When we were married (and I might add that when we married we were both “quite old”!) she stated that she wanted her children raised as Catholics (our age, at that time, would raise the valid question as to whether we would at all produce our own biological children!).  Well, within five years we produced, on our own, two sons and one daughter.  They are all now young professionals with their own careers and “significant others”.  And, even though at a young age they were “exposed” to Catholic dogma, they are all atheists now.  It would not have mattered whether they were exposed at a young age to either Catholic or Jewish religious dogma; they would still have developed into atheists as adults (I did introduce them to some aspects of Jewish culture and my wife did as well!).  Perhaps that statement is reinforced with the fact that the careers that they work in are “highly” quantitative: stock broker, civil engineer, and research scientist in immunology.  Thinking quantitatively about “everything” continuously is a much different way of looking at the world than accepting dogma supposedly derived from a divine “entity”.

    A slight interesting “aside” is the fact that one of our sons has a significant other who has the same genetic history as he does (Catholic /Jewish intermarriage).  And she was raised with equal exposure to both dogmas.  And, again, she “wound up” quite secular to either religion.

    My conclusion:  Invest more effort and time in “worrying” about what your partner thinks rather than “worrying” about  what your religion (irrespective of whether or not you actively practice it) thinks of your partner.  This conclusion assumes that it is your intent to be with your partner for a long time.

  19. 19
    abby

    Another good topic!

    I am full gospel…protestant Christian if you like. I married in a Catholic church.

    I did not become Catholic and was never asked to convert. I also did not change my surname as again I was not asked so assumed it was ok to retain both positions.

    16 years later my soon to be Ex …still harps on his list of my wrongs citing both failure to become Catholic and change my surname as grounds for his loss of affection…Incidentally. ..He repeats the list every time we meet.

    Despite offering to do the necessary change…He still refused to reconcile…we are seperated 3 years now.

    I recently learned that he doesn’t follow practice or know much about his Catholic faith anyway! I thought it was rather a cheek then to have held that over my head for years!!

    I used to attend his Catholic church get involved etc but found it did not meet my needs. Now I am back in a full gospel church and happier.

    How can a spouse refuse to reconcile with the other after 16 years marriage over a thing that was offered as solution is beyond me ! Especially when it is fundamental Christian teaching to forgive and be reconciled in marriage.

    Anyway I think if anyone must convert it should be because they feel convinced in heart n spirit that it is right for them and not be forced to by someone who doesn’t even know his own faith!

     

  20. 20
    Petri

    The answer lies within yourselves as a couple. Where do you want to take your children spiritually? Do you want to give them some guidelines to follow and what kind of moral compass yoy want them to have? Judaism is a great opportunity for your family in this situation, but if you do not want to embrace it, atleast discuss it as a man and a wife, what you want for your own children. I only want to give my honest opinion here, saying leaving children without values is like leaving children without food.

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