A Book Review: If I'm Jewish and You're Christian, What Are the Kids? [Part One]

Written by

Andrea King, If I’m Jewish and You’re Christian, What Are the Kids? [New York: UAHC Press], 1993.

This is an excellent book for gaining an overview of some of the issues and challenges inherent in interfaith marriages and the additional problems interfaith couples create for themselves and for their children when they practice avoidance or implement unwise coping strategies.  However, as we will see later, the book exhibits a disappointing bias.

Andrea King is a southern Californian, a graduate from Occidental College who then received an M.A. in Education from Cal State LA. She supervises the preschools for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and is the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage, living in Santa Monica, California, with her husband Ben and their their teen-aged son Nathan. The family belongs to Beth Shir Sholom, a Reform synagogue, where Nathan became bar mitzvah, Ben has served on the Board, and Andrea heads the outreach program. Ms. King also serves on the Union of American Hebrew Congregations [UAHC] Regional Outreach Committee. It is her familiarity with child development issues that gives this book a special authority.

In the Introduction, King briefly discusses her background, that of her husband, and how they raised their son. She came from an Episcopalian-rooted family with multi-denominational experience, while her husband was raised a Modern Orthodox Jew who was uninvolved in the religious Jewish community when they met. Two years before having a child, they decided that it would best to raise any children they had in a one religion family, rather than as “both.”  In her introduction she discusses how, beginning at age four, her son had to come to terms with the confusion of having a Christian mother, but still a Jewish household where he was raised to think of himself as entirely Jewish and not half and half.

UnknownAfter this introduction, the book focuses not on her family, but on “the Cohens” and “the Graysons,” two family units that are a composite of the many families she interviewed and interacted with over a ten-year period.  These two families personify what she views to be the most common options interfaith couples take: interfaith couples raising their children in a one religion household as Jews [the Cohens], and interfaith couples raising the children in a two religion household [the Graysons]. From the beginning it is clear that she views the first of these options to be vastly superior. She does not include the option of such couples opting for the Christian option.

Chapter One introduces the one-religion family, the Cohens [Sam and Kathy], and the two-religion family, the Graysons [Keith and Sari], whom we will be following throughout the book. Sam Cohen is adamant about his two children being raised unambiguously as Jews, seeing their primary linkage to be to a people, a history, and a culture rather than specifically a religion. He is the dominant party in his marriage, and throughout the book demonstrates great discomfort with Christianity, with the prospect of his wife introducing Christian elements into their children’s lives, and even with the possibility of his wife attending church, even after he dies.  She is the compliant partner. The Graysons, the two-religion family, are also husband dominated. Although Sari Grayson grew up in a Conservative Jewish home, both she and husband Keith seem perfectly content to adopt a minimalist attitude toward religion. Their tacit agreement is to keep their home completely non-sectarian, so that the greatest sin one could commit in their home would be to advocate for a given religion or religious practice. They are seeking to bring up their children as “both,” and from the beginning, we see two of their three children gladly mirroring their parents’ vision of a household that nurtures religiously-informed ethics while proscribing any advocacy of one religion, much less the supremacy of one religion over another. The third child, Hannah, will respond differently as they grow older.

Chapter Two looks at life before the children, at the courtship, weddings, and preliminary ground rules each couple instituted in the early days of their marriage. Here the strength of the book becomes apparent in its astute parsing of the kinds of interpersonal and interfamilial tensions that began to appear from the very beginning. For the Cohens, his family accepted his marriage to a gentile, and Keith Grayson’s parents accepted his marriage to a Jew, on the condition that the home would be equally Jewish and Christian religiously, and that the grandchildren would not be raised Jewish.  One detects here a strain of antisemitism in Keith Grayson’s family of origin. Here we see limned out the kind of boundary issues that will dog these couples for decades which one ignores to one’s peril. We see grandparents and their persistently articulated concerns looming large in this book, and any interfaith couple that ignores this dynamic does so to its peril. While for the Cohens the first commandment will be “this is a Jewish home and let’s not forget it,” for the Graysons the first commandment will be, “we are faithful to a vision of religion lite, and the first commandment one must not break is being ardent or too explicit about any religion in particular.”  While the Cohens want to give their children a Jewish identity, the Graysons prefer that their children find one for themselves, while they simply give the children a light experience of both traditions as a primer in the choices they might make.

Chapter Three moves on to “The Advent of Children,” and concerns issues of how and if having a baby changes the relationship between interfaith partners, whether or how one might decide the baby’s religious identity in advance, and whether, after the baby is born, most couples are able to implement their plan. We see here what experience confirms: everything changes when a baby comes, and inchoate issues never before acknowledged suddenly become unavoidable. Similarly, with grandparents and other extended family members looming, the interfaith marriage comes under new attack by relatives anxious about the identity and future of the child on the way. Disputes arise from the very beginning with the unavoidable issue of brith/child naming versus baptism for the baby, and in some naïve cases, both, or in the case of the Graysons, neither! Yet more problems come up as when the children are small, as indicated in Chapter Four, which considers when religion becomes important to a child,  how religious identity affects self concept or self esteem, what effect family rituals have on a child’s developing self concept, and how young children begin to develop a values system. King’s training in child development is unobtrusively evident here. She contends that children in one-faith families generally have a higher self concept and level of self esteem.  In this chapter she also contrasts two approaches to religious child rearing, that of those parents who believe that religious identity is a given that must be honored [the Cohens], and those who view religious identity as acquired and malleable [the Graysons].  The Graysons serve as an example, perhaps a straw man, for people who, imagining one can raise chidren as both, overstress commonalities while underplaying religious differences. The Graysons are universalistic pluralists, who manifest either an apathy toward religion or an antagonism toward it. The Cohens, on the other hand, are far more willing to be religiously explicit with their children, providing them with a Jewish vocabulary with which to name and structure their own experiences and compare them with those of others.

Chapter Five explores how by middle childhood, with the growth of peer influence, children need for adults to provide stability, constancy, discipline and role models. Children begin to ask more pressing religious questions at this stage, differing with the explanations and rationalizations parents offer on questions they themselves have glossed over. Children draw conclusions about religious identity from how a person or family behaves—people who live like Christians, observing Christian holidays are Christians, while Jews are those who observe holy days and rituals peculiar to the Jewish people. Again the Cohens and Graysons are contrasted, the former being directive in their children’s religious development, the latter being non-directive, leaving ethical and religious development up to the children.  One of the Grayson’s three children, Hannah, is an early and persistent protester against this scheme of things. She feels cheated by parents who wimped out on the difficulties of passing on a religious identity, and she is not silent about it.

By adolescence and teen-age years [Chapter Six], questions of religious identity become more pressing. In their adolescent differentiation, some children will reject the faith in which they were raised, only to return to it as home base later in life provided they were given a stable experience to start with. Children raised in a two faith family, who don’t want to hurt the feelings of relatives of one faith or the other, find themselves caught in between, unable to feely choose which direction to go.  Some will embrace another faith altogether during these years. Native temperament has a lot to do with how children will respond at this stage. While none of this seems to be a problem for her younger brother and sister, Charles and Heather, Hannah is angry that her parents left her and her siblings so in the dark on such matters, so that now she finds herself to be not both but “nothing,”  and in search of a religious home town to which her parents never led her.

We’ll see more of how things unravel in our next blog, and we will consider the bias which mars an otherwise useful book.



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