Passing on Jewish Heritage in an Intermarried World

by Stephen Katz | December 07 2021

big family

My story probably isn’t so different from yours—raised in America with Jewish grandparents or great-grandparents who came from Europe. In my case, both my parents are Jewish, and every member of our family has been Jewish as far back as I’ve been able to trace—but my kids and their kids won’t be able to say the same because my wife isn’t Jewish. I married a blond Scandinavian woman whom I’ve known since I was 11 years old, and in doing so, threw a wrench in the all-Jewish lineage.

As I’ve grown up, my family’s Jewish identity has transformed over time. My dad’s Orthodox childhood became my Conservative synagogue experience, which became my children’s Messianic Jewish upbringing. My brother married a woman who converted to Judaism and my cousin married an Asian woman. My family reflects the growing diversity in American Jewish life.1

The Changing Landscape of “Normal” Jewishness

Sometimes I ask myself if I’ve broken some inviolable, sacred trust by marrying a non-Jew. If I have, I’m definitely not alone. According to the Pew Research “Jewish Americans in 2020” study, the intermarriage rate in the US has remained steady at around 60%.2 What are people like me doing to Jewish continuity? What does l’dor vador, or “from generation to generation,” mean today?

Earlier this year, The Jewish Forward published an article entitled, “Intermarriage increasingly leads to Jewish children, Pew study shows,”3 in which the writer points out a remarkable change that’s taking place. Among those who are 50 or older with one Jewish parent, only two out of ten identify as Jewish, whereas among the younger group (18–49) with one Jewish parent, five out of ten identify as Jewish. That’s half! The Forward writer put it in plain terms: “The progeny of such [intermarried] relationships are increasingly identifying as Jewish.

I was delighted to see that our Jewish identity endures.

I can attest to that in my own family. All four of my grown children identify as Jewish, and though my eldest daughter hasn’t shown much interest in Jewish traditions, activities, and holidays, the others have annual Passover Seders, light their hannukiot, have traveled to Israel, and follow Jewish social media platforms. But the surprises keep coming. This year, my eldest shocked me by sending her son to Camp Gilgal, the Jews for Jesus sleepaway summer camp. Out of nowhere, I started getting pics of my grandson wearing a kippah and heard him talk about Jewish things for the first time. I was delighted to see that our Jewish identity endures and may even be building steam two generations down from my intermarriage!

Passing on More than DNA

Why is this so important? And why have Jewish community leaders been wringing their hands about issues like intermarriage, assimilation, Jewish education, and antisemitism for so long? Because underneath all those concerns lies the primary issue: Jewish survival. We are a tiny people group amidst a sea of others who have not always made life easy for us. We’ve learned to do whatever it takes to survive—from raw realities like hiding underground and fighting in forests to creating political and lobby organizations and adapting religious traditions to fit changing generational lifestyles.

It’s about more than physical survival, though. It’s about keeping our spiritual and cultural heritage alive from generation to generation. The importance of marrying Jewish was something I had been lectured on as a kid almost weekly when I went to my Yiddish-speaking grandmother’s apartment for lunch. When I married my Finnish American wife when I was in my 20s, I asked myself, “Will my grandchildren identify as Jews? Or will they say something like, ‘Yeah, my grandfather was Jewish?’” It mattered to me. I was contemplating the possibility that my choice regarding marriage might result in my grandchildren having no personal attachment to being Jewish.

Because we’re part of a larger ‘Jewish family,’ many of us want to pass on more than our DNA.

Some families are like mine, where the importance of sustaining Jewish identity is a significant spoken and unspoken concern. Others, not so much. But I think that each of us—though in different ways, to be sure—care about passing on our values and traditions to the next generation. We want to leave a personal legacy that, whether in small or large ways, reflects the fact that we lived, that we contributed, and that we made a difference in this world. But because we’re part of a larger “Jewish family,” as I like to call it, many of us want to pass on more than our DNA. We understand that our personal story is connected to a larger Jewish story that we were born into that includes many, many characters who came before us. Together, our stories merge to become part of a panoramic Jewish story that outlives us.

The Three Pieces of the Puzzle

Whether our children and grandchildren choose to be part of the Jewish story is out of our control, but it is within our influence. If we leave a meaningful Jewish legacy for them, it will go a long way toward keeping our family in the larger Jewish story. To do so, we must wrestle with three pieces of a puzzle: (1) what being Jewish means, (2) where our place is in the Jewish story, and (3) how we pass that on to those who come after us.

I feel like I need to make a disclaimer at this point. In case you think I’m going to give you quick answers to all those questions—I’m not. One of my favorite books from grad school, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him (written, davka, by a Jewish psychotherapist), taught me something that applies here: “The most important things that each man must learn no one can teach him.”4 In other words, it’s not the therapist, the guru, or the tzaddik who can enlighten us. Just like the seeker who comes for help, they too are on a journey for answers. Though we can help each other along the way, ultimately, we must all find our own answers. So … I’m also on a journey with you.

Now that I’ve been around the sun 65 times and find myself a grandfather, I’ve found satisfying answers to the first two pieces of the puzzle, and I’m currently working on the last piece: how to pass on something Jewishly meaningful to my children and grandchildren. For me, being Jewish is a combination of my faith in God, following Yeshua as His Messiah, a love of Hebrew and Israel, connecting with Jewish friends and family, holiday celebrations, and a concern for truth and integrity. My place in the community has become the Messianic Jewish world of congregations and associations, JCC classes, and Jewish periodicals, books, TV shows, and movies. When it comes to passing things on to my kids and grandkids, I’m still working on it.

They are each drawing from the Jewish experiences my wife and I gave them as they grew up.

My kids are already grown and their identities mostly formed. As they begin to have their own families, they are each drawing from the Jewish experiences my wife and I gave them as they grew up: JCC preschool, holiday celebrations, bar and bat mitzvahs, Messianic Jewish congregational life, wider Jewish community gatherings, trips to Israel, and warm visits with our extended Jewish family. But now it’s my kids’ turn as parents to find their place in the Jewish story and pass on whatever they choose to their kids.

Discovering Your Own Legacy

How about you? What does being Jewish mean to you, where is your place in the community, and what are you passing on? Maybe, like me, you have some pieces figured out and others that you’re still thinking through. Here are a few practical tips that may help on your journey of discovering your own legacy:

  1. Expand your experience of Jewishness.

As my own family story illustrates, the concept of “normal” Jewishness has been shifting. Unlike previous generations that had only a few possibilities of what it looked like to be Jewish, today’s world is extremely diverse—racially, socially, and religiously—and there are so many expressions of Jewish identity and community to explore today. Even if we feel settled in our expression of Jewish identity, it’s healthy for each of us to see how others express it and to experience different facets of the Jewish landscape. I highly recommend attending some local events and immersing yourself in Jewish spaces: community holiday events, museums, or social groups. If you dare to try out a Messianic setting, here and here are a couple of congregational movements. I’ve found that being more aware of how those around me are living out their Jewishness not only makes me a more gracious and understanding person, but inspires me as I find ways to pass on my Jewish heritage to the next generation (and the one after that) and to the world around me.

  1. Talk with family and friends.

Passing on a legacy is only partially dependent on us—it also hinges on how it’s received. Because of that, it’s incredibly helpful to have open discussions with your family—your kids and grandkids if you have them, or your siblings and their kids, etc.—to articulate the significance you see in your own Jewishness, and to listen to what matters to them about being Jewish. This deeper understanding of one another can allow us to bond over something deeper than specific traditions or opinions. As Jewish Exponent writer Miriam Steinberg-Egeth says, “There are many ways to be a family, there are many ways to celebrate holidays, there are infinite ways to be different while also being accepting and accepted.”5

  1. Write an ethical will.

An ethical will is a personal document in which you share your values, experiences, and life lessons with the next generations of your family. Rabbi Jack Riemer describes it nicely: “There is a lovely Jewish custom, one that is unfortunately not sufficiently known in our time, of writing what is called an ethical will. Parents would write a letter to their children in which they would try to sum up all that they had learned in life, and in which they would try to express what they wanted most for and from their children.”6 He says the tradition finds its roots in the Bible, where we find examples from Jacob, Moses, and David, who near the ends of their lives left important reflections and instructions for their children and grandchildren. Writing something like this can be a beautiful act of love for your family, and you don’t have to wait until the end of your life to begin. Here is some help to get you started.

  1. Read the Bible.

I know, this one might surprise you, but think about it for a second. The Bible is our history book. It’s our book of origins. Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets are all there, and each one tells us something about the significance of being Jewish and how to keep it alive and thriving, generation to generation. Each character tells part of the Jewish story, and we can learn a lot from each of them.

Jewish survival is in the hands of the One who first named us.

Let me end with a quote from Jeremiah, one of our prophets who lived around 2,600 years ago. He left us some words that take the load off our shoulders. According to him, Jewish survival is much bigger than us and is in the hands of the One who first named us. We have our part to play in Jewish continuity, but at the end of the day, God’s got our back!

 Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—the Lord of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.” (Jeremiah 31:35–36)

Endnotes

1. Tobin Belzer et al, Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color, accessed November 24, 2021.

2. “Jewish Americans in 2020,” Pew Forum, May 11, 2021.

3. Louis Keene, [capitalization is the source’s] “Intermarriage increasingly leads to Jewish children, Pew study shows,” Forward, May 12, 2021.

4. Sheldon B. Kopp, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients” (New York: Bantam Books, 1976).

5. Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, [capitalization is the source’s] “Are There are [sic] Different Ways to be Jewish?” Jewish Exponent, November 26, 2018.

6. Jamie Rubin, “Writing an Ethical Will: How to Get Started,” My Jewish Learning, accessed November 24, 2021.

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