Children of Two faiths Those who grow up in families with two religions, learn to value the cultural strengths of both

November 21, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

There was a time, during his college years, in which Ben Levey had trouble defining himself, in finding his identity, in placing his religious loyalties.

His father was Jewish. And when he died, his mother -- whom Mr. Levey describes as "a southern fundamentalist Methodist" -- married another Jewish man.

"Sometimes, some years, I would have Hanukkah in our home, and Christmas with my mother's family. I might join them for a church social dinner, but I did not go to church with them," he says. "It was explained to me that this was my grandparents' choice, and what my mother had grown up with, but she had decided that it was not comfortable for her."

Raised as a Jew, Mr. Levey chose, ultimately, to be a Jew. His wife is Jewish also, and his career, as a clinical social worker at Jewish Family Services in Baltimore, mirrors that decision.

As interfaith marriages become more common, increasing numbers of young adults are facing decisions like Mr. Levey's. According to a new study, a little over 50 percent of Jews who have married since 1985 have married someone of another faith. And for some in a religious-ethnic-cultural community that is often a minority, the potential loss of future generations has become a matter of increasing concern.

In fact, the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, meeting in Baltimore through Sunday, had a day-long symposium yesterday on "Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity." At the conference, speakers urged the development of programs aimed at bringing the intermarried couple and their children into the Jewish fold.

"Our personal future is at stake, and our communal future is at stake," said Dr. Egon Mayer, of the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York Graduate School, who pointed out that the children of interfaith families are more likely to intermarry than are the children of two Jewish parents.

Outreach is also a theme in a new book titled "Between Two Worlds," (Pocket Books) by Leslie Goodman-Malamuth and Robin Margolis, which will appear in bookstores early next month. The book also focuses on the difficulties many offspring of intermarriage face as they try to reconcile their different heritages.

The authors write from experience as well as research: Ms. Margolis, who lives in Takoma Park, was raised in a Protestant household. She was in her 30s when she discovered that her mother had been born Jewish; almost immediately, she realized that Judaism was where she belonged, too.

Ms. Goodman-Malamuth, of Washington, characterizes her own upbringing by a Jewish father and Protestant mother as "secular nothing, with a Christmas tree and Easter baskets." And, having chosen in adulthood to be Jewish, she has also chosen to abandon the religious symbols of her youth and to raise her own children as unequivocally Jewish. "There are [interfaith] couples who are trying to raise their children in both religions," she says. "But I have a great sense of relief that I'm not trying to give equal time to both sides."

Sally Livingston, of Columbia, is similarly singular about the message she's presenting to her children. A Catholic married to a Jew, she is also the daughter of a Catholic woman and Jewish father. Her father's mother died when he was 13, and his father's second wife was Catholic as well, she adds.

Like her mother before her, Ms. Livingston is raising her own children in the Catholic faith, while helping them understand "that they embrace two religions in the family."

In their own home, however, their observance is Catholic. "I believe people who say they'll do both do a disservice to their children," she says.

Choosing a single path, however, does not guarantee the outcome. "I feel very fortunate to have this hybrid background," says one 45-year-old Baltimore woman who was raised in a Jewish home by a Presbyterian mother and Jewish father. But Jewish synagogue services, "didn't speak to me," she found when she was in her 30s; for the next 10 years, she found comfort in the Unitarian Universalist church. Two and a half years ago, she changed again and now follows her mother's faith in the Presbyterian church.

But she still has Hanukkah candles on her shopping list, and, she adds: "There's still a part of me that feels Jewish."

Integrating a dual heritage can also be accomplished with grace and joy. In his 1984 short story, "Star of Wonder," Baltimore poet and author Daniel Mark Epstein describes in touching, affectionate terms a Hanukkah/Christmas in his own childhood, and his Christmas Eve dream that the Maccabee heroes of Hanukkah had come thundering out of the desert to help Jesus, Mary and Joseph escape, in their sleigh, from Herod and his evil minions.

"My parents took delight in each other's celebrations," Mr. Epstein recalls. "They thought it was important for me and my sister to understand where we came from. To shut out one side or the other would be a kind of denial of our heritage."

His sister, he says, has never identified herself as Jewish; he, however, made the decision at age 10 or 11 that he wanted to study for Bar Mitzvah.

In his own marriage, he adds, he has reproduced the situation he grew up with: He remains Jewish, and is most comfortable in a Conservative synagogue. His wife, however, is Episcopalian, like his mother, and, as in his family of origin, they still enjoy their Christmas tree.

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