Deja-Vu: Second Generation Intermarriage

By Margery Clapp


This fall, my eldest grandson proudly brought home a project he had made at his Jewish Community Center preschool in honor of an upcoming Jewish holiday. He stuck it to the refrigerator and mumbled his version of a Hebrew prayer he had learned for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

A week later, he attended his aunt’s wedding at a Roman Catholic church.

At two and a half, Evan probably cared more about refreshments than he did about liturgy. But as children of intermarriage, he and his younger brother will face some inevitable challenges and choices when they are older.

I never knew those challenges because both my parents were Jewish. But watching my grandson beginning to cope with two religions reminded me of the road I traveled with my own daughter, who also was brought up in an interfaith family. You see, I am Jewish, but my former husband, her father, was Protestant. We reared our daughter in the Jewish faith.

However, the birth of my grandsons temporarily rekindled my concern that all traces of Judaism would vanish from our family by the time I had great grandchildren.

Yet, I could hardly have insisted that my daughter marry only a Jewish man. Not only would it have been hypocritical, but it also could have given her the mistaken idea that I regret having married her father–which I do not.

Still, an internal alarm went off in my head when my daughter and son-in-law decided to observe both Jewish and Christian holidays. I predicted it would not be as easy as they thought and would confuse their future children. In my own marriage, our participation in non-Jewish holiday festivities had been purely social. The holiday events, parties and other activities we attended had held no religious significance for either of us.

When my grandsons were born, I tried to picture them celebrating double holidays and I hoped fervently that they would be given equal exposure to each religion. My daughter and son-in-law certainly are tolerant, respectful and open-minded enough to provide a balanced ecumenical upbringing. I just hope they prepare the boys to choose a method of worship that make sense to them later on, even though I know it may not be Judaism.

I still remember the spring night in 1967 when my Protestant boyfriend and I announced our engagement to my parents. My father, looking panicked, invited us out for ice cream and, once we were a captive audience in the car, launched into an impassioned speech about why interfaith marriages range from complicated to doomed. We listened politely, but our minds were made up. We knew better.

We were socially enlightened, tolerant enough to compromise, and educated–Bill was halfway through medical school and I was nearly finished with undergraduate studies–and we had liberal-thinking, ethnically diverse, intermarried friends who appeared to have no religious conflicts. On the other hand, we felt estranged from couples who were juggling two religions and creating a “cafeteria” of confusing choices for their kids.

For us, love would conquer all conflicts. It was larger than such issues as whether to eat bacon or have a Christmas tree. Intermarriage didn’t have to be a problem!

We were married by a Reform rabbi in the temple my family had attended for eighteen years. In our haste to tie the knot, we probably glossed over some important issues. Deciding our daughter should be Jewish was an easy choice for Bill, who felt that religion, in general, was more important to me than it was to him. Despite having been active in a Christian fellowship group in college, he had never joined a church, and by the time we met he had developed a dislike for all organized religion.

His enjoyment of Christian holidays was fueled by nostalgia, not by religious beliefs. We had no Christmas trees; often attended Sabbath services; played tapes of Christmas music; lit Hanukkah candles; conducted an annual seder, the ceremonial Passover meal; and observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–the solemn Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement.

Our daughter attended Jewish day school through sixth grade and only rarely whined that Christian holidays were “more fun.” By that time, her father and I had divorced–not due to religious differences–and she celebrated Jewish holidays at home and Christian holidays at his house. She adjusted well to the dual observances.

While my former husband and I practiced “active” Judaism and “passive” Christianity, which worked for us, my daughter and son-in-law are more active than passive, observing holidays of both religions. They possess immunity to guilt–a quality that is both refreshing and enviable, since it helps them dodge parental pressure. Despite my urgings, they decided against traditional circumcision rites and naming ceremonies, and they also ignored pleas from my son-in-law’s family to rear the boys as Catholics.

In short, they have decided not to decide for my grandsons, preferring to let them choose for themselves later on.

Will “deciding not to decide” really work? Time will tell. In the meantime, I realized early on that if I didn’t want to alienate my daughter and son-in law, I would have to give them my support. Judaism is a heritage, but religion is their decision.

My grandsons will always be my grandsons, no matter how they decide to worship as adults.


About Margery Clapp

Margery Clapp is a freelance journalist based in Scottsdale, Arizona.