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Conversations on a Park Bench

Conversations on a Park Bench

The Jew Who Wanted his Child to be Jewish


Sakura Matsuri was when my husband would try out his new photographic equipment. The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens was his lab and playground. And where better to get into conversations with world experts on photography than at the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival?

That's where I met them one Sunday, an older Jewish couple who, trying to look unJewish, were a bit taken aback by our very—to them, startlingly—obvious Jewishness: black hat, beard, tzizit dancing in the breeze...hard to blend in unobtrusively.

They have a son, they told us, and he's going out with non-Jewish girls. They're terrified he'll marry out. Have we any solutions? Yup, just like that, standing in front of the Bonsai exhibit, in fifty words or less they sought the solution to keeping their son within the nationhood of Jews.

I, very much expectant and with young children holding onto both hands, sought out a bench and she joined me. While our husbands talked technology and G‑d, we talked about Jewish motherhood.

She and her husband both had been raised in what was then the Soviet Union. Knowing always that they were Jewish, and knowing always this She recalled seeing some letters to her father from his mother reminding him to teach his children to be Jews. meant derision and persecution, they grew up nonetheless with a strong sense of Jewish identity. Needless to say, their formal Jewish education was non-existent; in their respective homes there were symbols of their heritage—an old siddur from his grandfather, a tiny elaborately embroidered infant's outfit, for a 'brit milah', he said—from his grandmother; she recalled seeing some letters to her father from his mother reminding him to teach his children to be Jews.

The fact of being Jewish was there; the living Jewish was not. And when they immigrated to America, and met in Little Russia, USA, they knew that no matter what, they'd impart this to their children. Jewish identity. If not actually pride, at the very least identity.

The children went to the local public school where there were many other Russian Jewish children. On Yom Kippur they insisted that the entire family go to synagogue. And they even took their children to the Jewish Museum. So how could it now be that their son was dating non-Jewish girls?

Mother and father both were devastated. What to do? And, of course, someone must be to blame. This, she said, was what, after thirty years of comfortable marriage, was finally pulling them apart.

He was always too strict, she said, not allowing the children to have normal American traditions like brightly lit evergreen trees, or partying on Halloween, or going to their friends' confirmation parties.

She was way too liberal, he said, thinking that in America they were safe, that no one was out to get them. Trying to be as American as the Americans, and pretending that Easter games were just good, clean American fun.

He said: "I'm kicking him out of my house if he's going to marry a non-Jew." "He's our son," she said, "and our home is his home."

He wouldn't talk to his son except for instructions for the car; she asked about his girlfriends, were they pretty, were they smart...

"From morning to night…," she said, the recriminations on both sides. Trying to find the cause, they found themselves insisting on blame. Each blaming the other. "Our warm home was now a cold house," she said. "How," she asked me, "are we ever to get back our marriage?"

We spoke, the two of us, with the background music my children's little Jewish ditties. I watched our men; they were, clearly, talking about photo angles and lenses and lighting—that was apparent from their gestures and my husband's camera being handed back and forth to demonstrate.

Then I saw my husband take his tzitzit in his hands, stroking the strands, clearly talking about them...and then, his right hand up to his forehead...moving to his left bicep...and then motions as if winding something around his left arm..."Tefillin," I realized, "he's talking about tefillin." And her husband listening...listening.... the camera now on the little bench beside them.

The sun hadn't stood still, so we were now uncomfortably warm on our bench. And the men, still talking, followed us into the gazebo where the four of us continued our now being about living Jewish.

How could we be sure, he asked, that "this little one" — pointing to my obvious soon-to-be born — will not decide to marry a non-Jew?

"We cannot ever know," my husband replied, "what the decisions of someone else will be. We only know what our decisions will be. And we know this: our children will be breathing Jewish "We cannot ever know what the decisions of someone else will be. We only know what our decisions will be." oxygen. They will open their eyes to a mezuzah on their door, to the sound of a mother saying modeh-ani. Their earliest memories will be of their father in tallit and tefillin, and their mother studying Torah. They will hear a blessing before the spoonful of baby food reaches their mouth, and will count each day to Shabbat. They will see, every single Friday night of their childhood years, Shabbat candles and hear kiddush. They will know the word kosher before they even know their own name, and will giggle as they drop a nickel into the charity box long before they have any concept of charity...they will be surprised, as toddlers, to see another father at the museum without a covering on his head."

For the next hour my husband and I spoke of creating an environment of Jewishness that was as much a part of them as was inhaling and exhaling. And then they'd grow up. Become adolescents...and then teenagers...and then adults....And with the information and instincts and habits of their formative years, they will make decisions.

Their own. Independent of us. This, after all, is the goal of raise their children to make informed, wise, and self-respecting decisions.

Was it the trees' shadow, or sadness on their face? "You can't make your son's decisions," we said. "They're his. But you can create for him an environment. Be who you are, so he can get to know who he is.

"Be Jewish parents. Let your son see tefillin and Shabbat candles. Put a mezuzah on your front door, and a few tzedakah boxes around the house. Buy a prayer book and Jewish books for your living room. Make a decision to refuse non-kosher food entry to your home.

"And, encourage each other. Support each other. The way you have all your life, bring that back into your marriage. Know that you are, again, working together towards a common dream--a Jewish home."

Retrieving the camera, my husband framed them surrounded by cherry blossoms in his viewfinder...they smiled for all eternity...and he clicked.

Mrs. Bronya Shaffer is a noted globetrotting lecturer on Jewish women's issues, and serves as a personal counselor and mentor for women, couples and adolescents. Mrs. Shaffer, a responder for’s Ask the Rabbi service, lives with her ten children in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
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Anonymous Sydney, Australia via March 3, 2011

An Eternal Dilemma As always, there are two viewpoints at odds here.

The way I look at it is as follows:
Because you cannot control their choices when they are adult you have to accept their decisions and their spouses should they marry out and for someone to make the peace with it and say "the wedding was beautiful" is not a slap in the face for Judaism, it is a personal statement of how she feels. What does her friend wish for her to do about it? The only way is to accept it.

Having said that, there is nothing wrong with stating as a preference that you would prefer they married Jews. Firstly, it is easier on a marriage if they do. It is much better for continuity and a more unified family.

I don't agree with someone refusing to be a friend of a mother whose child married out and who refuses to condemn the marriage. You may not agree but to aggressively judge your friend is not helpful. Reply

Anonymous Rochford, England August 15, 2009

Interference Lisa, I think I may understand what it was that you connected with.

When my husband was so ill, almost dying, last October, lying unconscious in Critical Care, he had what he called a 'near-death experience'. He described it. He met something that he called a 'gargoyle', the most horrible frightening face, and he was on the edge of the abyss looking over. Then he felt a warm presence, gentle hands, and a voice that said 'Not today, my son. Come back with me'. And he came back - thanks be to God!!

I tell you this as a fact, and for what it's worth. He knows who he thinks that Person was. He was a believer before, now very much more so. Reply

D A Levit August 15, 2009

Beautiful Story Life should be so sweet for all of us. The last line, "smiled for all eternity", got to me. Each moment really is that, isn't it? Author, you made me care about two families - strangers to me, with a few paragraphs. That's a lovely gift - as was your story. I hope their son marries right, but he was not raised up to live as a Jew. He may have found comfort in the idea of avoiding it, rather than live something relatively foreign to him. Alas. Such is life. It's late for his parents to be concerned now, when they had his childhood to learn our faith and inspire him with it. I hope the Mother wins out, and keeps her husband, too. Too bad we can only guess. Reply

Robin Takoma Park, Marland August 14, 2009

Speaking As The Adult Child of Intermarried Dear Friends:

The worst thing someone Jewish can do is kick out of their home a chld who has married a non-Jewish person.

My mother was an Orthodox Jew who ran away from a dysfunctional Orthodox family to marry my WASP father.

I did not find out that she was a Jew until shortly after her death, when I was in my thirties.

I now live as a Jew, but most of her now "Conservadox" family was harshly rejecting to me when I located them, except for my Jewish grandmother and a great-aunt.

My brothers acquired a very bad opinion of Judaism from how poorly many of our Jewish relatives behaved towards me. I'm the only one of my siblings to live as a Jew.

Rejecting a child or other relative who intermarries, or rejecting their spouse and offspring, means that you can lose all of their future children for Judaism.

Rejection is neither kind nor a good kiruv (outreach) strategy. Reply

Natana Pesya Kulakofski Worcester, MA USA August 14, 2009

It taskes a non-Jew to see the Truth Sometimes bh
I was married to a non-Jew fior many years. He has passed away. I have prayed and made many good resolutions in the merit of my children identifying strongly as Jews and studying Torah daily and following the mitzvot of the Torah. The word "mitzva" has a root,"tzav", which means "to connect". When a Jew does a mitzvah, he connects with G-d.
We Jews are given 613 mitzvot, non-Jews, seven, the Seven Laws of Noah.
When a non-Jew and a Jew marry, the wedding ceremony may very well be beautiful to them, but the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew is a sin. Period.
It is also a simple matter of continuity, not closed-mindedness: when a Jewish man married a non-Jewish woman, their children are non-Jewish, and the line stops there. No more Jews will issue from these children. Intermarriage is at such a high rate, it's a miracle there are Jews left at all.
I have cherished friends who are non-Jews. We may be friends, but we can't marry them. Jewish law, not a closed mind. Reply

Lisa Monterey, CA August 14, 2009

Well, wow - Judaism is very important I have to say, as a 46 year old gentile woman who is a single mother twice over: the jewish way is looking like the right way to me now. I turned back to god about 15 years ago after a mental breakdown. I did much searching. I connected with god and I connected with something else that was 'in the mix'; something that almost killed me and burned me through and through on the inside and on the outside. Jewish religion is not narrow minded in my opinion; it creates safeguards against this 'burning up' and creates a strong vessel - a strong 'place' within the human being - within which deep union with god can take place without the killing 'interference' that almost killed me and with which I still struggle. I think that the law and practices of judaism are incredibly important - aside from being important for the jew's own relation with god, those practices also help all of creation connect to god without the bad 'interference' Reply

Anonymous Rochford, England August 13, 2009

Judgmental? Following on from what Anonymous of Brighton wrote, I would state very strongly that EVERY wedding is beautiful to the couple concerned.

My husband is an ex-Jew, now a baptised and practising Christian. We were married in church in 2002. Our wedding was beautiful, although simple, and our marriage is beautiful.

Mrs Kulakovska rejected her friend because their views did not coincide. Closed minds - nothing anyone can do to open them. Mrs K, just open those eyes - there is a lot more going on out there than in your closed little world.

It was those closed minds, the inward-looking, the intrusiveness, the 'what are you doing/where are you going/who with' narrow-minded busybodies that caused my husband to walk out on the religion of his youth. I agree, as the article says, it wasn't taught very well. But it was his choice and his decision. It didn't fit with the person he wanted to be. Reply

Anonymous Phoenix, AZ August 13, 2009

lovely and simplistic People can do everything "right" but once a child is an adult, goes out on his/her own, moves out of town for education, employment, a parent cannot watch that young adult all the time. We can hope that what we have taught will be what matters to the now young adult but ultimately, it is his/her choice. If it is his/her choice to be with a non-Jew, our choice is very hard. Do we kick our child out of our lives? It used to be the case. I know I cannot do that. Reply

Anonymous Brighton, Vic August 13, 2009

Conversations on Park Bench- the perfect reply I believe that a part of Jewish teachings touches on "do not criticise others and to look at your own falts first". It appears that Ms Kulakofski has very strong and judgemental views of others, I wonder what she would say or do if a child of hers married a non-Jew? Reply

Anonymous Brighton, Vic August 13, 2009

Conversations on Park Bench article I know many people whose children have gone to Jewish schools, who keep Jewish homes, and adhere to all the traditions and customs, and their children did not mary Jews. The article suggest that if you do " the right thing", thats all it takes, but it is not true, and what happens then - do then disown your children or accept their spouse? Reply

Isadore Goldstein los angeles, ca August 10, 2009

nit-picking Truly a beautiful article with so much to learn from.

I just wanted to mention that there is no custom to say a blessing for a child who cannot yet speak, that's what a plethora of rabbis told me. Only when a child is able to say it with you can you say the blessing with him. Reply

Natana Pesya Kulakofski Worcester, MA USA August 10, 2009

The Perfect Reply This is just what I tried to tell a vehemently non-observant friend of mine for many years, that in order to have a shot at having Jewish grandchildren, she and her husband must live a Jewish life themselves. She never listened. Last I spoke with her, her only son had married a non-Jew, and SHE TOLD ME THAT THE WEDDING WAS BEAUTIFUL! The last thing I remember telling her before I wordlessly broke off our friendship ( her vehemence had turned to verbal abuse by this time), is that there is NOTHING beautiful about the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew. NOTHING. I stand on record for that. Reply