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Conflicting Maps: Growing Up In An Interfaith Family


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS (RNS) When Laurel Snyder was a kid in Baltimore, she bounced between her dad's progressive synagogue and her mom's progressive Catholic church. While her parents had made a decision to raise Laurel and her two younger siblings as Jews, their oldest child learned to love the rituals, mysteries and communities in both her religious homes.

"It was abundance, and I never felt the two religions to be in any conflict, because nobody ever really asked me to pick one," Snyder wrote in the introduction to Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, a book she edited in 2006. "I was Jewish, and I never questioned that fact. I had been bat mitzvahed and I knew the prayers I was supposed to say. When I sat in the pew with ... my mom, I never took Communion or said the creed. I never crossed myself. That wasn't me, or any part of what I expected. But I had a place there too. I watched."

As Hanukkah winds down and Christmas approaches, some children of mixed Jewish and Christian parents will begin their annual combo ritual: potato latkes or Christmas cookies? Menorah or Christmas tree? Dreidel or Advent calendar? Or all of the above?

Snyder, who married a non-Jew and now has two children, writes that she and other "halfs" "all had accidental and haphazard beginnings, because our parents had no road maps." She talked about what she's learned since. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: As the product of an interfaith marriage, how did you and your husband approach raising your own kids?

A: I said, "They can have your name, but they're getting my religion." It was the only deal-breaker I had. My husband is interested in religion as history. He's not a deeply social person, and he's not a ritualistic person.

Q: After your parents divorced, each eventually found their way back to a strong, organized -- if unorthodox -- faith. How did that affect you as a kid?

A: It was confusing. In retrospect, I was excited by my father's new synagogue. I was a countercultural, obnoxious teenager. I was attracted to the social justice, progressive, lefty perspective there. The church appealed because my best friend went there. The Catholic world in Baltimore that I knew was full of Dorothy Day Catholics, children of priests and nuns.

When parents are split two ways, kids end up either with nothing or everything. Most families fall into one category or the other. In our family, faith was clearly defined, and yet we got tossed around in a world where our parents were pillars of their religious communities. It was weird.

Q: You write in Half/Life that Jewish history is a history of intermarriage and assimilation. Intermarriage among Jews hovers around 50 percent. Is the deep concern about Jewish intermarriage warranted?

A: I equate it to the question about the future of publishing. I personally love books, and it makes me sad to think about the end of books. But I believe, in reality, it's the story that matters, and whatever happens, the human instinct to tell stories will survive.

With intermarriage, I do believe that whatever else happens, the truth that Judaism is a good and important and positive force in world needs to exist. Whether it's the value of Judaism or a story, whatever shift may come, I can't imagine why it wouldn't survive.

Q: You write that being the product of an interfaith marriage can be a productive, creative experience. How?

A: I don't know how I'd be if it weren't, so there's no comparison. I'm a writer anyway and Jew anyway, but I feel like I've become a Jewish writer in the last few years. There's an impulse in me -- I have an experience and lots of learned skills that let me give voice to that experience.

If my parents weren't intermarried, I'm not sure that I'd feel the need to stand up and say what I've said. I feel some need to give voice, with the skills I've gathered, to a new literature in the Jewish world. I want to participate in that conversation. I have a specific place in that community that I'm speaking from. If had a more normative Jewish experience, I'm not sure I'd have something as essential to say.

Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.




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