When Karen Fisman, who is Jewish, married her husband, who was raised in an “old school, southern Italian” Catholic family, both families welcomed the match.
“It was really about the person and not about the religion,” Fisman said.
Although her husband’s family had met very few Jews, his rather formidable mother smoothed the way for her, she recalled.
“I found out later it was really his mom who drove the acceptance,” she said. “They would make lasagna without meat for me. They tried so hard to get a handle on what this Jewish thing was.”
The Toronto couple, now married 17 years, decided together to raise their two children as Jews. “It wasn’t a choice for me, it was the way it had to be,” she said.
Last year, Fisman, an equities analyst turned children’s author, wanted to honour her mother-in-law, who had since died. In a picture book entitled Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise, she tells the story of a Jewish child who is spending the holiday at her non-Jewish grandmother’s house. When a precious chanukiyah is misplaced, it is the resourceful Italian nonna who saves the day.
The book was selected by PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to children, and Fisman began to hear on her website from parents.
“I got emails that said ‘Thank you for writing this story. Our kids are delighted to read about an experience that is so relatable,’” she said.
She also heard from a small group of people who were offended by its portrayal of an interfaith family. She suspects they didn’t even read the book.
“There’s not even a Christmas tree in the book,” she said. “There’s no glorification of Christmas. The whole story revolves around Chanukah.”
As Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise poignantly shows, even while interfaith marriages are becoming more common, the path isn’t always smooth.
Eve-Lynn Stein, who’s been married to a man from a Mennonite background for 28 years, said it’s been difficult for her husband’s family that their two children were raised as Jews and not as part of their close-knit church community.
“They are a very loving family,” Stein said. “It is still hard for them that we’re not Mennonite.”
She and her husband were married by a Lutheran pastor at the university where they met, because they could not find a rabbi who would co-officiate.
But early on, they decided to raise their children as Jews.
“For me, it was important to raise them Jewish, more important than it was for him,” Stein said.
“His family is very close. We knew they would get some of the Mennonite upbringing,” on family visits.
Stein is a founding member of the Danforth Jewish Circle, a Toronto grassroots congregation that has intentionally been welcoming to interfaith families. Since its inception in 1996, she and her husband have been involved in nearly every aspect of their congregation
“We wanted to make sure it was a place where nobody would feel less than, that there wasn’t any shame in not being Jewish.”
Sheara McAllister felt love was more important than religion, so it wasn’t surprising that she fell in love and married her non-Jewish husband a year ago.
She grew up going to Camp Gesher and was very involved in the Habonim-Dror youth movement, and wanted a wedding that reflected her attachment to Jewish traditions.
The couple turned to Rabbi Karen Levy of Oraynu, a secular, humanistic congregation in Toronto, where McAllister’s family had belonged.
“It was important for me to have a Jewish ceremony, but a culturally Jewish ceremony,” she said. “I knew they would do a Jewish ceremony, but also allow us to put our personal touches on it and not mention God.”
The couple does not have children, but McAllister said when they do have kids, her husband, who does not identify with the Catholic faith he was raised in, would be supportive of going to Oraynu and observing Jewish traditions, much as she was raised.
“I would put a sense of cultural Judaism on my children. In terms of anything else, most likely not.”