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Deck the Challah

DeMari Family
Michael Davis Photo

The DeMari family attends weekly services at Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in DeWitt. But the strong faith they share as a family has actually grown from a union of Jewish and Roman Catholic cultures. At no time of the year is this more apparent than during the winter holiday season.

Susan DeMari, a federal attorney and volunteer security liaison for the Syracuse Jewish Federation, and her husband, Joe, a Syracuse attorney, live in Jamesville with their children Joseph, 17 and Shayna, 16. The DeMaris recently shared with Family Times their experience as an interfaith family.

Susan: Religion was not an issue for me when I dated, but I always knew I wanted to raise my children Jewish. Joe and I talked about religion before we got married, but we really didn’t do anything serious until just before our son, Joseph, was born.

Joe’s parents were very religious; his mother goes to church every day. My father-in-law was raised in a largely Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, so it wasn’t a culture shock to him. He welcomed me with open arms. My in-laws were wonderful. My father-in-law always said, “Be direct, but raise the children with something, whether it be Jewish or Catholic. What’s important is that they have one religion and they are not confused.”

We all pray to the same God, whether we’re Catholic or Jewish. So as long as they pray to God and live by the Ten Commandments, which we live by in both religions, then we couldn’t go wrong.

I was devout, I wasn’t just an “on-the-holidays Catholic.” And I remember thinking that we could raise the children in both faiths. We realized very shortly thereafter that that was naive. You can’t have a foundation in two different religions. It’s confusing and probably a disservice to the children.

Not knowing much about Judaism at the time, I was still comfortable, since Catholicism grew out of Judaism, that it would be a great foundation for our children. If they chose later on to follow me, then I felt they could build from there.

His family is so big and Catholic-Italian, and here he is marrying this Jewish girl. It was really a mixing of two cultures. Nobody had ever married outside of the faith in my family. I was the first. But religion didn’t truly matter because they loved him.

Over the years, we grew (to respect) each other’s faiths. Susan would decorate the house for Christmas. At Easter, she would make the Easter baskets. And the kids grew up clearly understanding their father’s holidays. There was no confusion whatsoever.

Susan: My mother-in-law was a little disappointed that Santa didn’t come down the chimney at our house as the children were growing up. Those were the rules Joe and I made. But Santa came down the chimney at their grandparents’ house. My mother-in-law would put out the cookies and the milk.

Each year, we have about 40 family members over for Christmas Eve. We didn’t give up anything.

Joe: We also realized if both parents don’t take part and participate in rituals with the kids, they don’t come away with much. It was important for us as a family to have a solid Jewish foundation, and I am accepted as an interfaith parent at our temple.

Susan: But at the same time, the children are comfortable in a Catholic church. They grew up going to church with their grandparents on Sundays if they slept over on a Saturday night. When my father-in-law was ill, I went to church every day with my mother-in-law. It’s that respect that we have for each other that makes it so easy.

They clearly understood Catholicism as their father’s and grandparents’ religion.

I have a hard time understanding why Catholics or Jews would have a hard time being interfaith because it was seamless for us. Even if I wanted to raise the children Catholic, they’re Jews. Their mother is Jewish.

Susan: The symbol of the cross was hard for me for a long time to accept in my home environment. But I learned to be comfortable with it because I was comfortable in who I was. As far as my own journey of faith, I wasn’t raised very religious like my brothers were because girls back then didn’t have to be. I just became a Bat Mitzvah this summer because I always wanted to strengthen my beliefs. My kids have such strong beliefs, I wanted to strengthen mine.

I still encourage Joe to practice his faith. And people at the temple see how good he is, spiritually. But we have had struggles. The kids are in a conservative youth group and I was their adviser for many years. But I could not travel with them and be a chaperone, because I’m married to a non-Jew.

We have helped with an interfaith group in our temple, sharing our story with other families, to let them know how we did it, and what worked for us. The bottom line was mutual respect. We were strong in our own faiths. Our temple, while conservative, is very accepting of interfaith, and nontraditional families and marriages—whether you’re gay, interracial or interfaith.

I think the hardest thing for Joe and me when we helped other (interfaith) couples, were the ones who were undecided on which way they were going to raise their children. We strongly believe that you need to have one conviction and you have to have that foundation. We hear couples say, “Well, we’ll teach them both.” It’s not teaching them both. You raise them one and have them respect the other. That lesson goes beyond just the interfaith family. And we’re not saying to pick one over the other. If they want to choose Catholicism, that’s fine. But pick one. Just choose one and be respectful of the other.

Joe: Mutual respect alone isn’t enough. Both parents have to present a united front in the faith you are raising them in. It’s one thing for Susan to recognize Easter and Christmas and the holidays and Lent and all that, and for me to do the same. But if the two of us together raise our children in the religion we choose to raise them in and work on the ritual and talk about it with them, instill that in them and bring it into the home, that’s what really makes the interfaith family work. Once you decide which religion the children are going to be raised, you need to work together and present it to the children on a daily basis. You have to live it in your home.

One of my concerns, when people try to raise children in both religions, is that children are so young. The children are incapable of making an informed decision at that age. Religion is a lot about tradition. And to a child, let’s face it, Christmas and Easter are very attractive holidays!

During the Lenten season we have a routine where we go out with friends to St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville, and we do fish fries on Friday nights. We take Mom. Whether it’s pasta or fish fry or whatever, I do not serve meat on Fridays during Lent. I just won’t. It’s contrary to Joe’s religion and it’s disrespectful.

Christmas Eve was different for me because we took over Joe’s family tradition of serving a traditional meal with seven fishes. My mother had a really hard time adjusting to the fact that there was a Christmas tree in the house. To my parents, a tree represented Christ. But she has since gotten past it. They see that the children are raised Jewish.

Being interfaith benefits our kids. They have a strong Jewish identity, but at the same time, they do not have a fear of Catholicism. They’re not afraid to walk into a church.

For my kids, it is natural for them to interact with people of different faiths. Their friends don’t even think twice about the fact that we acknowledge both faiths. If it’s the Sabbath on Friday night, and we’re lighting the candles, having bread and wine, we just say the prayers in English for them. We just let them know, this is part of our tradition. We teach them to embrace it, not shy away from it. Our relationship with our faith community is a great one. I think it helps that their father has embraced all that we do and he participates with us. We’re seen as the DeMari family, not Susan and her children, and, ‘Oh, there’s the Catholic father.‘ It makes them feel accepted regardless of where they are. He is there bringing his children to temple. That helps the children feel comfortable in their own environment because their father is comfortable in their environment. Joe is an example for the non-Jewish spouse: that you can come to temple, and enjoy it even if you don’t know Hebrew. You can still be a part of it and make your family part of it. We don’t hide the fact that we’re Jewish and Dad’s not.

To make it work, you have to be open about it. With extended families, that’s so important. We don’t try to hide it. If it’s Hanukkah during Christmas, we take out the menorah and we do our blessing. And when it comes to decorating, if Hanukkah is long over, I don’t try to compete. I take down the Hanukkah decorations and leave the Christmas ones up.

You can expose children to traditions of both, but I think you have to give children some regularity, whether it is temple on Fridays or church on Sundays. Give them some spiritual guidance because that’s going to make them, I believe, a more solid individual when they are older.       ■

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York