How does an interfaith couple raising Jewish children create meaningful rituals that honor both partners’ heritage? This is a question that I asked myself when I became a parent and when I founded the Love & Tradition Institute.
I felt strongly about giving my daughter a Hebrew name. I also wanted to follow Ashkenazic, Eastern European Jewish, custom and name her for a deceased relative. Her father preferred something more mainstream, then suggested a Biblical name, and ultimately accepted that we needed a first name as obviously Jewish as her surname is Irish. We chose the name Shira, which is Hebrew for song. Combined with McGinity, Shira's name reflects her rich multicultural heritage, joins her with the future of the Jewish people worldwide and continues the McGinity name.
Having settled on the name, we started to plan a brit bat (covenant of a daughter). In practice actually taking the first public step toward raising a Jewish child is often more complicated than in theory. We met with our rabbi and devised a ceremony that explained the significance of the event, included both parents on the bimah (podium), and gave us the opportunity to express our gratitude and prayers for our child. I wanted to invite the world to Shira's brit bat. But for her father, the naming ceremony marked the first event that demonstrated to his side of the family that our child would be raised as a Jew and not as a Catholic. He asked that we invite immediate family and a handful of close friends. I empathized with his process of becoming the father of a Jewish daughter and agreed to a shorter invitation list.
We elucidated the import of our daughter's name, we pledged to give her "roots and wings," and we said a poem of thanksgiving for the gift of our child. Together we concluded: "Dear God, help us to be good parents and to teach our daughter the values of Judaism so that she may improve the world through her thoughts and deeds." The next day, a bagpipe player entertained everyone attending the s'udat mitzvah (commanded meal) to give tribute to Shira's Irish heritage. I planned the kilted musician's visit as a surprise; my father-in-law was particularly delighted.
Exactly thirteen years later, again on Shabbat Shira, the three of us stood on the same bimah when Shira became a bat mitzvah. With the rabbi’s support, we navigated how to include all immediate family members by giving each person an appropriate honor. Jewish people had aliyot while Christians opened and closed the ark. Shira’s father supports her Jewish day school education and our rabbi allowed him to participate in the l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) ritual when grandparents and parents hand the Torah down to the bar or bat mitzvah. I chose the opportunity of the parent’s blessing to expand on the meaning of Shira’s name. “McGinity,” I explained, comes from an Irish word in Gaelic for snow. My daughter loves snow; she loves to look at it, play in it, and eat it. Boston was experiencing a particularly brutal winter and she was lucky to be called to the Torah between blizzards. She was delighted to learn that her Irish last name has such a uniquely personal meaning, just as she is proud of her Hebrew first name. Making the connection with her paternal grandfather’s ancestral language on the auspicious occasion of her bat mitzvah expanded its meaning as a Jewish milestone in an interfaith family. Shira’s Jewish roots are deepening just as she is increasingly stretching her teenage wings. She is fluent in Hebrew and looking forward to her third trip to Israel this spring. Perhaps someday she will also visit Ireland. Whoever she becomes and whatever she does in life, being the child of an intermarriage in which love and Jewish tradition are ever present fortifies her.
Dr. Keren R. McGinity is the director of the Love & Tradition Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to opening hearts and broadening minds through accessible education about Jewish intermarriage and gender. She is the author of Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood and Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America.