Episode 54: Mamalas: Building Jewish Families (Transcript)

Episode 54: Mamalas: Building Jewish Families

[Theme music]

Judith Rosenbaum: Hi, it’s Judith Rosenbaum. Happy Hanukkah, and welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

Cassie Morganstern: I don't see myself as a Jewish mother. I see myself as a mother to Jewish children. If you would have told me at eighteen that I would be raising Jewish children and living in a Jewish Jewish household, I would have called you crazy. But here we are. 

Judith: The election of Kamala Harris to the Vice Presidency has sparked a great deal of excitement in the Jewish community. Not only will she be the first woman, and the first person of color, to serve as Vice President, she is also part of a Jewish family. Her husband, Doug Emhoff, is Jewish, as are his children—whose nickname for her is Momala. Kamala and the Harris-Emhoff family highlight an important demographic reality in the American Jewish community: The majority of Jewish families in 21st century America include women who identify as a different religious or cultural background than Jewish. Often, these women play essential roles in creating Jewish households, raising Jewish children, and leading Jewish communities. In this episode of Can We Talk?, we’ll hear the stories of three women who, like Kamala, are not themselves Jewish, but are part of Jewish families and raising Jewish children.

Cassie: I'm Cassie Morganstern. I have two children, they're nine and six, and my husband, um, Ari, and we are an interfaith family. We're a proud interfaith family. I grew up in my hometown and the town that we live in now, and it is a small, typical Southern town. After college I spent the next twelve years saying I'm never moving back to my small town ever again. And I met my husband in college and he’s a nice Jewish boy. Growing in our relationship, we decided to have a Jewish family and have a Jewish household. And if anybody knows me, I am a type-A, throw myself into a commitment personality. And I went in full force on doing that and learning about Judaism. And, uh, once we had children, uh, it came naturally. Converting to a new religion is not an easy decision. It's not like changing your hair color from blonde to brunette. It's supposed to be a fulfillment of who you are as a person and a deep desire to, um, fulfill that part of you. And while I respect and love the traditions and the values and the Jewish religion and the Jewish people, my personal connection to Judaism doesn't, I don't have that deep desire to fulfill myself in that way. When you have children, you fight for them. I have been a staunch defender of, um, my children's identity as Jews and in the South that can sometimes be hard because it's a pretty homogeneous population. So, um, but what I've come across is that it's merely mostly a lack of education. And so while I'm educating myself and what the, you know, problems that Jewish people come into contact with, I'm facing it every day with my children and, um, you being Jewish is an innate part of who they are. I become Hanukkah mom every year around this time and he wants me to come in and he wants to do his presentations about Hanukkah even to know he's the only Jewish kid in his class 

[Sound of class]

Nahanni Rous: What would you say have been some of the biggest challenges? 

Cassie: It's a lack of education, um, for some people and, you know, I don't mind educating my children's teachers of, um, their dietary needs or their traditions or why they're out on Yom Kippor, uh, I feel like it's my job and my duty to do so, but it does become cumbersome when you're doing it all the time. Christmas is a huge holiday down here and it's celebrated at school and, you know, last year was the first time my son came home crying because he didn't feel represented. And his schoolwork or the way that the school was decorated. So, uh, me and a couple of Jewish moms went into the school and what traveled in the 50 mile radius to find every Hanukkah decoration at every store that we could find to decorate the school. And it would just, it broke, it made his face, light up. Um, the representation matters and it matters to children. I don't see myself as a Jewish mother. I see myself as a mother to Jewish children. And, uh, you know, people joke because they, they only see one side of it. They see that I'm the one as typically falls to the, to the mothers who is the keeper of tradition. And I'm the one who makes sure that, you know, the Shabbat candles are lit and I know they're the traditions and I'm the one who prepares for Passover cleaning, um, and, and makes the Seder. So they always joke that, you know, you're more Jewish than your, your husband, but that's not the case. It's just the role that I play to ensure that my children are getting very best, um, Jewish education. And my, my husband is definitely the, the person that they follow for their, their Judith Jewish education and their knowledge about who they are as Jews.

Nahanni: What about for you? Does, do you miss any of that yourself?

Cassie: I did at the beginning. I have new traditions that I've built with my family, and those are important to me. And those are meaningful because they're meaningful to my children. I think that it was probably harder before I had kids, um, because I was trying to build something that was meaningful for me. But when you look at your children and you see what's important to them and who they are. You want to be that person for them. You want to guide them, um, and strengthen their relationship with their faith. But in the end, it's theirs, it's, it's their relationship with their faith. 

Kimi Cohn: So my full name is actually Kimiko, but I go by Kimi and that's actually a Japanese name. My family has been in Santa Barbara, California, which is where I currently live, for the past four generations. I'm married to a wonderful, um, partner. His name is Gideon. He's our, um, you know, first Jewish member of the family. And, um, we, um, I have been together for eleven years now, we have two children, 

[Sound of children]

Kimi: And for me, it was really easy to say, "Oh, we'll raise them Jewish," but we had to really sit down and have a conversation about that. Um, I come from a Christian background and, But I, um, have a hard time getting along with most other Christians. Because of my Asian identity, it's always assumed that I'm either not Jewish or I converted. So I get a lot of "where are you from" questions. And, um, I kind of get a little sassy. "I'm from Santa Barbara. Where are you from?" They're basically asking what kind of Asian I am. And I, you know, they're not asking me that directly because, you know, I think maybe it's too direct, but, um, you know, I'm happy to talk about my background. I just, there's always that kind of other identity being, um, you know, non-Ashkenazi looking. 

Nahanni: Um, why, why was it important for you to, to raise Jewish kids, to have their identity be Jewish? 

Kimi: Oh, sorry. It's kind of emotional, but yeah. I just feel like, um, because my husband has a Jewish background, um, I think it's really important to, um, continue the generations and that children understand like what it means to be Jewish and a background. And, um, just, I think it's a beautiful way to raise children. I think it's important to rate, raise children with some kind of cultural identity. I am fine with them not having a Christian identity. No, not always, it hasn't always been the best experience for me personally. And, um, I just think that this community that I'm in is very loving and supportive, and I think it's just, um, you know, a beautiful place in way to raise children and just the responsibility that comes with, you know, Tikkun Olam, and, you know, just to, to really, um, be accountable for. Just who you are. Yeah. You know, my family, um, uh, on both sides of my parents, um, they were interned, you know, and so that experience, I think really shaped I think some of my, my thoughts and feelings about just, um, it's like to lose your, everything, you own your own rights and to be, you know, imprisoned.  Most of my grandparents were actually born in California and, um, they were, you know, of course living here, they on both sides, they own businesses. On my mom's side, they owned a hair salon and, uh, my grandpa, my. Dad's side, they owned a grocery store and when everyone was being rounded up for internment, they lost their, the homes that they own, their businesses. Of course, all their property was taken away from them. And they were taken to, you know, the various camps. I think about that often and about their experiences and what I can do to try to make, you know, our generation and our world better today.

Nahanni: Um, and is this a history that you feel like you'll want to pass on to your kids? 

Kimi: Oh, definitely. I think it's important for them to know the family they came from and the experiences and how privileged they are. And also, I feel like there's a lot of similarity that, um, you know, obviously I, I shared that I'm Asian, so I feel like there's also easy effortless kind of, um, cultural parallels to raising children. Like, do you know, Jewish and Asian. Um, values, you know, um, I know like education's a big one and, um, close-knit families, so, and that could be said for many other cultures, but just for getting into my families of origin in particular. I think, you know, family values are really important. A lot of. Uh, experiences around food. So there's a lot of time in the kitchen. Uh, you know, if we're going with, you know, these normative mother roles and, um, I feel like, um, we're already instilling a lot of, uh, some of those, you know traditions with, with the kids I Mathilde and I made matzah ball soup a couple of weeks ago. It's really fun. And, um, so yeah, a lot of, I think has to do with like food and then also, you know, Shabbat is a big thing for us. I try to make sure that we honor, um, you know, the holiday is the most important holiday in our family.

Sharon Katz: My name is Sharon Katz. I live in Waltham, Massachusetts, and we have a blended family of a Catholic, me, and my husband and son are both Jewish, and we are raising our son, Jacob in a conservative Jewish congregation. What's really funny actually, is that when he was in preschool, he was at a Jewish preschool. And we were approaching Christmas and my uncle says Christmas Eve mass for my mom's side of the family at my parents' house in the basement. It's very festive and beautiful and meaningful and special. And I was trying to explain to him that there were certain things that because he and daddy are Jewish, they wouldn't be participating in during mass. And he was in the backseat of the car. And I glanced in the rear view mirror. And he said, wait, you're not Jewish. And he knew that my family was Catholic, but he never made the connection that I was as well, because we were doing such a great job of giving him a strong Jewish identity. So that was kind of a turning point for me. I was like, Oh, I should probably talk with him a little bit more about this. He definitely understand the importance of faith and that differs from one side of the family to another, in some ways. But it’s funny because he also finds the similarities and differences and is fascinated by them sometimes. It's always interesting to me to learn people who have sometimes known me for years just assume that I'm Jewish. Um, and sometimes people who've known me for a decade. I was once offered an honor at services and I very politely had to decline, but I talked to the person who I had known for about a decade at that point. And I said, you know I'm not Jewish, right? He had no idea. And so for me, that's always fascinating because there are so many interfaith families that just because the child might have a strong Jewish identity doesn't mean that both parents are. Like, what, what does that feel like when people make that assumption? Well, on the one hand, it kinda makes me feel a little good because it means I'm doing a good job with my kid. Um, but on the other hand, you know, it's not the kind of thing that bothers me, I just find it to be an interesting observation that people just automatically make that assumption. And. I guess it's not an entirely reasonable one to make, it's still the kind of thing that maybe shouldn't be just assumed. The question that always comes up, are you converting? And that has never been something that was even something I've considered because that's not, it wouldn't be for the right reasons because my faith identity is not Jewish. I do identify with a lot of the styles of prayer and some of the prayers do truly resonate with me, but I just feel like my own faith has been woven into my being in such a way that it's just, it's part of me. And I see no reason to change that. That's the kind of thing that's such an intensely personal decision. And for it to be such a lightly asked question just seems to be, I don't know, not in line with what type of a choice it would be or a type of a decision, it would be to do that. And that might be because I did have such a strong religious upbringing. Maybe if I didn't have that in my background, it wouldn't feel as weighty to me. So I guess when you ask me how I feel about being received by the community that we're in, um, it really has been a blessing, but. It's also important to note that because that's the type of community, it is, it really makes it so much easier to engage and to be involved and to feel part of something and to be able to feel that I'm a part of my son's religious upbringing, not just standing on the side.

Nahanni: And you said he's studying for his bar mitzvah, right? 

Sharon: He seems to be enjoying it. He likes to learn. 

[Sharon's son reading Torah]

Sharon: Fortunately he also likes to sing, so the chanting isn't daunting for him. Um, as far as how I'm involved it's kind of fun to be learning along with him and to sometimes attend his Hebrew school classes and read through the materials that they're learning. And, you know, from a learning standpoint, I have tons to learn. He has tons to learn and it's exciting and interesting to kind of read through these things together and see what others have thought and what he thinks. And it's kind of fun. It is important for him to understand that while his family might come to things along different paths, that the paths are really quite parallel when all is said and done. I used to get a little bit offended at some of the studies that were saying that, you know, if the mother wasn't Jewish, there's a less of a chance, the child being raised Jewish was less likely. And I began to realize that well, there might be something to that, because traditionally the mom does take on a lot of nurturing and educational roles in the family. And especially when he was younger, I was home more than my husband was because my job enabled me to do that. And I was the one who was involved at the preschool and volunteering at the preschool and involved at the Hebrew school and volunteering at the Hebrew school and more directly hands-on in his education and building the connections within the community and doing all of that. So even not being Jewish, because I was the one who was around, I was very much involved in the process from an early part of his life. You know, people joke about the stereotypical Jewish mother. But at the same time, what they're joking about is someone who cares deeply for her children and will go to any lengths to make sure they have what they need and that they find their way through life. Maybe sometimes stereotypically to the extreme, but I think it really does come from a place of love. So in that sense, I guess, yes, I could embrace that. And at the same time, avoiding. Becoming a caricature.

Judith: The Jewish mother stereotype… that’s a rich topic deserving of its own episode! But what the stories of women like Cassie, Kimmy, Sharon—and Kamala Harris— make clear is that having women of different backgrounds and religious traditions building Jewish families helps challenge that Jewish mother stereotype and expand the Jewish community. So Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris, this one’s for you. Happy Hanukkah, and mazel tov on your groundbreaking election. We are so glad you’re part of the Jewish family. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. A special thanks to Cassie Morgenstern, Kimi Cohn, and Sharon Katz for sharing their stories. This episode was produced by Nahanni Rous, Ariella Markowitz, and me. Our team also includes Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution. Thank you so much for your support. I’m Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive, wishing you a Hanukkah filled with light. 

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 54: Mamalas: Building Jewish Families (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 21, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-54-mamalas-building-jewish-families/transcript>.

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