The Endless “Schlep”

Kate Bahlke Hornstein is an Episcopalian woman. She and her Jewish husband  live in Cambridge, MA with their two daughters. They participated in early IFC programs in New York before IFC chapters had evolved. When they moved to Boston, Kate reconnected and became the founding Chair of the IFC Boston chapter.

In her blog submission, Kate reflects both on the meaning of being in an interfaith family and on the value of “schlepping” to do the Community’s work.

Back in fifth grade, our teacher read us the book, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. The book tells the story of a Polish Jewish girl who is forced by Russians to move with her family to Siberia during World War II. While Esther starts out being somewhat spoiled (refusing to wear any underwear that isn’t silk, as I recall) she soon adjusts to life on the Endless Steppe. Her family stays sane not only by becoming less spoiled and adjusting to their new extremely difficult circumstances, but also by holding fast to their past life and identity. I remember one passage where Esther’s proud grandmother pushes back her fingernail cuticles each night so that she can maintain her “manicure” while living in the harsh conditions of the work camp. The family also sustains itself with their religion and their belief that “thoughts are free,” i.e. no one can take away your identity.

This book made a deep impression on me, not that I could relate to Esther’s life at all! Growing up in a secular/Episcopal family  in comfortable small-town America, I could count the number of Jewish families I knew on one hand. OK, maybe more like three fingers. The harshest work I recall was when my mother asked me to trim some branches from one of our olive trees, and when I painted the outside of our church with a group of college students.

I think what I liked best about the book was the idea that there could be a culture existing within another and that you could carry your identity with you wherever you go. Esther’s family is grateful that “thoughts are free” and that their belief in God and in their own identities can persist,  even when they are forbidden to express their  beliefs.

As a 48-year-old Christian married to a Jewish man and raising my two daughters “interfaith,”
my life has unfolded in ways I couldn’t have imagined growing up. My attic now contains boxes and boxes of holiday “things”–for Passover, Easter, Christmas, Hanukkah, Halloween and a large stack labeled “Interfaith Community” or “IFC-Art, IFC-Art Supplies, IFC-Paper, IFC Art Supplies 2 and IFC-Celebrations.”

Nearly every week I am schlepping one box up the stairs and another one down, either in preparation for a family holiday celebration or an upcoming Interfaith Community class or holiday program.

Most weeks I do this good-naturedly without complaining and with a sense of excitement and anticipation of the upcoming holiday. But occasionally, I find myself tearily wondering if it might not have been easier to choose another way to do things. “This is not my holiday,” I think.  “Why should I work so hard to preserve my daughters’ Jewish traditions, traditions that are not my own?”  A harsh email or thoughtless word from someone who doesn’t know me well, and who questions my belief in raising my children with two religions, can bring me low and wondering why on earth I am doing this. “This is hard,” I think.

I see in those moments how Jews in America at one point may have quite sanely decided to assimilate. I see also why spouses in interfaith couples convert to Judaism or Christianity or choose one religion for their children.  It’s much easier to go along with holiday of the moment, of the majority, or the religion of one partner, than to risk being called different, or worse, to have one’s children thought to be so. It’s also much less work.

And then my thoughts turn to my own kids. Since they were babies, we’ve celebrated two sets of holidays, attended church and temple, and held lively theological debates around the dinner table. One of the things of which I am the most proud is the way they connect positively with both their Jewish and Christian identities.  I am proud of my daughter who in fifth grade patiently explained why she was eating matzah for lunch to a group of Muslim children. Or how beautiful my older daughter’s voice sounds when she sings from the hymnal on Christmas Eve. Or how we’ve argued around the dinner table about what actually took place at the Resurrection. I also think about when my husband and I watched “The Passion of the Christ” to see the anti-semitic content;  but what affected him the most was the realization that Christ’s suffering could have been more than a myth, but pain, as well as love for others, experienced by someone I see as an aspirational figure.

Over the past four and a half years, nearly 150 people have attended Interfaith Community Boston events. Some come once, some have attended since the beginning, but I hope everyone who comes to us will take away something of value–the belief that “thoughts are free,” and the affirmation of whatever identity they’ve chosen to preserve for themselves and their families. As a chapter member recently wrote in an email to me, “thanks for giving my child a place to belong.”

When I think about what my family has gained and the positive things we can offer to the community, I realize that loading up the car, vacuuming the rug after an IFC event, or helping a child to find a lost art project are much more than “schlepping.” In this work, I am helping preserve the identity not only of the Jewish people and those who identify as Christians, but also my own children’s sense of self.   As Esther says, “I needed my past, my beloved past.”

About interfaithcommunity

An independent voice for Jewish-Christian families since 1987, the Interfaith Community provides the resources to meet the real needs of today's religiously mixed families.
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2 Responses to The Endless “Schlep”

  1. Beautiful! Thank you, Kate.

  2. Kate,
    It’s great to hear from you, in this form, if not in person. You were definitely an inspiration to a young interfaith family starting out on this path when we were in Boston. Thanks for the reminder, not that it’s hard, but that it’s hard for even the most dedicated, and that it’s okay that it’s hard. One day we hope to reconnect to IFC in Seattle…even if it means helping to found a chapter.

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