Balancing faith and culture as a contemporary family
Honouring rituals and beliefs within a modern lifestyle
Growing up, did you ever feel isolated or misunderstood due to language, cultural, or religious differences? I know I did.
While English has always been my strong point, being a Jewish Australian meant I was (and still am) part of an overlapping world of cultural rituals and religious beliefs. In other words, my identity isn’t just shaped by my prayers and practices. It’s also embedded with a strong social heritage, like anyone who is Italian, French, or German. Muslim Australians also experience this sense of cultural and religious fluidity with Islam.
This can be hard for others to understand sometimes. Over the years, many have commented “But, you don’t look Jewish!” Or asked “So, do you come from Jew-rulsalem?” But I’ve just laughed it off. It might be confusing for some, but to me, my rituals and beliefs have always kept me grounded.
While my culture and faith have a dedicated place in my heart, they weren’t always easy to maintain. In some cases, they produced a sense of isolation and misunderstanding.
It meant continually having to explain my family’s rituals and values. And it meant saying ‘no’ to socialising on weekends due to religious commitments. I admit this was often tough to handle as a teenager. My family was committed to Friday night family dinners, Saturday morning services, then Sunday School followed by Jewish sporting activities. It didn’t leave much time to hang out with my ‘non-Jewish’ friends.
Having said that, I have no regrets about my upbringing. I acknowledge my parents’ dedication to ensuring we had a strong cultural foundation. It’s resulted in three very happy and ethical adults. And I plan to bring my children up in a similar way.
If you’re wondering whether it’s possible to balance faith and culture as a contemporary family, I’m living proof you can.
Finding both acceptance and a sense of belonging
From kindergarten through to high school, I attended a public school in Sydney’s south-west – at least 30 minutes away from the well-known Jewish suburbs in the east and north. This meant hanging out with kids who’s only other exposure to Judaism was from watching The Nanny or Seinfeld. While I was lucky to experience very minor anti-semitism, I still found it hard to fully connect with people within my local community. You might have experienced the same.
On the one hand, we’re taught from a young age to recognise and accept Australia’s multiculturalism and connect with those different from us. And we want to, we really do.
But on the other hand, we often feel more comfortable gravitating towards people we can relate to. Those with values, rituals, and beliefs that align with ours. So we end up socialising with people from the same country of origin or the same faith.
It’s not racism. It’s just part of our identity.
My siblings and I had the ‘fun’ challenge of trying to connect with Jews who disassociated with us since we lived in ‘Woop Woop’, while also trying to connect with ‘non-Jews’ who struggled to grapple a full understanding of our culture.
But it was possible and we did it. I personally formed and maintained a strong sense of Jewish identity, while also being a part of the wider community. And now, as a Mum to two daughters aged five and two, it’s up to me to create a balance between faith and culture for my family. Especially since we continue to live ‘outside’ the Jewish mainstream.
The importance of honouring rituals and beliefs within a modern lifestyle
According to the Collins dictionary, a ritual is “a way of behaving or a series of actions which people regularly carry out in a particular situation, because it’s their custom to do so.”
Once upon a time, rituals were carried out to increase good fortune or rain for crops. But these days, as highlighted in Dally Messenger’s book, Ceremonies and Celebrations, rituals (aka ceremonies) are “mechanisms which express and generate love, forge and declare the bond between individuals, and establish and identify community.”
Therefore, rituals can contribute to our mental, emotional, and spiritual well being. Without them, we’re lost. But by participating in them, we remain ‘different’. Be proud of that difference!
Within my young family, I’m currently teaching my children the rituals involved with a Friday evening Shabbat (Sabbath) service. I feel it’s important for the girls to learn the standard blessings in Hebrew and be familiar with the process of setting the Shabbat table, lighting candles, drinking grape juice, and eating challah (plaited bread, like brioche). I’m also getting them involved in Jewish children’s programs wherever possible – even if it means schlepping them to a synagogue 45 minutes away.
It’s all we do at the moment, but I think it’s important to start somewhere. And keep it fun.
Next year, we plan to send our eldest to Sunday School for three hours each week. There, she’ll get the opportunity to discover more about her Jewish identity, learn to read and speak Hebrew, and make new friends. Personally, attending Sunday School was key to establishing my connection with my Jewish roots. I know she’s going to love it.
Dealing with cross cultural relationships while parenting
Throughout my childhood, my parents strongly encouraged my siblings and I to marry another Jew. It was considered the ‘right’ thing to do. Yes, this pressure meant we started seeking a lifelong Jewish partner from our early teens! Luckily, my brother, sister, and I were able to find and fall in love with a Jewish partner – despite our somewhat isolated scenario.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean our partners are at the ‘same level’ of Judaism. And they’re not. Sometimes, it feels as though they’re not even part of the same faith. And that’s okay. It’s still possible to bring up our children in a balanced and happy home.
In my household, my husband participates in the cultural aspects of the religion. He gets involved with our Shabbat ceremonial dinner, wears a kippah (scullcap) when appropriate, and attends Jewish namings, weddings, and funerals. However, you’ll struggle to get him anywhere near a synagogue otherwise!
For me, I love getting involved with the Jewish religion in any aspect I can.
Ultimately, whether you’re both of the same culture or not, I’ve found it comes down to having clear communication.
Both you and your partner need to agree on your children’s faith/cultural upbringing. It’s totally fine to celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah (or Chrismukkah!) if that’s what you want to do. Just don’t assume your partner is okay with your choices or heavily enforce them without discussion.
Creating a strong sense of cultural identity for your kids
As parents, the last thing we want is to create a confused sense of identity for our children. They need to understand that although different from their friends at school, they’re also special.
For me, my friends thought it was cool I was Jewish. They loved hearing about our festivals and various celebrations – and I even invited them to my Bat Mitzvah to experience it first hand. I saw my faith and culture as something that made me stand out – in a good way.
As long as your keep enforcing this with your children, everything will be okay. There will be no resentment, only love, for their cultural and/or religious heritage.