Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the first woman to hold her office. After 244 years, it’s about damn time, yeah?
But Harris is not only the first woman to become VP. She’s the first Black and Indian-American person to do so. She’s a part of a blended family. She’s the daughter of two immigrants. She’s someone who did not have children and married for the first time at age 49. And? She’s a member of what will be the first Jewish Second family (try saying that five times fast).
Just like the majority of non-Orthodox Jewish families in this country, hers is an interfaith one.
While Harris considers herself Christian and was raised with Christian and Hindu influences, her husband Doug Emhoff and his children — her step-children, Cole and Ella — are Jewish. How beautiful it is that, just as the first woman elected to this office is multiracial and the daughter of immigrants, the first Jewish Second family is multiracial, blended, and interfaith.
It’s amazing to live in this time of expansive intersectionality. And I truly hope that the larger Jewish community — many of whom are joyously celebrating Kamala and Doug — take this into consideration when thinking about the interfaith families who haven’t made it to the White House.
The day after the election was called, I tweeted, “I am beyond delighed that the first Jewish 2nd family is interfaith and multiracial. Maybe now the Jewish community will be able to see such families as normal, sacred, and essential. We are the Jewish present and the Jewish future. That future is so damn bright.”
I am beyond delighted that the first Jewish 2nd family is interfaith and multiracial.
Maybe now the Jewish community will be able to see such families as normal, sacred, and essential.
We are the Jewish present and the Jewish future.
That future is so damn bright.
— Rabbi Emily Cohen (@ThatRabbiCohen) November 8, 2020
I suppose at this point, it’s safe to call myself a Twitter rabbi. I remind people to breathe, make weird jokes about Torah, and weigh in on various modern controversies (is it possible to excommunicate Stephen Miller? Sadly, no). Due to my progressive politics, I occasionally get trolled. But in all my tweeting, the most ire I ever face is around celebrating interfaith families.
While many Jews are happy to have interfaith families in the community, others find what is swiftly becoming the majority of non-Orthodox Jewish families (70% of marriages since 2000) to be a big problem.
But I’m not writing this piece to defend interfaith families. Others have and will. No. This is a piece about how amazing it is for interfaith Jewish families in this country to see themselves reflected in one of our highest offices.
Families like Kamala Harris’s bring so much to the Jewish community. I’d know. I’m part of one.
Since becoming a rabbi, I’ve had countless conversations with Jews worried about what I’ll think of their choice to partner with someone who isn’t Jewish. I always smile and tell them that if it weren’t for interfaith marriage, and a rabbi willing to officiate for my Jewish dad and Quaker mom in the mid ‘80s, I would probably still exist. My parents loved each other and would have gotten married a different way. I just probably wouldn’t have been raised Jewish.
My dad’s rabbi married my parents, my parents sent me to Jewish preschool, we joined a synagogue, and I got to grow up in a Jewish home with a Christmas tree and Easter basket garnish. (Don’t believe me? Here’s Passover art from when I was 4. Annotations by my mom.)
When I was a kid, it was often my Quaker mom’s curiosity that drove our family’s participation in Jewish life. My mom didn’t know about the traditions I’d come home from preschool, and, later, religious school jabbering about, so she’d ask. And then we’d talk. And we’d learn together.
Even today, my mom teaches at a Jewish day school and is constantly asking me questions about different holidays, parts of the Torah, and random Hebrew words. My own Jewish identity was enhanced exponentially by having someone at home who didn’t know about Jewish traditions but wanted to.
Families comprised only of Jews are in theory religiously simpler, it’s true. There is no debate of whether to celebrate Christmas with Jewish kids. There’s not necessarily any need to decide whether it’s worth it to join a synagogue. There’s no question about whether to serve shrimp cocktail at dinner. Or… maybe there is! Because maybe one Jewish partner has a Christian parent. Maybe one Jewish partner finds organized religion deeply problematic. Maybe one Jewish partner grew up kosher and the other grew up with bacon cheeseburgers. Interfaith families face different debates, but no Jewish family is without its controversies. If there’s one thing we can agree on as a people, it’s the value of a worthy disagreement, right?
A year ago, my Jewish sister married my raised-kinda-Muslim-but-not-ascribing-to-any-faith brother-in-law. He’s of Pakistani descent, and the wedding was wonderful. There were people in traditional dress and in tuxes, in kippot and wrapped in scarves and bare-headed. My favorite memory is from just after dinner. We did the Hora, my sister’s Jewish sorority friends from college organizing everyone in a grapevine while my Jewish dad and my mom’s Catholic cousins lifted my sister and brother-in-law on chairs. The folks who knew the dance helped those who didn’t along. Everyone danced. Everyone laughed.
Then, without skipping a beat, the DJ played a Bhangra pop song, and the roles switched as my brother-in-law’s family helped mine learn the steps. Same thing. Everyone danced. Everyone laughed. Because the thing about interfaith families? They’re families built from love, just like non-interfaith families. They’re families that share traditions, that learn from one another, that argue, that figure things out in a world that is far less boring and therefore far more complicated than it used to be.
There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny on Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff for the next four years. On their politics, on Harris’s decisions as VP, on Emhoff’s decision to not work as Jill Biden becomes the first First Lady to work, and — yes — on their religious life. But I just want us all to remember: Setting aside the office, the inevitable think pieces, and the anti-interfaith marriage outcry, we’re left with a Second family that is delightful in 2020 America: normal. As a child of intermarriage, and as part of a Jewish American landscape full of people just like me, that’s worth celebrating.
Oh, and Doug? If you see this? Please invite me to your Hanukkah party. I’ll bring my mom as my plus one.