An intercultural marriage is, like any marriage, a delicate balancing act. Even after you realize how little you can change one another, one prime battleground remains: the children.
They are the bearers of our ancestry, our hope for immortality and our greatest responsibility. Some things are easily reconcilable, like teaching a child multiple languages. Others are harder — in our case deciding when to cut our young son’s hair, whether to wear shoes indoors and when to remove them outdoors. But the most difficult question that I have asked myself since becoming a mother is this: Can our child be both a Muslim and a Jew?
Before my wedding, my mother said that any child I bore would be Jewish. Jewish law dictates that a child born to a Jewish mother inherits her identity. Islam, on the other hand, is arguably patrilineal. For this reason, it is far less controversial for a Muslim man to marry a Jewish or Christian woman than for a Muslim woman to marry outside of the faith.
My husband and I did not make our decision to be together lightly, waiting six years to finally date. Over those six years, our daily conversations were studded with potentialities. “What if we had a daughter, would you want her to wear a headscarf?” I asked. “What would you tell our child, if he asked you about God?” Ufuk replied. We tried to feel out the future together, an uncharted territory — not without precedent (the prophet Muhammad himself had a Jewish wife named Safiyya, meaning “pure”), but certainly without a map.
When we married and had a child, our own expectations and our families’ expectations for our son Sami’s religious identity took center stage. My mother-in-law sent me hopeful, hinting videos of toddlers reciting Koranic verse.
My husband and I put a lot of weight on baby Sami’s shoulders, calling him our “peace baby,” proof that divisions could be overcome. He has been up to this task since Day One, uniting us in rituals and quite literally embodying our love.
Now that Sami is 4, what does our daily life look like? On some Fridays, he accompanies Ufuk to the weekly prayer in the mosque, where he touches his forehead to the ground in sync with his father. On others, he bakes cinnamon challah with me.
The presence of both traditions in our household makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including many among our families and close friends. They want a clear-cut answer to whether our son is Muslim or Jewish. When we married, they saw loss where we saw gain. One Jewish neighbor asked, aghast: With the Jewish community diminishing globally, how could I make such an unforgivable choice, not for myself but my future children?
My answer is this: Growing up with both Islam and Judaism is our greatest gift to our son. He already has, at 4 years old, the capacity to not only see beyond, but live with and appreciate difference. And he has given us an even greater gift in return. In our journey as parents, we have come to live not in parallel religious and cultural worlds, but to join one another in learning, celebrating and appreciating the myriad intersections of our traditions — from biblical stories to fasting, rich food cultures and deep empathy. Sometimes, at a moral crossroads I wonder, “What would Muhammad do?” Sometimes, my husband cites the Old Testament in an argument.
There may come times, as Sami grows older, that we explain how our religious teachings differ. But we will focus on exposing him to what we share, from Abraham to today.
In my family, from a young age, I learned that to be Jewish is to ask questions. Sami has entered the delightful stage of “Why?” At our next Passover, he will be tasked with asking the four questions. This past year, my devout Muslim brother-in-law asked those questions. We were admittedly nervous, hoping he would not feel out of place. Instead, he saw what we see: We belong to traditions with shared ancestries, shared stories, shared ethics and shared hopes.
I am still asking questions to this day. And the fundamental question for our family is: What stories do we tell Sami?
We have chosen to tell the stories that unite us. At times, it feels like we are standing on an island, away from the worlds in which we were born, but always tethered to them through our families and our familiarities — all that we learned as children that came to feel like second skins. For Sami, our place between, our Jewish-Muslim family, is the one and only home he has ever known.
This means a lot of celebrations, combined with just a little bit of confusion. I taught Sami the first words of the Hanukkah prayer, which he repeated with the perfect accent only a multilingual can accomplish. “Baruch atah — it’s happy birthday!” he exclaimed as he lit the candles carefully, one by one, his first time holding fire.
“Whose birthday?” I asked. “Mama’s birthday? Sami’s birthday?”
“It’s Muhammad’s birthday!” he responded with glee, having just celebrated Kandil (the birth of the prophet Muhammad) the week before, without candles but with a very large, decadent chocolate raspberry cake.
One day Sami will better understand the differences in all of their complexity. We are not naive — it will not always be easy for him. He will ask us difficult questions, and we will answer honestly. A fiercely determined person, he will no doubt decide how to incorporate these traditions into his own adult life and those of the family he grows. He, too, will choose his own way.
Far more important to me as his (Jewish) mother, a woman who profoundly loves and is loved by his (Muslim) father, he already knows — as he already is — all that we share.