My Mixed Life: Denise Handlarski, Intermarried Rabbi and Author
My Mixed Life is an interview series where we showcase interesting humans and their mixed lives.
Talking Louis: Who are you?
Rabbi Denise Handlarski: I am an intermarried rabbi serving an in-person community in Toronto and an online community: Secular Synagogue.
TL: What does your mixed experience look like?
DH: People often think that it must have been a big drama when I told my husband (my then-boyfriend) that I was going to become a rabbi. But it wasn't really a big deal at all. He knew I was a committed cultural Jew and he was on board as long as he didn't have to do or change much. I've always respected that he doesn't identify as Jewish and he has always respected that I do.
TL: You are Jewish and your husband isn’t, but you share many of the same values. In what ways, if at all, has being with a non-Jewish person influenced your identity?
DH: We share a lot in terms of our values and politics. Most of the beliefs that translate into action in our home and lives are shared. We are both committed to raising our kids without a belief in any particular deity. They do get exposed to Jewish culture, which my partner likes as it gives them a sense of rootedness. Being with a non-Jewish person does make me consider and articulate which Jewish rituals and customs I want to follow and so it has actually deepened my Jewish identity and experience.
TL: What expectations did you have for your interfaith marriage? How have your expectations been met or not met?
DH: I expected that we would negotiate any points of tension. We had previously agreed to raise our kids with a Jewish identity, and we do. I had thought we wouldn't celebrate Christmas in our home but circumstances changed and so I changed too. Now we have some string lights and a small tree and I have grown to like Christmas and let go of my Jewish guilt around it.
Most of the beliefs that translate into action in our home and lives are shared.
TL: How do you and your husband choose to raise children? How do you discuss faith and religion? In your book, The A-Z of Intermarriage, you talk about Passeaster and how some couples do separate holidays or blend holidays. Do you blend holidays?
DH: We do almost exclusively Jewish holidays, including Shabbat every Friday. My kids are being raised with a Jewish identity and are definitely exposed to more Judaism than anything coming from Christianity. My partner is an atheist who celebrates Christmas with a tree, some modest presents, and a dinner. None of it feels like a conflict with Jewish values. We don't choose to blend (but celebrate that people do it differently!). We do a full-on Passover, often with 5-6 Seders. We do a brief chocolate Easter egg hunt in the backyard on Easter, as well. My kids love finding those eggs and the Passover afikomen. It's all conflict-free for us.
TL: Can you explain to us what Humanistic Judaism is?
DH: Humanistic Judaism is a movement that recognized and provides community and content for people who are secular/cultural Jews. It's for people who don't find prayer meaningful but do identify with Jewish community, history, holidays, customs, rituals, traditions.
TL: You are an intermarried rabbi and officiate at many interfaith and intercultural weddings. What is the general thinking about intermarried rabbis? Is this less common? Why?
DH: In the Humanistic Jewish movement being an intermarried rabbi has always been a-ok. I got engaged while in rabbinical school and the only response from the admin was "mazel tov!" for which I am grateful. Most rabbinic schools and professional associations are still anti-intermarriage, especially for their own clergy. This is a shame. While things are beginning to shift in the more liberal movements of Judaism, the fact is that there are very few intermarried clergy, which means there are very few models for how to do it. It's one of the reasons I wrote my book -- people need models and someone to tell them "I did this and it wasn't the drama people expect. In fact, usually, it's fun!"
Many rabbis will not officiate intermarriages and that just turns people away from our communities and the culture. I think it's a real shame!
TL: As an intermarried rabbi, how do you help couples determine what aspects of Jewish culture and identity to incorporate into their lives?
DH: Most couples have already done a lot of that figuring out by the time they end up on my couch. If they need coaching, I ask them to articulate what is important about the traditions (from either culture) they want to practice so their partner understands. I also ask them to consider how they can make both the process of the negotiation and the practicing of any aspects of culture as fun as possible.
TL: In your experiences, how do you handle the topic of conversion? Are couples nowadays converting or working to blend their faiths/religions/beliefs?
DH: Many people convert because they have to in order to have a rabbi marry them. I don't make people jump through hoops. If people genuinely wish to join the Jewish family then I celebrate that and welcome them! If they don't, I don't require it.
Many couples have wonderful intercultural/interfaith marriages where no one has converted. There is no one right way to do this.
TL: What are the most common challenges and enjoyments you see with intermarried couples?
DH: Sometimes challenges erupt around certain holiday traditions and how to educate kids. But mostly the couples I see are having a lot of fun practicing multiple cultures, learning about their partner's ancestry, etc.
TL: What are some of the most important lessons you would pass on to people who are in interfaith relationships?
DH: Less oy, more joy! And lead with your values.
TL: Because we’re a small press, we have to ask: What’s the one book you always recommend to people?
DH: Besides my own? I don't have a particular book I recommend but I love Marcia Falk's Book of Blessings that are often appropriate for intercultural homes. This doesn't have anything to do with our topic, but I also think everyone should read Toni Morrison's Beloved at some point in their lives.
Thanks, Rabbi Denise, for sharing your mixed experience with us!