Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
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Who else is watching The New Normal on Tuesday nights (or whenever you get to it on your DVRs)? The show follows a gay couple who will soon become fathers, the single mother who is their surrogate, and her young daughter. There are other characters thrown in for color and tension, but they’re the heart of the show.
The gay couple is also interfaith. In the first few episodes, we’ve learned that Bryan (played by Andrew Rannells, best known as Tony-nominated Elder Price from Broadway’s The Book of Mormon) is a Christian, and likely lapsed. Last week, we found out that he was raised Catholic and was rather devout — an altar boy and all. From the pilot, it’s been clear that Bryan’s partner David (Justin Bartha, Dark Horse, Holy Rollers, The Hangover II) is a nice, Jewish doctor. And not practicing (religion; he is a practicing gynecologist). Though he is stereotypically close with his mother…
In last week’s episode, David and Bryan were introduced to the concept of Godparents. As neither currently have spiritual lives themselves, they decided their child ought to have someone to turn to with spiritual questions. The hunt began. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the episode, Bryan had gone to church, talked with a priest, and had encouraged David to go back to synagogue. We also learned that David had not been to temple since he had moved to New York as an undergrad. Feeling alone his freshman year, he took comfort going to temple, surrounded by the familiar rituals and tunes, until he got his bearings in the city. But once he got into med school, he no longer had time for prayer, “except praying I didn’t kill someone.” He hadn’t been back since.
David and Bryan aren’t so unique. Many interfaith couples (heck, many in-married couples too) let religion fall by the side until children come into the picture. At that point, future or new parents might start questioning, like these characters have, how they’ll teach their kids to be ethical and have a greater belief. Others return to religion because they remember happy memories (holidays, food, songs, family and friends coming together for celebrations) and want their children to have them too. Whatever the reason, it’s helpful to discuss how this might look for you and your (future, hypothetical) family before kids appear on the scene. Bryan and David have started this conversation somewhere in the 2nd trimester of surrogate Goldie’s pregnancy. Not bad. (Goldie is played by Georgia King — known mostly for her work in the U.K.) If you’re looking for ideas on how to start conversations, click on the Learning menu at the top of our site and pick a topic that interests you. Happy reading!
I recently officiated a wedding in which there were only a few Jewish people there (and I was one of them). I had met the now bride a few years ago, when she came to me to study about Judaism. She had grown up with Christianity and as an adult was searching. She had always been interested in Judaism, loved the rituals and traditions, and felt she might be home with the people Israel. After a year of regular study, she went to the mikveh and formally cast her lot with the Jewish people. She lit the Sabbath candles and even taught in the early childhood room in the congregation where I was the educator.
A couple of years later, this Jew fell in love with someone who was raised Christian. She came to me again to officiate their wedding. I met with this couple several times to talk about the meaning of the Jewish wedding rituals and to unpack the Jewish wedding liturgy. This couple participated in InterfaithFamily’s Love and Religion — Online workshop. They were able to share with other couples about how they would weave Judaism into their lives and involve their Christian family in holidays and traditions. They had a small wedding of mostly family and almost everyone there were raised with Christianity.
When I stood with them under the chuppah and explained to all present about what they were going to see and hear, my fear was that it would feel anthropological in nature. That people were observing a Jewish wedding but would not be able to participate in it themselves. I was wrong. All present understood the meaning of the open chuppah being a symbol of their home, open to friends and relatives with unconditional hospitality. All understood the symbol of sharing a sip of sweet wine to be a symbol of the beauty of creation and the beauty of what this couple was creating. All understood the seven wedding blessings to be about affirming the potential in human beings to combine love, wisdom and courage and to forge a life of joy and gratitude. All understood the breaking of the glass to be about the fragility of life and finding joy within sorrow. All understood that Judaism had become meaningful not only to the bride, but to her supportive partner and that it could be accessible and meaningful to their whole family.
What I hope for this couple is that they find a Jewish community that can also support them. I have directed them to Jewish communal institutions that provide fellowship and classes for couples just like them. I will encourage them to participate in an Introduction to Judaism class sponsored by Reform Jewish Chicago. But it will be friends and Jewish lay and professional leaders who will help this couple sustain and strengthen their Jewish home and Jewish involvement.
I was meeting with Anita Silvert (who wears many hats in Chicago — she co-chairs Limmud Chicago (look for me there, details to come!) as well as directs a new program in Chicago called Chai Mitzvah). She was telling me today of her hopes to start a cohort of around eight people who are either in an interfaith relationship (either the Jewish partner or partner who isn’t Jewish) or people touched by interfaith families personally. This group would meet once a month to study Jewish texts and each would participate in social justice work throughout the year (serving a cause or charity of interest). Lastly, each would take on a new spiritual practice, guided by a mentor. As she was telling me about the program, she taught me a Rashi teaching from Numbers 5:8, “If a man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord for the priest…” Rashi, a medeival rabbi and important scholar, asks how an Israelite could possibly have no kinsmen, no family, no people. He concludes that this verse must be talking about the ger, a convert.
I could not believe how fitting it was that Anita shared this teaching with me exactly when I was thinking about this wedding of a Jew by choice. We need to make sure that all in the community have people, have kinsmen. That is our sacred and holy task.
If you would like more information about either our Love and Religion — Online workshop for interfaith couples or the Chai Mitzvah program, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.