I saw a very interesting one-act on Sunday. Called “Both Sides of the Family,” it tells the parallel stories of an Episcopalian woman raising Jewish children in a Conservadox community and a twice-married Jewish man with Jewish children from his first wife and Christian children from his second. It was created and produced by the Charenton Theater Company of Ohio, and was sponsored by the Interfaith Collaborative, a group of Boston-area outreach groups of which InterfaithFamily.com is a part. I helped arrange the connection between Charenton and the Collaborative, and I still don’t know what to make of the play.
Neither character’s experience could be said to be typical of partners in an interfaith marriage. The unnamed female character’s experience is shockingly negative. Her husband’s relatives and her peers at synagogue continually freak out at her ignorance of kashrut (and seem to offer little in the way of helpful guidance), Jewish friends avoid her daughter’s birthday party because it’s on Halloween and when she hangs a lit wreath in their house during Hanukkah–the only sign of her Christian upbringing–her husband tells her, “You’re really pushing it.” Meanwhile, the unnamed male character decides to have an adult bar mitzvah as an apparent defensive reaction against the encroachment of Christianity into his life. Both characters seem genuinely tortured by the religious conflicts in their interfaith marriage–a contrast from the typically positive experiences most intermarried couples report.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that much of the material in the play is autobiographical–the female character is played by Maryann Elder Goldstein, a woman who, like her character, is raising Jewish children in a very traditional Jewish community in the Cleveland area, and the male character is played by Jeffrey Grover, who is also a twice-married Jewish man with two sets of children raised in different religions. The presumptive authenticity of the play makes it difficult to critique–after all, how could you get “more real” than drama drawn from real life?
But as Ed Case, the president of IFF, pointed out to the players after Sunday’s performance, there is always selection bias going on. We see what the two actors and authors chose to portray–and don’t see what they decided not to show. Because the play is staged as two contrapuntal monologues, we hear only the female character’s pain at her Jewish peers’ insensitive remarks and not whether she ever fought back.
And yet, the play’s negative portrait of interfaith marriage may be its biggest strength. Whether you have a positive or negative attitude towards intermarriage, the piece forces you to engage and grapple with the issues it presents. Ed and I both recoiled at the nasty experiences the female character endured, but also felt compelled to articulate to the performers why the play was so off-putting. Those more skeptical of intermarriage will have occasion to reflect on their own insensitivity towards the intermarried. “Both Sides of the Family” is a theater of provocation, and offers no sense of comfort that its characters are destined to live happily ever after.
Indeed, as Grover wrote for us on Friday, the second marriage he speaks about in the play is now in the past. He and his second wife are recently divorced. He partly blames the break-up on his own insecurity over being married to a Christian woman and raising Christian children.
Further complicating response to the play is the lead performers’ divergent attitudes on the play’s authenticity. Elder Goldstein emphasizes the autobiographical nature of her part while Grover downplays the autobiographical nature of his. Does that make the female character’s story “more real” than the male character’s? Do Grover’s claims undermine the authenticity of the female character and therefore open up more space for critical engagement–or do they reflect Grover the actor’s desire to shield his private life from public dissection?
There are many sides to this story, and only a few of them are explicitly shown.
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