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This post originally appeared onÂ www.edumundcase.comÂ and is reprinted with permission.
August 1, 2017 is the publication date for the new version of Jim Keenâ€™sÂ Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partnerâ€™s Journey Raising a Jewish Family. I was honored to write the foreword to this one-of-a-kind book: the warm, personal, light-hearted but very serious story of a Protestant man raising Jewish children together with his Jewish wife.
When Jim Keen and his fiancĂ©e Bonnie were planning their wedding, her Jewish grandmother wasnâ€™t sure she would attend, because she disapproved of intermarriage. But she chose love, and danced with Jim at the wedding, saying â€śyouâ€™re my grandson now.â€ť That story brought tears to my eyes, and it and others in this book might to yours.
Interfaith couples like Jim and Bonnie who care about religious traditions face what I call â€śeternalâ€ť issues. Not in the sense that the issues canâ€™t be resolved, because they can be, as Jimâ€™s story vividly demonstrates. But all interfaith couples who want to have religion in their lives have to figure out how to relate to each other and their parents and families over religious traditions; they all have to resolve whether and how to celebrate holidays, to be spiritual together, to find community of like-minded people.
This book follows Jimâ€™s journey through all of those issues. From dating, falling in love, meeting the parents, deciding how children will be raised religiously, considering conversion, to getting married; from baby welcoming ceremonies, to celebrating holidays, finding community, and meeting his own needs in a Jewish family. Itâ€™s a deeply moving story, told with humor, and itâ€™s an important one.
Jim Keenâ€™s example of one interfaith coupleâ€™s journey to Jewish continuity is reassuring. Interfaith couples who are or might be interested in engaging in Jewish life and community can learn from Jimâ€™s story how doing so can add meaning and value to their lives.
Along his journey, Jim shares extremely helpful insights. For example: His and his wifeâ€™s feelings and attitudes changed over time, with him moving from feeling different, â€śstanding out,â€ť â€śnot belonging,â€ť to feeling â€śpart of.â€ť For another: Interfaith couples, no matter what path they follow, have to make a conscious effort to work out their religious traditions, which can lead to more thoughtful and deeper engagement. And another: Interfaith couples arenâ€™t alone, and itâ€™s very helpful to become friends and work through issues with other couples.
Interfaith couples follow many paths, and Jim Keen doesnâ€™t say his path is right for everyone. He continued to practice his own religion; some partners in his position donâ€™t practice any religion, or practice Judaism, or even convert. Jim and his wife chose one religion for their children; some couples decide to raise their children in two religions, and many couples havenâ€™t decided, or havenâ€™t yet. The clear advice Jim does give is that there are solutions to the issues that interfaith relationships raise, and that the key to resolving them is early and ongoing respectful communication. How Jim spells out the negotiation and communication he and his wife had over many issues will help couples facing the same issues, no matter what paths they may be thinking of taking.
Jim expresses deep gratitude for finding very warm and welcoming JCC preschool and synagogue communities, and especially a rabbi by whom he felt genuinely embraced. It is essential that more interfaith couples experience that kind of welcome. Most Jews have relatives in interfaith relationships now, and many Jewish professionals are working with people in interfaith relationships. This book promotes better understanding not only of the eternal issues interfaith couples face, but in particular the perspective of the partner from a different faith background.
Jim Keen doesnâ€™t promote interfaith marriage, but he does recognize its positive impacts, including an appreciation for tolerance and diversity. He writes that being in an interfaith relationship has broadened his perspective and enhanced not only his life, but also his parentsâ€™ and in-lawsâ€™ lives too. He still enjoys â€śbelonging to [his] Scottish-American, Protestant group, but itâ€™s a warm feeling being able to see the world through Jewish eyes, as well.â€ť He also rightly recognizes his and his familyâ€™s contribution to the Jewish community: â€śI am proud to say, there are some Keens who happen to be Jewish. I love it.â€ť I love it, and I think you will, too.
Today, with intermarriage so common, Jim Keenâ€™s perspective is more important and valuable than ever. Jim Keen and his family â€“ on both sides â€“ are heroes of Jewish life. They are role models for how a parent from a different faith background and a Jewish parent, together with all of the grandparents, can support the Jewish engagement of their children and grandchildren. They all deserve deep appreciation for this utmost gift, Jim especially for shedding light on the journey.
You can order the bookÂ here.
I met Jeremy and Lisa at a coffee shop to plan their upcoming wedding. We had covered most of the usual pre-ceremony topics: communication, values and balancing work and home life. Lisa had a strong Jewish sense of self from her upbringing and was excited that Jeremy, who didnâ€™t follow any particular religious tradition, was more than happy to go along for the ride. Jeremy expressed genuine interest in learning more about Lisaâ€™s traditions.
As we were putting the final touches on the ceremony, he asked an honest and important question: â€śDo I need to break the glass at our wedding?â€ť Many couples I work with both break a glass or fight over who gets to do it. Performing Jewish rituals with Lisa felt fine to Jeremy, but doing it alone seemed to be making a statement that this tradition was his. The idea of the ritual itself was not the issue, but what it represented.
Jeremy wanted to make sure Lisa understood that he would be a supportive partner in any way he could, but that didnâ€™t mean he would become Jewish by default without actually choosing it. What, exactly, would his role be in raising Jewish children? How far would he need to go to feel he had satisfied what was expected of him? If he were to go to services or host a Shabbat dinner, would it be enough to be present, or would he be expected to pray using Hebrew words? His concern was encapsulated by one grand symbolic gesture of breaking a glass, but the broader concern he was raising was whether he would be required to pretend he is someone he is not. It was a fair question.
Although breaking the glass is the quintessential symbol of a Jewish wedding, it is, in fact, a folk custom. One does not need to close a ceremony with this ritual for the union to be considered Jewish, and they arenâ€™t the only couple I have married to skip this tradition altogether at their Jewish wedding. Indeed, my hope is that couples from different backgrounds will be drawn to the beauty and meaning in such traditions and take part in them because they bring deep value to their ceremony and to their lives.
In voicing his question, Jeremy highlighted how important it is for couples to hear what is emerging for each partner. Partners who arenâ€™t Jewish often report feeling a de facto assumption that they will live a Jewish life going beyond just supporting their family members. We are getting better at welcoming people as â€śfellow travelersâ€ť who do not wish to convert, but we still expect a lot of them.
Partners in interfaith relationships need clarity around their roles. A common phrase in contemporary ketubahsÂ is that each partner pledges to support the otherâ€™s traditions. But what does â€śsupportâ€ť entail? There is no single answer, but the question needs to be asked. Jeremy had the courage and confidence in his relationship to consider the future and what might be asked of him. He didnâ€™t want surprises later and he didnâ€™t want his partner to feel blindsided or disappointed at some future pivotal moment.
If you are in an interfaith relationship and getting married soon, this is the perfect time to ask yourselves some of the hard questions. Learning how to have conversations like this lays the groundwork for other challenges that will come your way. Be honest and clear about what you envision, and be as detailed as you can be about your hopes and plans. For example, if you are Jewish and say you will support your partnerâ€™s desire to celebrate Christmas, talk about what that will look like, what will be expected of you and what kinds of traditions are important to your partner. If you are not Jewish and youâ€™re happy to support Jewish holiday traditions or childrenâ€™s education, talk about what exactly will be asked of you. How would a child be welcomed into the world, if at all? Would you see a religious education in that childâ€™s future? Shabbat dinners? Will you hold each other responsible to ensure certain traditions are present in your lives? In the event of a breakup, would you expect the other to support these decisions?
Donâ€™t leave these issues for later because they feel too difficult or, conversely, because they feel insignificant. This is the time, and we at InterfaithFamily are here to guide you.
Two of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theoryâ€™s main characters, Howard and Bernadette, announced that they are having a baby. Mere moments after hearing the news, the father-to-be was fretting about how they would raise their child since they come from different religious backgrounds. â€śHowâ€™s this all going to work? Youâ€™re Catholic, Iâ€™m Jewish. What religion do we raise it?! And if itâ€™s a boy, do we get him circumcised?â€ť
While their different backgrounds have bubbled up in past episodes, I imagine that Wolowitzâ€™ rant in this scene hit home for many interfaith couples. Navigating two distinct backgrounds is often quite simpleâ€¦until someone is holding a positive pregnancy test in hand.
When does the topic of religion usually come up in interfaith relationships? Some begin talking about religion before anything gets serious, especially when a faith background is very important to one or both people. But the reality for many couples from different religious or cultural backgrounds is that they only start to discuss these potential differences well into their relationship. For those who plan to have children, conversations about raising children often occur only after having them. Bringing a child into the world can rouse religious questions for the first time. In fact, the least religiously connected time of many peopleâ€™s lives is young adulthood, so when they meet a partner, religion may be the last thing on their minds.
My advice is to talk early and often. Try introducing the topic with these conversation startersâ€”either before having kids or when kids are young:
1. Â Talk about your respective backgrounds. Do you both come from a religious heritage that is significant to you? Or just one?
2. Â Imagine your life about 5 or 10 years down the road. Do you picture particular religious rituals occurring (ie. baby namings, baptism, bris/Jewish ritual circumcision, bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation, etc)? Religious education? Explain to each other what is important to you and whyâ€”even if you never had to articulate it before.
3. Â Talk about holidays and milestones. Which will you celebrate? Why are they important to you? With whom will you spend them? How will you explain your decisions to your child so they feel pride and ownership over their identity or identities?
4. Â How will you include family members who donâ€™t share traditions and celebrations you choose to observe?
5. Â You donâ€™t have to have it all figured out right this minute, but setting the stage will help tremendously. You will develop a shared language and a better understanding of what is important to each of you. When issues do arise, it wonâ€™t be the first time youâ€™ve thought about religion together.
The clearer you are about the decisions you are making, the clearer you can be with your kids, in-laws and other extended family and friends. Donâ€™t shy away from talking about religion. You will actually become stronger as a couple when you learn to communicate about delicate subjects without fear of threatening the relationship between the two of you or extended family. Plus, as you learn more about one anotherâ€™s backgrounds, hopes and desires, you could actually be uncovering stories that allow you to know each other on an even deeper level. If you feel more comfortable having a guide with you as you broach these questions, the InterfaithFamily staff is here to help.
Are Bernadette and Howard too late to figure out the logistics of an interfaith family? Not at all. But better to not be taken by surprise.
Of course there is no such thing as the â€śbest partner,â€ť but you want your loved one to feel that you are their best partner, right? Whether youâ€™re dating, married or seriously committed, the best gift you can give your loved one is to be supportiveâ€”even on those rare (or not so rare) occasions when you donâ€™t see eye to eye.
1. Speak your mind: Speaking up is just as important as listening. If your partner doesnâ€™t know how you feel, they canâ€™t be sensitive to your feelings. If Passoverâ€™s coming up and youâ€™d really like a hand preparing to host the holiday, donâ€™t wait for them to offerâ€”ask! So many relationship struggles come from lack of communication. If youâ€™re visiting your significant otherâ€™s parents and youâ€™re anxious about not being familiar with certain religious rituals that might come up during a holiday of a religion you donâ€™t practice, ask for a primer (better yet, if itâ€™s Jewish information you seek, find one here!). Youâ€™ll feel more comfortable and your loved one will appreciate your interest in their religion.
2. Go halfsies: My husband and I annoyingly like to tease each other that â€śwhatâ€™s yours is mineâ€ť when it comes to that ice cream sundae or a winning scratch ticket. But it goes both ways. When I see him eyeing the last of my homemade Hanukkah cookies: â€śWhatâ€™s mine is yours.â€ť When that wine bottle is almost empty: â€śWhatâ€™s mine is yours.â€ť When you’re both generous with the little things, you might find youâ€™re in a better mindset to compromise on the big stuff too.
3. Get creative: Feel like most of the time youâ€™re on autopilot? Work, grocery store, gym, errands, pick up the kids (if you have kids), etc. Thatâ€™s because we all are. So when you actually get a free minute to spare with your sweetheart, it can be hard to figure out what to do with itâ€”besides a Netflix binge. But there are so many great events going on every week in the Jewish community, plus workshops from InterfaithFamily for couples and new parents. #ChooseLove by taking advantage of that precious free time in a more enriching way and learn something new together. Even if itâ€™s just once in a while, youâ€™ll be glad you got off the couch.
4. Take your time: Figuring out your religious identity as a couple or family takes time. You might want to feel like you have a plan for celebrating holidays and family gatherings thatâ€™s just rightâ€”from the get-go. Let yourself off the hook! Be OK with not being the perfect Passover host this year. Your what-went-wrongs will inform next year. And some unexpected moments worth repeating will almost certainly happen organically. As you see what works for youâ€”hosting versus visiting, keeping the kids in school versus bringing them to a holiday observance, etc.â€”youâ€™ll start to create your own traditions.
5. Let it go: I’m not saying you should avoid communication and let hurt feelings fester (especially about big issues), but this is about not â€śsweating the small stuff.â€ť If your partnerâ€™s complaining about visiting your in-laws for Easter again, but you know sheâ€™s had a terrible, no good, very bad day, maybe let this one slide. Or if youâ€™ve already made your opinion known that your grandmother has the best chicken soup recipe on the planet, and it would be a travesty not to serve it to your guests, put it in perspective: If itâ€™s really important for your partner to connect with their grandma through an old passed-down recipe, perhaps itâ€™s not worth ruining your holiday over soup. Often we expect a lot from our loved ones, but sometimes we lose sight of whatâ€™s worth getting worked up over. And more important: whatâ€™s not.
I had a dream last night that I was officiating a wedding of an interfaith couple. It wasnâ€™t a particularly strange situation: A lovely couple stood in front of their family and friends. The bride was in a gorgeous white gown, the groom in a nice black tuxedo. The three of us stood there, under the chuppah about to consecrate their marriage and begin their life as a married couple. And a priest showed up to officiate alongside me. I didnâ€™t know him but the groom seemed to be expecting him and the ceremony proceeded. A little while later the groom shared that heâ€™d like to read a poem that was important to him, I again wasnâ€™t expecting this but he was standing there, under the chuppah, with a piece of paper in his hands ready to read. Once he started I realized it was a series of bible verses from the New Testament asking that all attendees pray in Jesusâ€™ name as their marriage was blessed in the church. I looked over at the bride and saw that she was as shocked as I was, never having discussed this with her groom, I saw the questioning and blindsided look in her eyes.
I call this a dream, although as a rabbi I would more likely call this a nightmare. The couple had clearly never talked to one another about their religious preferences, and had not communicated their wishes with meâ€”their rabbi and wedding officiant. This nightmare is unlikely to occur to this extreme, but in real life it has me thinking a lot about the issues couples have in planning weddings and marriages. The flowers and catering and dress seem like tangible, albeit not necessarily easy, decisions to make when planning a wedding. Even talking about how to plan for finances and a wedding budget are expected parts of forging ahead in a marriage. But how does talking about religion and beliefs factor into the planning process?
My husband and I went on our first date on a Friday night to Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue. I knew he was raised attending Chabad and other Orthodox synagogues, and he knew I was studying to be a rabbi. We both tried to impress each other by suggesting Shabbat for our first date.Â In a lot of ways this was the best way to start our relationship, and in a lot of ways it was a hysterical failure.
I could tell that he was really uncomfortable in this liberal religious setting, and I was worried that he would never want to see me again! After services we went for sushi and beers and had our first conversation about religion. Iâ€™m sure religion isnâ€™t on the Cosmopolitan â€śthings to talk about on a first dateâ€ť list, but we broke that rule. It was clear that religion was an important part of both of our stories, and it was essential that we talked about it right away. Our case may be extreme when compared with other relationships, but talking about religion and/or personal beliefs is important in all relationships BEFORE planning for marriage or children.
Why is it important? Imagine this scenario: You or your partner encounters a difficult situation and one says to the other, â€śGod meant for this to happen because youâ€™re being tested.â€ťÂ Or, â€śThere is no God so itâ€™s not like any higher power can help you through this.â€ť Does what your partner said help you, or raise even more questions for you while offending you? Would your partner be better equipped to support you if he or she knew something about your beliefs in order to be more sensitive?
Imagine another scenario: You are engaged, youâ€™ve chosen a date for your wedding, the deposit has been paid, the florist and caterer already have their plans and itâ€™s time to choose the officiant. You want a rabbi, your partner wants a priest. What do you do?
Itâ€™s important to talk about it, but HOW do you talk about it? Do you say while youâ€™re out shopping, â€śOh I really like the fabric on this sofa, and do you believe in God?â€ť Thatâ€™s probably not the most productive way, although if the fabric makes you think of it and your partner is open to it, by all means take a seat in Pier One and talk about God!
There are so many resources to help you have this conversation: InterfaithFamily has articles and discussion guides, and in some InterfaithFamily/Your Communities, including LA, we offer a workshop for interfaith couples to talk about religious issues in their relationships.
Here’s a quick primer:
Watch a movie or read a book that might bring up the question for you. My personal favorites are Keeping the Faith and The Frisco Kid but there are so many others. Most recently the movie This is Where I Leave You addresses so many interfaith and Jewish questions in a funny and heartwarming way.
Play a game of what do you think aboutâ€¦.? For example, use this prompt to start an open and non-judgmental conversation about beliefs. Ask your partner, â€śWhat do you think about going to church/synagogue?â€ť; â€śWhat do you think about the afterlife?â€ť; â€śWhat do you think about how weâ€™ll do holidays once weâ€™re married?â€ť; â€śWhat do you think about God or a higher power?â€ť
Donâ€™t get intimidated by the tough religious questionsâ€”you can also ask things like â€śWhat are your top five guiding values?â€ť Or, â€śWhat should we do together as a couple or family that is meaningful?â€ť
The specific questions you ask arenâ€™t as important as the fact that you are talking about it.Â More communication is great for relationship building, and it helps your wedding officiant create with you the most beautiful and meaningful wedding.Â Not to mention, your marriage will be so much stronger for it.
I have to say that I have mixed feelings about â€śthe holiday season.â€ť While I love the beauty of the lights and decorations, it can feel a bit overwhelming and ostracizing to someone who did not grow up celebrating Christmas.
And then what to do when someone wishes meâ€”a Jewâ€”a â€śmerry Christmasâ€ť? How to reply?
I have gone through my own evolution on this front. It used to feel very important for me to make a statement that I did not celebrate Christmas, and that in fact, my own holiday of Hanukkah was coming up. When someone wished me a merry Christmas, I used to reply with â€śThanks, Iâ€™ll have a happy Hanukkah.â€ť Sometimes Iâ€™d say this good naturedly, other times more pointedly, depending on my mood. But what did this really accomplish? Maybe making me feel a little less invisible amidst all the green garlands, but it probably embarrassed the well-wisher more than enlightening them.
Interestingly, being in an interfaith relationship has softened me somewhat and made it easier for me to accept these greetings in the spirit in which they were given. For the first time, I felt like I actually had a personal way to connect to and celebrate Christmas even if it wasnâ€™t my holiday. I would celebrate with my significant otherâ€™s family so I didnâ€™t feel so left out. And I didnâ€™t feel disingenuous by accepting a â€śmerry Christmas.â€ť
So what to say during this time? â€śHappy holidaysâ€ť is always broad enough to encompass many celebrations. â€śHappy New Yearâ€ť can also work for virtually everybody.
Here are my top tips for Holiday Greetings:
1. Â Try to accept greetings in the spirit in which they are given. If you are not celebrating Christmas, this can be hard to do, but usually the person offering a â€śmerry Christmasâ€ť wants to be friendly. If this makes you feel uncomfortable, see #2.
2. Â Pick your battles. Pointing out that you or your family celebrate Hanukkah to the cashier in the busy checkout line is not likely to elicit much change on their part. However, if â€śmerry Christmasâ€ť is encroaching in your school or work place, consider talking with someone in authority. Call them aside at a calm moment to explain how the good intentions can actually backfire and make those not celebrating Christmas feel invisible or excluded. Offer some alternatives instead.
3. Â Consider what is causing the sting for you. Sometimes understanding our reactions can help us manage them. I realized that part of my reaction was due to defining my Judaism as NOT Christmas. When I recognized this, I could shift my focus away from what Iâ€™m not and onto what I am, and enjoy Hanukkah and the parts of the holiday season that appealed to me.
4. Â In an interfaith family, know how your partner wants to handle things. Whether you are the Jewish partner or the partner raised in another faith, what feels inclusive and celebratory to you? To your partner? What feels exclusionary? The holidays can trigger people in unexpected ways, so be sure to communicate with each other ahead of time, and be there to back each other up.
5. Â Communicate clearly with your extended family members. How will you handle family celebrations and gifts? Is it OK for someone to wish you or your child a â€śMerry Christmasâ€ť if you are attending a family Christmas dinner? Is â€śHappy Hanukkahâ€ť appropriate for everyone at the Hanukkah party, even if some of the guests are not Jewish? Sometimes the setting and circumstances matter.
6. Â Be conscious and considerate. If you do not know what holiday or holidays someone celebrates, ask them, or use a more generic greeting like â€śHappy Holidaysâ€ť or â€śHappy New Year.â€ť
7. Â Enjoy! Amidst the craziness that sometimes engulfs the holidays, and the missteps that are bound to happen, remember what is most important to you during this season and celebrate that.
The late great comedian Joan Rivers had many famous lines, but she was probably better known for these three words than for any others. For many of us, we just have to hear this phrase and Joan comes to mind.
Yet perhaps ironically, when Joan Rivers uttered the phrase â€śCan we talk?â€ť it wasnâ€™t that she really wanted to engage with her audience in discussion. She didnâ€™t want to talk WITH us. She wanted to talk TO us. What she wanted wasnâ€™t for us to RESPOND, but for us to LISTEN. She had something to sayâ€¦and she wanted our undivided attention.
Many of us like to talk. We have something to say â€“ perhaps a point to make or a feeling or opinion to express. We think of talking as activeâ€¦it involves doing something.
We tend to think of listening, in contrast, as passiveâ€¦as if we donâ€™t have to do anything to listen. But in fact, truly listening isnâ€™t always easy and itâ€™s certainly not passive. As any therapist, chaplain, social worker or member of the clergy will tell you, active listening is a crucial skillâ€”every bit as important to a conversation as speaking, and often more so. Itâ€™s incredibly powerful for a person to know that theyâ€™re being listened toâ€”that theyâ€™re being â€śheardâ€ť (and this often involves much more than just words)â€”by someone else whoâ€™s taking in what they say without any agenda other than to be present for them.
In Judaism, our central prayer is the Shema. And what does the Hebrew word Shema mean? It means â€śHear.â€ť Hearing/listening is at the very heart of Judaism.
When I was growing up, there was a wonderful poem in the Friday night prayer book my synagogue usedâ€”it was read before reciting the Shema. The prayer, written by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner, was called â€śListen.â€ť It began as follows:
Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel!
But what does it really mean to hear?
The person who attends a concert with a mind on business,
Hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
The person who walks amid the songs of the birds
And thinks only of what will be served for dinner, hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
The one who listens to the words of a friend, or spouse, or child, and does not catch the note of urgency: “Notice me, help me, care about me,” hearsâ€”but does not really hearâ€¦.
I loved this poem (and still do) because it emphasizes the importance of being truly present in the moment â€¦ of hearing/listening to what is happening around you, or what another person is saying to you.
Iâ€™m not a poet, but I often wish that I could add some verses to Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Kushnerâ€™s poem â€śListenâ€ť and share them with the people I work with (interfaith couples as well as Jewish professionals) in my role as Director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. The verses Iâ€™d add would be:
The person in an interfaith relationship who talks with her partner about religion but cares only about her own religious heritage, and not her partnerâ€™s, hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
The parent of a child in an interfaith relationship who worries about what other people in his community will say about his child â€śintermarryingâ€ť as his daughter tells him how much she loves her fiancĂ©, hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
The parent whose child tells her about his partner of another faith and she thinks only that she would prefer that the partner be of the same faith, hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
The rabbi who sits with a couple in an interfaith relationship and thinks about how it would be better if Jews only dated other Jews, hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
The rabbi who talks to a Christian parent of a bat mitzvah student and is convinced that all parents raising Jewish children should themselves convert to Judaism, hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
The synagogue staff person or lay leader who insists that their synagogue is â€śwelcomingâ€ť of interfaith families but isnâ€™t comfortable with those who arenâ€™t Jewish participating in the life of the synagogue, hearsâ€”but does not really hear.
When it comes to interfaith relationships, many peopleâ€”those in the relationship, their parents and other family members, clergy and othersâ€”may have concerns that are legitimate, and that should perhaps be expressed. But just as each person involved might feel like they need time to TALK, each person should also be sure to take time to LISTEN. Listening can be a tremendous gift to others and to yourself as well. If you are able to actively listen to and hear someone else, it just may make it easier for them to hear you.
I remember the day I introduced our kids to The Prince of Egypt.Â I loved this movie, and I was excited to be sharing it with them. Then my partner entered the living room: â€śHow can we teach our kids these stories?!â€ť The slavery, the plagues, and worse, God as a killer of babies. Suddenly, I felt the need to defend Passover, the Exodus story and Judaism as a whole. I know the Exodus is a tough story, but I also felt passionately about it.
It was not the first time my partner, who did not grow up Jewish, has challenged Judaism in this way to me. It began many years ago, before having children, at a Shabbat service. We were nearing the end of the liturgy, singing the â€śAleynuâ€ť prayer. She nudged me, whispering, â€śDo you know what youâ€™re saying?â€ťÂ Startled out of my rote recital, I looked at the page. â€śYou [God] have not created us like them, you have not made our lot like the families of the earth.â€ť
Eek! Honestly, I had never read the English, and didnâ€™t know enough Hebrew back then to have parsed it out myself. I had grown up with translations of this prayer that lessened the â€śchosennessâ€ť aspect. I didnâ€™t know what to say. So I stopped saying it. Not based solely on the Aleynu, I ended up choosing to become a rabbi through the Reconstructionist movement which deletes notions of chosenness from the liturgy.
It was a great example of someone with fresh eyes pushing me to think more deeply and critically at my own tradition. I had to resist a knee-jerk reaction and listen. This kind of dialogue, I believe, is an interfaith relationship at its best. Since then, my partner has pointed out countless issues to me, shaking me out of my complicity to call out where Judaism needs to evolve and transform.
But it also raises the issue: Who gets to criticize? Itâ€™s a common interfaith scenario: An issue comes up around a holiday, or a rabbi or pastor says something during services that rubs someone the wrong way. Suddenly, one partner feels responsible for defending an entire tradition spanning thousands of years. But something else happens as well. Often, the â€śdefenderâ€ť gets worried. What if my partner is so angry about this that we canâ€™t have this tradition alive in our home?
The truth is that every one of us has gripes with our own religion. And in Judaism, criticizing from within is built into this tradition that loves to hold many opinions as equally valid. But something different happens when a person of another faith criticizes your own, and when that person is your partner, different dynamics can arise. Perhaps at another point in your life, such a critique may have been the entrĂ©e into an interesting interfaith dialogue about why a tradition does this or that. But in this moment it can feel threatening.
Interfaith couples keep a lot of our religious or cultural issues swept nicely under the carpet. We fear that if we really explore what we want our lives to look like, or what we really believe or donâ€™t believe, we could threaten our relationship. So we tuck issues away because it seems to go just fine if we do. That is, until they come up again. And they always do.
I would like to offer some tips for getting through â€ścritiqueâ€ť moments:
1. Â Everyone picks at the little things. Get past the â€śOh no, he is going to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater!â€ť mentality. Discuss long range, overarching plans for spirituality and religion in your home. Then you will be freed up to discuss the details of how those broad decisions will play out in your everyday lives. The little things can be merely interesting, philosophical conversations instead of â€śmake it or break itâ€ť moments.
2. Â Use those critiques as opportunities to learn together. What does Jewish tradition say about that ritual? Was it always observed in that way? Do other movements in Judaism see it differently, and is there flexibility in how the practicing partner executes it?
3. Â Take a deep breath. If you do feel the need to defend a ritual, a piece of liturgy or a theological stance, ask yourself why you feel aligned with it. Is it nostalgic? A deeply held belief? Or because â€śthat is the way it has always been?â€ť Do you feel the need to present a â€śperfectâ€ť version of your tradition to your partner? What is coming up for you?
4. Â Judaism holds that all Jews were standing at Mount Sinai (where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God according to the Book of Exodus). That means that everyone heard the revelation of the tradition, and everyone has equal allowance to interpret it for themselves. But there was also an â€śerev ravâ€ťâ€”a mixed multitude of fellow travelers who left with the Israelites from Egypt. They heard it as well and, therefore, get to weigh in on this evolving tradition. That means that by bringing a partner into a Jewish life who isnâ€™t Jewish, she or he gets to have a say. Listen carefully to each otherâ€™s critiquesâ€”there is often great wisdom and insight when someone is coming from another perspective.
Often couples come from different backgrounds and it can be difficult to find common ground. But usually, if people have similar value systems, couples can work out compromises in their relationship. There are a variety of differences that affect a relationship. These differences make life interesting but sometimes differences cause conflict (and hopefully resolution). My family often says â€śThatâ€™s why there are so many different flavors of ice cream!â€ť Here is an overview about some of the types of differences couples may face.
Religious Differences: In my large family, each of us siblings observe our religion in a different way. Many people remark that they canâ€™t believe we were raised in the same house. As each of us has gotten married, we have evolved so that we have similar practices to our spouses. In fact, now that our society moves around so much more than people did 50 years ago, it makes sense that altering oneâ€™s religious practices to suit our spouse is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, the proximity to oneâ€™s parents may affect the level of practice. For example, if you are hundreds of miles from your parents but around the corner from your in-laws, your householdâ€™s religious practices are likely to evolve toward the practice of your in-laws. Sharing holidays with extended family is going to change your practices as well.
I remember my brother saying that his decisions should not be affected by the decisions of his brother-in-law. The reality is that once the in-laws moved to the same city, celebrations were modified. He adjusted and the family holidays look a bit different. I think my brotherâ€™s anticipation of what potential modifications might be was much scarier than the reality. I once told my kids I didnâ€™t just marry Daddy, I married his whole family: his mom, his sister, his dad. If you have any concerns about your future in-laws, think carefully. Especially if kids are in the picture, any differences are magnified.
Geographic Differences: Being from different parts of the country can be another area where a couple needs to find compromise. East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Deep Southâ€”finding common ground can be challenging in this area as well. As a Southerner, I have lived in the Northeast most of my adult life. Yet, during a recent cold snap, I mentioned that I wished I lived in the South. A friend commented, â€śShouldnâ€™t you be used to the cold by now?â€ť I responded, â€śI guess the novelty has worn off.â€ť Celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah in a snowy climate when you are used to never wearing a coat can be an adjustment. Similar adjustments include city vs. suburbs vs. rural living. My husband loves the city and I would be quite happy living in a rural environment. Suburb is the obvious compromise but not all issues can be resolved as easily.
Nationality Differences: For one couple in my extended family, the parents were from Europe and the daughter was born in Israel. She moved to the U.S. when she was a child but always called herself an Israeli. Her parents always referred to themselves as European. She married an American but always made comments referring to her Israeli pride. I think that this difference was a point of contention for the woman and her husband. Attitudes, manners, celebrations were always an issue for them. Both partners were Jewish but the nationality differences were a struggle for them. Ultimately, the couple divorced for a variety of reasons but nationality differences definitely caused some of their disagreement.
Cultural Differences: Some families have a sit-down dinner every night. Other families never eat together because the parents are always working. Some families believe that there should be a stay-at-home parent while other families prefer a live-in caretaker. Differences of opinion regarding parochial school or public school or even boarding school can exist in the same family. Some issues such as school can be worked out with relative ease but other issues can be a huge hurdle in a relationship. Do both partners intend to work? Do you believe in daycare or nannies or neither? Differences in attitudes can rise up. If one parent stays home for a while, will there be resentment? If one parent travels for work, will there be resentment?
Financial Differences: Some people like to spend money, others like to save it.Â If one partner wants to travel to the Caribbean every winter but the financial situation does not allow for that, there should be some discussion. Does one partner want to eat out four nights a week at a sit-down restaurant? Do you agree on savings? Financial issues can be a major point of contention after several years of marriage. It is important to discuss what you and your partner expect regarding savings and debt. Donâ€™t be afraid to disagree, but do have these discussions.
While you are dating, â€śwhat ifâ€ť scenarios are helpful (but not binding because circumstances always change). It is good to discuss these issues to assess whether you and your partner can compromise. As they say, â€śVive La DiffĂ©rence!â€ť but keep your eyes open. You should be thinking like a team. If you find that you are feeling â€śaloneâ€ť in your thinking, it might be good to seek counseling. Entering a marriage with confidence is paramount.
A few weeks ago, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia hosted our first gathering for young adults from interfaith homes and those who are in interfaith relationships: Love, Religion & Cockatils. We were fortunate enough to work with The Jewish Collaborative, a local organization that works with people in their 20s and 30s. In addition, our programming committee was terrific in coming up with the right type of program and the appropriate language for the marketing materials. Lots of organizations have mixers or programs, but this event was a little bit of both. It was an amazing night!
Drinks and appetizers: Everyone was given two drink tickets and there was a table with appetizers so that everyone could snack and mingle. We wanted everyone to have a chance to engage in casual conversation before we broke up into two groups. We served the â€śLove & Religionâ€ť as our signature cocktail. Weâ€™re pretty sure our participants enjoyed our special concoction.
A unique format: We wanted people to talk casually about their experiences and to connect with one another. The programming committee thought that the best way to achieve this would be to ask lighthearted questions such as, â€śWhat is your favorite holiday movie and why?â€ť We hoped participants would explain their points of view as to why they liked certain movies, thus sparking conversation about issues such as how childhood memories inform our identity. We know that for many people, there is a lot of passion about their religion that has to do with memories. We asked other fun questions such as â€śIf you described your family as a food, what would it be?â€ť We heard, â€śa pizza bagel,â€ť â€śa potato latke.â€ť The answers were fun and touched upon the backgrounds of each person. One person talked about feelings associated with a Christmas tree. Another person talked about family meals and holidays.
During our conversations, we heard the most fascinating stories. One woman who grew up in America went to Israel and is now engaged to a Muslim from Sudan. Another woman told us about growing up in a Jewish/Puerto Rican household. One of the couples talked about how the rabbi at their wedding was so wonderful and welcoming that the partner who did not grow up Jewish is now considering converting.
A measure of success: we handed out short evaluations and all data indicated that everyone seemed quite happy with the program. The real measure of success in my mind was that people stayed for an hour after the event ended to talk to one another and our staff. Obviously, there is a real need for a forum for folks to connect and share their stories. Iâ€™m proud that IFF/Philadelphia offered that space for them and Iâ€™m pleased to be part of an organization that offers a safe space for people to share and communicate online and in person.
Would you like to attend Love, Religion and Cocktails in the future in Philadelphia or elsewhere? Share your comments and ideas below.