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
I admit it: I’m the last person to follow a story about Charlie Sheen. The truth is, I just don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me that his personal life is a mess; that it’s creating a mess in his professional life, though I do feel sorry for the rest of the cast and crew on Two and a Half Men who will get paid less this year as a result of a shortened production schedule; and that the result is creating a mess online, clogging up the series of tubes that make the internet.
But here I am, blogging about Charlie Sheen. Because there’s now two angles that I do find interesting, and relevant to InterfaithFamily.com: Sheen’s ex-wife, Brooke Mueller, is Jewish. His (their) twin boys are Jewish. (Sheen is not Jewish.)
So, first, there’s the rampant anti-semitism in Hollywood, an industry largely run by Jews (at all levels, from actors and writers up to studio executives). And the latest round of drama unfolding for Sheen includes allegations of anti-semitism:
Brooke Mueller, in court documents, has accused Charlie Sheen of sending an anti-semitic text message about his manager, Mark Burg. Mueller alleges that Sheen wrote, “I must execute mark b like the stoopid jew pig that he is.”
Or is Mueller using Sheen’s phone to send messages making him look bad, as Sheen’s (Jewish) former publicist claims?
Is Sheen getting lessons from Mel Gibson (Gibson’s trying to “save” Sheen!)? How does this compare to the John Galliano (Dior) mess? How does the entertainment industry handle this? What are the ramifications (both for Sheen and for the anti-semitic trend in general), if any? Is it possible that Sheen’s former publicist was just trying to protect his former client by claiming that Mueller is somehow using Sheen’s phone to make him look bad when it was Sheen himself doing the dirty work? Sheen is clearly unstable and I think the people in his camp were/are attempting to do damage control at every angle because Sheen is destroying his life. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the anti-semitism allegations.
The second issue is, what does this mean for the boys? Divorce can be hard enough without a media circus and public scandals. Throwing in anti-semitism (real or alleged) to an interfaith family’s divorce must be confusing, at the very least, for their boys.
In the past year we’ve had several posts on this blog about the sensationalized Reyes divorce case where the father took the child to church against a court order etc.
Karen Kushner provides a much more sane approach to the whole subject of divorce in interfaith families in a recent interview with Virginia Gilbert, the “Divorce and Parenting Examiner” for Examiner.com/Los Angeles. Some of her points:
There’s lots more in the article, including advice from our friends Arlene Chernow, a URJ outreach specialist, and her husband Eli Chernow, a retired California judge.
I’ve been preoccupied lately with the Jewish Community Heroes voting contest, which ended today. (I think I made it into the top 20 vote getters and am eligible for an award, but more about that another day, after the official results are announced.)
I’m catching up on what’s been published lately and it occurred to me: if there were to be a voting contest on who is the best writer about interfaith family issues today, Julie Wiener should clearly be at or near the top of the list.
Julie has two great blog posts this week. In Harboring Boston Envy, she writes about many of the features that make Boston a great Jewish community (full disclosure – I’m a Boston loyalist), and especially about our wonderfully welcoming community mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim. A great example of Julie’s perceptive sensitivity is this:
More important than the aesthetic is the facility’s warm, welcoming and nonjudgmental approach, with volunteer mikveh guides trained to be sensitive not just to the needs of men and women, liberal and Orthodox Jews, first-timers, converts, grieving Jews, joyous Jews and those about-to-be married (including lesbian and gay couples), but also to interfaith families.
In one of the four preparation rooms hung a beautiful framed photo and certificate of sorts that not only commemorated a family’s conversion of their baby but that explicitly acknowledged that while the baby’s non-Jewish mom is not herself converting, she plans to be supportive of and involved in the child’s Jewish upbringing.
I’ve seen that photo and certificate, it is stunning, and Julie is exactly right about Mayyim Hayyim’s warm, welcoming and nonjudgmental approach.
A Message from Joseph Reyes is about the divorced father who at one point was ordered not to take his daughter to church, raising all kinds of publicity that we covered months ago. Julie writes about a message she received from Mr. Reyes. To me he sounds more than a little paranoid, but her take on the complexities of interfaith divorces is well worth reading.
I wish Naomi Schaefer Riley had consulted with us, or at least looked at the resources available on InterfaithFamily.com, before the Washington Post published her story, Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too.
My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place – and available to be scrutinized?
It seems that Riley’s article was prompted by the notorious Reyes case in Chicago. We’ve blogged about that extreme case several times. It’s not fair to generalize to all interfaith marriages, however, from a case where the husband converts to Judaism, the couples splits up, and the husband then takes their child to church trailed by TV cameras.
Last August we published a report on a study by Janice Aron, Interfaith Marriage Satisfaction Study Yields Answers and More Questions. Her conclusion:
The study found absolutely no difference in marital satisfaction between people who were married to partners of the same faith, and people married to partners of a different faith.
It is commonly reported that the overall divorce rate in the United States is 50%. Young people are doubtless aware of that, but thankfully they continue to marry. As a practical matter, which Riley recognizes, young people in love are probably not going to be dissuaded from pursuing their interfaith relationships by calculations of a higher risk of divorce. I think it is unfortunate, though, to have yet another negative pall cast over intermarriage.
I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by Brad Hirschfield’s piece in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, “Who Gets Religious Custody in an Interfaith Divorce?” Rabbi Hirschfield was writing about the Reyes divorce, the case of the Chicago couple whose public battle over their child’s religious upbringing made the news several times. He wrote, among other things,
So Ela Reyes will do what more and more people, including the children of multi-faith families, are learning to do—appreciate that they are part of multiple religious communities and figure out how to honor that reality. Some will “choose a side,” but one hopes without rancor toward the ones not picked. The ability to affiliate with one tradition while genuinely respecting those who follow others is one of the central issues in contemporary public culture….Some will claim multiple memberships, not unlike those who hold dual citizenship in two countries. Others will create new traditions by fusing the multiple faith traditions which inform their life. While these options may cause some discomfort, it’s worth remembering that they reflect genuinely positive realities that benefit us all, and which virtually none of us would give up.
I suppose I’m surprised because Hirschfield has Orthodox rabbinic ordination, and I therefore didn’t expect him to take such a relaxed attitude toward syncretism. Though he’s writing in a high register and maybe what he’s referring to is the kind of thing we often see in interfaith families: sharing of life cycle rituals and holidays with relatives from other faiths.
Hirschfield goes on to point out that the priest who agreed to baptize Ela Reyes without her mother’s permission was acting unethically, which was a very interesting insight.
At InterfaithFamily.com we have posted previously about Rebecca and Joseph Reyes’ divorce and custody battle in Chicago, which could have implications for other interfaith couples divorcing. Joseph Reyes had agreed to raise his daughter Ela as a Jew and had indeed converted to Judaism himself. When the marriage broke up, Joseph Reyes brought the child to church and had her baptized Catholic. He took photos of the baptism and sent them to his ex-wife. Rebecca Reyes sought a temporary restraining order to prevent Reyes from taking the child to church again–which he proceeded to do, in apparent violation of the order, and this time, brought a television crew with him.
Chicago television spoke with Joseph Reyes and presented his views on their websites, which we found disturbing.
On ABC’s 20/20 show on February 26, reporter Chris Cuomo interviewed the estranged parents. Rebecca Reyes, who had not spoken to the press about this personal matter, apparently decided to go public. Rebecca Reyes told Cuomo on the show, “The constant undermining of who [Ela] is, who she was born as, and who we agreed she would be in our home, is really harmful. There will be confusion; there will be an abrogation of her identity.” She expressed concerns over the threatening emails and Facebook messages she’s had from people she’s never met, and especially over visits to her child’s Jewish preschool from strangers.
It’s tempting just to side with the mother in this case, especially since she’s Jewish and her thinking is similar to everything we’ve read about consistency in child-rearing after divorce. We have a lot of trouble, from the selections quoted in the press, believing Joseph Reyes’ self-presentation, especially his insistence that he was coerced into conversion. You can watch the story on the ABC website to see what I mean. But even though we are freer, as a non-profit organization, to take a partisan position on this private matter than journalistic organizations ought to feel themselves to be, we know we don’t know everything about this case, and that any judgment we offer will be based on this limited information.
One thing, however, seems obvious. Parenting in an interfaith marriage means being able to negotiate–even when the marriage is breaking up. Sticking with agreements about religion is just as important as sticking with other parenting agreements, like the ones about school and who will supervise a small child. What obviously seems to the media like a sexy case about freedom of religion or father’s rights looks very different when you think about what this may be like for the little girl involved.