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By Kelly Banker
I had been living at Moishe Kavod House (a home-based Jewish community for young adults) for about a month when my boyfriend, Courtney, and I decided it would be exciting for him to accompany me to Shabbat services. The gatherings are always well-attended by lots of friendly folks, so I figured it would be a perfect way to introduce him to the beauty of Shabbat. I brought Courtney up the stairs to the services and we took a seat together on the floor. The services began, and although I had prepared him for the Hebrew prayers and songs, I had forgotten just how challenging it can be to follow along in a Jewish service if one is unfamiliar with its choreography and language. Each time we would rise, or bow, or face toward the door, I would hastily try to signal to him what was happening, but it was always a moment too late. Our visibility as an interfaith couple was clear, but it was made even more clear by the fact that Courtney was one of the only people of color in the room.
Once services ended, we connected briefly before heading downstairs. I asked him how he was feeling, and he explained to me that despite the warmth and kindness of all the people he had met, it was hard to shake the feeling of being an outsider. We spent the rest of the evening meeting community members, eating delicious food and discussing the powerful d’var that a local social justice leader had given. But he and I were left with a lingering feeling of otherness. We were full of questions as to how we might be able to attend such an event with both of our full identities intact.
A few months after that Shabbat dinner, we flew to Atlanta to spend Thanksgiving with Courtney’s family. At that point, I had never met anyone from Courtney’s family, so spending the week with his immediate and extended family felt daunting, but exciting. I was prepared to feel a stronger sense of difference than usual, given that I would be the only white person there. Before the Thanksgiving meal, we stood in the guest room as Courtney assuaged my anxiety about meeting his extended family. Confident that the most important point of difference would be drawn across racial lines, I geared myself up for an evening of relative discomfort.
However, when I stepped out of that guest room, Courtney at my side, I found that I was completely wrong. His family welcomed me with open arms. To my surprise, there were only two moments that felt heavy and slightly uncomfortable. The first of these moments came when the family sat down with overflowing plates to say grace before eating, offering praise to the Lord, the Son and the Holy Ghost with a painting of the Last Supper in the background. Needless to say, at that moment, I was hyper-aware of being the only Jewish person in the space. The second moment came when Courtney casually mentioned to one of his young nieces that I work as a Jewish educator in Boston. She turned to me with wide eyes and said, “Are you a Jew?” In response, I laughed and said yes, and proceeded to answer her questions. I was taken aback by her shock until I realized that she has probably never encountered a Jewish person before, whereas of course my whiteness was unremarkable to her. When we flew home later that week, I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt with Courtney’s family, and interested that the primary point of difference had seemed to be religious.
I believe that these two experiences—attending a Moishe Kavod Shabbat with Courtney and spending Thanksgiving with his family—highlight critical, surprising truths about being in a relationship that is both interfaith and interracial. Our most important difference as a couple is neither racial, nor gendered, nor religious, nor socioeconomic, rather it is a fluid meeting and shifting of those identities and experiences. There is no hierarchy or primacy of identities. Instead, there are only shifts in context and experience that dictate which of us may or may not feel comfortable in a given situation.
I have given much thought to a feeling of otherness as Courtney and I navigate a relationship that many perceive to be built on difference. We attract quite a few stares and whispers when we are out in public and even though by now we are accustomed to sometimes rude responses, we refuse to adopt such a simplistic view of our differences.
Courtney and I met nearly six years ago when we were both undergraduates at Carleton College and throughout our time in school we became deeply, powerfully connected to one another. We see ourselves as interconnected, intertwined; in short, we do not perceive our relationship to be one focused primarily on navigating difference. The intersectionalities of race, gender, class and religion absolutely play a prominent role in our relationship and our related experiences—but even so, that feeling of otherness still feels like an imposition from the outside world.
Each and every day, I feel proud to be grappling with these complex questions about belonging, identity and community. I am excited that we draw from two rich, beautiful religious traditions as we shape our life together. We are blessed to be doing this work in a world that seeks to delineate inflexible categories based on race, gender, class, religion and so many other visible and invisible identities. Honoring our connections while maintaining and celebrating our differences is challenging, humbling, heart-opening, holy work. How blessed we are to be struggling and striving to be better for ourselves and for the world.
By Laurel Snyder
This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org in honor of Interfaith Family Month
I have never suggested to my Catholic-born husband that he convert. As a child of intermarriage myself, whose parents always maintained their own distinct religions (but raised me Jewish), conversion wasn’t part of my heritage.
It was enough, I thought, that my husband supported me in raising Jewish kids. It was enough that he came to shul now and then. It was enough that he raced home from work in time for me to light the candles on Friday night, so that we could all be together for Shabbat. To be honest, I have inmarried friends whose partners are less supportive in this way. I felt lucky.
Then, last year, something happened I’d never expected. I was out of town, for work. I don’t remember where, but I know that I was busy on Friday night, and didn’t call home until Saturday afternoon, when my son picked up.
“Sorry, Mom,” he said right away. “But we couldn’t remember all the words last night.”
“What words?” I asked, confused.
“The words to the prayers,” he explained. “We tried. We did our best! We got most of them right.”
It took me a minute to realize was he was saying. There was a long pause before I asked. “Oh… did you guys light the candles… for Shabbat?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Dad did.”
“Huh, cool,” I said. I pretended like it was no big deal. We talked about other things, and after a minute we hung up.
But then I sat there, in my silent hotel room, and I felt my eyes fill with tears. Because while I’ve never asked my husband to convert, or even really thought about that possibility, I have wondered what would happen if I were hit by an eighteen wheeler. I’ve wondered whether Judaism is just the mom-show in our house. I’ve wondered whether it would continue in my absence. Whether anyone besides me wanted it enough to make it happen.
This proof that they did want it stunned me.
Here’s the thing—I didn’t grow up lighting candles each week. That wasn’t my heritage any more than conversion was. Shabbat candles were something I decided to do as an adult, as a mother. They were something I added into my life by choice. They weren’t automatic.
One could blame that fact on my parents’ intermarriage, but one would be wrong in doing so, because in fact my very inmarried grandparents didn’t light Shabbat candles either. So for me, an intermarried child of intermarriage, to light candles each week had to be a choice.
Of course there is value in tradition, in heritage, in routine. There is value in doing something because we have been imprinted, conditioned to do the thing. But there is also value in making a choice, in consciously deciding.
After my parents divorced, my father became more observant than he’d ever been before. As an adult, I watched him change. He began to cover his head. He began to keep kosher. He chose to do so, and if I have a Jewish heritage, I think that’s what it is. Choice. Mindful observance. Constant reevaluation. My parents married without a religious blueprint, and so they had to puzzle out a household. They had to make decisions. Periodically, they had to revise those decisions. That process continues to this day. In their homes, and now in mine.
People often assume that as Jews continue to intermarry, observance will decline. But that’s an incredibly pessimistic view. That doesn’t take into account the joy of discovery, or the pure pleasure of Jewish practice. The human inclination to do better next time. Such pessimism assumes that observance must be linked to tradition and routine.
It doesn’t make room for families like mine, for my Catholic-born husband and my second-generation-intermarried kids, lighting the candles, saying the prayers, all on their own, for the very first time. And getting most of the words right, anyway.
Laurel is the project manager for InterfaithFamily/Atlanta