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“I saw Aishwarya Rai on Oprah last week. You know, the Dollywood [she meant Bollywood] actress? Stunning girl!” Then came the truth bomb: “She told Oprah that your boyfriend already has a bride arranged for him back in India. At some point, he’s going to leave you high-and-dry, marry the girl his parents chose, and move back into their house.”
I was pretty sure Aishwarya Rai hadn’t been discussing my love life with Oprah. And while my future husband didn’t actually have a clandestine bride arranged in India, he also wasn’t the Jewish doctor to whom my grandmother had married me off in her fantasies.
“He seems very nice,” she said of the love of my life. “But that’s just how they do things.”
They. She’d never met an Indian person before and, on some level, I was touched by her urge to protect me, even if it was born of her own frustrating, dated brand of xenophobia.
My boyfriend and I were born at the same hospital, raised in the same town and attended the same schools. From an objective eye, we weren’t some sort of star-crossed pair. Still, he wasn’t white and he wasn’t Jewish, and for all the many things we had in common, those two facts seemed like insurmountable differences to her. At least at first.
In the years before our engagement, I ran interference, often dispelling bizarre myths about Hinduism and Indian traditions.
“Jess. Your grandfather printed out an article from the computer. It said that Hindus have 300 million gods and that they worship monkeys. Monkeys.”
“Jess. I just watched a program about women in India. If you marry him, you’ll have to get a dot tattooed on your forehead. A tattoo. On your face.”
Super, super false (and racist.)
Without being too pushy, I tried to create opportunities for her to see us together, to help her understand why our relationship worked, despite what she believed to be deal-breaking differences.
And here’s where the story gets surprising: during our visits, I watched my grandmother and my husband form an extraordinary bond.
As it turned out, they shared a mutual appreciation for beautiful things—art, music, even fashion—and were able to talk about everything from Matisse to Mozart to Alexander McQueen. It didn’t hurt that my guy had developed a masterful knack for conversational Yiddish, having grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburb—and could confidently describe an ugly dress as a schmatte or flowery piece of music as schmaltz. He literally and figuratively spoke her language.
Before the wedding, we invited her to visit our apartment. It was kind of a big deal. She entered tentatively, taking in all the unmarried, interfaith sin around her. Then she stopped in front of a painting by an emerging Indian artist that my husband had acquired before we started dating; a painting that I had made a lot of noise about hating, for no good reason. She gasped.
“The colors. The lines. It’s so…sensual!” I burst out laughing, not because my grandmother had said the word “sensual” (which was definitely hilarious), but because she had simultaneously validated my husband’s taste in art and solidified their unexpected connection.
Over the years, my husband asked her about gallery openings in the ‘70s and Coney Island in the 40’s. She clipped articles for him about contemporary art exhibits and Indian actors in Hollywood. They also shared one key interest—me—and to her delight, she’d finally found an audience for her outsized stories about my childhood. To anyone else, she would have been bragging, but between them, she was simply affirming his good taste.
My husband was attentive to her in ways that grandchildren who’ve had the luxury of time with a grandparent too often are not. And ultimately this was what made her change her mind and deem him a mensch of the highest order.
From birth, my grandmother and I had a special relationship. My status as the favorite grandchild was an open family secret. But by the time she passed, we all agreed that my husband had become the apple of her eye—we even joked about their rocky start.
Friends and strangers alike often ask about the challenges my husband and I faced marrying outside our cultures. They assume that that our parents presented the biggest roadblocks. They didn’t. Not by a long shot. The older generation—my grandmother in particular—held longer, more entrenched views on the importance of marrying within one’s community, and thus they had a much steeper hill to climb to reach a point of acceptance.
There’s that word: acceptance. Too often, we use it to describe some sort of blissful, interfaith end-game. In my experience, it’s just the cost of entry. It’s what we need from the people we care about to maintain the status quo in our relationships. But beyond that threshold genuine love, messy and strong, is what we really crave. And that love can grow in unlikely, even inhospitable places.
That love grew for my grandmother as she got to know my husband, and I was more than happy to relinquish the title of favorite grandchild when she discovered it.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Jessica Melwani is a freelance writer and editor. A recent suburban transplant, she lives outside New York City with her husband and their two awesome, ridiculous boys. When she isn’t in the car overcoming her fear of highways and left turns, you can find her binge-watching British crime dramas or sometimes even blogging.
By Nicole Rodriguez
Whenever I meet someone new, there’s always an instant connection the moment I find out they’re Jewish. It’s almost like an immediate form of familiarity, even though we just met. However, when I meet someone from a different faith, I am just as interested to learn more about their culture as I am when someone is a different denomination of Judaism.
Growing up in a Reform Jewish household, I was often told by my parents, “You can marry anyone you want, but we prefer a nice Jewish boy.” A big emphasis was on the “prefer.” But I’ve dated many people and the religious aspect hasn’t weighed heavily. The one serious relationship I had was with someone who was not Jewish—he was Lutheran. But besides the occasional questions here and there about our faiths, we rarely talked about it. It just became one of the details I knew about him. We were both pretty non-observant religiously; less organizational and more family-centered and holiday-based. All the other positive aspects about him were more important to me than the fact that he came from a different faith and belief system, which ensured a successful relationship.
Interfaith dating forces some—not all—people to make the difficult decision of whether they should or should not pursue a potential relationship with someone of a different faith. My opinion as a millennial in this day and age is that beliefs are not a key factor in determining the outcome of a relationship; values are. Date whomever you want based on personality, sense of humor, how that person shows their love for you, etc. Truly good people are those who find ways to apply their beliefs to their lives and aspire to live a life by the right values.
Though all the different kinds of faiths across the globe may vary from one to the next, many of their values are universal. As long as both people share similar values and are able to maintain mutual respect for each other’s beliefs, there shouldn’t be anything holding them back from being together. Both parties can carry on the religious traditions important to them, share in each other’s practices and celebrate the unity of their values. There will be different approaches to how to be a good person, and that can potentially be enriching to learn about and process.
As a famous Beatle once said, “All you need is love.” Now, John, what do you mean by that? Specific love from specific people? Love as long as it’s with someone from your religion? No. I think he means that any love is worth your time and affection, regardless of religious differences. By limiting yourself to one cluster of people, you might be denying who can truly make you happy. Some couples might disagree, but in my opinion finding someone who will love you the way you truly are is the truest kind of love.
Judaism has a sense of peoplehood and a shared text, language and connection to a land. However, when you find a mate with real love and connection that isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t mean they can’t still be a great addition to the community. I won’t lose my Jewish connections and Jewish allegiances, identity and pride when I #ChooseLove. I’m not choosing love over sharing the same religion. If I can have both, awesome! I’m hoping for love with someone who will support me for me and let my beliefs inform them as well.
By Brianne Nadeau
It took me 20 years to find the love of my life. If you told me 10 years ago, or even 15 years ago that I’d end up with a man raised Presbyterian, on a farm, who is also a war veteran, I would have laughed at you. But if you asked me a full 20 years ago, it would have made perfect sense.
Growing up in an interfaith family with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, I was drawn to my Judaism the way some kids are drawn to forbidden things. I was intrigued by it, wanted more of it and didn’t really know how to access it but for tiny, little tastes on holidays or special occasions. I knew that when I grew up, I was going to practice Judaism, have a Jewish home, Jewish friends—a Jewish life. But I didn’t quite know what that meant. It was more of an idea than a path at that point. A mission without a strategic plan.
Growing up in a town with very few Jews contributed to the fact that my own limited practice of Judaism was essentially expository. Everything I did, I also explained to those around me. This was a habit that naturally fed into my work as a Jewish educator in the first several years of my career, and not coincidentally, my interfaith relationships.
At age 14, almost exactly 20 years before I would meet my future husband, I went on my first date, with the son of a Methodist minister. That relationship lasted nine days. Then there was the Irish Catholic boy for a whole six months. Then the Presbyterian boy I worked with on the student newspaper for an entire season. And the final high school relationship, the one that stretched into college, with the Methodist basketball star. It never occurred to me then that I might date a Jewish boy in order to lead a Jewish life, but this was primarily because there were only a couple in my class and as a Jewish child of an interfaith marriage it didn’t yet occur to me that this made a difference.
As I’ve reflected on this as an adult, it has become clear to me that these formative years had an impact on who I would ultimately seek out, find attractive and most important, love deeply. College was the first time I actively pursued Jewish dating, despite the fact that I attended the Jesuit Catholic Boston College. While only around one percent of the student population at BC is Jewish, the Jewish student population in Boston is plentiful and I was a strong networker. Still lacking a strategic plan, I was ever mission-oriented and dated several “nice Jewish boys” during my college years. Still, the most formative relationship I had in college was with my Episcopalian on-again-off-again boyfriend.
The post-college years were my most strategic ones. I started working at Hillel, I signed up for JDate. I insisted on dating only Jews. In those 10 years or so, I met one man I felt a strong connection with. It turned out he felt a strong connection with someone else. It was frustrating, challenging, it made me feel sad and sometimes hopeless. I decided to stop trying so hard. I opened my heart, still with some hesitations, still believing I was meant to be with a Jewish man, but trying to simply let the universe do its work.
While still looking for a Jewish man, I dated men who weren’t Jewish casually: I fell head-over-heels for a man who turned out to be a liar and a cheater, I fell for a man who could never love me the way I deserved to be loved… and then I met my future husband. I didn’t know it at the time. I was trying to get over the last guy and just needed a distraction. “He’s not Jewish,” whispered my subconscious. We met at my cousin’s wedding in the fall. We went on our first date a month later. It was long distance, but he cleverly came up with reasons to pass through town every month. Then we started planning visits. After six months I realized I was an idiot if I let him get away.
I’m marrying a man who is kind, smart, generous, loving, more obsessed with Democratic politics and values than I am and also happens to have been raised Presbyterian. Last night I was relaying to him a metaphor I had used at my government job involving the Book of Esther. “Wait,” he said, as I finished the story, “but who would be Haman in this scenario?” It actually took me some time to come up with an answer to that question, as I realized I had been outwitted in my latest Jewish educational moment by my partner who isn’t Jewish.
We’ve already had the big conversations: We’ll raise our kids Jewish, we’ll keep a kosher home, we’ll participate in Jewish community. We’ll also honor the traditions we had growing up, when we visit our parents’ homes. And we’ll go out into this world with the hope that our communities embrace our choices.
I know it won’t be easy. I can already tell in my own Jewish community that some are uncomfortable with the way that love found me. My closest friends are thrilled and they see what a good partner he is to me. But I cannot even count how many times I have been asked by Jewish friends if he is also Jewish, and when I say no, they quickly express support anyway, pretending it doesn’t matter to them. It hurts my heart when this happens. These are habits, not intentional barbs, but they affect how interfaith couples feel in community. And as the child of an interfaith family, I know this well. What’s even worse, there was a time when I acted this way toward other interfaith couples. Please consider this my apology.
As an adult from an interfaith family my Jewish identity is regularly called into question. Some people can’t quite believe I could have been raised in Grosse Pointe, MI. “But there are no Jews in Grosse Pointe!” they say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “You don’t have a Jewish name,” some say. But here I am, standing before you as a Jew. “Who is Jewish, your mother or your father?” they ask. It’s my mother, so I pass the test. These are hurtful questions, although not intended as such. My children will likely experience the same.
I am lucky, because 20 years after I first started looking, the love of my life found me. If I hadn’t been willing to open my heart to what my Judaism could look like with a loving, supportive partner who isn’t Jewish, I might have missed out on it all.
I made a decision early in my life to pursue Judaism and despite the fact that biology, geography and many other factors were pulling me in different directions, I am still pursuing it. One of my favorite sayings about compassion is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s something I am hoping our Jewish community will come to embrace as we learn to do a better job of welcoming our interfaith families. You may be born a Jew, but to be Jewish is not a passive thing. Pursuing Judaism is a choice you make every day of your life, a choice that is harder for some than for others, and as a community and as individuals we should all be supportive of this.
Brianne Kruger Nadeau is a legislator in Washington, DC. Prior to her time as an elected leader she was vice president of Rabinowitz Communications (now Bluelight Strategies), she worked on Capitol Hill, at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and as a youth advisor at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. She belongs to D.C. Minyan, an egalitarian prayer community.
By Kelly Banker
As a young Jew raised in a secular home, I never imagined that being in a committed relationship with someone who was of a different faith tradition (or none at all) would feel especially impactful to me. In fact, labeling my relationship “interfaith” has been a fairly new paradigm in my life. However, in the past few years I have increasingly identified with my Jewish identity and have spent time living and working in various Jewish intentional communities.
I am in a committed relationship with a man who identifies with his Presbyterian roots, just as I identify with my Jewish ancestry. As we grow closer as a couple, we also spend more time navigating our diversity in religious beliefs and practices. These conversations and experiences have been and continue to be a blessing. The depth of our spiritual and intellectual engagement with one another and with our respective traditions serves as a profound model for the two of us in how to approach differences with love, respect and connection.
A few weeks ago, I was in deep need of a ritual space. I was yearning for a way to mark a rite of passage, a moment in time, with my partner, and yet finding something that would be meaningful for the both of us was feeling increasingly difficult. I felt drawn toward marking the day with Jewish ritual, which I knew might be a challenge as an interfaith couple. I can’t quite name what the calling to Jewish ritual is, but it feels visceral, ancestral—written into my body.
When I asked my partner if he would be willing to mark this moment by visiting Mayyim Hayyim (a Jewish spirituality center in the Boston area) together, he was receptive but also distanced from it. He said that he would definitely go with me, but that it would be for me, and not for him. Since he is Christian, and the mikva’ot (ritual baths) at Mayyim Hayyim are for Jews and those converting to Judaism, immersing in the baths is neither an option for him nor a strong point of identification. A mikveh is designed for enacting a Jewish ritual that includes dunking under water (and involves much more that goes along with that act), typically to honor a lifecycle event, rite of passage or other life event. My partner is wonderful and knows how important the mikveh is to me, so he went along with me.
I had spoken to the staff at Mayyim Hayyim in advance of my visit to think through how to best make my partner feel welcomed and involved, despite his not being able to immerse. We talked through several options, including a hand-washing ritual and his being present in the space to witness my immersion. I was inspired by their attention to ensuring that Mayyim Hayyim was welcoming for an other-than-Jewish person who was understandably apprehensive about visiting a mikveh.
When my partner and I stepped across Mayyim Hayyim’s threshold, we felt a subtle shift. The warmth and kindness of our mikveh guide made us both feel at ease and since she had been informed of our interfaith status, she focused her tour on providing information so that my partner would feel comfortable, able to ask questions and connected to the place and to the ritual itself. Prior to arriving, he and I had decided that he would witness my immersion. Yet there was a feeling that came over us as we were exploring the space with our guide, a sort of holiness that neither of us could quite pinpoint. As I began preparing, I felt my nerves begin to spark. Was it strange to have my partner witness me? Was it too non-traditional for the both of us? Would the immersion hold meaning for me if he was there, and vice versa?
I stepped into the mikveh room wrapped in my sheet, and there he was, waiting for me. As the mikveh guide had taught him, he held up the sheet to obscure his view and I walked the seven steps into the sacred water. As I immersed, he lowered the sheet just beneath his eyes to witness my transformation. I prayed, sang and felt held by the water-womb and by his modest, unassuming gaze. I not only felt the renewal that I had been seeking, but an increased connection to my own self and to my partner. In that moment, I felt the sacredness not only of the water and of the space, but of my body and of our love for one another. I climbed the seven steps out of the water and he wrapped me back in the sheet. I had never felt such warmth.
As we thanked our guide and stepped out into the brisk air, I felt a newness on my skin, the blooming of new beginnings and the bittersweet sting of endings. We held hands and I asked him what he thought. He breathed deeply and paused. “It’s a holy place.”
His words underscored what many of us who immerse here regularly know, but it was a feeling I never thought would be accessible to us as a couple. We walked on, hand in hand, the air chilly against our faces, still basking in the afterglow of Mayyim Hayyim’s quiet holiness.
A version of this piece was originally published by Mayyim Hayyim
Kelly Banker works as a Jewish educator and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She is also a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House. Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Women’s Studies and has worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. Kelly is a doula, a farmer and a certified yoga teacher. She loves feminist theory, ritual, movement, exploring the woods, poetry and the moon.
By Stacey Zisook Robinson
Editor’s note: This author describes difficulty finding a rabbi to officiate her wedding in Chicago. We urge couples to utilize our free rabbi referral service, available here. If you are in the Chicago area, or any of our InterfaithFamily/Your Community areas, our rabbi/directors can help guide you.
I’m dating. Again. Post-divorce, post 50, I’m dating. I suppose it’s fitting—I didn’t do much dating during the prime dating years of adolescence and young adulthood. My teens and 20s (and if we’re being really honest, most of my 30s) were relatively unscathed by the trials and tribulations of this particular social lubricant.
Not by choice, mind you. I wanted to date. Would have loved to dive into the dating pool. I envied my friends who wept and wailed and crowed with delight, sometimes all in the same conversation. I was just weird enough and insecure enough to assume that no one would ever actually want to date me, so I remained everyone’s confidante and confessor. I gave awesome advice and my ears grew muscles with the constant stream of listening that they did.
By the time I was dating, it was less “dating” and more a series of negotiations over a meal or three to determine relationship status. I mean, come on: Who dated at my age? Who did small talk and boundaries? Time was ticking; let’s get a move on. In or out, whaddya say?
My criteria read something like an EEOC banner: any and all applicants accepted, regardless of race, color or religion. I probably would have given pause at political leanings; that is (still) a deal-breaker. But all the other stuff? Not a whit did I care. I fell in love, deeply, passionately, forever and for always with someone’s soul.
It was probably no surprise to anyone that when I finally found The One, he was not Jewish. It was a huge surprise to me when I called my rabbi—the man who had been my rabbi throughout most of my childhood and young adulthood—and he refused to marry us.
“What?” I cried—literally cried—into the phone. How could that be? Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that my rabbi (whom I’d not seen in more than 20 years, but who’s counting, right?) would refuse. “Mazel tov,” he said, kindly and with finality. ”I wish you luck.” And he hung up the phone.
It took a while, but I found a rabbi, apparently the one rabbi in Chicago who performed mixed marriage ceremonies. On a magical day in May, there was a chuppah and a glass and a rabbi, and my somewhat befuddled bridegroom who wasn’t Jewish.
Nine months and a day later—exactly nine months and a day—we had our son. But as time went on, I watched as my world, my marriage, fell apart. I forgot that if you have a relationship based upon need (because really, who on earth could ever love me; need was almost as good, right?), when the need goes away, what’s left to hold all the pieces together?
And so my husband became my ex-husband, and I jumped back into the (non)dating pool. I wound up with a handful of relationships to call my own. Though now there was a difference: These were all Jewish men.
It’s not that I had refused to go the Jewish route when I was younger. This was no misplaced rebellion from God or my parents. Had some Jewish man, in need of fixing or just plain in need, offered, I’d have been all over that. I’d have loved that. Maybe it was timing or luck. Maybe it was my subconscious. Regardless, I’d never dated within the tribe before.
At some point in my more desperate attempts to find healing with the ex of note, however, I had found, much to my surprise, God. And with God, synagogue and Torah and community and services and committees and temple politics and devotion and Talmud and chanting and teaching and… OK, I’ll make this easy: I found my Judaism. I felt as if I had finally come home. Outside of being a mother to my son, being a devoted, mindful Reform Jew was the central fact of my life, and I was determined to make “Jewish” central to my dating criteria from now on.
So, of course, when I least expected it, there it was—love. Again. Dating. Again—no, not again. For the first time. Actual dating. The I’ll-pick-you-up-and-we’ll-go-to-dinner-and-then-I’ll-take-you-home kind of a date. The I’ll-call-you-in-a-few-days-and-we’ll-make-plans-for-another-day kind of date, because we don’t have to do everything right now; later is also good, because there will be a later.
And now here I am, dating. He’s kind and funny and smart. He loves me, which is awesome, since I love him. We met in junior high and we found each other again in a hailstorm of good timing and strange coincidence. He likes pizza and the Cubs, has a cat named Einstein, and he’s not Jewish.
Dammit, he’s not Jewish. And it never, ever mattered to me before. But I found God, and Judaism, and mindful devotion—shouldn’t it matter?
“I don’t know about him,” I said to my son, now 17. We were talking just after I’d come home from a date—not the first one, not even the second or third, but right at that tipping point of figuring out where it all fit, having no idea if I was doing it right at all, since I’d never actually done this before. “He’s not Jewish. That feels kinda weird.”
My son, filled with that heady mix of cynicism and ennui that pervades every 17-year-old, said, “Mom, you just want someone who believes what you believe.”
“No,” I replied, with a growing sense of wonder, “not that. I want someone who thinks like I think. Someone who’s willing to dive in and learn and argue and discuss and discover. He’s devoted to his faith and to what his faith calls him to do—serve those in need, fix what’s broken in the world. How is that different from what I want?”
I wonder sometimes if I am betraying my faith, my people. He and I, we talk about it from time to time. He comes to synagogue with me on occasion. I go to church every once in a while with him. I think we are both a bit smugly sure, in a most loving way, that each of us is right about the whole God thing, and we kindly indulge the other in their misplaced faith.
There’s a chance that God smiles indulgently at the both of us, too.
But we dive and struggle and wrestle with faith, with God, with love and our imperfections—not to change the other, or to prove our rightness. We wrestle because it is part of the thing we share: devotion and faith.
We are completely together, differently. That is, ever and always, enough.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Stacey Zisook Robinson is a single mom. She sings whenever she can. She writes, even when she can’t. She worked in Corporate America for a long time. Now she works at her writing and looks for God and grace, meaning, connection, and a perfect cup of coffee, not necessarily in that order. Stacey has been published in several magazines and anthologies. Her book, Dancing in the Palm of God’s Hand, has just been published by Hadasah Word Press. She recently launched a Poet in Residence program designed to work with both adults and kids in a Jewish setting to explore the connection between poetry and prayer as a way to build a bridge to a deepened Jewish identity and faith. She blogs athttp://staceyzrobinson.blogspot.com, and her website can be found at www.stumblingtowardsmeaning.com.