Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child's bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!).
This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
As a cantor, I’ve sung the Sheva Berachot—the seven traditional Jewish wedding blessings—countless times, and I know the words by heart. They were recited for me at my first wedding some 17 years ago. My then-husband and I simply followed the familiar formula: place Jewish groom “X” and Jewish bride “Y” under a chuppah, or wedding canopy, recite blessings over wine, read a ketubah, or Jewish marriage document, break a glass and poof, you’re done. Nothing in the ceremony was unfamiliar to anyone in attendance, but unfortunately the marriage didn’t last. Two beautiful children and one heartbreaking divorce later, an unexpected chance for real happiness allowed me to be the last thing I thought I’d ever be again: a bride under a chuppah.
Falling in love with my fiancé, Aric, and his two wonderful children was effortless; planning our wedding, however, proved to be much more difficult. While we wrestled with the decisions that all engaged couples face, the largest obstacle to overcome was that we are inter-partnered. Aric is Christian—and an evangelical Christian minister to boot.
We soon discovered that I had apparently “failed” my tribe by “choosing” to date and subsequently fall in love with someone of a different faith. Members of Aric’s circle were also quick to point out that he was “unequally yoked” to a non-believer. Our union was ethically insurmountable for many potential officiants and downright explosive for our Jewish community and family. Barely two months before the wedding, we finally settled on a dear friend of mine to marry us. She has a special talent for crafting unique lifecycle ceremonies.
Creating our wedding ceremony was a bigger challenge than we anticipated. We wanted the ritual to combine both of us; we didn’t want to create a hybrid of our two faiths that didn’t represent our home or life together. Neither of us was comfortable having a purely Jewish or purely Christian wedding, especially when it would have been done mainly to appease those who would probably not support our union anyway.
We had already decided on certain visual elements that were important to me: a chuppah and the breaking of a glass. We also knew we wanted to involve our children in some way, and we wanted God to be present—a purely civil ceremony simply wouldn’t reflect the important role God plays in our lives.
My friend asked me if I wanted to incorporate the Sheva Berachot. My first hesitation was that they were all in Hebrew, and I wanted Aric to be able to engage with the ceremony at all times. My biggest problem though was that the last of the blessings speaks specifically to a Jewish couple.
The more I lived with the idea, the more I realized I had already accepted long ago that I was not marrying a Jew. I had gone through a period of mourning, saying goodbye forever in my heart to that little bit of Yiddishkeit, or Jewishness, I had hoped for and failed to capture even with my first marriage. I was at peace with my decision and completely happy. The Sheva Berachot were not for us, and I was at peace with that too.
In the end, my friend wrote beautiful blessings for our children to say to us, and she read from Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs). Aric wrote every word of his wedding vows and inscribed them in a book that I could keep forever, like a ketubah.
To promise myself to him, I used the words I speak from my soul as I wrap tefillin:
I will bind myself to you forever.
And I will bind myself to you in righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy.
I will bind myself to you with fidelity, and [through our union we] shall know God.
Some might say our wedding ceremony left loose ends. But we can confidently tell you that those loose ends come from two distinct strings that were tied in a firm and lasting knot.
3 months until we celebrate the start of our interfaith marriage!
As we inch closer and closer to our wedding day, I catch my thoughts darting in a million different directions. “What cake flavor will we pick?”; “Will all of our vendors show up on the big day?”; “How much time will my bridesmaids and I need to get ready?” And while many of these questions have been consuming my thoughts during the wedding-planning process, I know that three months from now, all of it will be irrelevant as our wedding day will have come and gone and we will be starting a new chapter of our lives as husband and wife. This new chapter will have a whole different set of thoughts to keep our minds busy in the future.
As several of our friends and family members have gotten married before us and embark on the journey of marriage, they are now preparing to start families of their own. Watching friends and family members prepare to welcome their first children has made me start to think about what hopes I have for my future children. While every parent can agree that they want their children to be happy, healthy and always feel loved, there are additional hopes I have for my future children who will come from an interfaith marriage and be born into an interfaith family. These are the hopes I have for our future children:
I hope our future children know we chose love despite our different faith backgrounds. Jarrett was raised Jewish and I was brought up in the Catholic faith. We did not allow our different faiths to be a divider; rather, we used these differences to listen to what was important to one another and found compromises that worked for our relationship. I hope our backgrounds and experiences can teach our children to love and learn from others who are different from them.
Jarrett and I plan to raise our children Jewish, yet we still want to teach them that other religions exist and that not everyone has the same beliefs as them. I grew up in a town limited in diversity. Like me, my friends were raised Catholic and many of them even attended the same church as me and my family. I saw my friends at church on Sundays; we went to CCD classes together, received Communion and Confirmation together. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I met and became friends with individuals of different faith backgrounds.
Jarrett’s upbringing was similar in that all of his friends were raised Jewish and attended Temple and Hebrew school together. In the diverse world we live in today, I think it will be beneficial for our children to have exposure to and understanding of different religions. While I want our future children to embrace the religion we have chosen to raise them in, I also want them to understand other religions; especially Catholicism and the traditions that are important to me as someone raised Catholic.
I hope our future children feel confident in their religious identity despite coming from an interfaith family. In our ever-changing culture, interfaith families are becoming more and more common, but if my children are raised in a predominantly Jewish community, I hope my children will be able to educate their peers about their own interfaith family and never feel excluded because they come from an interfaith family. I hope they are proud of where they come from and who they are.
Finally, I hope our future children choose love like we have. Years and years from now when my future children meet the person who they want to share their life with, I want them to pick their life partner based on love. If our future children choose to marry, we will support them whether or not they choose interfaith marriage because we will support what makes them happy. Interfaith marriage is what we have chosen is right for our lives and I look forward to beginning that marriage in less than three months. As we continue the countdown to the beginning of our interfaith marriage, I also look forward to what the future holds when we decide to turn our interfaith marriage into an interfaith family.
I am a lot of things in this diverse world. I am a female, a daughter, granddaughter, sister, fiancé, niece, friend, Catholic, dietitian, animal lover, coffee and chocolate enthusiast… in no particular order. While I identify as many different things, there are many things I am not and won’t try to be. As I continue to grow and navigate through life, I am finding that the way I define and present myself to the world is more important than the way someone else defines me. However, when someone tries to define or label me differently than how I see myself, it can be hurtful.
I have had so many positive experiences over the last several years as one half of an interfaith couple. I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the Jewish faith. I have embraced Jewish traditions and culture and continue to learn ways to incorporate these new traditions into my life. I have been welcomed with open arms into a Jewish family that I will officially be able to call my own family when I say “I do” in an interfaith wedding ceremony six months from now.
Unfortunately, when small, negative experiences occur, they can put a damper on even the most joyful occasions, just like a rain cloud can ruin a beautiful sunny day. These negative moments can linger causing sadness and frustration. I have encountered very few negative opinions in response to my interfaith relationship but that doesn’t mean it hurts less when these situations do arise. My hope is that individuals today can continue to become more open-minded and non-judgmental. As the Catholic half of a Catholic/Jewish interfaith couple, below are some experiences I’d like to avoid repeating in the future.
For starters, please do not call me a “shiksa” if you would like to maintain a friendship with me. Calling me this term will not make me laugh and I will not think it’s funny. The word “shiksa” means “non-Jewish female,” however, other translations for the word include “impure” and “abomination.” This word is not a term of endearment and every definition I have ever read for this word describes it as derogatory. Most definitions even directly indicate that this word should not be used as a label or reference for someone. It is 2016, I am a Catholic woman who fell in love with a Jewish man and there is nothing forbidden about our love. If you are a person who identifies as Jewish who is not aware of the correct definition for the word “shiksa,” please take the time to research the word and then ask yourself if the person you’re referring to would be offended by this.
I am Catholic. I am “of a different faith background” but would prefer not to be called a “non-Jew.” I have read articles about the controversy of the term “non-Jew.” It made me stop and think about my feelings toward this term. I get it. I’m not Jewish and I’m not trying to be. I am marrying someone who identifies as Jewish while I identify as Catholic. To me, this is very concrete. The problem arises when someone else starts identifying me by what I am not rather than what I am. When someone calls me a “non-Jew” it makes me feel like I’m on the outside looking in or excluded from a group. The term “non-Jew” also makes me feel as though the person referring to me as a “non-Jew” feels superior because they are Jewish and I am not. Individuals should be identified as what they are rather than what they are not to avoid hurt feelings or discomfort.
Finally, I have been asked on a number of occasions since my engagement if I plan to convert to Judaism. While I respect the question and a person’s interest in our different faith backgrounds, I don’t feel as though I need to convert to my partner’s religion in order for it to be acceptable to get married. Don’t get me wrong, I love that conversion is an option and that in the future, if I feel conversion is right for me, I can make that decision. On the other hand, I love that intermarriage is accepted by many today and that I can continue to practice my personal religious beliefs while building new traditions with my partner who has personal religious beliefs that are different from my own.
I don’t know what the future holds for my partner and me as we move closer to our wedding day but my hope is for continued acceptance and respect for individuals of different faiths and interfaith couples. We will continue to surround ourselves with friends and family who accept and embrace our different faiths and support us as we build this new life together!
I have fond memories of going to services as a youngster and looking forward to the weeks in which I could pelt young adults, the clergy, and innocent bystanders with tiny packages of hard candy. Not wanting to miss being on the receiving end of such a deluge, a few months back I mentioned to the Cantor at my synagogue, Monmouth Reform Temple (MRT), that Anne and I would like to have an aufruf. This is a custom during which the bride and groom – or, in more traditional synagogues, just the groom – are called up for an Aliyah, and the Torah is read in their honor.
Scheduling our aufruf posed a bit of a challenge. Traditionally, the aufruf takes place during Shabbat services prior to the wedding. However, our rehearsal dinner takes place on that Friday, outside of Philadelphia. The Shabbat prior to that coincides with Yom Kippur, and celebrating with candy is not the best way to observe a solemn fast.
We also wanted to make sure our aufruf date aligned with an appropriate Torah portion. Our wedding occurs the week prior to Simchat Torah, the holiday during which the Torah is “rewound” and we begin reading from the book of Genesis. Unlike the numerous beautiful, wedding-appropriate readings in the beginning of the Torah – the creation of Eve and man and wife becoming “one flesh,” the rainbow at the culmination of the flood, Abraham’s covenant with God to become a great nation – the final book of the Torah is not quite so generous. We made a decision to avoid the passage containing material ill-suited for beginning our wedding celebration, such as the Biblical proscription for when “a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her” (Deut. 22:13, NIV translation). Luckily, nestled within Deuteronomy is a passage describing the blessings that will be rained upon Israel should they choose to keep God’s laws (Deut. 28:1-14). That coincided with the weekend of September 12th, which was free for both sets of parents. Hooray!
However, we hadn’t cleared all hurdles yet. A significant proportion of the families at MRT are interfaith, and over the past year, the Rituals & Practices Committee has discussed what activities on the bimah are permitted to the members of the congregation who are not Jewish. Also, they are charged with awarding honors for aliyot, lighting candles, and Kiddush on Friday nights. I happen to sit on this committee. A few weeks ago, the person responsible for managing these honors for the month of September asked if anyone would be interested. I asked if my parents could do the candle and Kiddush blessings for the night of our aufruf. My mother is a practicing Christian, and some congregations do not permit those who are not Jewish to say the blessings over the candles. Also, neither of my parents are members of MRT, though they do belong to a Reform synagogue in the Philadelphia area. Finally, Anne is not Jewish, and the committee had discussed in the past whether it was permissible for members of the congregation who are not Jewish to be called to Torah for an aliyah. After raising these concerns, I opened the topic for discussion to the members of the Rituals & Practices Committee.
This kicked off a lively discussion. Our Cantor sent around a link to the recent article on Interfaith Family about how different synagogues approach candle lighting by with interfaith families. Ultimately, the committee agreed that my parents could light the candles and recite Kiddush, and that as long as I was with her and saying the Torah blessings, Anne could join me for the aliyah.
With this final hurdle cleared, it looks like September 12th will be a very Keefe/Goodman Shabbat at Monmouth Reform Temple! In case you have an itching to bean some soon-to-be newlyweds with candy, services start at 7PM.
These last few months have been busy with dress fittings, selecting the menu, arranging the seating chart, creating the invitations, ordering the suits, and other wedding plans. Sam and I continually remind ourselves that the wedding is only one day and we should focus on preparing for a marriage. This lifelong commitment to each other begins at the wedding ceremony. With that in mind, we are trying to combine the rituals and symbols of both Judaism and Catholicism in our ceremony.
Sam’s parents (Pennye & Phil) on their wedding day
We specifically chose our priest and rabbi to not only co-officiate the ceremony, but also to guide us along this spiritual journey. The rabbi is someone very dear to Sam and the priest is the presider of my family’s parish. These two special people have been a part of various life cycle events in Sam’s and my life. They know us and our families very well, and we are honored that they will be officiating our marriage ceremony. The rabbi and priest continue to help us in the marriage preparations by proofing our ketubah language, assisting with Diocesan paperwork, and helping us with the order and symbols of the ceremony. In our first meeting with the priest, he gave us words of wisdom to keep in mind, throughout this entire process (and our lives): “Keep your own faith at heart, but do not minimize or trivialize the faith of the other.”
If I were converting to Judaism, or Sam to Catholicism, we would have chosen a specific house of worship for our ceremony, such as a synagogue or church. Because we are not, we decided to have our ceremony in a country club, a “neutral” location. This way, both faiths are equally visible and our guests won’t be uncomfortable in attending a wedding in another house of worship. By having our wedding on a Sunday afternoon, Sam and his family can still go to Shabbat services, and my family can go to early Sunday morning Mass.
Throughout the ceremony, we want to honor each other’s faiths, focusing on the similarities, rather than the differences. We have asked my brother, Chris, and Sam’s sister, Stacey, to help us explain the wedding rituals and symbols in each of our faiths at the start of the ceremony.
There are a few symbols that are used in both religions, such as bread, wine, rings, and most importantly, the vows. Sam and I will say the blessings over the bread and wine in our own respective religions. The priest and rabbi will guide us in exchanging our vows and rings.
We have adapted some rituals and symbols to be more conducive to an interfaith wedding. The chuppah is a symbol unfamiliar to my Catholic family, whereas the unity candle is a symbol unfamiliar to Sam’s Jewish family. We will sign our ketubah during the ceremony rather than before it, honoring the Catholic tradition of the bride and groom not seeing each other beforehand. The traditional Jewish Seven Blessings will be said, with both fathers participating. At the end of the ceremony, we will break the glass. This has many meanings in the Jewish faith, but for the two of us, it will also symbolize the breaking down of barriers between people of different cultures and faiths as our families are now joined together.
By incorporating some Jewish and Catholic wedding rituals in our ceremony, we will signal to our friends and family our intent to continue practicing our religions. We hope that this public declaration of faith will communicate our plans to remain strong in faith while supporting our partner’s religious practice.
We’re currently in the middle of one of the most widely-observed Jewish holidays, Passover. One of the Shalosh Regalim, or three pilgrimage festivals (literally “three legs”), in ancient times Jews throughout the land of Israel would gather and make sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and is one of the few holidays mentioned in the Torah. In modern times, it is observed by abstaining from the consumption of items with leavening (e.g. bread, cake, beer), and with a festive meal on the first two evenings, which is called a seder.
When I was growing up, we would have the first night seder with extended family. Between grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my nuclear family, there would be about fifteen of us crowded around the table, hearing Poppop recite the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. It was always fun running around with the cousins, searching for the afikomen, and staying up way past our normal bedtimes. We still meet at my uncle’s place every year on the first night, and although lately we’ve had a couple faces missing from the table due to cousins living abroad, or away at college, usually at some point we would Skype them in. Also, as some of the older cousins have become involved in serious relationships, there have been new guests at the table – including, for the past three years, Anne.
The second night seder had a very different tone than the first night while I was growing up. My two sisters and I would each get to invite one friend, and beyond these three friends, it would just be our nuclear family at the table. We lived in an area that had very few Jews, so most of our school friends had never been to a seder before. At the beginning of this seder, we would start by explaining the symbols on the table – the matzah, different items on the seder plate, Elijah’s cup, etc. Diana, my youngest sister, would start the explanation; Stacey, the middle child, would add things that Diana had forgotten, and provide additional layers of meaning behind the symbols; and I would continue with the things both sisters had left out.
This year, we invited Anne’s parents and siblings to our second-night seder. As an added twist, my Dad had asked me a few weeks ago if I could lead our seder. My father, an accountant, was a *bit* exhausted by the night of the second seder, which fell this year on April 15th. After a few weeks of reviewing the haggadah and the Passover story, I had committed as much as I could to memory, and felt prepared for what was to come.
Anne and I arrived at my parents’ house around 5:30, about half an hour before the seder was to begin. I wanted some time to settle in, and do some last-minute reviewing of my notes and the biblical Exodus story. Thanks to some heavy traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, I ended up having quite a bit of extra time – Anne’s brother Chris showed up around 6:15, and her parents and two youngest siblings didn’t arrive until nearly 7PM. After some brief greetings, we sat down at the table, and the seder began.
Passover Seder with Both Families
We began with my retelling the story of the Exodus, beginning with Joseph’s trials and tribulations, culminating in the arrival of the Hebrews in the Promised Land, and hitting all the major high points along the way. Unfortunately, due to my nerves, I ended up hitting many of the minor points as well, resulting in a retelling that felt as long as Cecil B DeMille’s epic film. In reality it was probably only 15 minutes, but it felt much longer. At least nobody could say I missed anything important!
After my retelling was complete, we began reading from the haggadah. After the first cup of wine, my nerves (finally!) began to ease up. We went popcorn-style around the table, each person reading a paragraph. As we reached the Four Questions, we broke our order and had Theresa, Anne’s youngest sibling, read them. We continued along, with Anne’s parents and siblings asking questions as we went. What foods do we “dip”, as mentioned in the Four Questions? What’s the egg for? Why is the shank bone, rather than another part of the lamb, used to symbolize Passover offering? Is that really a lamb’s shank bone, or just a chicken bone? When do we drink more wine? In some cases, the answers were literally on the next page of the haggadah, but I was able to field most other questions without significantly affecting the flow of the service.
Finally, it was time to eat the main meal. Anne had prepared eggplant dip, chopped liver, and potatoes, and my mom cooked up some beef brisket, chicken, and fruit kugel. Everything tasted delicious, though it certainly helped that we were having a very late dinner. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go through the post-meal portion of the seder due to a confluence of the delayed start time and Anne’s youngest siblings’ bedtimes (the following day was a school day, after all).
I’m certainly in no rush to lead my next seder, a responsibility I hope continues to be held by my healthy father and grandfather for many years. However, it was a lot of fun studying the details of the seder and the Passover holiday while preparing to lead it. Also, I’m extremely grateful that Anne’s family is open to learning about the customs and holidays of my faith. While we certainly differ on quite a few theological matters, I appreciate that Anne’s parents are willing to join my family for holiday celebrations. It displays both a confidence in their beliefs and an acceptance of my ability to practice my faith.
On a completely unrelated note, I listened to this song on repeat while writing this blog.
Since Chris and I have been planning our wedding for so long, it’s strange to think that it will actually happen–and soon! This weekend really put it into perspective how close it is as my bridal shower was this past Sunday. It was held in my hometown, at the home of a very good family friend. Four of my mom’s friends hosted the shower and it was amazing. They truly thought of every detail and made sure the women from both sides of our families felt included.As we’ve mentioned many times before, both of our families are large. So, as one may imagine, the shower was quite crowded with about 50 in all of family and friends–most of whom were meeting for the first time. The event began with lunch and schmoozing. After we ate everyone gathered in the living room to embarrass me (in the most loving way possible) with a quiz about Chris.
Then, some members from both families stood up and spoke. This part was so touching. My aunt Liz spoke about my grandmother, who passed 5 years ago, and how much she would have loved Chris. A few of Chris’ aunts read poems or blessings. My sister, who lives in Israel, sent something for my mom to read for her, and Chris’ sister, who lives in England, sent something for Chris’ mom, Judi, to read. Then, for the big finale, both my mom and Judi said a few words, both of which brought me to tears. Chris’ mom read the following poem:
A Mother’s Prayer
I prayed for you Before I ever met you And once I saw you I knew I would never forget you.
There was something about you That was special and rare But I didn’t know yet That you were the answer to my prayer.
You were the answer to the prayer For the one my son would wed I prayed for you from the time he was born And this is where my prayers led.
I prayed for your health Health of body, soul and spirit And I knew always in my heart That God, our Father, would hear it.
And now I know just who you are And how you found your way Into our hearts and homes and lives And to your wedding day.
I have put together this little poem To show you how much we care How proud we are to celebrate together The answer to a mother’s prayer.
Now…if that doesn’t bring you to tears, I don’t know what will! My mom also brought the place to tears, but mostly through laughter. She teased about how the key to a successful marriage is BreatheRight Strips and how it’s best to bake goodies when your children aren’t home so you can lick the batter, ha! Now I know why there was always banana bread and brownies around when I got home from school!
I truly felt like the luckiest person in the world, not only for the amazing gifts we got (!!!) but also for the immense amount of love that surrounded Chris and I. We are truly blessed.
Before meeting Sam’s extended family, I had met his parents very briefly for a slice of mid-afternoon pie. I was very nervous about meeting his parents—I think it took me over an hour that day to figure out what to wear! This meeting was so brief, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about much, therefore the topic of faith didn’t come up. I was (and still am) very amazed at how sweet and genuinely nice his parents are! I don’t remember when the topic of faith first came up around his parents, but they knew that I wasn’t Jewish when I attended the PassoverSeder.
Sam first invited me to join his family Seder a few months after we started dating. I had only been to one other Seder before, five years prior. The meal was slightly awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what was being said, nor did I understand the traditions around what was being done. Also, because I was the youngest person there, I had to say some of the prayers, find the Afikomen and open the door for Elijah. I was nervous that the Seder with Sam’s family would be equally awkward and uncomfortable. Sam reassured me that most of his family’s Seder would be in English and that I wouldn’t be the youngest person there.
In the weeks leading up to the Seder, Sam re-emphasized that the youngest people there would be his cousins, who were growing up in interfaith households. Both of his dad’s siblings were in interfaith marriages and their children (Sam’s cousins) celebrate both sets of holidays. This calmed my fears a little, but I still thought it would be awkward and uncomfortable.
The awkwardness started when I arrived empty handed because I was told not to bring anything. Whenever I go to a fancy dinner party, I try to always bring a dish or something. I asked Sam what I should bring. His answer was, “Nothing. There are very specific foods and everyone has a specific dish that they always bring.” This didn’t satisfy me, so I asked Sam repeatedly only to receive the same answer over and over.
On the day of the Seder, I put on my fancy clothes, my best behavior and attended the Seder empty-handed. There were 13 people there (a normal crowd for me), and the topic of my faith wasn’t brought up. We talked a lot about my family and what dish I could eventually bring to future family dinner parties. There was no awkwardness nor discomfort, only really nice people with a lot of funny stories to tell.
We began the prayers and rituals surrounding the meal. After getting used to the way the Haggadah was read (from right to left), I sat back and listened to his Poppop tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. During his story, his little cousin, Jason, started singing and the escape to freedom became a musical! We even Skyped Sam’s sister Diana, living in Israel at the time, so she could chant the Four Questions. After the prayers were said, it was time for the holiday meal.
This particular Seder fell on Good Friday. It is a Catholic ritual to fast and not eat meat on Good Friday. Catholic fasting means eating only one full meal during the course of a day. I had refrained from eating all day, which would allow me to eat the Seder meal. While I was helping to serve the Matzah ball soup, with Sam’s aunts and female cousins, Sam made up a plate of food for me. When I got back to my seat, he had served me a little bit of everything- including the beef brisket. This was the biggest internal conflict of the night: do I eat the meat because it’s on my plate, or should I put it back, risk being rude and interrupting the flow of the meal? I saved the beef brisket for the last thing to eat to prolong my decision-making. I ended up eating the meat, justifying to myself that this was the right thing to do in this particular case.
This Seder meal was not like the one that I had experienced five years prior. It was neither awkward nor uncomfortable. Everything seemed natural and everything somehow magically “fit”. Although this was the first time that I had met his extended family, I remember his Mommom telling me that I fit very well into their family. I think that my response was telling her that my cheeks hurt from laughing & smiling too much!
I still don’t fully understand the symbols and rituals behind the Seder meal, but I have the rest of my life to learn about all of the Jewish customs.
Typically, when I tell friends, coworkers, and acquaintances how many siblings Anne has, responses range from “Wow,” to “God bless her mother,” to “Is her family Catholic?”
2013 Keefe Family Back Row: Dad, Carolyn, Stephanie, Andrew, Michelle, Chris, Nicole, Dave, Nephew: Ryder. Front Row: Mom. Theresa, Anne, Sam, Nicole, Grandpa. Missing from picture: Laura
Luckily for me, I wasn’t introduced to all three brothers and six sisters at once, which would have been overwhelming. I first started meeting her siblings just a few weeks after we started dating. One of Anne’s friends was playing in a jazz band at a bar in Asbury Park, and Chris (second-oldest) and Stephanie (sixth-oldest) were in town. The subject of religion came up fairly quickly, as Chris was a former seminarian, having left high school to pursue a path towards priesthood. Although he has since left the seminary, Chris has a deep faith informed by his theological studies.
Every few weeks I’d meet more of Anne’s siblings. Theresa (the youngest, now 13) came up to see a show at the theater where Anne worked. Dave (the oldest, now 32) stopped by Anne’s apartment for dinner one night. I was on speakerphone when Nicole (eighth-oldest) called Anne to say she’d decided to attend Anne’s alma mater, studying in the same theater program as Anne had.
However, it was Anne’s parents who I was most concerned about meeting. We set up plans to gather at Yards Brewery for a tour and a pint with Chris, Michelle (fifth-oldest), and Anne’s mom and dad. In preparation, I looked up her father’s CV (he’s a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware), read through some of his recent research papers, and in general just tried to gather as much information as possible to feed potential discussions and avoid awkward silences. The outing went well – I bonded with everyone over music, and had plenty to talk about based on the venue and my hobby as a homebrewer.
The topic of my religion didn’t come up with Anne’s parents until a few months later, when I was invited to celebrate Easter with Anne’s family. As it fell during Passover, and I try to keep Kosher (-style) for Passover, Anne worked with her mom to develop a meal that I would be able to eat. While they did have a ham, rolls, and beer, there was also chicken, matzah, vegetables, and corn syrup-free juice. The additional foods – and my declining to drink beer, my normal beverage of choice – spurred quite a few conversations about Jewish dietary restrictions, both during Passover and at other times throughout the year.
Those discussions with Anne’s parents and siblings throughout Easter were all very respectful. I’d been concerned heading into that particular holiday that some of Anne’s family might try to attack my beliefs, and it was a huge relief when their questions were more directed towards gaining insight into the differences between our belief systems. This tolerance of and respect for my rituals and practices has continued as I’ve become closer with Anne’s family. This past Easter, Anne’s father asked me to say the motzi after he led the family in the Catholic grace before the meal.
I’ve enjoyed the process of meeting and getting to know Anne’s family. It took over a year for me to meet the last of her siblings – Laura (the fourth-oldest) currently lives in the Virgin Islands – and I met her over Christmas last year. Spreading out these introductions worked very well, limiting the number of new faces and names I had to remember at each meeting, and giving me the chance to have deeper conversations with her family members.
Last week, we took a road trip to Minnesota to meet some of Anne’s extended family. During this trip, I was able to meet her grandmother, 11 aunts and uncles, and 20 of her first cousins. Unlike the spread-out process of meeting Anne’s siblings, there were a few times during the trip when a few dozen relatives were hanging out at her one of her uncles’ houses. While some faith conversations did come up they all seemed to know that I was Jewish. Even when the topic came up, it was always a curiosity question, never making me uncomfortable. Her family, extended and immediate, is just interested in learning about my beliefs, traditions and lifestyle.
It’s been fun getting to know and share my faith with Anne’s family, and I look forward to continuing the process as I meet more of her relatives.
In the end, the wedding went the way it was supposed to. That’s not to say that we didn’t hit a few snags along the way, most of them caused by me. I may have left our room at the hotel a mess prior to Shannon’s arrival. “Do you want the photographer to get pictures of your socks and underwear?” Shannon asked me. I may have forgotten to take the cake to the restaurant at which we had dinner afterwards, but one of Shannon’s brothers was able to get it there. And my best man might have stared in horror as I prepared to iron my tallit by first touching the iron to see how hot it was. In my defense, I had other things on my mind, and Mike’s much better at ironing than I am, anyway.
Our common phrase “mazel tov” is used to mean “congratulations,” but its origin is really astrological, meaning something like, “it was in the stars.” That’s what our wedding day was like; the stars were aligned for us. The weather was beautiful. Family members were all on their best behavior. I managed to keep my awkwardness to a minimum.
Our rings and ketubah.
Shannon and I wanted our ceremony not only to join us in marriage, but also to educate our families regarding the faith that informs our life together. To that end, we began with havdallah (the ceremonial end of Shabbat), and Rabbi Freedman narrated the ceremony throughout, explaining why we circled one another, why I broke the glass, and so on. Our approach seems to have worked; Shannon’s grandmother enjoyed the ceremony so much that she said she needed to find a Jewish man to marry!
Readers of this blog know that the decision to hold a Jewish wedding ceremony was not an easy one for me, but I couldn’t imagine having done it any other way. The picture above, in which Shannon is placing my prayer shawl on me, is symbolic of our relationship and the role Judaism plays in our lives. Although she is not Jewish, it is Shannon who cooks Rosh HaShanah dinner, Shannon who encourages me to become more involved in shul, and Shannon who has chosen to adapt to my lifestyle.
Shannon drapes my tallit on me. Look at how serious I am!
Drama on the bimah!
I wrote this blog in part to share the experiences of one interfaith couple, and I hope it has been interesting and informative for readers. But my motives weren’t completely selfless; it was therapy, too. I learned about life and myself as Shannon and I navigated the wedding planning process and as I narrated our story here. (These are the lessons I learned, and aren’t meant to be instructions for anyone else!):
It is easy to speak, harder to listen, and harder still to find common ground.
It’s important to examine the gap between what one does and what one claims to do.
Individual experience is as important as ideals, policies, beliefs, etc. In other words, life is messy and complicated.
Just as “haters gonna hate,” “lovers gonna love.” (Thanks to Rabbi Freedman and my friend Eugene S. for sharing these nuggets of wisdom.)
Community is an important Jewish value. Shannon and I couldn’t have planned our wedding alone. We’d like to extend our sincere thanks to:
InterfaithFamily for providing us the opportunity to share our story, and, in particular, my managing editor, Lindsey, for her help throughout.