Growing Our Interfaith Marriage “Garden”

  

emily and jose garden blogBefore Jose and I got married, I wondered how marriage would influence our personal growth. I frequently heard the term “growing apart” to describe divorce. I worried whether that happens to some extent in all marriages, that all couples drift apart in their natural self-evolution and whether some couples are just stronger at making the union work. Would growing alongside another person stunt personal evolution, constraining one to only grow so much? Or would a marriage stimulate more self-growth?

Even before setting off on a career as a yoga teacher, I was interested in the concept of self-improvement. I believe we must better ourselves to better serve the world around us. I always saw, and still see, only minor hurdles in Jose and I coming from different religions and cultural backgrounds. All spirituality teaches us to be compassionate and kind to others, and there are more similarities than differences. If our religions encourage us to serve and to love, then Jose’s Catholicism is not at odds with my Judaism in that sense. Still, what obstacles from our faiths might emerge within our continued growth?

As we sat outside enjoying frozen yogurt last week, I asked Jose to get a cup of water from inside the shop. He refused. I thought he was being lazy and I got annoyed, but he explained that he didn’t feel comfortable asking for a cup of water when they sell bottles.

Wow, I thought. I was raised to not spend money unless I had to. Tap water is always free, so why buy a bottle? He was raised to respect a shop owner’s right to sell a product and to buy the item they sell.

Part of the beauty of our interfaith, intercultural marriage is the subtle differences in values, opinions and behavior that shine light on our self-development. When you’re married, you allow yourself to be exposed and vulnerable, to reveal your faults and to be embraced by love. When you give your partner the chance to love you fully for your strengths and for your weaknesses, you become aware of how to grow as an individual and as a partner. When your starting point involves different backgrounds, you often face these opportunities for growth early on.

When you grow alone, you may shoot off in one direction, one path, and no one is there to reality-check you. You may have family and friends as a support system, maybe roommates you must learn to live with, but no relationship compares to a life partner in the way it forces you to face yourself. That’s part of the reason I was always afraid of marriage.

I used to think of marriage like a sandbox: You build the wood planks around the outside to set clear boundaries for your wishes, desires, dislikes, hopes and dreams, and you try to keep the sand inside because there’s a finite amount of it. You can play with the sand, shaping and molding it in different ways as you grow and learn together, but the sandbox itself never changes shape, unless you break it down and start from scratch. That’s the other reason I feared marriage—what if we grow out of the sandbox?

I realize now there’s a much better metaphor for marriage. The marriage itself can grow; it’s not a sandbox. The two partners grow as individuals, but at the same time the union itself grows with life experiences, hurdles overcome and shared memories. I see marriage now as a garden. What grows each season may change. Sometimes you have a fruitful harvest because you have tended your garden with care, while other times the external factors like too little rain, sun or warmth prevent growth. Ultimately, each season is new, a new beginning for you to replant and learn from your mistakes.

Our interfaith and intercultural marriage is a beautifully varied garden. Together we have more seeds to choose from, more lessons from our ancestors’ cultures and religions to explore. We can plant something new, something uniquely blended to our garden, when we have children. Most important, if the harvest of our self-evolution grows beyond the perimeter of our garden because we tended to each other and ourselves with care, we can expand the garden.

Our marriage, still in its infancy, has taught me that growing alongside another person is in fact a greater, more rewarding challenge than growing alone. Marriage forces you to grow to the very edges of your comfort zone, expanding within the shape you and your partner design. That allows you to grow fully in all directions, becoming a well-rounded individual and a loving, supportive partner. And just like a garden, marriage grows when seeds are planted for the future, and that growth happens when you aren’t looking.

Blending Holiday Decorations and a New Life Together

  
Alexandra & Paul at a family holiday party shortly after they got engaged

Alexandra & Paul at a family holiday party shortly after they got engaged

In a million years, I never would have imagined that I would someday marry the sweet, funny, curly-haired freshman I met at a house party at Penn State 10 years ago. Yet, here we are.

Paul and I were friendly acquaintances at Penn State, but not much more. Despite our shared love of bad television and daiquiris, we only socialized a handful of times during our four years in State College.

After graduating from Penn State, Paul moved to Philadelphia to study medicine and I moved there to study law. Halfway through our second year of graduate school, we discovered we were both single. (Thanks, Facebook!) Paul asked me out. Unlike our chance encounters at Penn State, when Paul walked into our first date it was different. We talked for hours, laughed a lot and I had this overwhelming intuition that this was the beginning of something big.

We have been together since that first date. Our respective career paths have not always made it easy or even allowed us to live in the same city, but we both now work and live in Philadelphia. Nearly five years strong, we are still talking for hours, still laughing a lot and our relationship is the biggest thing in my life.

On a chilly Friday night this past December, Paul proposed in our living room, which was decorated at the time with our Star of David-topped Christmas tree, wax-covered hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) and a porcelain statue of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, recently gifted to me by my Catholic, Italian grandmother.

Surrounded by our blended holiday decorations, we excitedly agreed to blend our lives as husband and wife.

By way of background, I was raised Catholic. Paul is Jewish. Our proposal story is, undoubtedly, a beautiful snapshot of our interfaith relationship. However, in all candor, the interfaith aspect of our relationship has been a challenging (albeit, a rewarding) one. Communication and compromise have been instrumental to our process.

After one particularly difficult discussion, I turned to my best, most reliable resource in a time of uncertainty: Google. That night I found the InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia website. I began reading blogs by clergy and similarly-situated couples who have made interfaith relationships, weddings and parenthood work. Suddenly, Paul and I had options, resources and a network to help us figure this out. It was a game-changer and ultimately led us to our kind and open-minded officiant, Rabbi Robyn Frisch (director of IFF/Philadelphia).

Paul and I will be married in an interfaith ceremony on December 3, 2016 in Philadelphia. While I am still not entirely sure what that will entail, I look forward to figuring it out and sharing our experience with the InterfaithFamily community.

The Misunderstandings of Being Inter-Faith

  

I am having a rediscovery of music and have been listening to the band The Mars Volta quite a bit. One of the things that I love about those albums is that the lyrics do not seem to make any sense, but it does not take away from the enjoyment of the music. In my mind and to my ears it all makes sense. To a lot of people, without any context, it could easily be misunderstood, dismissed, or even perhaps judged harshly.

Our inter-faith yearly Seder, where all are welcome

I think a lot could be said similarly to Lisa and me, in our inter-faith relationship and our inter-faith ceremony.

I felt strongly about having a rabbi marry us and incorporating a lot of Jewish customs. Lisa was passionate about getting married in the Catholic chapel due to her upbringing and her love for her grandparents. To a lot of outsiders, those concepts married together (pun intended) may be strange and misunderstood.

Before I came to Cincinnati, my then rabbi sat down with me one-on-one and in groups with other inter-faith couples. I not only left with the rabbi’s blessing, but also with the idea that in order for an inter-faith couple to be successful, both faiths must be embraced and encouraged.

Outside of our ceremony, I feel that one misconception of an inter-faith couple is that G-D has very little to do with the relationship. I was having a conversation with a rabbi this week. (Note: I speak with a lot of rabbis in my line of work. This was not a rabbi I have an ongoing relationship with.) He was the second rabbi who tried to nicely explain that when couples are inter-faith, that somehow G-D is taken out of the equation.

When it comes to Lisa and me, it is G-D who made and continues to make our relationship possible. My spiritual mentor, and groomsman, Scott, encouraged me to allow G-D to come into the relationship. Whether it was sending a text message or calling Lisa on the phone, I always said a prayer. Even before Lisa and I met in person, there was a big G-D moment. As I was running late for my flight to visit her and speeding toward the airport, I decided to pull over my car and pray. The five minutes I took to pray was the same amount of time the flight was delayed and I was able to make the final boarding call. Our foundation is based on our relationship with G-D. Whether it was moving across the country, or planning our wedding today, our relationship continues to thrive because we both have faith, even if we express it in different ways.

This week, Lisa and I both felt that we as an inter-faith couple were being misunderstood, whether from people trying to understand the ceremony and the venue choices or our life decision. I am just grateful that I simply have this space to reach out to others who are inter-faith to let them know they are not alone in those awkward moments. The important thing to remember is G-D speaks every language and will show you love no matter how you want to express it.