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.

When Online Dating Went Off the Grid

  

online dating

When I was single, I spent a lot of time on OKCupid. But when I got Jean’s message, I’d never seen her profile before. My filter was set to see only women up to age 33. I was 37. Jean was 36.

I wasn’t ageist—at least that’s what I tell myself—but I want to have kids. When I did the math in my head—1 year minimum dating + 1 year minimum engagement + 1 year minimum to have a baby—the math got hard. There were other things to be wary of. She was a teacher. I had dated teachers before and was looking for something different. And then, under religion: “Catholic.”

When you’ve spent enough time on dating sites, you know what it means (or what you think it means) when someone who isn’t Jewish mentions their religion. It’s a big, almost political, statement. It means their religion means something to them. It means they knowingly are excluding a significant number of potential suitors who are actively anti-religious, non-religious or uncomfortable with the whole topic. And it probably excludes another not insignificant number of people who are wary of anyone being too serious about anything on OKCupid.

My profile said “Jewish.” But “Jewish” comes with a lot more useful flexibility than “Catholic.” When people write “Jewish,” they could be declaring an important part of their identity. Or, they could be sharing an interesting detail, a conversational topic for late in a good first date. They could be including “Jewish” for other Jews on the site who will only date Jews, as a way to make it through their filter. Occasionally, people write “Jewish” because they’re actually religious. Then again—most of those people are on JDate instead.

I wasn’t against dating someone who wasn’t Jewish. But I want to raise my kids Jewish. “Catholic” signaled a different intention.

But she was cute. She was rock-climbing in one picture. She held a (good) beer in another. There wasn’t a pink Red Sox hat or Macchu Picchu picture in sight. I liked her message to me: It was thoughtful. She had read my profile. She appreciated that I noted that I was aware that my job description sounded “douchy.” (I’m a business strategy consultant for the telecom industry. It does sound douchy.) I liked that. Also, I had recently broken up with somebody—a “perfect on paper” and Jewish, but not so perfect a match in reality, somebody—and was still kind of beat up about it. So I wasn’t looking for anything serious at this point. I figured we could have fun for a little while.

She was late for our first date. Not terribly late, only 15 minutes or so.

“I’m sorry, I’m a time optimist,” she said, a little out of breath. She didn’t seem sorry.

“It’s OK. I used to be a punctuality Nazi,” I said. “But I’ve mellowed.”

On our fourth date, she came over to my apartment.

By this point, I knew I liked her. She was smart. She was funny and self-deprecating but confident. She was a great listener. We always had something to talk about. But she didn’t fit my script. The age, the profession, the religion, a vegetarian to boot. It sounds shallow—and it is. But online dating’s greatest attraction (and no doubt its deepest flaw) is that it offers the promise of enough choice to find someone who actually fits your script. No settling necessary.

Liking her carried another danger, more significant than the risk of going off-script. Permanence. Permanence with somebody who cares enough about their religion that they include it on their online dating profile. Permanence with somebody who may feel strongly about raising her children Catholic, and will probably have better, clearer reasons for doing so than I do for wanting to raise my kids Jewish.

We were lying in bed, smiling at each other.

I asked her the question I knew could end things.

“Soooo…,” I said, turning toward the ceiling. “This Catholic thing. What does it mean for you, in terms of how your kids are raised?”

She sat up. She seemed intrigued, not anxious, about the serious turn the conversation had taken.

I wasn’t sure what answer I wanted to hear.

“Well. When a guy says they’re Jewish on their online profile, I know it usually means he wants to raise his children Jewish. I wouldn’t have sent you a message if I weren’t prepared to do that.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously!” she said. “I go to church because I was raised Catholic. But I would probably be Muslim if I were raised Muslim. Or be Jewish if I were raised Jewish. I just want my children to be raised in a religion. What religion that is is less important.”

This was someone to take seriously. What kind of person thinks a first message on OKCupid all the way through to child-rearing? Or rather, what kind of person actually makes a decision about a major life compromise they’d be willing to make before they hit Send? I knew she was thoughtful, but this was another level.

But this wasn’t just a hurdle cleared, or even just a deep source of potential future conflict addressed early on and head-on. It was a gift, yes—as it is for all Jewish people whose partners are willing to make this compromise. It was also a challenge.

When two Jewish people decide to have a family, this kind of conversation can be put on the backburner. Regardless of whether they send their kids to Hebrew school or whether they observe Shabbat, the parents can be confident their children will identify as Jewish. Two Jewish parents + bagels and lox + appreciation for Woody Allen movies = Jewish upbringing. But when your partner who puts “Catholic” on her OKCupid profile says, “I just want my children to be raised in a religion,” she is laying down a challenge: If you are making me sacrifice sharing my religion with my children, then you better be ready to share yours. Bagels and lox + Woody Allen movies ≠ Jewish upbringing. This means Hebrew school, bar mitzvahs, weekly Shabbat perhaps, talking to your children about God…

What had I gotten myself into?

In Our Love Story, Timing Was Everything

  

Stephanie & JarrettIt has been said that timing is everything. This belief is especially true for the evolution of my relationship with Jarrett over the last six years.

I first met Jarrett in February of 2010. Our encounter was brief. I was a junior at Penn State University and out with a group of girlfriends one night. I ran into Jarrett and his friend on my way to the bar. They introduced themselves, we exchanged a few words then I continued on as usual with my evening. Just another night out in State College…or so I thought.

A few weeks later, I was out to dinner celebrating my roommate’s birthday. Toward the end of our meal, I received a text from a friend. She said they were at a bar around the corner and that I should meet them after dinner. Now, it was a Wednesday night. I had a tough course schedule that semester and didn’t love the idea of staying out late on a weeknight. I told her I was tired and didn’t think I was going to make it. She responded with, “but there is someone here that wants to see you.” Curiosity got the best of me and after all, it was Saint Patrick’s Day. Being a redhead of Irish descent, I couldn’t disappoint my ancestors on this holiday, right? So, I finished up dinner and headed to Café 210 West.

When I approached my friends, I noticed there were a few boys with them and right in the center of the group sat Jarrett….timing is everything, right? I learned that a few of his fraternity brothers were friends with a group of my girlfriends. I was still skeptical. I mean, he was a fraternity boy (which must mean trouble) and a senior getting ready to graduate. I thought he would have no interest in dating. But, as I sat with him that evening, I learned that he was funny, confident and kind. We talked and hung out in the weeks leading up to his graduation. He even asked me to be his date to his Senior Fraternity Formal! But we never talked about our status as a couple.

After he graduated, we went our separate ways. I moved back in with my parents for the summer in Gilbertsville, PA, and he moved back in with his mom in Cherry Hill, NJ.  I thought for sure we would fall out of touch. But one summer day, he asked if I wanted to go on a date. We saw each other every few weeks after that and officially started dating! As we got to know each other more, he learned that I was raised Catholic and I learned that he was raised Jewish. This wasn’t anything new for me as I had a Jewish roommate in college who taught me the basics of Jewish traditions. Also, while I would say I’m a spiritual person, my Catholic faith background wasn’t the only thing that defined me. Plus, I liked this boy! And who knew where our relationship would go? I was only 21 years old at the time and wasn’t planning for marriage.

The following three years meant long distance for our relationship. I finished my senior year at Penn State, graduated and moved to Maryland to complete a dietetic internship to become a Registered Dietitian. He started his career in sales in New Jersey. Throughout the long distance, we strengthened our relationship through milestones such as meeting extended families and celebrating different holidays together for the first time including Passover, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Christmas!

Engaged!

Proposal at the Nittany Lion Shrine

In the summer of 2013, we decided it was time to fix the distance between us. We started talking more about our future together and had some of the “tougher” conversations about things like where we should live, finances, marriage (more about that later) and children. In September of 2013, we made an offer on our first home in Cherry Hill, NJ.  I was offered a new job in Philadelphia (a short drive away) on the same day that our offer was accepted…they say timing is everything!

Just in case we didn’t have enough responsibility as new homeowners, we decided to adopt a golden retriever puppy in September 2014. We named him Nittany after our beloved alma mater.  On March 20, 2015, Jarrett, Nittany and I took a road trip back to Penn State for a mini-getaway. Upon our arrival, we stopped for a quick family photo-op at the Nittany Lion Shrine and to my surprise; Jarrett got down on one knee with Nittany as his witness and proposed in the place we had met almost five years to the day…timing is everything!

We will tie the knot in an interfaith ceremony in October 2016. I look forward to sharing our interfaith wedding planning journey!