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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!
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.
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.
Shannon practiced saying “Shanah tovah” during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
“How do you say that thing?” she said.
“What thing?” I replied, all innocence.
“You know, that thing you say that means ‘happy new year.’”
“Oh, that thing.” I told Shannon how to say it and listened as she repeated it. That she wanted know the right thing to say, and how to say it, made me smile.
Communication featured prominently in last week’s Torah portion, Noach, too. Everyone knows about Noah and the Flood, but tucked at the end of the parsha is the story of the tower of Babel. All humankind, possessing the “same language and the same words,” began building “a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name” for themselves. God saw what humankind was up to and concluded, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” God then “confounds” peoples’ speech so that they don’t understand one another. (Breishit / Genesis 11:1-9.)
The tower of Babel is, on its surface, a straightforward explanation as to why people speak many languages rather than one. Having seen humankind’s hubris, God literally descends from the heavens to which the people were building and puts a stop to it. Some of my fellow congregants at Rodeph Shalom were troubled by what they perceived as God’s capriciousness. “Why,” they asked, “would God give us the potential to do something, and then, when we do it, punish us for it? Why would God make it harder for us to understand one another, which leads to endless strife?”
There are deeper theological currents in such questions than I’m qualified to parse, but I don’t think that by “confounding” our speech God was simply “punishing” us. Indeed, absent from the story is any sense of severe judgment, and God is forgiving considering we were building a stairway to his house. “Nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach,” God says. Should we have reached our zenith at the very beginnings of history? If it is true in Judaism that we are God’s partners in the act of creation, and that we use the tools we have to work toward a more perfect world, then I prefer to think of the world’s many languages not as barriers to understanding, but as a nudge to better comprehend one’s fellows, as reason to reach out not with a closed fist, but with an open hand.
As our wedding approaches, Shannon and I are becoming more aware of the ways in which the ceremony will be an act of translation, of one culture speaking to another. The irony of our wedding night is that, of the dozen or so people present, only two will be Jewish: myself and the rabbi. My family members have rarely encountered Jewish people, and the only Jewish event they ever attended was my conversion. Thus Shannon and I, and our friend and officiant, Rabbi Eli Freedman, have determined that our wedding will be not only a ritual we perform for ourselves, but also an opportunity to educate our families about the faithway that informs our lives.
Rabbi Freedman will not only lead the ceremony, but he’ll also narrate it for the benefit of our families. He’ll explain to our mothers and siblings what we’re doing and why. We want our families to understand the symbolism of the event, to know why we’ll circle one another and why I’ll break the glass.
What better way to “translate” Judaism for others than by to invite them to participate? Family is one of the foremost Jewish values, and, to that end, our families have roles to fulfill during the ceremony. My sister and Shannon’s brothers and sister-in-law will hold the poles of the chuppah. Shannon’s mother will read the Irish wedding blessing (which is cultural, not religious). And we’ll remember my father, without naming him, when my mother reads Koholet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, which was read at his funeral service. We’ll emphasize the positive half of each of those verses, “a time to build…a time to laugh…a time to dance,” and not only honor my father, but also invest them with a happier significance.
There are elements in the contemporary Jewish community that see only a tide of darkness, “a time to weep, a time to mourn,” especially in regards to interfaith marriages. To approach it thus is to say, as my fellow congregants did, “Why did God do this to us?” Shannon and I choose to celebrate our marriage as an opportunity for greater understanding. We were given different ways of speech, Jewish and not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate. “Come, let us build a city.”
The people Ethan would playfully refer to as “punks” would say “J-E-W-I-S-H…” but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
One thing we noticed while on our whirlwind trip through Phoenix last week, talking to florists, planners, event location managers, caterers, and other sundry people involved in The Wedding Day, was that we just couldn’t come to agreement on how to spell Huppah. There are just so many choices, Chuppah, Hupah, Huppah, Huppa, Chuppa…. Though some would probably argue that there is only one right way to do it, they better not be using the Roman alphabet. Because there just isn’t standardization in transliteration. Oh sure, some people have tried, and large groups of Jews choose to use one standard or another, but there just isn’t a universal.
This can cause a bit of a problem when dealing with people not familiar with all the variance. If you use a spelling they’re not used to, then they might not understand what you’re talking about. Certainly this problem is more prevalent in the modern age when so much is done via email and the internet, but trying to make arrangements from 2000 miles away doesn’t help either.
Fortunately we haven’t run into any major snafus because of the joys of transliteration, but there has been occasional minor confusion.
All that being said, we’re happy to report success in making major progress from our trip, and invitations are going out tomorrow.
On a related note, when we drafted our invitations we had included the Hebrew date, and had spelled out the English year “Two thousand and eleven,” as is often traditional in formal invitations. We had kept the Hebrew date as a numeral and got a near universal reaction from people who reviewed it that that looked weird. In the end we chose uniformity in numerals because spelling out “Fifty seven and seventy one” in addition to the above just took up way too much space. So be on the lookout and keep it in mind for your big day. It’s a minor detail, but one worth looking good.