Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
The following is a guest blog post by the groom’s father, Phil Goodman followed by some additional thoughts from officiant Rabbi Robyn Frisch who is the director of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia
Like many of you I have enjoyed Anne and Sam’s wedding blog, but I have a major bias, I am Sam’s father. By way of introduction, over thirty years ago I entered my own interfaith marriage. I was not overtly active in daily religious practice and neither was my wife. Raised as a Conservative Jew, in my twenties I had become the proverbial twice-a-year-Jew assuming I would become more involved once I had a family. Pennye, raised Catholic, practiced little of any Christian faith. Once engaged we attended many community programs addressing interfaith marriage issues as we knew they would continually be the elephant in the room and it was important for us to have a basis to lean about what we knew would be part of every family decision we would make as a couple. We found a rabbi to perform our wedding ceremony as the Jewish traditions included in our ceremony were important to me and many of our guests, and acceptable to Pennye.
Religion remains an extremely important part of both of our lives. Jointly we’ve explored each other’s beliefs. I am a committed Reform Jew who, with my wife’s full support, has been very active in our large suburban congregation and held many leadership positions. Pennye is a committed Presbyterian with similar leadership positions in her church community. We are very lucky to have found two faith communities that accept both of us and consider both of us as resources when figuring out how interfaith issues affect their congregations. The key is mutual respect.
I frequently find myself in conversations concerning the increase in interfaith marriage in current society. I always ask the naysayers whether they practice their religion the way their parents do. Rarely is the answer “yes.” I then ask why they have any expectation that their children should be any different. When Sam brought Anne into my life I could not be happier for them as a couple. Individually they will figure out how their beliefs and practices will be part of their lives. InterfaithFamily certainly provides resources that were not as readily available to us thirty years ago. Over the past three years I’ve seen how Anne seems to complete Sam and visa versa. Their happiness is all that really matters to me.
Incorporating religious tradition, both Jewish and Catholic, in their ceremony was important to Sam and Anne. I expect that Sam’s upbringing made him cognizant that the beauty of his wedding day would partially rely on the comfort of the clergy participating in an interfaith ceremony. Knowing that our family’s rabbi did not perform interfaith ceremonies, his participation was never considered. (This rabbi was their guest at the wedding and in the following week he extended a congregational membership to Sam and Anne.) Sam and Anne were lucky to have relationships with other clergy who have known them individually since their childhoods, who took the time to get to know both of them over the past year, and who were willing to co-officiate. These personal relationships added to the beauty of the ceremony that seamlessly wove in two religious traditions.
I was honored when Sam and Anne asked that I toast them at their reception. Assuming that the maid of honor and best man would probably offer lighter remarks about the couple, I wanted to be more solemn and personal so I included the following in my speech:
“Following the priestly benediction over our children on Shabbat after we light the candles we ask that God make our sons like Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons, not so ironically for us here today, of Joseph and his Egyptian wife brought from an interfaith Diaspora into the fold by their grandfather, Jacob, becoming the namesakes of two of the tribes of Israel. Sam, wherever life may lead you, may you be like Ephraim and Manasseh, earning and deserving the respect of your peers and prospering by your continued good deeds.
We also ask that God make our daughters like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Anne, may you be like our matriarchs, the diligent manager of your household and strong protector of your family.”
At the end of the day, the oldest biblical history of our separate religions is the same. The past two thousand years may have led us down different paths, but the desire to make our world a better place and dreams for our children are the same. The reverence and respect that Sam and Anne have shown to their different religious faiths offers us all hope as it has provided us opportunities to learn from and about each other. I don’t deny that our uniqueness is important, but finding a way to weave our separate threads into a tapestry of new traditions that can envelop us all should be our goal.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch shares a few more personal words:
I met Sam and his family 13 years ago when I came to work at the congregation where Sam grew up. The Goodmans have been good family friends since then, and I have always admired the way that Sam’s parents navigated their own interfaith marriage. It has been a true pleasure for me to get to know Sam and Anne together as a couple for the past year. When Lindsey Silken mentioned many months ago that she was looking for a new couple to be wedding bloggers for InterfaithFamily, I knew that Sam and Anne would be perfect! Here is a piece of what I said to them at their wedding ceremony.
“Over the last year I’ve had the joy of getting to know you as a couple and of reading your blogs about your relationship. I’ve been so touched by the respect you have for one another. It’s rare to meet someone in their 20’s who has such a connection to both family and religion – such an awareness of their heritage – as each of you do. You’ve probably both heard me say many times that I hope that when my kids grow up they have as deep a connection to their Judaism as the three Goodman kids (Sam and his sisters) do. Anne, I know that you too respect this about Sam – just as he respects your bonds to Catholicism.
Rather than being scared of each other’s bonds to your religions, you both admire that in one another and you have let this draw you together. Rather than either of you trying to convince the other to believe or to worship the way that you do, you’ve explored each other’s religious traditions to learn what is meaningful to your partner. You’ve accompanied each other for family holidays and for worship – and your families have engaged in “Theology on Tap” sessions, combining both of your loves for learning, for holy scripture, and for a good beer.
Neither of you expects the other to compromise in a way that isn’t sincere; nor do you compromise your own practices or beliefs. Rather, you navigate your own unique path – together.”
Congratulations to Anne and Sam from everyone at InterfaithFamily!
I signed up to take an Intro to Judaism class at Sam’s synagogue. When I went to (what I thought was) the first class, I sat amongst a classroom filled with 20 other adults. Everyone was taking the class for various reasons: to re-affirm their faith, learn the basics, teach their children who were going through Hebrew school. Then there was me — I was just curious to learn about Judaism.
Class began and I soon realized that this wasn’t the first class session. The class was trying to come up with a concrete definition of a Jew. Is it one’s actions or faith or name? Are you born a Jew? Are there specific qualities that make someone Jewish? Everyone was referring to specific Torah passages, famous historical rabbis and different articles and writings. Not having read any of the material, I quickly got lost in the conversation, and became more and more frustrated as the class continued.
I talked with the rabbi after that first class to see if he could offer me some guidance. He gave me the syllabus, book list, and articles to read for the next class. He told me that this class could be used to convert to Judaism if I wanted to take that step. In that moment, I felt under attack. I only wanted to feed my curiosity about the religion. I was insulted that the rabbi seemed to take my expression of interest as a chance to proselytize.
I got home that evening and stress-ate an entire 1lb bag of M&Ms. I didn’t want to continue the class because I didn’t feel spiritually ready to have my religious beliefs criticized. After some careful prodding by Sam, I drudgingly forced myself to go to class the following week.
Fast-forward 12 weeks and I love the class! Over the course of the class, I’ve gotten to know the rabbi and his mannerisms, and I now recognize that that first comment was not meant to be demeaning, but only to offer an opportunity to convert if I was so interested. I have made it clear that I do not intend to convert to Judaism, but have used this class to reaffirm my own faith.
There is another Catholic in the class, which I am grateful for, although his mannerisms and occasional off-topic meanderings remind me of my grandfather. The class has dwindled down to a core group of 7 people: 3 who were born and raised Jewish, 2 who converted to Judaism in their adult lives (including the rabbi’s wife), and 2 Catholics. It has been really interesting hearing the different stories and interpretations that everyone brings to the class.
A few class sessions ago, we talked about the different Jewish life cycle events, discussing the symbols and meanings behind the brit milah/baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, and marriage. The marriage segment of the class turned into a Q&A about our upcoming wedding. The class was curious as to whether we plan to have the standard Jewish symbols and customs at our wedding, such as the chuppah, smashing the glass, etc. Those were easy yes and no questions that Sam and I had previously discussed. Then they asked the why questions. Why are having those specific traditions and customs and how did we come to those conclusions. My answer was to read this blog!
We are about half way finished the course. So far, we have had in-depth conversations about a number of topics, including the afterlife, order of the Shabbat service, Torah, holidays, and history of Judaism. The second half of the class is delving into the history of Judaism. I am consistently doing the weekly readings (sometimes over 300 pages!), answering the study questions and always bringing my own set of questions. This prep work has made class a lot less frustrating and a lot more fascinating!
By Sam Goodman
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?”
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.
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.
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!):
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:
Shannon and I are looking forward to reading the next couple’s story. Until then…
(Photographs by Kirk Hoffman Photography.)
Rabbi Eli Freedman came into my life just as I was beginning to explore the possibility of converting to Judaism. I first met him at a Shabbat dinner when he handed me a beer and said, “The synagogue’s men’s club brewed this.” That’s when I thought, “I’m going to study with this guy.”
Rabbi Freedman, to me, is an embodiment of the notion that Judaism is a lived religion. In addition to his pastoral role at Rodeph Shalom, Rabbi Freedman is involved in various social justice initiatives, particularly P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild). Rabbi Freedman lives by the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16.) I’m pleased to share a few words with you from Rabbi Freedman about intermarriage.
I was touched by the words of Matt Rice, my student, my teacher and my friend. I could not agree more with Matt’s view of intermarriage. I truly believe that the problem is not intermarriage—it is apathy.
I like to call this the “Brandeis Syndrome.” I went to Brandeis University for my undergraduate studies. You may have heard of it—there are a couple Jews there! But I have never before seen so many apathetic young Jews in my life. When I asked my friends why they weren’t involved in Jewish life on campus, their response was usually something along the lines of, “I go to Brandeis; isn’t that Jewish enough?!”
Rabbi Leo Baeck once wrote, “A minority is always compelled to think. That is the blessing of being in the minority.” Just like those Jews at Brandeis who took their Judaism for granted, I find that Jewish/Jewish couples take their Judaism for granted as well. They figure that because they are both Jewish, they need not do anything else and that their family will automatically be a thriving Jewish family. Whereas, interfaith couples are forced to think. Because of this, they often make much more conscious decisions of how Judaism will be practiced in their home and they are much more mindful of their children’s religious upbringing. That is the blessing of being an interfaith couple.
The key to this, however, is that congregations and clergy reach out and help those who want to make educated decisions. As Matt writes, “Embrace loving couples and they will respond.” We must strive to welcome interfaith families into our congregations and give them the tools make Judaism a part of their lives.
Rabbi Eli Freedman
(Matt’s note: Rabbi Freedman serves at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadlephia.)
I attended services at Mishkan Shalom last spring.
A friend of mine led the Torah study that preceded services. We read from the haftarah, Hosea, in which the prophet addresses his unfaithful wife, Gomer. Their troubled marriage is really a metaphor for the relationship between Israel and God.
Here’s a sample of what Hosea says: “Assuredly, / I will take back My new grain in its time / And My new wine in its season, / And I will snatch away My wool and My linen / That serve to cover her nakedness. / Now will I uncover her shame / In the very sight of her lovers, / And none shall save her from Me.” (Hosea 2:11-12, JPS Tanakh.) Hosea goes on to assure Gomer that he will take her back and shower her with love. (So too with God and Israel.)
Grim stuff. It reminded our modern sensibilities of an abusive husband addressing his battered wife. “Okay,” our teacher said, “we understand the psychology of it. So how do we reconstruct this?”
I think about that Torah lesson every time I encounter a practice with which I’m uncomfortable: How do we reconstruct this? How do we maintain the integrity of the tradition while also making it relevant and meaningful? The ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, is a good case-in-point.
Traditionally, the ketubah was a legal document. It was a contract that stated the obligations of the husband to his bride. The husband promised to work and support his wife, to provide her with food and other necessities, and even to fulfill her conjugal needs. Should the husband prove remiss in his duties, he was required to financially compensate his wife. And that’s it.
The ketubah was a significant development in Jewish marital relations. It was written in Aramaic, the lingua franca at the time it was codified, and thus comprehensible to the parties entering into it. It attempted to provide some security for women, too, by assuring them some material support. But there is no doubting that it is a pre-modern artifact. A traditional ketubah insures a bride for the dowry that she brings to the marriage, “whether in silver, gold, jewelry, clothing, furnishings or bedding” plus an additional amount agreed to by the groom’s family. The insurance is calculated in zuzim, the Jewish currency used in Roman Palestine.
There is power in the age of certain Jewish traditions. Consider the ancient sound of the shofar calling us to repent, or the lighting of the menorah, a reminder of the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages. But there are some things liberal Jews have trouble connecting with, and the traditional ketubah is one of them. That Shannon and I can’t imagine celebrating our union with a traditional ketubah is only partly related to our status as outsiders in terms of halakha. We know we’re outside the Law. Rather, we find the spirit of the ancient ketubah lacking, too.
So what to do? How do we reconstruct this?
Shannon and I chose to have a custom ketubah. We reviewed possibilities we found on the Internet and settled (appropriately) on a Reconstructionist-inspired ketubah. We chose the text we did because of its emphasis on community, social justice and tradition. “We promise to honor our community by offering and accepting support, love, and friendship,” it reads. “Our home will be a place of openness and generosity, enriched by Jewish tradition. Together, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.”
We liked the text so much that we made only one change, adding to the ketubah, after the first sentence quoted above, “We will honor Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and other family customs. If we are blessed as children, we will raise them as Jews.” Shannon and I have agreed to keep a Jewish home, but we want to make sure that she never feels out of place or excluded, hence “other family customs,” which covers a range of potentialities. (For instance, it is not Shannon’s custom to fast on Yom Kippur.) We engage in reconstruction to bring modern meaning to ancient ways.
The service I attended at Mishkan Shalom included an aufruf, or blessing over the Torah, by a couple soon to be married. (My friend, who led Torah study, and his fiancee.) After that, we threw candy at the couple. As the rabbi prepared to return the Torah to the Ark, she discovered a Hershey’s Kiss in the scroll. (To which there was no damage, I promise.) “There is much sweetness in Torah,” she quipped.
That is what Shannon and I have aimed for in our nontraditional Jewish wedding: to capture the sweetness of custom by actively reconstructing it.
(Special thanks to Gene B., the artist who is designing our ketubah and gave me permission to use an example of his artwork in my post. You can find more of Gene’s work at his shop on Etsy, Once Upon a Paper.)
A Muslim man greeted me with “As-salamu alaykum” on Rosh Hashanah morning. Having seen the kufi-style yarmulke I wore, he acknowledged me as he passed the bench on which Shannon and I sat. “He said ‘hello’ to you,” Shannon told me as I wrested my attention away from my smartphone. “He did?” I said, blinking in surprise. I caught the man’s eye, but reacted too slowly to respond to him.
I thought about that brief interaction during the train ride back to our apartment. I felt badly that I hadn’t replied to the man’s greeting. G. Willow Wilson, writing in her memoir The Butterfly Mosque, notes that it is a grave insult when one Muslim ignores another’s “hello.” I’m not Muslim, of course, but the man who spoke to me thought otherwise. I wondered what the appropriate response might have been. Should I have ignored his mistake and replied, “Wa alaykumu salam”? Should I have smiled and said, “Aleichem shalom?” My concern was further exacerbated when the passenger sitting behind Shannon and I leaned forward and asked, “Hey, man, are you Muslim or Jewish?”
Richard Fletcher, in his book Moorish Spain, describes a piece of art in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba: the crude image of a man who appears to be shrieking in terror. It is only upon consideration that the viewer realizes that the man is not screaming, but praying. Fletcher sees in this image’s ambiguity, in the confusion it evokes in people looking at it, a metaphor for the West.
Echoing Fletcher’s characterization of Western history, my first college professor lectured about the seventeenth century false messiah Sabbetai Zvi. When not engaged in mystical study, Zvi performed bizarre public acts, marrying himself to a Torah scroll and otherwise promoting his messianic aspirations. “Is this the nature of Western history?” my professor mused. “Is Western civilization schizophrenic?”
Teaching about anti-Semitism, the same professor maintained that hatred of the Jews stemmed from our status as the “Eternal Other.” Our people’s mere existence was a provocation, serving as it did as a refutation of the West’s foundational beliefs: namely, that mankind was redeemed by the son of God. Our stubborn refusal to accept Christianity caused doubt among Christians themselves, who then projected their anxieties back onto us in violent ways. According to this argument, anti-Semitism is the result of a process similar to the formation of a pearl, only the product is not a thing of beauty, but a perfect sort of hatred.
Jews are accepted in America as we have been in few other times and places. I believe that will remain true. But some thinkers are less sanguine about the future of world Jewry. Mosaic Magazine recently questioned the future of European Jews, and Tablet ran a review of two new scholarly books on anti-Semitism under the headline “Why Literally Everyone in the World Hates Jews, and What To Do About It.” I mentioned these articles to a friend, who replied that anti-Semitism always increases during difficult economic times. I’m not convinced that there is a “reasonable” explanation for such irrational hatred.
I am not genetically Jewish. (A DNA test that Shannon and I took a few weeks ago revealed in our genes the absence of Ashkenazi ancestry. For more on the genetics of Jewish identity, see Harry Ostrer’s book Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People.) We who count ourselves members of the Tribe know that “Jewishness” is a slippery thing, comprised of, but not singularly defined as, peoplehood, ancestry, ethnicity, culture and religion. I doubt that bigots are so discerning. To anti-Semites, a Jew is a Jew. Perversely, I welcome the equality of status in the Jewish community granted me by bigots but denied me by our own hardliners.
Engaged to Shannon, though, I no longer speak for myself alone. I must consider my partner’s well being in all things. The local news station ran on the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah a story about a fire at a home in the Philadelphia suburbs. The family was Jewish; the fire was an act of arson that appeared to be “racially” motivated. Coming as this news did amid stories about rising anti-Semitism and the looming crisis in Syria, it made for a bleak beginning to the new year.
The response the Muslim stranger’s greeting provoked in me was less worry over hurt feelings than an existential dread. Lest anyone suspect me of Islamophobia, let me be clear: it is not Muslims I fear, but the potential for confusion and violence inherent in all faiths. I have bound myself to a people who has, for millennia, been the target of the worst travesties of faith. Shannon may not be Jewish, but by marrying me, she, too, will be casting her lot with us. Am I asking too much of her? Is it wrong of me to request of Shannon that she join me on a path I freely chose?
On Rosh Hashanah we recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a litany of misfortunes that might befall us during the coming year. I wonder if, by naming our fears, we’re trying to rob them of the possibility of coming true.
For those readers who don’t know, “as-salamu alaykum,” and its Hebrew equivalent, “shalom aleichem,” means “peace be upon you.” The appropriate reply inverts the words: “wa alaykumu salam” (in Hebrew, “aleichem shalom”) or, “upon you be peace.” I think there’s something lovely about such a greeting. (It also serves as “goodbye.”) “Shalom aleichem” is a favorite expression of mine, but it’s the sentiment behind it that matters. May we wish peace to friends and strangers alike in the coming year.
When I became Jewish, I began seeing homeless people.
I was not unaware of the homeless before I converted to Judaism. When I moved to Philadelphia in 2008, it was the first time I saw people living on the street. I was shocked. I grew up in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There were poor people, certainly, but no obviously homeless people. So I was unprepared when, while walking to the office on my first day of work in the city, a homeless man accosted me. Unnerved, I passed him without responding. He cursed me. “Welcome to Philly, country boy,” I thought, amused by my uncertainty. When I told friends the story, I made it about myself. And thus I began the process of cynically numbing myself to the sight of people begging in the street. Within a few weeks I was so acclimated to city life that I had adopted the standard reaction to the homeless. I didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them. And I certainly didn’t give them any money.
My conversion to Judaism lifted the veil with which I had covered my eyes. A famous verse from Torah reads, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20.) The verse is usually translated into English as “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” But “tzedek,” meaning justice, may also be translated as “righteousness,” and, less exact, perhaps, but more common, “charity.” Thus righteousness, justice and charity are bound together in one concept. We give to others not necessarily because we like to, or even because we want to, but because we are instructed to. (And the repetition of “tzedek” in the verse, unusual in Torah, is interpreted by the rabbis as an indication of its importance.)
On the day of my beit din, the rabbinical “court” with whom I met prior to my conversion, I confessed to my rabbis that, as a result of my studies, I had once again begun seeing the homeless as people. I at that time had not been able to bring myself to give change to anyone who asked, but just as I had not hardened myself to my fellows at one time, the act of breaking old habits would be a process. I continue to work on it. I think this is the purpose of the mitzvot.
Right now you might be wondering: “This is a wedding blog. What does any of this have to do with marriage?”
Jewish values are really universal values. Most people, and all faiths, believe in the importance of charity. And that is something that Shannon and I have in common, despite the fact that she is not Jewish. Tzedakah is the Jewish tradition of charity, and Shannon and I both have embraced it as part of our lives together. We find common ground in the Jewish expression of a universal value.
The last line of our ketubah states, “Together, we will work for peace and justice with empathy and hope, taking action to help heal the world.” We give tzedakah, sometimes in money, sometimes in units of time, as our resources permit. I believe I speak for us both when I say that, as our resources grow, so too will the amounts that we give. To that end, we have a little tzedakah box into which we put change on Shabbat and on holidays. (We inaugurated it during last year’s Rosh HaShanah dinner with 18 cents, 18 being the Jewish symbol for life. Tzedekah is often given in multiples of 18.)
Shannon and I are building our future together with shared values, expressed “Jewishly.”
“We should have eloped.”
One of us has said that every week since we began planning our wedding. “We should have eloped,” I say. “I know,” Shannon replies. Then we both sigh.
A wedding is a turning point. It’s the moment when two lives become one, when two individuals are sanctified unto one another. And, as Shannon and I have learned, planning one is a lot of work. At some point, romance gives way to administration and dreams become action items. Dress? Check. Synagogue? Check. Ketubah? Well…I’m still working on that one. I’ll send Shannon a meeting invitation so we can plan milestones.
Weddings so often become events unto themselves rather than celebrations of the couples getting married.
Midrash tells us that the patriarch Abraham, as a child, smashed the idols his father manufactured. When his father confronts him, Abraham tells his father that the largest idol smashed the others. His father scoffs at the story, and Abraham responds, “They have no power at all! Why worship idols?” (Midrash B’reishit 38:13.)
The rabbis used this story to explain Abraham’s righteousness and his call by God. But I think the idols Abraham smashes can be understood as a metaphor for anything that obscures the truth. That’s what Shannon and I aim to do with our wedding: smash any idols that obscure the true intent of the day. For instance, we decided to have a small ceremony, despite the size of our families. Neither Shannon nor I are comfortable as the center of attention, so only 14 people will be present, including the photographer. The wedding will take place in the chapel at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in Philadelphia.
Some aspects of our ceremony will remain traditional. We’ll stand beneath a chuppah. We’ll perform the badeken, or veiling of the bride. And, after the ceremony, we’ll have yichud, a brief time we’ll spend alone as a newly married couple.
But we’ll smash idols along the way, ensuring that the ceremony is wholly ours. The chuppah will be a quilt made by my great-grandmother. Rather than Shannon circling me seven times, we’ll circle one another three-and-a-half times, a maneuver that may prove tricky when Shannon’s in her dress. We interpret the act of circling as the separation of our new relationship, as a married couple, from our past. In a nod to Shannon’s ancestry, her mother will read the Irish blessing (which has cultural rather than religious connotations). And we’ll walk down the aisle to the rabbi playing “Over the Rainbow” on the ukulele. (Our rabbi plays a mean uke.)
Of course, the biggest idol we face is that of intermarriage. So many people bow before it! But, as Abraham knew, the power an idol possesses is all in the worshiper’s mind. Why worship it? Shannon and I, surrounded by family and loved ones, will smash that idol on a quiet Saturday night in October.
And it won’t be about the “issues,” the flowers or even the dress. It will be about us.
And we’ll be glad we celebrated our union in a Jewish ceremony, even if, in the meantime, we sometimes wish we had eloped.
“I think I’m converting to Judaism.”
I said it quietly, without making eye contact, as Shannon walked by. As if, by treating it as a commonplace, like the weather or the Phillies, I’d sneak it by her without conversation.
Shannon stopped and turned to face me. “Are you serious?” she asked. I’m known for making outrageous statements. I like to push peoples’ buttons and see how they react to things. But this wasn’t a time for joking around.
“Yeah,” I said.
Shannon paused for a moment. “Finally,” she breathed.
That conversation took place in early 2011. I converted to Judaism on May 16, 2012. Shannon and I were engaged on November 29. We’re to be married on October 26 of this year, at 7 in the evening, after Havdalah.
I am Jewish. Shannon is not.
Our story is not a typical one. After all, how many couples are there in which one partner is a convert to Judaism and the other isn’t Jewish? Many people convert, in part, in order to marry their Jewish partner or satisfy the expectations of their partner’s family. (Of course, this is not to imply that anyone’s conversion is in any way less heartfelt or genuine than someone else’s, whatever the reasons!)
Our story is increasingly commonplace, too. Like many “younger” people (I use the term loosely, as both Shannon and I are in our thirties), Shannon and I have chosen our own way. For me, that meant becoming Jewish and living a Jewish life. For Shannon, that meant defining her identity outside of mine, an ongoing act of spiritual and emotional integrity that I admire. Shannon and I will defy tradition when we celebrate our union in a Jewish wedding. (Ironically, as a small ceremony, only two Jews will be present: the rabbi and myself.) An interfaith couple, Shannon and I will together establish a Jewish home. And, as more young Jewish men and women intermarry, our story becomes more typical, too.
There are voices in our community who will say that our marriage can’t be Jewish, that our children won’t be Jewish, that I’m not Jewish, that even the idea is mishegas, a shande. I’m writing to state positively, for Shannon and me and those couples like us, that we’re here, we’re real, and that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nu?
Shannon and I met in college in 2004. We’ve been together ever since, through arguments, long distance, health problems and family crises. Our dedication to one another sometimes wavered but never failed. You might say that we are bashert (meant to be).
Perhaps most impressive was Shannon’s support of my decision to become a Jew. As a rabbi and friend of ours is fond of pointing out, Shannon “didn’t sign on for this.” “This” being code for…a suddenly Jewish partner, Rosh Hashanah dinners and Yom Kippur fasts, latkes and dreidels at Christmastime and blessings recited in Hebrew: in short, all the trappings of a Jewish life. Shannon has gracefully walked the fine line of embracing Jewishness while maintaining her intellectual independence. She affirms my Jewishness by actively living the Jewish values of home and family, of giving tzedakah and honoring Shabbat. She won’t convert, though, because she doesn’t believe in the Hebrew God. Shannon’s intellectual openness and integrity are part of why I love her. Her encouragement of my choice to convert, to become who I was meant to me, is why I will marry her.
Shannon knew about my interest in Judaism from the time we began dating. I imagine, at the time, that it seemed like a minor quirk; after all, I was a history major with an interest in religion. Over time, though, as I referred more and more often to Judaism, Shannon intuited what I wanted but was afraid to embrace: conversion to Judaism. So it was no surprise to Shannon when, in the winter of 2011, I announced to her that I was thinking of converting. “Finally,” she breathed, a sigh of relief indicative of the divinity inherent in accepting the life choices of one’s partner.
Shannon encouraged me throughout the conversion process. She accompanied me to the Introduction to Judaism class offered by the URJ and talked excitedly about Shabbat dinners and the Jewish values of family and charity. She drove me to the mikveh. She was was at shul when I held the Torah scroll and proclaimed my allegiance to the Jewish People and our God. And she suffered through at least one Torah study before deciding she’d rather cook Rosh Hashanah dinner. Shannon actively lives the values to which I aspire.
During the spring of this year, Shannon and I enrolled in InterfaithFamily’s Love & Religion workshop. Although we’re (for the most part) comfortable with the role religion plays in our lives, we thought it would be good to meet other couples with similar experiences in order to learn from them. Little did we realize that we would be the most experienced couple in the workshop! Love & Religion provided us a window into the way other couples our age are negotiating the role of religion in their relationships. We learned that our accommodation of one another was not unique and that we’re not alone. It’s a shared story.
Over the next few weeks I’ll use my space here to talk about our plans: what our ceremony will be like (and why), choosing a ketubah, and what we imagine our married life will be like. I’ll write about points of contention that arose between Shannon and me in the past and likely sources of conflict in the future. And I’ll expand on our plans to establish shalom bayit (in English, a “peaceful home,” or domestic harmony). I look forward to you joining me!