Providing quality experiences to enrich the lives of the community at large with award-winning preschool programs, summer camps and a wide array of enriching activities. JCC Chicago provides the opportunities to bring Jewish values to the lives of everyone from infants to adults.
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 the Winter Olympics have been consuming our TV watching the past few weeks, Chris and I have been talking about our future children–particularly, our future children and sports. Will we raise a future Olympic athlete? Possibly, but probably not. We are both relatively athletic and played sports as children; Chris was an avid hockey player through high school and I took up rowing in high school and stuck with it through college.
I often ask myself how people get into sports in the first place (this came up often while watching many of the sliding events at the Olympics–how does one become a skeleton competitor?!) I imagine children are first exposed to the sports their parents’ were (or still are) involved with and then make choices from there. Of course, Chris is already talking about buying our future first child a pair of hockey skates, and I know I’d love my children to experience the lifelong friendships and physically active lifestyle I attribute to my years as a rower. We both enjoy skiing and would surely expose our children to that at an early age. But…the rest is really up to them.
This made us think about how in many respects, religion parallels athletics, or really any interest that can be passed on from a parent. A child’s first exposure to religion is through their parents and the religion(s) they practice. Clearly this is more complicated when parents practice different religions, as we do. Chris and I do not happen to be the type of believers who find Judaism and Catholicism mutually exclusive, but we know that there are many among both faith groups who would say that you must pick a side.
So what do we do? Try to expose our children equally to both faiths and wait and see which they choose? Will our children have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs or first communions and confirmations? Is it possible for them to choose to practice both? We do not really know the answer to these questions, and in fact think that our kids will be infinitely more qualified to address them. We do acknowledge that exposing our children to our faiths will require us to make some changes, but we can’t exactly foresee what this will mean. Ultimately the best we can hope for is to raise our children with the values our religions have taught us; kindness, caring, loyalty, honesty, and generosity. And if they end up competing at the Olympics one day, we’ll be there to cheer them on.
Sam and I couldn’t be more different. Sam enjoys heavy metal rock music. I like classic rock, jazz, folk and NPR. Sam gets lost in each musical component- the percussion, the vocals, the guitar etc, whereas my music puts Sam to sleep. I use my music to cheer me up, get me going, and to keep me company at work.
I work in the event industry and my background is in arts management. Sam, on the other hand, works in pharmaceuticals and his background in engineering, physics, and computer science. Our backgrounds and training have taught us to think differently about problems, situations, and the world around us. Sam is very logical, he concludes that the fastest way from point A to B is a straight line and A plus B always equals C. My brain doesn’t function that way. The fastest way from point A to B may not be the best way and A plus B may equal purple or square or dog.
Sam likes sleeping in; I am an early bird. Sam was born in Pennsylvania; I was born in Minnesota. Sam has 2 siblings; I have 9. Sam is Jewish; I am Catholic. I could go on and on listing the ways that Sam and I are different. Through all of these differences, we both understand that we love each other for the whole package.
I love Sam Goodman for the whole package!
I love Sam for his rock music, Pharmaceuticals, physics, logic, Judaism and all. Sam loves me for my NPR, arts background, Catholicism and everything. We both understand that it is all of these elements combined that make up who we are. If you were to take out any one of these elements Sam would be totally different and not the man that I love. If you were to take out the element of my religion, or family, I would be totally different and not the woman that Sam loves. You can’t say, “I love you except_________ (fill in the blank)” or “I would love you more if ___________”, because then you would be taking out little pieces of that person.
We love each other because of these differences. As we plan our wedding and our future together, we are learning that we can use our differences to balance out each other. I can help Sam see things from an arts management perspective; he can help me appreciate heavy metal rock music. I can learn about his Judaism and he can learn about my Catholicism. It is in learning, understanding, and loving ALL of these aspects of each other that will help us with our lives together and raising a family. I can just imagine, our future three year old reading the Wall Street Journal and teaching me about physics.
In order for my marriage to Sam to be recognized in the Catholic Church, I have to request permission from the Diocese for a special dispensation in order to marry a non-Catholic who was never baptized.
This document also requires my signature under this statement: “I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and with God’s help intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church. I promise to do all in my power to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and raised as Catholics.”
Crap! While we have discussed it on numerous occasions, Sam and I have yet to decide in which faith to raise our children.
With that in mind, we arranged to meet with Monsignor Hopkins, the priest at my family’s parish, to talk about this special dispensation. We also wanted to discuss Pre-Cana, a Catholic pre-marriage course that discusses spirituality/faith, conflict resolution, careers, finances, intimacy/cohabitation, children, and commitment. In addition, we were looking for advice on how to incorporate both religions into our ceremony.
A few months ago, we had met with Father Hopkins to start talking about these issues. He advised us to hold the ceremony in a “neutral site”, neither a synagogue nor a church. As a result of this discussion, we arranged to hold our ceremony at the country club where our reception will take place.
Last Saturday, we met with Father Hopkins to discuss the dispensation in further details. He gave us some really great advice that I would like to share with you:
- Deciding which religion to raise our children in is a very large, important decision that does not have to be decided right now, as long as we are seriously talking about it.
- Even if we are currently leaning more towards raising our children in one faith or the other, that may change once there is a baby in the picture.
- In talking about children, faith and our lives together, we should not “minimize or trivialize” the other’s religion or beliefs.
- “Everything will be fine as long as your family loves and accepts Sam and his family loves and accepts you.”
We talked about Pre-Cana. I have heard the amazing revelations (and some horror stories) of going through these Pre-Cana classes. I also feared the number of miles that we would put on our cars if we drove down to Delaware every weekend for 6 months to attend these classes. We floated the idea of taking Pre-Cana in New Jersey; however, I wanted to take the courses with a priest that I was comfortable with. Father mentioned that the class is mainly about communication and because our communication with each other is strong and we have started to incorporate the families into our decision making process, he is not requiring us to attend Pre-Cana.
We then discussed how to blend the different Jewish/Catholic symbols and rituals into the ceremony without offending anyone. Father Hopkins gave us some examples of programs from Catholic/Jewish ceremonies in which he officiated, and a list of readings and blessings to consider.
We still have a lot of decisions to make, and we are just about to hit the 8-month mark!
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.
Sam and I got engaged in September and this blog is our place to share with you a little bit about us as individuals and as a couple. We continue exploring and learning about each other. I will be writing these blog posts in collaboration with Sam.
It was two years, this past weekend, since I started dating my fiancé, Sam. We met online and neither of us were particularly looking to meet someone from a different faith; it just happened. On our second date, religion and faith was the topic of conversation and we started recognizing the similarities of Judaism and Catholicism.
Sam grew up in an interfaith household. His father is a Reform Jew and his mother is a practicing Presbyterian. All three children were raised as Jews. Because of this, Sam is very connected to his faith: sitting on a few committees of the local Jewish Federation, frequently attending services, and involved with lay leadership at his synagogue. I, on the other hand, was raised in a religiously conservative Roman Catholic household. My nine siblings and I went to church every Sunday, received the Sacraments as often as we could, attended private Catholic schools, and pray often as a family.
In trying to write this first blog post about our upcoming wedding, we asked each other a few questions about how faith played a role in our dating experiences.
Have you ever dated someone who was of a different faith?
Sam had dated Jews and people who were not Jewish and it didn’t faze him one way or the other. He had even dated a Pastor’s daughter. I had only dated Christians before Sam, some more practicing than others.
Did your parents/family have any expectations of you finding a significant other within your faith?
Because Sam grew up in an interfaith household, there was minimal pressure on him dating outside his faith. Growing up, he expected to raise Jewish children; whereas my parents expect Catholic grandchildren. (Expect more on this topic in a future blog post.) Interfaith is brand new territory for my family. Growing up, my family’s circle of friends was from the private Catholic grade school and high school. I even went to a Catholic college, as did most of my siblings. I didn’t have many non-Catholic friends, until I went to a Mormon graduate school. Even then, my best friend was another Catholic.
When did your family realize/find out that your significant other wasn’t practicing the same religion?
For Sam this was a non-issue. It may have come up in casual conversation with his parents, but there wasn’t a specific time when his parents were shocked that I wasn’t Jewish. With me, it was quite different. In helping my mom prepare the Easter menu, I mentioned that I wanted to bring my boyfriend home and he had a few dietary restrictions. I offered to bring separate foods that were kosher for Passover, as to not put pressure on my family. We had only been dating for a few months, so I didn’t want to make it a big deal that he wasn’t Catholic. However, Mom told Dad, Dad told my brother Chris, who then told my sister Michelle, and shortly thereafter everyone in my family knew that Sam was Jewish.
The meal turned into my siblings asking Sam questions about Passover, his faith, and Judaism in general. Sam took this bombardment of questions like a champ! Sam joined us again for Easter this year and my family started embracing the kosher for Passover foods. My dear mom even experimented with matzah desserts! We said the grace before the meal and my Dad asked Sam to say his blessing, which he did in Hebrew. It was then, that my very conservative Catholic grandfather realized that Sam wasn’t Catholic. (Expect more on Sam’s relationship with my grandfather in a future blog post.)
Because you were dating someone of a different faith, did you have doubts about the relationship?
Sam didn’t have any doubts in being in an interfaith relationship because he saw his parents as role models. He had grown up practicing Judaism, but also experiencing major Christian holidays with his mom. My answer is not as simple. I did have doubts about overcoming the faith-related hurdles of our relationship. The more I would practice my own faith, the more I would struggle with our relationship. “How I could be with someone who didn’t believe in Jesus? How would we raise our children?”
Thankfully, my friends calmed my fears and gave me advice to take this relationship one step at a time, because if it was meant to be, we would figure it out. Fast forward two years and those questions aren’t as huge, not because I have found the answers, but because I have found someone to help me work toward the answers.
When did you realize that this interfaith relationship would last?
We both realized this around the same time. I had surgery last summer with a very long and painful recovery process. It was during this time that we realized the power of our relationship. Sam was incredible. He was at my bed side every day, helped me go through physical therapy, saw me at my worst, and gave me strength. It was also during this time that my family realized how committed Sam was to this relationship despite our different faiths.
As we approach our October 2014 wedding, we look forward to sharing more about our relationship in this blog. We hope that you will follow our journey and that our stories will help you explore your relationships.
Tell us about your interfaith relationship. Are there any similarities to ours?
Our wedding blogger Matt Rice recently wrapped up his blog after getting married to his now wife, Shannon. We’re sad to see him leave our blog, but thrilled for his happy union. While we search for a new wedding blogger, I thought I would fill in since I recently got engaged! I have to be upfront though: My fiancé is Jewish, and I am Jewish, so we are not an interfaith couple. Scandalous, I know, but I think there are a lot of pieces of wedding planning that are similar for anyone planning a Jewish wedding—interfaith or not. To some extent, every wedding is the bringing together of two different faiths, and a couple must navigate their families’ differences during the planning process. I hope I can be of help or at least amusement until we find a new blogger—and if you are planning a wedding and are interested in blogging, please email me at email@example.com.
I got engaged in September, and have already nailed down a date and a place, taken engagement photos (my brother is a photographer and was kind enough to give us this gift), blocked off hotel rooms for guests and are close to figuring out who our rabbi and caterer will be. Oh, and I tried on dresses yesterday. (Never has anything been more fun.) We can sit back and eat bon bons now, right?
Not so fast. We’re planning on getting married in Bristol, Rhode Island, which means the bulk of our organizing revolves around the Newport area. Newport is a major wedding destination and everything from lodging to photographers book up quickly. (And no, my brother will not be allowed to work on our wedding day!)
The couple on a moped. The journey begins!
My fiancé and I found ourselves suddenly going from blissfully engaged to full-on planning our wedding just two weeks after our engagement. Not to say this part isn’t also exciting—from the grins on our faces, it’s clear we are not exactly sweating it. But at the same time, after each item gets checked off the list, there’s another one waiting to be explored just as urgently.
It’s kind of like holiday prep—I realize many of us are overwhelmed with the upcoming Thanksgivukkah mega holiday (Is it here yet???), but of course we’re looking forward to it at the same time. How do you keep things in perspective when you’re stressed out prepping for a holiday that is both celebratory and spiritual? IFF/Chicago director Ari Moffic blogged about stress release during the holidays.
When it comes to wedding planning, I find that what keeps the process fun, exciting and meaningful is the constant reminder of what will be our joy at the end of it all: a day in which we make a lifelong commitment surrounded by our loved ones. Eye on the prize.
But how do you keep your eye on the prize when there is a seemingly endless list of things to do to prepare for your wedding day over the next TEN months? Take a step back. What works for me might not work for you, but simply spending quality time with my fiancé and participating in the planning together is what I find makes it all meaningful. It’s more fun to pick out save the dates or imagine a menu when you’re bouncing ideas off your fiancé. I realize I am lucky in that my fiancé actually wants to be an equal player in this process, which is not often the case. (I’m sorry if that sounds sexist: I do not mean to say this exclusively pertains to men. But often there is one person who is less interested in planning than the other.)
I also know that I’m only two months into wedding planning. I keep hearing that things will get more stressful as it gets closer. But your fiancé is your support. He or she is your partner and your care taker and your source of joy. Whether or not they want to help you pick out flower arrangements–and whether or not you agree on bigger issues like whether or not to have a rabbi officiate the ceremony–lean on that person. I promise everything will seem easier.
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.
This morning I put a cross into a drawer. It was a cradle cross that Leacock Presbyterian Church gave my parents when I was born. My mother returned it to me on the day of Shannon’s bridal shower. “I wasn’t sure if you’d want it or not,” she said. I wasn’t sure either. It’s the symbol of a tradition I left behind. If it ever hung over my crib, which was its intent, I don’t remember it. My earliest memory is of being held by my mother and draping a handkerchief over head like it was a tablecloth. There’s a picture of that moment: I was proud of myself, smiling ear-to-ear. That I remember the moment at all might be a result of its having been caught on film. Memory is like that: fluid, permeable, changing over time. Our memories shift to better inform our narratives of who we are and who we want to be.
The foundation of Jewish peoplehood is our historical memory. From the hasidim who believe literally in the revelation at Sinai, to secular Yiddishists who recall the travails of Ashkenaz, or, like most Jews, somewhere in between, we are united by our shared memories. The Hebrew calendar is structured around our stories: we are liberated during Passover, wander the wilderness during Sukkot and receive Torah on Shavuot. The irony of Jewish time is that, although we were among the first peoples to insist upon a linear, rather than a cyclical, view of history, we relive the same events from year to year. Perhaps that’s why, despite our disagreements, we persevere, why we remain one people. It reminds me of Romi Somek’s “A Poem of Bliss”: “We are placed upon a wedding cake/like two dolls, bride and groom./When the knife strikes,/We’ll try to stay on the same piece.”
The sense of foreboding evident in the last lines of Somek’s poem looms large in Jewish memory. The Shoah casts a long shadow over us all, as it rightly should. So too do other tragedies, from the expulsion of our people from Spain in 1492, to the Munich Olympics, to the countless injustices done to men and women long gone to dust. The price of Never Forgetting is Eternal Vigilance, necessary but wearying to the psyche. Watchfulness has engendered in some quarters of the Jewish community a sense of permanent crisis, that the “knife” of Somek’s poem is always poised to strike. We see bogeymen at every turn: the president’s policy towards Israel, Muslim immigration to the West, Iran, assimilation, intermarriage. For some Jews, intermarriage is the most insidious crisis of all, “perpetrated” by its own “victims.”
That attitude toward intermarriage is further exacerbated by nostalgia. Some Jews shield themselves against the anxieties of the present by retreating into sentimentality. Informed by wisps of history, family memory, and pop culture (think Fiddler on the Roof), we have constructed a dreamworld alternative to the present, an eternal shtetl cast always in the golden sunlight of American afternoons. We smile at the women baking challah. We nod at the old men praying in shul. We’re comforted by the singsong strains of Yiddish bubbling forth from homes. But to remember it thus is to do our ancestors a disservice. The shtetlach were nothing like our dreamworld; rather, they were characterized by poverty, wretchedness, superstition and filth. Walk the cramped and muddy streets. Here women served men, for they had no choice. Here bellies growled for want of food. Here the rebbes studied while their people suffered. If you ever hear anyone hearken back to how it was in the Old Country, ask them if they’d really like to visit. They may: There are haredi communities here and in Israel in which one may readily access “the world we have lost.”
The cradle cross given to my parents when I was born, and the Star of David I wear every day.
American Jews have no need to retreat into fear or sentimentality. We’re thriving. We’re more accepted than we have ever been, anywhere, at any other time in history. That you can no longer identify a Jew by peyot, by curly hair, or by surname, is not a cause for alarm, but for excitement. We’re not disappearing; we’re diversifying. Our contributions to American society speak to our success. We were at the forefront of white support for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Now we’re leading the charge into ethical and sustainable foodways through organizations such as Hazon and, in Philadelphia, Cafe Olam.
I’ve written this blog to demonstrate one thing: that we who intermarry are in no way enemies of Judaism or the Jewish people. We are individuals who have fallen in love with other individuals who are not themselves Jewish. Our partners love us, in part, because we’re Jewish; after all, it’s part of who we are. Writing in The Forward, Yoel Finkelman notes that the argument against intermarriage is a difficult one “because it’s hard to muster much moral indignation against a loving, caring couple whose differing religious convictions are an accident of birth.” Finkelman goes on to advocate synagogues’ acceptance of homosexual Jewish couples as an antidote to intermarriage, but his argument is weakened by his previous statement. Finkelman, and all those who rant against intermarriage, should come to a hard stop: it is not ancestry or religion (or sexuality) that matters in a relationship, but love. Embrace loving couples and they will respond.
A Jewish friend of Shannon and I volunteered to teach our families the hora at our wedding party. Consider the image of dozens of non-Jews celebrating by learning a Jewish dance. Our union is but a tiny thread in the grand tapestry of our people’s history. How lovely, and how appropriate, that it is a wedding that will bring Jews and non-Jews together, if only for a moment. We’ll be wed the evening of Saturday, October 26. You’re welcome to dance with us.
I did not expect to emerge from the waters with fully grown peyot and spouting Yiddish. Nor was I unhappy with the aura of the mikveh, quiet and peaceful, reminiscent of the womb of which it is symbolic. Rather, I was unprepared for the mundanity of the instance of conversion, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which I had not prepared myself. Introspective but self-absorbed and weaned on television dramas and Hollywood blockbusters, I expected the significance of the moment to present itself to me. Having spent over a year studying to become a Jew, it didn’t even occur to me that I should prepare myself for the moment of conversion. I can now say that, in that moment, I lacked sufficient kavannah, which may be translated as “intentionality” or even “mindfulness.”
Contrast my experience at the mikveh with Elijah’s encounter with God. Elijah stood atop the mountain as “the Eternal passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal, but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but the Eternal was not in the fire.” And what then? “A soft murmuring sound,” sometimes translated as “a still, small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-12.) God was not in the fire, but in a whisper, and in order to hear a whisper, one must listen.
There is no magic in our rituals. Reciting the motzi over a loaf of challah does not make that bread more sacred than any other. But saying a blessing over food we are about to eat does change our relationship with it. The profundity of a ritual, then, is to be found not in the change it makes in the world, but in ourselves. We cannot, like God, call down wind and fire but, through ritual, through saying a blessing or lighting the candles, we can create the space necessary to listen to that still, small voice and, having heard it, can ourselves go forth to effect change in the world.
Shannon and me at a recent Finnegan family BBQ.
Just as I did not prepare myself for the mikveh, I did not consider the implications of converting to Judaism before I married Shannon. It didn’t occur to me that our different “statuses” might be an issue, or that some people might deny altogether the legitimacy of our (Jewish) union. Indeed, it was only earlier this year, after I had begun to “settle into” my Jewish identity, that I discovered how hotly contested intermarriage is. A conversation begun in Reform Judaism Magazine over whether or not rabbinical students at HUC-JIR should be admitted if they are married to non-Jews continues to provoke responses on both sides of the debate. (IFF founder Ed Case relates some responses here.) I read the editorials that were published, and I read the comments on the editorials, and I began to worry. Was I doing something wrong by planning a Jewish wedding when my partner isn’t Jewish?
A friend told me that no matter how “humane” or “compassionate” the arguments one makes, a wedding ceremony between a Jew and a non-Jew simply cannot be Jewish. And I confess to writing an e-mail to a Reform rabbi who published an editorial condemning intermarriage. I explained to him my relationship with Shannon, much in the way I described it in my first post here. And he responded that, while I am “on the playing field,” Shannon will find herself “increasingly on the sidelines.” I don’t view performing mitzvot as a sport, and I’m not trying to achieve a high score. Nor is Shannon a benchwarmer.
Over the weeks, the editorials and comments about intermarriage continued to pile up. Friends told me not to read them, but I couldn’t help myself. It was like being buffeted by a mighty wind, shaken by an earthquake, or burned with fire.
I had read about the issue. I had talked about it with friends. I had thought about it. And so I did what any good liberal Jew would do: I made up my mind that I would do what I think is right, and to hell with what everyone else thought. As a rabbi and friend of mine has put it, “Haters gonna hate.” I can’t control what some members of our community think.
I intend to approach our wedding with greater kavannah than I did my visit to the mikveh. The debate about intermarriage rages on, but I’ve stopped paying attention to it: God is not in the fire. Now I’m free to listen to the still, small voice.
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