Let Us Now Praise Famous Mensches: Celebrating Interfaith Marriage

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.”

Cross

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.

L’shalom,

Matt

P.S. Please check back later for some final words from my friend and teacher Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

Our Last Vlog and Wedding Day Recap

Please note: I’ve posted this for Yolanda, who wrote the following post.

Hey there IFF,

So here we are, two months past our actual wedding date and we’re both enjoying the married life. Before we head off into wedded bliss, Arel and I are leaving you with a farewell video and some extra goodies to take a look at. We never talked about our actual wedding day so this is the video that finally covers how our day went and Arel included some pics for you guys to see how our wedding progressed that day.

We loved vlogging for InterfaithFamily.com and hoped that you enjoyed viewing our journey as much as we enjoyed documenting it for you guys. We wish you all a blessed life and for those of you getting married, good luck and enjoy the process. We welcome the next wedding bloggers, Jess and Erik, and wish them an awesome wedding and life thereafter.

Enjoy our last videos. We have video recapping our actual wedding, the video below that is a glimpse of the ceremony, and the third video showcases our unusual wedding dance. Let us know what you think.

Until we meet again,
Yolanda and Arel

Six months later…reflections on an interfaith wedding and life as married couple

First, a confession:
Hey there, Mia here, who married Ethan in July and wrote about the wedding planning last spring and summer. I have been meaning to write this final wedding-related post for months. Part of me held off because I was still reeling from the whirlwind events related to the wedding. I also wanted to take some time to let the whole experience sink in so that I could share some meaningful reflection. Truth be told, I think I was subconsciously procrastinating because writing this post, like printing photos for our wedding album, symbolizes the end of wedding-related activities. (But not the marriage!)

So here we go:
Our wedding day was the perfect combination of fun, celebration, solemnity, humor, gratitude, old and new traditions, community, reverence and most of all, love. Don’t just take my word for it ~ Ethan and I were humbled by how many of our guests expressed the same observations. At numerous times I was overcome, and had to pause to take a deep breath to prevent myself from sobbing with awe and joy. There was nothing Jewish or gentile about that ~ it was 100% natural and free-flowing.

Shabbat surprise:
Two days before the wedding, Ethan’s family hosted a Shabbat dinner at a local schul for his observant family and friends. My immediate family as well as my 16-month-old niece, Jewish aunt and Buddhist uncle also attended. It was interesting observing my relatives who were not familiar with a Shabbat dinner and their thoughtful expressions often seen on anyone who doesn’t quite know what to expect next. I remembered how I used to feel that way, and marveled at how far I had come in terms of learning Jewish traditions and practices. However, I realized as the guests were gathering that I was slightly anxious about this dinner setting a “Jewish tone” to the weekend, especially since it prevented me from visiting with out-of-state guests on my side who had arrived in town early. This concern was dispelled when my niece, who loves music, bopped along in her high chair to the sing-song prayers and clapped at the candle lighting. After the final blessing, she clutched a small box of raisins in her tiny fist, raised it high, scrunched her face up in an earnest expression, and, amidst the post-prayer silence, proclaimed loudly her support of the dinner in baby babble. She sounded just like when the cartoon warrior princess from the ‘80s, She-ra, exclaimed with sword raised, “I have the power!” She was clearly moved by the spirit of the gathering! Everyone loved it.

The Big Day:
The day of the actual wedding, the weather behaved, everyone showed up on time, and neither Ethan nor I got cold feet or tripped walking down the aisle. Despite having participated in seven or eight weddings, I was unprepared for how emotional I would be as I approached him. Here was this amazing man who accepted me 100% for who I was, who was standing before his family and friends to say that he chose me. I am still in awe! Getting married under a huppah didn’t faze me at all since I had officiated two interfaith weddings that also used one. In fact, I enjoyed the sense of enclosure it provided, the creation of sacred space, and the more intimate dynamic when friends and family stepped under it to read a blessing to us. We used Ethan’s talit as the canopy, and even though I have never been bat mitzvahed, I appreciated the significance of the talit, and loved that such a special item of his played a role in such a special day of ours. To know that I would recall the feeling of standing under it whenever he wears it for future high holidays, etc., forged my own sense of connection with it. I have a similar feeling when I look at our ketubah that uses interfaith text and hangs proudly in our dining room.

I think it would have been slightly disconcerting for me had we just had one officiant who followed a traditional Jewish wedding service because that was not the tradition in which I was raised. (See our previous post about working with two officiants.) Having two stand with Ethan and me under the chuppah grounded me and really reinforced the communal aspect of the ceremony.

Said ceremony, as outlined in an earlier post, included a mix of Jewish, Celtic, and Native American wedding traditions that many guests said blended beautifully together. I will confess that the only tradition during the entire day that felt slightly foreign to me was dancing the horah; I didn’t really know the exact steps, nor did many of my family members and friends, so we just threw ourselves into the circles, grabbed hands, and kept up! Sadly I got separated from my new husband who ended up flanked by his family members, which made me feel like this was “their thing.” But I have a terrific photo of Ethan, his step-dad, my brother’s wife, and my mom all smiling and dancing together in one of the circles, and I love the unity of that moment! Any lingering concerns I had about whether members of Ethan’s side would think the wedding “wasn’t Jewish enough” were mitigated by the enthusiasm with which they participated in the various celebrations, and the warmth with which they embraced us and me on that day.

Six months later:
So here we are several months later, during which time I attended the fall high holiday services and/or dinners, as well as a traditional Jewish wedding of one of Ethan’s step-sisters, with a slightly different perspective knowing that such rituals would be part of my future for the long term. I’ve come to realize that Ethan’s family’s traditions can now no longer be seen in black-and-white terms as “theirs versus mine,” since his family is now my family. Just as how Ethan willingly helps me set up my Christmas decorations, and helped me bake Christmas cookies for a “Christmas Mia-style” open house I held for some of his family in mid-December.

As we were preparing for the open house, I quietly contemplated how blending the two December holidays would work for our future kids. Would they fall into the “yours, mine and ours” mode of thinking, or would Ethan and I be successful in creating a home in which both traditions merge well? (For the record, Christmas was never about celebrating Christ’s birth for my family; it is a time of gathering with loved ones, adding light, magic and sparkle to a dark season, and sharing gifts and giving back to the community and those less fortunate to demonstrate your love.) A recent rabbi-rabbi-lev-baesh">Boston Globe feature noted the increasing number of interfaith families in Massachusetts, which is good, but acknowledged that sometimes it’s hard for the kids who feel like they are straddling worlds, which is disheartening. Later that evening, as Ethan and I sat with 10 of his family members in our living room, each of them began sharing aspects of Christmas that they “actually like,” most particularly non-secular songs, food, and made-for-TV movies. Ethan’s step-dad then led everyone in a rousing rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I got choked up when I looked around the room and realized, “This is going to work. Both histories and realities can be honored without sacrificing anything.”

That is how I hope Ethan and I will continue to live our lives together and to raise our children: to demonstrate that core values cross faith and traditional divides, and that love, family and community are what matter most, no matter what language, song, or decoration you use to honor them. Am I afraid that members of Ethan’s family will look upon our kids as “not Jewish” with some sadness? Yes, and that isn’t easy for me. But then I think back to the joy, acceptance and inclusiveness of our most wonderful wedding day, and feel confident that we will be able to make it all work out. To paraphrase She-ra, “We have the power!”

Video 10: the wedding dance and the hora

Hey IFF!

We are less than 4 weeks away from the big day…eek! We’re still working on a gazillion things but it has to get done and will get done. One thing we waited till the very end to work on was our first dance as a married couple. Procrastinating a dance that will be performed in front of a 100 people is never a good idea but fortunately we have the talents of an amazing choreographer to our rescue. He’s one of Arel’s groomsmen and best friend. He’s a phenomenal dancer and beyond creative. Arel really wanted to do a dance that would be memorable and I think what we have planned is certainly that. I can’t tell you what it is but I can say it will be super, there might be some veggies involved of the fungi persuasion, and possibly slow moving animals and a damsel in distress. I’m being serious. I can predict our older guests will not get it or think we’re absolutely nuts. We are going to do a bit of a slow traditional dance but to do only that would not fully reflect us as a couple. We first met dancing to hip hop and decided our first dance as a couple must have hip hop.  Our first dance will be a mixture of dance and a skit mostly performed through dance….sounds crazy huh? Hopefully crazy fun. We’re going to follow the dance with the hora or maybe Zumba but most likely the hora! I’m a bit nervous about how we’re going to get the hora going with a mostly non-Jewish crowd. Any tips on how to smoothly initiate this dance with folks who have never done it before?

So anyhoo, watch us with our groomsmen/choreographer in the studio. He’ll talk a bit about the dance he created for us and more. And we added a little extra special something for you…a clip of our choreographer doing his dance thing. Ready to be wowed.

And here’s a little clip of him dancing