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
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!
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?
Chris and Dana here; the new couple for InterfaithFamily’s wedding blog. We’re so excited to share our experiences with you.
Let us begin by introducing ourselves. Dana is originally from central Massachusetts and Chris is from southern New Hampshire. We met in Boston after college while working as Americorps volunteers for a non-profit called Playworks and have been together for over five years. Dana was raised conservative Jewish and Chris was raised Catholic but currently neither of us attend service regularly. We still live in Boston in our newly purchased condo and are both still working in Education; Chris as a first grade teacher at a Boston Public School and Dana as a school administrator at a private school in Boston.
It has certainly taken us some time to get used to our different religions and traditions, but we have both been very open-minded throughout the learning process. We have each tried new things and gotten involved in one another’s faith. A key element of this is that we participate when we feel comfortable to do so and ‘sit it out’ when we don’t.
Now…about our wedding! We got engaged in November of 2012 and are getting married next June, 2014 at Dana’s parents’ home. The ceremony will take place in the front yard and the reception will be in backyard under a tent, in what Chris likes to call a “mullet wedding…business in the front, party in the back.” We will be married by a mutual friend and plan to incorporate aspects of both religions into the wedding ceremony. While we are not entirely sure what that will look like yet, we do know a few key details: there will be a chuppah, designed by Dana’s mother (more details about that later) and we will undoubtedly dance the hora, we will have a few Bible readings of Chris’ choosing and Chris is extremely excited to break a glass and give guests custom-made Boston Bruins kippot.
So how is our relationship different than a same-faith couple? Well, we don’t have to split holidays, which is pretty nice, and we get to celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah. In the beginning we often had to act as ambassadors for our respective faiths, explaining a lot and trying not to assume that the other knew things. We began the discussion of how to raise our children very early on and continue to give it a lot of thought. We both feel that religion is an important element of our lives both culturally and spiritually, and want to pass on the values we’ve received from our families and upbringing. However, we’ve also had to do a lot of self-reflection and think about how much of a role religion plays in each of our own lives at the moment.
It has certainly been a journey to get where we are now and we have learned a lot along the way. We are very excited to share our wedding experience with you readers and to see what our future brings!
Chris and Dana
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!)
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.
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.)
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.”
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 went to Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s Purim celebration this year. (Or last year, by the Hebrew calendar.)
The shul went all out. The theme was “A Night in Persia,” and congregants came dressed in robes, bedecked themselves in scarves and beads, and happily buzzed around the room. Our cantor and one of our rabbis, both female, dressed as Women of the Wall; the other rabbis, both male, wore police costumes, looking like the Village People’s second string. And of course there was drinking. Lots of drinking.
I didn’t dress up. I didn’t schmooze. And I didn’t drink.
When I told a friend about it the next day, she laughed. “I’d expect nothing less of a Reform Jew,” she said, “to know the ‘right way’ to do something and then do the opposite,” playing on the Reform movement’s ideal of informed practice, by which individual congregants educate themselves regarding traditions and then deciding which to follow and to what degree. I laughed, too. In my experience, there are few things Jews enjoy more than knowing what they should do, even when they’re doing the opposite.
For instance, I don’t keep kosher. Now, I am not sitting here with a wad of bacon in my mouth, drooling grease onto the keyboard. I don’t even particularly like pork. But I still haven’t been able to bring myself to quit it altogether. It isn’t that I haven’t thought about it; I have. I didn’t grow up kosher, though, and, more importantly, while I respect halakhah, I have little patience for the way it can devolve into tedium. Consider this recipe for pretzel challah, shared by The Shiksa in the Kitchen. Great recipe. But the real treat is in the comments: If you scroll down, you’ll find two halakhically-minded women arguing over whether or not one can say motzi over pretzel challah for Shabbat, since the bread is boiled rather than baked. It reminds me of the joke about the Jew on the desert island who built two synagogues. Why two? “Nu, one I pray in, the other I won’t set foot in.”
I recently stopped eating pork, though, quietly, assuming it would slip past Shannon’s radar. Of course it didn’t. “You stopped eating pork?” she asked me at a fair we attended a few weeks ago. She just knew. “Does that mean I can’t make it anymore?” I hesitated. “I’ll eat it if you cook it,” I said, “but otherwise, no.” I paused, waiting for an argument to start. Food and foodways are such personal things; they evoke strong responses. “I don’t think I could give up pork,” Shannon said. “Pork and sauerkraut on New Years’, mmm!” (A Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.) And that was it. Shannon accepted the new paradigm.
I think Shannon is so accepting of such sudden changes on my part because she knows how important Judaism is to me, and because of how we’ve learned to accommodate one another. Several years ago I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she recounts her family’s sustainable lifestyle. Kingsolver’s clan attempted to reduce their carbon footprint by eating locally, permitting themselves only one “luxury” item, such as coffee or tea. When a family friend visits and asks for bananas, the Kingsolvers explain their philosophy to her. The scene stuck with me for years, and it wasn’t until I converted to Judaism that I realized why: Kingsolver and her family lived their lives as if they mattered, as if individual choices have meaning and consequence. That’s what Judaism has done for me. I think Shannon knows that.
In last week’s parsha, Lekh L’kha, God tells Abraham (then Abram) to decamp for Canaan. “Lekh l’kha” is usually translated as “Go forth,” but it literally means “Go to (or for) you.” Thus “Go forth from your native land might be read as, “Go, for you, from your native land.” “Go,” God tells Abraham, “and I will make of you a great nation, / And I will bless you; / I will make your name great, / And you shall be a blessing.” (Breishit / Genesis 12:1-3.)
Shannon and I, like Sarah and Abraham, are journeying, heading from the safety of the “native lands” of singlehood to the unknown territories of marriage. We find security in our knowledge of one another, even in Shannon’s ability to intuit on my part a change in my attitude towards kashrut. We head forth together, as individuals, but also “for us,” as a couple. And that shall be a blessing.
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 Shannon and I fight, I assume the worst. We’re going to break up. We’ll never speak again. We’ll be torn apart by wild dogs. “I just want us to be happy,” I’ll say. “We can’t always be happy,” Shannon responds, ever sensible, ever right. “Sometimes we’re going to fight.”
No love story is entirely happy. Sometimes there are fights. But what are the fights of an interfaith couple in the midst of wedding planning like? They might start with one partner exclaiming, “But I’m not Jewish!” As if that fact were not obvious to the other (possibly male, Jewish and occasionally dense) partner. “I’m not Jewish!” Shannon would shout. “Okay!” I replied, angry and baffled.
Shannon’s exclamations were in response to expectations I put upon her. As I mentioned in my first post here, I’m a recent convert to Judaism. And, like many converts, I feel a particular zeal. Combined with my typically male expectation that Shannon would take the lead in the home, that zeal resulted in certain expectations I forced upon Shannon. I thought, for instance, that Shannon would light the Shabbat candles. Weeks passed; no candles. When I finally mentioned it, Shannon replied, rightly, that’s she’s not Jewish. I am, and I should take the lead in Jewish activities. Shannon was right. (This is not to say that Shannon is any less involved in making a Jewish home. Rather, she supports those events I arrange and excuses herself from those she perceives as onerous, such as Yom Kippur.)
For a long time, when Shannon said, “But I’m not Jewish!” what I heard was “You’re not Jewish,” the personal baggage I carry knowing that traditional Jews will not recognize me as a member of Israel. Shannon doesn’t think that, of course; I was projecting my fears onto her. It took me a long time to realize that and now, I hope, I no longer do it.
How to make sense of such fights, though? With the zeal of a convert, I suggest this interpretation.
A few weeks ago we observed Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating the losses of the First and Second Temples. The “Three Weeks,” a mourning period, immediately precede Tisha B’Av. The Three Weeks are known in Hebrew as bein ha-Metzarim, literally “between the narrow straits.” Readers familiar with Torah will recognize in “Metzarim” echoes of Mitzrayim, the biblical name for Egypt. Tisha B’Av and Mitzrayim are symbols of emotional and spiritual constriction. Just as our ancestors experienced the disorientation of slavery and conquest, we, too, have known isolation from one another, from God, and from ourselves.
Jewish weddings traditionally end with the breaking of a glass. The most popular interpretation of this custom is that, even during our happiest moments, we remember the destruction of the Temple. Shannon and I are uncomfortable with expressing such a negative thought during our wedding. Rather, we will recall with the breaking of the glass not only our hope for the (metaphorical) rebuilding of the Temple, but also “the spheres of light” the mystics say shattered when God created the world. Just as performing the mitzvot is supposed to allow God to reenter the world, “rebuilding” the Temple would restore God’s dwelling place on earth. When we break the glass, then, Shannon and I will consecrate our marriage toward the living of righteous lives, with the intention of contributing to the increase of justice in the world. Of course, this being a Jewish marriage, we will begin this “mission” in the home.
Shannon and I are alienated from one another when we argue. We become lost in the “narrow places” of our relationship. Our vision becomes restricted, singular. But we remember the wholeness we search for, and we always make it through, each time a little stronger than before.
A fitting thought to leave you with for the beginning of Elul and the season of repentance.
“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!