Interfaith Marriage: Finding Meaning in the Journey

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.”

Shannon's kuku, Sephardi herb pie. (Recipe from the Swarthmore Co-op.)

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.

Shannon's apple cake.

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.

L’shalom,

Matt

Naming Our Fears: When Have We Asked Too Much?

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?

Apples and Honey

"For a good and sweet year." My minor contribution to our Rosh Hashanah dinner. Shannon prepared the meal.

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.

L’shalom,

Matt

Navigating the Narrow Places: Interfaith Arguments

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.

Shofar

The shofar Shannon gave me. Perhaps I'll use it to wake her on Rosh Hashanah?

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.

L’shalom,

Matt

The New Jew & the Irish Girl Plan a Wedding

“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?

Matt and Shannon

Shannon and me at Rockefeller Center Plaza in 2009

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!

L’shalom,

Matt

Video 12: working on the marriage not just the wedding

Hey there IFF!

It’s been awhile since we last vlogged and there’s good reason for it. Yes, Arel and I are now officially husband and wife as of January 15th (woo hoo), but we had some issues to address before we could post more videos.

We’re ready now and this particular video is our most important yet and is the primary reason we’ve been M.I.A. for awhile, however, we have documented the process, and we will be releasing those videos, so please stay tuned for those.

As we got closer to our wedding date, we ran into some major fears that led us to question whether or not getting married was the right thing to do. Working through and addressing the source of those fears was the hardest thing we both ever did but we’re grateful that we had the strength, the desire, and the willingness to go through the process. I can’t say that pain is absolutely necessary to gain strength but in this case we got through the hard stuff – and persevered in spite of the hard stuff or maybe because of it… I’m not so sure which is which, but the end result is a stronger and much deeper relationship. This isn’t the stuff of fairy tales that we’re all brainwashed to believe in.

I listened to a YouTube video recently on marriage, and the poet said it’s not the love that sustains the promise, but the promise that sustains the love. Our commitment is what carried us through the last two months, not just the love. Arel and I take marriage very seriously, and you would think most couples do, but if so, I don’t think the divorce rate would be so high. We wanted to make sure this was right. Yes, we’ve been together for 9 years, but we wanted to make sure we can also do the rest of our lives together, supporting each other, loving each other, challenging each other, and elevating ourselves to be able to sacrifice for each other and compromise when needed as well as to help each other fulfill our potential as individuals and as a couple.

This whole experience has confirmed for me that couples should 100% talk about marriage before the proposal. Surprise proposals are nice and romantic but if all the important issues haven’t been discussed prior to that proposal, it’s going to be harder to go through it once you’re in the marriage (I think). In this video, we discuss some books to read and suggestions for figuring out whether or not marriage is the right step. For Arel and I, we concluded that yes, we wanted to still get married. We made some compromises, agreed to work on individual as well as couple issues, and commit fully to our marriage.

We would love to hear what you think. Did you have any fears before your marriage? Did you talk about life together as a married couple before you took the plunge?

Invitations are done! Woo hoo:)

Omg…it’s midnight and we finally finished sealing the last invitation! Woo hoo:) Normally, we would video this moment, but we are both tuckered out, so I leave you with some thoughts. If you knew exactly what went on behind the scenes to get these done, you would fully understand how sealing that last envelope was so sweet.

We put a lot of love into these although I’m not sure if you can tell that’s the case. They’re simple yet it took forever to get these just right! We both knew we wanted our invites to be easy, fun, and only made of 2 parts: the invite on one piece of card stock and a post card RSVP. That’s it. I’ve seen some elaborate invitations with lots of different parts, tags, etc., and they look gorgeous but we are not the type to spend so much time creating such works of art. Yes, we wanted nice invitations, but simple and cost effective was our main priority.

And I thought if we did it ourselves, we would achieve our goals. Nope…not true. I don’t know what the heck I was thinking trying to do these myself. Thank goodness for my fiance and bff otherwise these would not be done until next week. I already have folks asking for details and such but I hear 6 weeks before the wedding is ideal timing to receive an invite, so we’re in the clear.

Arel and I both decided we didn’t want to spend a lot on invitations, but I’m not sure we really saved much doing it ourselves. So to save you from repeating our mistakes, here’s some wise words of wisdom for those of you trying to save money on invitations: unless you know what the heck you’re doing, this is not the route to go. There are plenty of websites that offer extremely affordable, nice looking websites. Check out www.vistaprint.com and www.theamericanwedding.com for ridiculously cheap invites that actually look nice. Or you can even purchase ready to go invites at stores like Michael’s and simply print the info you need on it. This route can be a bit expensive especially if you have a lot of folks to invite but it’s still cheaper than most other options. I learned DIY is not always the cheapest route but it can be if done properly. And with that, I say good night!