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
Originally published March, 2001. Republished March 16, 2012.
Jeff and Jenny planned to spend Passover with Jeff's Jewish parents. They booked a flight and planned to stay for the weekend. Jenny had never been to a "real" Passover seder, or ritual Passover meal. As a Roman Catholic, she had participated in an interfaith seder in college and enjoyed the food and symbolism. However, she wasn't sure how different it would be at Jeff's parents' home. The couple had recently become engaged, so Jenny felt it was especially important to participate in Jeff's family's rituals and to spend some time with them. She also wondered how accepting of her Jeff's parents really were, even though they had told Jeff that they liked her and were pleased about the engagement. Jeff reassured Jenny, "Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday. My mom's a great cook and it'll be fun. No big deal — just relax and enjoy it."
After making plans to visit, Jenny realized that the Passover seder coincided with Good Friday. Several thoughts ran through her mind. "How do I tell Jeff's mother that I can't eat meat after she prepared a special meal with chicken or brisket or whatever delicious thing I shouldn't have? How will I feel to be away from my own family over the Easter weekend when we usually go to church on Easter and have a special dinner ourselves?" Although Jenny didn't want to upset plans, she decided that she needed to share her worries with Jeff. He responded, "Jen, I'm so glad you told me now. I'll call my mom and ask her to make fish for you. She'll understand and it'll be okay."
After they arrived at Jeff's parents' home, Jenny offered to help with the meal preparation. Jeff's mother, who kept a kosher kitchen, gave her a quick course in separating meat and milk and what dishes and utensils to use for each. Jenny felt like she needed to pass a test by doing it right. She asked questions and checked along the way to avoid ruining something because she didn't understand. During the seder, she took turns when the family read aloud from the hagaddah, the book used to tell the Passover story and direct the ritual. At times, Jenny felt out of place saying words that implied she was part of the Jewish people. She felt a bit like an imposter amidst a large gathering of Jeff's relatives who all knew what to do, and who belonged. While participating, she also felt that she should spend time reflecting on the meaning of Good Friday.
Jenny thanked Jeff's parents for a wonderful evening and for their thoughtfulness in making her a separate dinner. When Jeff and Jenny were alone, he asked her if everything was okay because she seemed so quiet. Jeff asked, "Didn't you like it?" Jenny paused and responded, "Yes, I did in a lot of ways. The food was great and the seder was interesting. It's so different from what I thought it would be like. It's just that I felt kind of strange. I didn't expect to feel confused the way I do right now..."
This brief story raises issues often faced by interfaith couples. Holidays remind us of our traditions and family memories. When confronted by differences in rituals and religious observances, the importance of our own background sometimes becomes clearer to us. While interfaith couples stress their commonalities most of the time, holidays focus on differences.
Easter and Passover may be particularly difficult holidays for interfaith couples. Although couples typically are aware that they need to negotiate Christmas and Hanukkah plans, they often overlook the potential impact of Easter and Passover. For Jews, Easter crystallizes the religious differences between them and Christians. The week leading up to Easter is filled with important historical events from Jesus' life. From the commemoration of the Last Supper on Thursday, through observance of the crucifixion on Good Friday, to celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christians reflect on the foundation of their beliefs — beliefs that separate them from Jews. Moreover, the legacy of anti-Semitism, rooted in beliefs of some Christians that Jews were responsible for Jesus' death, can make Easter a particularly difficult holiday for Jews.
As in this vignette, Passover can also pose challenges for interfaith couples. Home-based observance includes special preparation by cleaning and cooking different foods, followed by the family seder meal. The Passover tradition is a powerful link to Jewish heritage, even among families who are not highly observant. For Christians, the Passover story typically is familiar and viewed as part of their tradition, as well. Focusing on this commonality, however, can miss the fact that for Jews, the intrinsic importance of Passover is that it is a central Jewish holiday. Alternately, Christians participating in a traditional seder can feel left out and uncomfortable.
What can we learn from this holiday vignette? How might Jeff have felt if he had attended a Good Friday or Easter service as a Jew? Perhaps he, too, would have felt foreign and uncomfortable. Concurrently, he might have appreciated the beauty of the Easter music and spirituality of the day.
Couples facing tensions and issues associated with Easter and Passover might draw lessons from our vignette and from the experiences of many interfaith couples.
Easter and Passover present challenges for interfaith couples/families. These profound holidays also offer opportunity to share two rich heritages for an intensely meaningful experience.