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
November 25, 2009
Standing on the bimah at our daughter Olivia's baby-naming, I glanced out at the faces of our loved ones: my parents, my husband John's family, our friends. I also recalled the loved ones who were only there with us in spirit, including John's parents who had both passed away, both victims of cancer, and my beloved grandmother who at the time was too ill to attend the ceremony. Then, as I looked at my beautiful 3-month-old daughter and my devoted John, my eyes welled up with tears as I recognized that the journey to that moment had begun many years before.
|The Desjardin family before Olivia's baby-naming.|
John and I grew up in the same hometown but were raised in different religions: on Friday nights, I attended the Conservative synagogue, and John attended the Catholic church each Sunday. We took part in different rites of passage: I became a bat mitzvah at 13, while at about the same age John received his confirmation. We also celebrated different holidays: in the springtime, my family and I gathered around the seder table, while John and his family assembled in their dining room for a traditional Easter meal.
Despite our different religious upbringings, John and I met in high school and found a quick ease and comfort with each other during the complex teenage restlessness of our senior year. We soon realized that we shared similar values, even though we were brought up in different faiths. Shortly after we met, John lost his mother to cancer. Going through that most difficult time together brought us even closer and made it evident that we both shared a love of family.
As our relationship changed from high school sweethearts to engaged couple to husband and wife, we had many conversations about how we would raise our then-hypothetical children. It was important to me that our children have a Jewish upbringing, and John had told me that he would be supportive of raising a Jewish family. Although he wouldn't convert to Judaism, he would be happy to take an active role in celebrating Jewish holidays and honoring Jewish traditions in our home.
Three years after we were married, we welcomed our daughter, Olivia, into the world. Now our family was no longer hypothetical. Indeed, it was time for us to raise our Jewish family, and so we set out to plan the ceremony at which Olivia would receive her Hebrew name.
John and I agreed that it would be most meaningful if we held Olivia's naming at the synagogue in our hometown where I became a bat mitzvah. While the rabbi who had served the congregation during my childhood had since retired, the new rabbi was extremely warm when I approached him about holding Olivia's baby-naming there. He said that even though John is Catholic, he would be most welcome to take an active part in the service. The rabbi also suggested we ask members from both sides of our families--regardless of their religions--to say blessings on the bimah.
With the rabbi, we planned a four-part service. First, there would be an introduction from the rabbi, followed by a Hebrew song that he would select and sing. Then he would call up our family members to help with saying seven blessings, each representing something sacred that we wished for Olivia, our family, Israel or the world. Next, the rabbi would present Olivia with her Hebrew name and explain why we selected her names (both English and Hebrew). Lastly, the rabbi would conclude the service by singing another Hebrew song and saying prayers over the challah and wine.
John and I were both so excited that Olivia would receive her Hebrew name in such a beautiful, personalized ceremony that recognized John as an integral part of our Jewish family and also acknowledged both sides of our extended families. The ceremony was enacted in exactly the way we had discussed with the rabbi, and it couldn't have been more beautiful.
The most significant part of the service was when the rabbi explained to those present the meaning behind Olivia's English name (Olivia Rose) and Hebrew name (Yisraela Bracha.) The name Olivia, he explained, represents the olive branch, symbolic of peace and friendship. We hope that Olivia will always be surrounded by peace and will also bring peace to those around her. The name Rose, representing the beautiful flower, was selected in honor of John's late father, Robert. Following Ashkenazi naming traditions, the name Rose shares the same first letter as John's dad's name. We hope that Olivia will emulate the qualities of her grandpa Robert, who was a devoted teacher and family man.
The rabbi went on to explain that Olivia's Hebrew name honors my late grandfather, Irving, whose Hebrew name was Yisrael, meaning Israel. My grandpa Irving always had a smile on his face and lived a long, healthy life. Similarly, we pray that Olivia's life will be filled with happiness and that she will be blessed with good health and longevity. Lastly, the name Bracha, which means blessing, honors my late aunt Bertha, whom we affectionately called Aunt Bert. A woman ahead of her time, Aunt Bert ran a successful business in an era when women seldom worked outside of the home. We hope that Olivia also enjoys a passion for life and shares Aunt Bert's entrepreneurial spirit.
Indeed, Olivia's naming ceremony acknowledged both sides of her unique Jewish family. As John and I continue along on our journey together, I will always look back at Olivia's baby-naming as a strong foundation for our future as a Jewish family.