Lisa Danetz is a lawyer and lives in Newton, Mass., with her husband Craig and their first child, Sabrina. In February, Sabrina had a Jewish naming ceremony in which all her grandparents--Jewish and Catholic--participated.
The Elephant in the Room
"Are we going to baptisms or Bar Mitzvahs?"
Craig and I have been engaged for two months and he is reporting back to me about "the conversation" with his family over Christmas. Craig's family is Catholic, and by my standards they are all (including Craig) very observant. Perhaps not expecting the answer could be anything other than "baptisms," Craig's sister-in-law casually blurted out this question in front of his whole family. Craig relays how, when he responded "Bar Mitzvahs," there was complete silence as his family contemplated the meaning of his choice. Finally, his sister-in-law broke the silence. "Would anyone like dessert?"
I worry how Craig is affected by this turn of events--but, at the same time, I am relieved. Craig's ordeal in dealing with our interfaith relationship is just beginning. Mine, on the other hand, feels like it is coming to an end.
How did I end up in this situation? I always assumed I'd marry a Jewish man. Craig and I were friends from law school and it was evolving into something more. Because he wasn't Jewish and he was a church-every-Sunday kind of Catholic, I assumed it wouldn't last long. Of course, in the unpredictable way things work out, I fell in love with him.
Our religious difference was the elephant in the room that I tried to ignore throughout our relationship. I simply wasn't prepared to deal with the situation. I was a "good" Jew after all. I went to services. I kept kosher for Passover and fasted on Yom Kippur. Heck, I even liked Hebrew school. And a belief in the need for the continuation of the Jewish people was an ingrained part of my identity. I hated the idea that I would be a disappointment to the Jewish people.
Thus, the quandary. Having and raising Jewish children was non-negotiable for me. I could not give that up and still be true to myself, my values, or my sense of who I am. Knowing that, and loving Craig, how could I ask him to give up the same thing? And if he couldn't give that up, how could our relationship ever last? For two-and-a-half years, I lived in fear that our relationship would end because of what I assumed was our irreconcilable difference.
Craig knew the elephant was present, but try as he might to encourage me to acknowledge and deal with the issue, I adamantly refused. He asked me about raising children in both religions, and I cried. He asked about raising one child Jewish and one child Catholic, and I cried. He asked me about choosing one religion or another, and I cried--because I did not feel it would be fair to demand that the children be Jewish and I could not raise them Catholic. I was too scared to deal with the topic; I could not speak the words that might risk an end to our relationship. So, like an ostrich, I hid my head and hoped it would go away.
And yet, something about Craig's perseverance and his sense that there must be a way to reconcile our different religions gave me hope.
After two-and-a-half years of dating, with the issue still unresolved, Craig proposed on a mountaintop as we surveyed the beautiful fall foliage in Vermont. I said, "yes." Then, I really started to panic.
I posted a bulletin board message on an interfaith website, briefly explaining my situation and asking for advice. The people who responded attacked me as weak, foolish, and pathetic for allowing myself to become ensnared in the situation. As if I didn't feel badly enough already. All in all, it didn't seem helpful.
Yet, the bulletin board posting was helpful. Although I was unable to verbalize how I felt, I had been able to write it. I was also able to share the bulletin board fiasco with Craig. So Craig took the initiative and read how I felt, rather than insisting I tell him.
The next time we discussed children, we were having a picnic by a lake and Craig gave me the greatest gift of love I could ever imagine. He gave me everything I wanted.
"I am going to make this easy on you," he said. "I think I will make a better father in a Jewish family than you will make a mother in a Catholic family. As hard as it may be, it is much more important to me to share my life with you than that I raise Catholic children."
He was right--and I couldn't ask for a better lifelong companion.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.