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
October 14, 2009
I am an observant Jew raised in and still living in a modern Orthodox community. I always assumed I would find an observant Jewish partner. In fact, I spent many years on J-date, Saw-you-at-Sinai and frumster, not to mention the countless friends' cousins, nephews and grandchildren with whom I had coffee with on informal shidduchim. I was so serious about my quest for a Jewish partner that I once flew to Los Angeles to have four dates with three men in two days.
|A photo of Juliet and Birger from their save-the-date announcement. The text at the bottom says, "We are working out the details..."|
I finally started dating Birger two years after several friends had introduced him to me, thinking we would be a good match--two years after I started the habit of leaving gatherings when he showed up so I wouldn't even be tempted to consider dating this obviously lovely but definitely not Jewish man.
When I finally did start dating Birger, it was immediately clear that Birger and I were extremely compatible. I was comfortable with him in a way that I just had not been with the guys I had been meeting. Birger is agnostic but had a positive experience of growing up in a Congregationalist church community. He was willing to help me build a Jewish home and raise any children we were blessed to have in the Jewish religion and community. I was falling in love with him but I had no idea how it could work.
My close married friends were Jews married to Jews. I did not have any models for relationships between observant Jews and non-Jews. I made a big deal about how our wedding was going to be Birger's first Jewish wedding. Much later I realized that it was also my first interfaith wedding. Anyway, somehow, I got this idea that if Birger and I could create a wedding ceremony that felt authentically Jewish, was respectful of halacha, honored Birger's Norwegian background and was mindful of Birger's agnosticism, then we would most certainly be able to build a life together around those same principles.
I wanted a traditional Jewish wedding but a strictly traditional Jewish wedding wasn't possible. According to halacha, a Jew and a non-Jew cannot marry. We were going to have to make some changes to the traditional rituals and texts. We were willing to compromise but did not want to feel compromised in the process, so we adopted some basic guidelines.
First, we tried to minimize violations of halacha. Second, we did not misrepresent Birger's beliefs. Third, wherever possible, we decided we would incorporate Norwegian traditions into the ceremony. Although we were not clear on how we were going to accomplish these directives it was reassuring to have them. We sent out our save the date card, the theme of which was that we were learning about each other's cultures and still working out the details.
And there were a lot of details. Even the decision to have a legal wedding was a challenging one. Both of us are independent thinkers with one foot in traditional belief systems and the other in a very progressive community. Sometimes these different influences conflict with one another and at other times, they are oddly congruent. We easily could have chosen not to marry out of respect for our friends in same-gender couples who are still not allowed to marry in most states of this country, or out of respect for Orthodox Jewish law, which does not sanction marriages between Jews and non-Jews. We ultimately decided to marry because we believed it was the right decision for us and the family we were trying to build together.
|A Viking ship with a Jewish star on the mainsail, symbolizing steering a Jewish family of Norwegian heritage on a Jewish path.|
Surprisingly enough, finding someone to officiate the wedding was not that hard. Finding a rabbi would have been a challenge, as no Orthodox (or Conservative) rabbi would have married us. And I did not know a rabbi from the Reform, Reconstructionist, or Renewal movements who I felt represented my theology or the life we planned to live. Luckily, having a rabbi officiate is not a necessary part of a Jewish wedding. A friend recommended someone in our extended community who is observant and, among his many talents, a gifted ritualist. He understood our guidelines and was willing to help us work within them to create a meaningful and, in the end, truly beautiful and touching ceremony.
Following are other examples of choices we made about our wedding.
Observant Jews typically cover their heads out of respect to the one above. Some Jews wear a head covering at all times, whereas others wear it just during religious services or ceremonies. While any head covering can be worn, the yarmulke or kippah is a common choice for a religious service. In Israel, the style of kippah can indicate political and religious affiliations, telling the world what kind of Jew the wearer is. My sister Alison knitted kippot for Birger and his attendants with red, white and blue stripes patterned after the Norwegian flag. I guess that reflected the kind of "Jew" Birger is--a Norwegian one.
A traditional ketubah is a halachically legal document stating that the groom has promised to support the bride and provide for her needs (including conjugal rights) and that the wife has agreed to those terms. It specifies the dowry that the bride brings into the marriage and the amount to be paid to the bride if the marriage dissolves. The ketubah is traditionally written in Aramaic, which was the language of the people. Since a marriage to Birger didn’t fall under Jewish law, a traditional ketubah did not make any sense. Instead we articulated in our KLD (Ketubah-like document) what we believed were our obligations to one another. These included our commitment to support each other through life's challenges. We wrote it in English and then translated it into Hebrew and Norwegian. (You can download the Ketubah-Like Document as a .pdf.)
The Sheva Brachot or seven blessings are said at the wedding ceremony and repeated at the conclusion of the wedding meal during the Birkat Hamozon. Halachically we could not recite the Sheva Brachot because it wasn't a halachically legal wedding. We invited seven groups of friends to give their own blessings during the ceremony, each based on one of the themes of the Sheva Brachot. For the Birkat Hamazon, we asked a friend to rewrite the Sheva Brachot each in the format of an invocation of God's merciful qualities,.
I came home from work one day to find Birger at the computer working on a drawing of a Viking ship with a Jewish star on the mainsail. Birger was going to help me build a family but he was going to do it while keeping who he was and where he came from completely intact. This turned into our personal wedding symbol. We used it as the postage stamp for our wedding invitations and on the guide we provided to explain our wedding to our friends and relatives, many of whom, like us, had limited experience with Jewish and/or interfaith weddings. I am still kind of in awe of the symbol. It was and continues to be Birger's metaphor for steering a Jewish family of Norwegian heritage on a Jewish path.
The wedding ceremony was lovely, far more smooth and sweet and fun than I could have imagined, which is very much how our first two years of marriage have been. I am sure that it will not always be smooth sailing but I am hoping that we will always be able to identify that which is and is not worth compromising.
Editor's Note: You might also enjoy reading Birger Stamperdahl's article, Turning Off the Autopilot.