Keren R. McGinity is the Mandell L. Berman Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Contemporary American Jewish Life at the University of Michigan's Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. Previously, she was Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.
Intermarriage Spurs Renewal of Faith
This essay is dedicated to Rabbi Allan Press and Father Nick Ciccone who had the gumption to just say "yes."
Interfaith love sometimes blossoms in odd places and has unexpected consequences. I met my husband at the gym in May of 1991, and we went grocery shopping for our inaugural "date." Somewhere between the free weights and the condiments aisle, we began to fall in love. We discussed religious differences our first evening together, professing that my Jewish and his Catholic background should not stand in the way of our happiness.
Six weeks into our relationship, I left for a previously planned trip to Europe. I wondered whether the curly blond Irishman would still be around when I returned. Not only was Matt waiting for me at the airport, but he also proposed two days later. Our engagement, which was nearly a year long, gave us the opportunity to work through many issues and to plan a meaningful interfaith wedding ceremony, including dual officiants, a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy), and a unity candle. After much premarital discussion, we agreed to raise any future children as Jews with my husband's surname.
Marrying a non-Jew cast my Jewish identity into high relief. Without the luxury of mutual understanding based on a shared heritage, I found myself explaining many aspects of Judaism. More significantly, being intermarried encouraged me to ask and to answer probing questions such as: Who am I? What does being Jewish mean to me? And, how am I Jewish? While I would not argue that being an interfaith couple makes for calm December dinner conversation, I am convinced that being married to a non-Jew has made me a stronger Jew. Before I married Matt, I took my Jewishness for granted and saw no need to participate in Jewish communal affairs. Afterward, however, I defined how Jewish I wanted to be and got significantly more involved. For example, I taught citizenship classes at the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly, became a lifetime member of Hadassah, spent a summer researching for the Jewish Women's Archive, began studying modern Jewish history, joined the Association for Jewish Studies, started consciously trying to use more Yiddish words, and found out what the scroll inside the mezuzah (vessel containing the handwritten text of the Sh'ma prayer that is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes) case actually says. We joined the Jewish Community Center; I served on a committee; and we both worked with the administration to successfully make the basketball league more inclusive.
The summer before our first child was born, we went "synagogue shopping." It was essential to find a congregation that welcomed us as an interfaith couple. We attended services at many local temples and synagogues. One Conservative synagogue in particular appealed for its beautiful architecture and traditional Saturday morning service. Unfortunately, our otherwise agreeable first impression was spoiled when an usher approached my husband and asked "Are you Jewish?" The intention was probably good, perhaps to offer a tallis (prayer shawl). But Matt's physical appearance is such that one would sooner place him at the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston than in a Jewish house of worship, so the question made us both uncomfortable. Fortunately, we found a Reform temple with a unique "sanctuary in the woods" and met the hippest rabbi imaginable--a combination of Seinfeld and Moses--who rushed over to us and instantly made us feel welcome with his genuineness. The rabbi's animation and outreach clinched our membership.
Having a child further accentuated my Jewish sense of self because I realized that my daughter's association with Judaism depended on my being proactive. Selecting a name that would nurture a positive Jewish identity and planning a celebration became paramount as my pregnancy progressed. The baby was due December 12, 2001, which fell in the middle of Hanukkah that year. I went into labor the evening of December 24, pondering--between fervent prayers for a healthy baby--the social ramifications of our Jewish child sharing a birthday with the Christian messiah.
Shira Belle McGinity, as strong-willed as she was past due, had other plans and came into the world on the 26th. Shira's brit bat (covenant for a daughter) occurred soon after on Shabbat Shirah, and we spoke to the congregation of our commitment to teach our daughter the values of Judaism, so that she might improve the world through her thoughts and deeds. It was a holy moment for our family and, from what I have been told, for the larger temple community. The following day, a bagpiper played "Oh Danny Boy" at a brunch we hosted to acknowledge Shira's multicultural ancestry. It could only have been more perfect had the lyrics been "Oh Devorah Girl." Currently, we listen to Yiddish lullabies every night and, after reading The Matzah Man and Once Upon A Shabbos, my daughter's favorite bedtime ritual is dropping a coin into the tzedakah (charity) box to support Israel.
When one marriage partner experiences a religio-ethnic awakening, as I have, it can add stress to the relationship. The differences we downplayed when we first met have become greater over time. My strengthened Jewish identity puts inadvertent pressure on my husband to determine what is important to him about being Catholic, lest it get overwhelmed by our many Jewish choices. However, I am optimistic that through honest communication, mutual respect and compromise, our interfaith family will continue to thrive.
My Jewish identity is independent of my husband's religious affiliation, yet also partially inspired by it. I fell in love with a non-Jew and it would seem hypocritical to suggest he change. My husband may never convert. But on the occasional Friday night when I'm totally exhausted and thinking take-out food is in order, Matt sets out the candlesticks, kiddush (blessing over wine) cups, and challah and says, "Come on, let's make Shabbes (Sabbath)." His voluntary participation in Jewish life and his enthusiastic collaboration to raise our daughter as a Jew is enough. After eleven years of intermarriage, I feel blessed to say "dayenu"(enough).