It's not just that my parents' relationship was interfaith, it was intercultural as well.
My father's family came to America from Ireland in the early 1700s, eventually making their way to the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Together they and other Irish settlers founded a small town along the Current River called Van Buren. Having experienced high rents and religious persecution in Ireland, the New World promised fertile soil and enough land to distance my Irish ancestors from British authority.
|Rabbi Burrows with his daughter Noa and wife Cantor Gabi Arad.
By the time my father Thomas was born in 1950, the Burrows family--well-known hillbillies--had spread all around Missouri. Farmers and moonshiners, the close-knit Burrows clan taught my father the value of hard work and the importance of family. They were Methodists, but they were not active in their church. My father was not taught to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ--rather, he was taught that God is more concerned with ethical living than church affiliation. Though he couldn't possibly have known it, my father's upbringing prepared him to marry a Jewish woman and raise Jewish children.
My mother's family came to America from Russia in the early 1900s, making their way through the long lines of Ellis Island to the crowded Lower East Side tenements of Manhattan. Having experienced one pogrom too many, my Jewish ancestors immigrated to this land with hopes of better lives.
Like so many immigrant Jewish families, the Merians survived the harsh realities of tenement living through the help of an extended family network. Siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived on the same neighborhood block and met regularly in order to provide support where needed. Slowly but surely, my family moved from the tenements of Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn to the Westchester suburbs and then around the country. Though my grandparents were living in New York City when my mother Diane, the oldest of three, was born, it wasn't long before they made their way to Westchester as well.
Raised with a strong Jewish identity, my mother was highly active in her Reform synagogue in New Rochelle. Judaism provided an excellent ethical framework for young Diane--and was an unparalleled source of spirituality for her as well. I don't think she ever thought she'd meet, fall in love with and marry a non-Jew. It simply never occurred to my mom that her home would be anything but Jewish.
Thus, though they were raised in very different environments--my father in the shadow of the Ozarks, my mother in the shadow of skyscrapers--my parents were brought up with very similar values. The Burrows and Merians are large, boisterous families. My mother and father both grew up in households with families who love to eat together, laugh together, engage in intensive conversation together and just be together. The Burrows and Merians believe that family comes first--that blood is much thicker than water. Statements such as, "The primary responsibility of parents is their children," "Community is our responsibility," "God helps those who help themselves--so put your nose to the grindstone," and "Treat everyone with respect and kindness," were regularly said in both the Burrows and Merians households. In this sense, regardless of their faith backgrounds, my parents were destined to be with each other. All that was left was for them to meet…
When she graduated Mamaroneck High School in 1970, Diane Merians longed to see a different side of America. She had traveled all over the world with her father on business, had been to California and back numerous times, but had never seen America's heartland. When looking at possible universities for application, Diane was told she could go only as far as the Mississippi River--so she applied and was accepted to the University of Missouri.
A beautiful young journalism major, Diane quickly made a splash on campus. When another student named Thaddeus Burrows befriended Diane and invited her to a party on his family farm, the New York Jewish girl simply couldn't say no. Thaddeus had a crush on young Diane, but his feelings were not reciprocated.
When Diane arrived on the farm, she was immediately introduced to Ida Faye Burrows, Thad's mother. Diane and Faye sat in the kitchen talking. They were immediately taken with each other. After talking and laughing together for hours, Faye turned to Diane and said, "I want you to marry my next son to walk through that door."
It was a moment later that Thaddeus' brother Thomas--tall, handsome, and still in his Air Force uniform--walked into the kitchen. It was love at first sight. Thomas enrolled at the University of Missouri to be with Diane and their relationship quickly became serious.
So how is it possible that my mother and my father could succeed in building a family together? How is it possible that now, after 33 years of marriage, Thomas and Diane continue to thrive, serving as a model for loving relationships? The answer is wonderfully elegant and simple: care, communication, and compromise.
Thomas and Diane cared about each other enough to know that they, in order to succeed, needed to find agreement on a variety of issues. My parents understood that this would require a lot of time, love, and patience. My parents understood that this would require many difficult conversations.
Together, before they were married, my parents spent a lot of time facing all the hard questions about what they would do about religion and values in the home they would create. Neither I nor my sisters ever remember my parents being anything but a united front--on all issues, religious and otherwise. Never did we succeed as kids in trying to play them against each other. Never was it an option not to attend religious school. Never was it an option not to become B'nai Mitzvah.
Thomas and Diane raised four children--I am the oldest, followed by Rachel, Sarah, and Leah. My father eventually converted to Judaism in the 1980s. Yet, my sisters and I never felt we lived in an interfaith home. We grew up eating Shabbat dinner together every Friday night. We attended services at our synagogue at least once a month. We were active in our synagogue youth groups. Whenever we joined our non-Jewish relatives for their holidays, my parents always made it clear: "This is not our holiday," they would say, "This is the holiday of our loved ones. We're here to celebrate with them because we love them; but this is not our holiday." And now, as adults, Judaism defines much of our lives.
Though many would claim that my home was never Jewish, my parents have managed to forge a partnership and, together, create a family that stands for the greatest ideals of what it means to be Jewish.
And now, as a young rabbi--more importantly, as a young husband and father--I strive to live by the ideals my parents have given me. I recognize that, with all due respect to my rabbinical school, if I'm a good rabbi it's because of my parents, not because of my rabbinic training. What's more, if I am a good husband and father, it's certainly because of my parents and the values they instilled in me.