Neal Cohen is an attorney in New York City where he lives with his wife, Briana Maley.
A Family, Not a Statistic
May 16, 2003, republished December 31, 2010
Although I have a strong Jewish identity, I think that my interest in Judaism arose, ironically, only in college upon dating Briana. My own ignorance of most things Jewish inspired me to study and to learn more. What I learned, I shared with Briana.
After college, Briana and I went our separate ways for a while, but we were eventually reunited at a millennium New Year's Eve party. When Briana moved to Atlanta to be with me, we learned that reconciling our feelings for each other with our differing backgrounds would not be simple. Figuring out how kosher our kitchen should be was one of our first "interfaith hurdles." As it turned out, settling this issue was relatively easy compared to what was to follow.
Although we enjoyed ourselves early on, there was also some tension on both of our parts. "How can I marry a non-Jewish woman who feels very little affinity with my faith?" I often asked myself. "Will he ever be satisfied by me? How many more 'tests' do I have to pass?" she often thought to herself. We would have "heavy" conversations with lots of crying and anger. Looking back on it now, it's a wonder that we survived at all.
Almost a year and a half ago, I began therapy with a Jewish psychologist. I specifically requested a Jewish one because I thought that I wanted to talk about how the "Jewish thing" was affecting our relationship. After all, Briana and I always seemed to argue the "Jewish thing" more than any other.
Through therapy, I slowly began to realize that I did not have to choose between being Jewish and loving Briana. But, even though I was making progress, two important issues remained: children and conversion.
On the first point, Briana was willing to compromise. Knowing how important my Jewish identity is to me, she has always been willing to raise our children as Jews. However, throughout all of this, I naively thought that, when the time came, Briana would also convert to Judaism. But for a number of reasons she did not want to convert. First, she just didn't "feel" Jewish and believed that conversion would be insincere. Second, she felt that she had already made most of the compromises (raising a Jewish family, not having a Christmas tree), and she felt that it was time for me to make a compromise of my own, to show that I loved her for who she is. Third, she could not fathom that her converting should be a precondition to our getting married.
I knew that, in a marriage based on equality and respect, she was correct. I called my brother, who assured me that Briana's reasoning was right. I looked for resources. I found InterfaithFamily.com and took comfort in reading about other people's stories. Although I knew my situation was not unique, it was still nice to find a group that validated my own feelings. I went back to Briana and told her that I had thought about and resolved the interfaith issues for myself. I told her that I was thrilled that we were together. About a month later, we were engaged.
What I have learned most throughout the past year or so of dealing with these issues is not that Judaism is important to me; I already knew that. What I've learned most is that the real issues in a relationship often lie beneath the superficial categories. The times that we've had the most trouble, I had often placed the "blame" on her "not-being-Jewish-and-not-being-able-to-understand-me." What this past year of therapy has taught me is that while sometimes that, indeed, may be the case, more often "the whole Jewish thing" has been a proxy for something else that was going on between us. There are misunderstandings and differences in every relationship. The strength of a relationship cannot be measured by how deep or shallow those differences are, but how they're dealt with. Categorizing it as a "Jewish" thing had been easier than trying to get to the root of the real problems.
My concern for the survival of the Jewish people had long made me afraid of becoming an intermarriage statistic. While I do care deeply about the future of Judaism and the Jewish people, I also care for and love Briana deeply. Throughout this year, however, I have come to see what I hope that others in the Jewish community will also begin to understand: Briana and I are not a statistic. We are a family.