Originally published August, 2005. Republished October 8, 2012.
When I was a little girl, my older sister and I loved to play a game we called "apartment." We pretended our side-by-side rooms were apartments, and that we were grown-up ladies living in the city and working glamorous jobs. I would wait excitedly in my room for my sister to knock on my door, and I would open it to hear her exclaim, "I love your new apartment!" (Perhaps we watched too many episodes of Laverne and Shirley and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.)
Some twenty years later, I am startled to find that our game was really just practice for our real, grown-up lives. I now live in my very own apartment in Washington, DC, where I am pursuing a career that is, by my standards, pretty exciting. Likewise, my sister spent many years living in a variety of glamorous New York City apartments, where she went to graduate school, became a teacher, and then went into publishing.
Of course, we played other games besides "apartment." Like many little girls, we pretended to be married mommies, raising children and living in Barbie's Dream Mansion. In these games, our husbands played secondary roles. We were much more particular about the style of the bridal veils at our make-believe weddings than we were about the imaginary grooms we stood next to. We simply assumed that these men were dashing and loving and that we lived happily ever after with them.
Some twenty years later, I can honestly say that these games did not in any way prepare us for reality. Our young minds could not yet grasp the many complicated issues associated with romantic relationships. For example, we did not anticipate that the dashing, loving men in our lives did not come ready-made with dream mansions and a Barbie Corvette. And we never even considered that our significant others would not be Jewish.
It's not so much that we imagined them being Jewish, but rather that we did not address the role of religion at all. We simply assumed that pretty much the entire world was Jewish, like we were, and that, by extension, all the wonderful men were Jewish, too. I cannot remember a single game in which we little girls asked our dream princes if they were Jewish. Or at least half. Or would they maybe consider converting?
Our real, grown-up love lives are much more complicated than our childhood expectations. My sister married a terrific Catholic guy after years of dating and warming my family up to the idea that her marriage would not erase her Jewish identity. I have been dating someone for several years, who is, in many ways, the man I dreamed about as a child. But, no, he is not Jewish. Not even close. He is descended from Mayflower Pilgrims.
In some ways, being one half of an interfaith couple is a lot more difficult than I guessed it would be. For example, I cannot help but feel frustrated when my boyfriend does not share my perspective on certain religion-related issues. When he mentions Germany as a vacation spot, I immediately cringe. My grandparents barely escaped from the Nazis (and many of my other relatives did not). "Why would I want to go there?" I ask. He knows my family history, and he respects my feelings, but he will never have the visceral (and, yes, somewhat irrational) response that I do.
Another complicating factor in our relationship is family. When my boyfriend and I began seeing each other, I knew my family would not be happy about another daughter dating a non-Jew, but I did not guess how upset they would be. Almost five years later, they still wish I would find a nice Jewish boy to settle down with. They no longer say it aloud, but they manage to make it clear nonetheless. It took three years for my grandmother to stop trying to arrange blind dates for me. "Grandma," I had to tell her over and over again, "I already have a boyfriend." Of course, it is disappointing to not have the full approval and support of my family when it comes to someone I love so much, but I expected Mom, Dad, and Grandma to question my decision to be with a non-Jew. What I did not expect was for everyone else to have an opinion about us.
I once met a friend of a friend who, after knowing me for about ten minutes, gave me a look of disgust when he learned that my boyfriend was not Jewish. He told me I was not doing the "right" thing. On another occasion, a long-time family friend asked if my boyfriend was Jewish. When I told her he was not, she said, "Interfaith relationships are OK as long as you raise your children Jewish." I thought that was an odd comment, since I did not ask her whether interfaith relationships were "OK" or what I would have to do to make her comfortable with mine.
On the other side of the spectrum is my boyfriend's family. They have no problem with him dating a Jew, but they have little idea how Judaism differs from Christianity. Occasionally, they will learn or recall some detail about the practice of Judaism, such as keeping kosher, and ask if I would prefer chicken rather than ham. But this question will be raised after an appetizer of shrimp in cream sauce. Inevitably, my boyfriend's grandparents send us "holiday" cards that reference Jesus in one way or another. They mean well, but they simply do not understand that Christmas does not apply to me.
In other ways, being part of an interfaith relationship — our particular interfaith relationship — is also much easier than I anticipated. I would never have guessed that, upon reading the first article I wrote for InterfaithFamily.com, my boyfriend's mother would be so impressed that she would share it with just about every member of her extended family. I also never expected to light the Hanukkah menorah with my boyfriend's family, but that is exactly what I found myself doing last year, at their request. Most importantly, I did not know that I would enjoy being with someone from such a different background as much as I do. As a child, I was warned by my parents about the destructive effects of "different backgrounds" on interfaith relationships. Even two people with the best intentions, they said, would ultimately be torn apart by their distinct cultures. I can say that my own experiences do not support these claims. Despite attending different houses of worship, my boyfriend and I share many of the same beliefs and values. We both believe in acting with honesty and integrity. We both honor our families and believe that children are a couple's greatest commitment. We love learning and traveling and exploring new places. When we face problems, no matter what kind, we turn to one another for comfort and support. In short, we do not define ourselves solely by our religions and, as a result, we have a tremendous amount of common ground to stand on.
An interfaith relationship, by definition, will encompass contradictions and opposition. Particularly if the two people involved feel any sort of connection with their religious and cultural backgrounds, it will not be a simple endeavor. But an interfaith relationship will also be filled with unique opportunities to learn and share and to be rewarded by the special efforts each member makes to respect the other's heritage. I am always touched when my boyfriend saves a newspaper clipping about a Holocaust Memorial Service or a lecture on modern Judaism for me, or when he asks me to explain Jewish traditions to him. Likewise, he is thrilled when I exchange gifts with his family at Christmas.
My relationship with my boyfriend has shown me that, compared to the images I had as a child, love is a very complicated thing. But it is still something worth celebrating. If I said interfaith relationships were easy, I would be lying. They can be very hard work. But in my experience, they are well worth the effort.