Sierra and I met my senior year of college. We first spoke during a torrential downpour and first kissed after a tango. Sure, there are some minor problems: she's still a junior in college and I've been working for a year; she's in Connecticut, I'm in Boston; she grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City and I'm a Jew from Newton. Nothing that love can't solve, right?
After two years of dating, Sierra and I have little problem with our different religious backgrounds. However, I can't say the same about our families.
Both Sierra and I have been blessed with truly loving and open-minded parents. My parents have never forbidden me to date non-Jews and they have been nothing but friendly and warm towards Sierra. Still, at the start of the relationship, my mother did drop the occasional hint that she might prefer I date a Jewish girl--usually phrased as, "Don't you think it would make you happier to be dating a Jewish girl?"
Problems began to arise once the relationship became more serious and Sierra and I started talking about visiting each other for holidays. I wanted her to visit for the High Holy Days and she wanted me to fly with her to Utah for Christmas. Unfortunately, we met with resistance.
We each spoke to our parents about setting another place at the table, and initially they seemed fine with the idea. However, in the days that followed, our mothers both decided that perhaps there might be a better time for a visit.
Neither of our families is religiously zealous enough to feel that there is anything blasphemous about the beliefs of the other. It is not a question of religious morals, either. I was very pleased when I discovered that Sierra and I--although she was raised in the Mormon-dominated mountains of Utah while I was raised in the Jewish-filled suburban streets of Newton--had very similar ideals and morals. We were both raised to be kind, loving, and accepting of others. So I could only conclude that our parents' problem was not one of religious theology, but rather a matter of religious ritual and family tradition.
When I asked my mom why she objected to having Sierra join us for services on Yom Kippur, she explained that she thought it was inappropriate for a non-Jew, a "non-believer," to participate in something so sacred. She felt that by bringing Sierra with me I would be somehow "watering down" the ceremony, making it less special by putting it on display for someone who couldn't feel the meaning behind it.
I had, somewhat predictably, the opposite reaction. I love my girlfriend and want to share everything in my life with her. The importance of Judaism to me and the sacredness of Yom Kippur are the very reasons I so much wanted her to be involved. Likewise, Sierra wants to be part of the experiences which have an impact in my life. It means she endures my favorite short stories by William Gibson, even though she finds the writing cumbersome and ugly. She watches Jackie Chan movies with me (and actually enjoys them), even though she'd rather be watching Pride and Prejudice. And she tries to learn everything she can about Judaism. Why would I want to include her in everything else and then exclude her from what is such an important part of who I am?
The same reasoning prompted Sierra to invite me to her family's home for Christmas. I've already met Sierra's mother and two of her siblings, but I have yet to meet her father, and have not been able to spend time with the family in their own home.
Unlike Yom Kippur in my household, Christmas for the Burton family is not a particularly religious occasion. They don't go to church, and they don't say any prayers, but Christmas still has a great deal of importance for them. Every Christmas in the Burton household consists of two family rituals. The first is a makeshift Christmas pageant. While the subject matter is clearly religious, the point of the pageant is that every family member takes part in the retelling of an important story in the history of the religion. Since my favorite Jewish holiday is Passover, which revolves around retelling an important story, I was looking forward to observing someone else's religious storytelling.
The second, far more important tradition in the Burton family is that each member of the family performs something, usually musical, for the rest of the family for Christmas. Sierra's sister Adryon sings, her brother Taylor plays saxophone, and Sierra plays the piano, a gift she apparently inherited from her father, who rarely plays anymore except during this holiday event. It's because of these rituals, this tight-knit family community, that I have been excluded from the holiday experience. It's not specifically because I'm Jewish, but because I'm an outsider.
Sierra did end up coming to temple for Yom Kippur and she did enjoy herself. Well, as much as a person can enjoy herself when surrounded by a mob of starving people wearing heavy clothes, sitting in a hot room for hours talking about atoning for their sins in a language she doesn't comprehend. But I had carefully explained everything to her, and now she better understands why the holiday, and Judaism as a whole, are so important to my parents and me.
As to visiting Sierra's family this winter, I'll be skiing in Utah for New Year's, but I'll need to wait to see the pageant or hear her father play the piano. Sierra tells me that all the lights will still be up in Temple Square, her family is going to wait a week longer to take down the tree, and her little brother Chase will have no problem showing me all of his new toys.
So, I don't get to visit the family for Christmas, but I do get to spend time with Sierra and her loved ones. And anyway, there's always next year.