Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
May 31, 2010
On November 4, 2008, I was swept off my feet by two men. One was President Barack Obama, whose campaign I had supported, and whose success opened a new chapter in Americans' lives. The other was E. He stood six feet to my five-foot-eleven inches, looked incredibly sharp in a suit, engaged me in great conversation for three hours, and literally lifted me off the ground and whirled me around in a massive bear hug amid 300 ecstatic guests at the Election Night party. Although my feet returned to the floor, my heart, which had been cheering for a different reason, soared.
|Light dawns on Marblehead. Photo: Flickr/MattMass. Shared under a Creative Commons license.|
Little did I know how E. would also open a new chapter in my life. Three weeks later, when he introduced gentile, blue-eyed blond me to his Conservative Jewish family for Shabbat dinner, the nuances of that chapter took on a new color.
One could say that new color was pink for all the times I blushed with self-consciousness as I bumbled through the ritualized dinner. When the family rose to wash hands in the kitchen, I was the last to return, having dawdled at the bathroom sink. I talked when I should have been silent, raised my glass and said "amen" a beat or two late, and felt silly being the only one not singing. I didn't understand the prayers that were in a foreign language. I came this close to asking for someone to pass the butter--fortunately I realized the small bowl held hummus, and remembered one does not mix dairy with meat.
Apparently I did not make too much of a fool of myself, since E.'s large and exuberant family invited me back with warm open arms. Along with many casual and wonderful gatherings, I was welcome at all of the high holiday celebrations, bat mitzvahs, weddings, and to help build the sukkah. Each time, I would grill E. on what the purpose of the event was, what expected behavior from a non-observer would be, what I could do to demonstrate my respect, what I should make sure not to say or do, and, of course, what I should wear. A Jewish friend of mine at work, who is engaged to a Boston Irish Catholic, helped me immensely when she took me under her wing (and introduced me to InterfaithFamily.com!) It took me a while to realize E.'s blasé responses were a cue that I should just relax, but I felt frustrated by his nonchalant approach in response to my anxiety.
A reversal of roles occurred when I took him home for Christmas with my family. We have our own traditions that remain very meaningful to me. One such tradition is the opening of two small holiday-related gifts on Christmas Eve. My parents made sure to include E., just as they had by adding a stocking to the ones already on display, and by planning a kosher dinner. E. watched with amusement as my brother and I took turns doling out the presents. Later that night, as I was finishing my last-minute Christmas morning gift wrapping, I noticed he was unusually quiet and a bit tense. I stopped and asked what was wrong. "Well," he replied very solemnly, "it's just that I don't know what to expect for tomorrow. All of this is new."
At that moment, I will confess, I basked in a brief moment of retribution and had to restrain myself from gloating. Not being able to totally resist, I sat back, folded my arms, and said with a sly smile, "Oh ya? Is that so? Well, I can certainly understand." Feeling rather devilish, I added, "I'd like you to just take a moment and note these feelings you're having, and think about all the times I asked you for information in the past year." Suddenly, "light dawned on Marblehead," as Boston people like to say. E.'s eyes widened, his jaw dropped, and suddenly he lurched forward and wrapped me in a huge hug. "I'm so sorry!" He exclaimed. "I get it now!"
A year and a half after we met and he swept me off my feet, there is a lot both of us "get" that we didn't "get" before. E.'s family, friends, and I joke about shiksas, and I don't hesitate to ask questions about the meaning behind particular practices, expressions or food. Sometimes, I'll have my own Marblehead moment, or embrace something with such gusto that his parents will ask, "Are you sure you're not Jewish?"
In March, we kashered the kitchen and hosted his family for Passover in the home we now share. Not one person batted an eye at my Easter eggs and fuzzy bunnies that were scattered on shelves and tabletops. As we were clearing the dinner table together, his mother sweetly offered to teach me to read Hebrew "in less than eight hours!" during the summer…but then quickly added that she did not do so with the hopes I would then convert. I accepted her offer with excitement. It will be a bonding experience, and I welcome the chance to better understand an aspect of my love's identity.
E. assures me his family's number one priority is his happiness. The same goes for my family. I enjoy feeling like part of a special community of interfaith couples, and love learning about another person who is part of an interfaith relationship. My deep soul searching about religion continues, and I share that process with E.. No doubt we will have many, many more reflective, and possibly tense, moments. It's understood that if we marry and have children, he wants them to be Jewish, and I want to introduce them to the magic of my version of Christmas and Easter. We both agree neither tradition would have to be exclusive, and laugh about how our kids would be the tallest in the playground at Hebrew school. As long as there is ongoing humor and honest communication, I can't wait to see what the next chapter of our relationship holds.