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
My grandmother passed away in 1994, just before my girlfriend and I decided to get "married." I don't know that I could have gone through with it had she been alive. How could I possibly expect a religious Jewish woman born in 1896 to wrap her mind around the concept of two women getting married? And that may not even have been the hardest thing for her to accept. My bride was, after all, as Grandma would have said, a shiksa (non-Jew)!
I can imagine the scene. "Grandma, I have something to tell you. I'm getting married, but it's to a woman." I'd watch the look of confusion on her face change slowly to a smile of acceptance as she put the pieces together in her mind. Then would come her inevitable question: "Is she Jewish?" And after my negative response, she'd exclaim, "Now that's a horse of a different color!"
My proclamation might not have been so surprising to her anyway. I suspect she had an inkling that I was not interested in men. One time she actually said to me, at the end of a weekend visit, "Next time you come home, bring a friend. It doesn't matter if it's a boy or a girl." But to marry a non-Jew, that might have been too much for my sweet grandma to bear.
For me, the challenges of being in an interfaith gay couple have more to do with culture than with religion. I consider myself to be a "cultural Jew." I'm not particularly observant, but being Jewish is important to me and I cherish many of the values and traditions that are central to Judaism. I had been in relationships with both Jews and non-Jews, and while I preferred to be with someone who was Jewish, I didn't let that stop me from falling in love with Lynn, a Catholic woman from a (mostly) traditional Catholic family.
Lynn's family was accepting of our relationship and welcomed me without hesitation. But when we announced our intention to be married, a crisis ensued. Her parents struggled with the idea that gay marriage was wrong in God's eyes and that by supporting it, they would be sinning as well. Up until the wedding day, we weren't sure whether her father would even attend the ceremony--a source of sadness and disappointment for Lynn.
My family took the wedding plans in stride, perhaps because they had had more time to become used to the fact that I was gay. In fact, I think they were almost bored with it by then. My parents were far less religiously observant than my grandmother, and I was not the first of my siblings to marry outside of Judaism, so my wedding announcement didn't raise much of a stir.
While Lynn's family assumed that I was the one behind the push to get married, as a political statement about gay rights, ironically it was Lynn's traditional background that prompted it. When the subject of moving in together came up, Lynn insisted that if we were going to do that, we should be married. I had no hang-ups about living "in sin," and so our compromise was that we'd live together with the intention of getting married soon, which we did, about a year after we moved into our shared place.
This was in 1995, when gay marriage was becoming more common, although not widely accepted by the mainstream, let alone sanctioned by any state government. Resources were available to help plan a gay ceremony, but adding the interfaith element proved to be more challenging.
For example, who would officiate? Without thinking, straight friends and co-workers offered their standard suggestion to interfaith couples: Get a Justice of the Peace. Not so fast, my uninformed friends! Since it wouldn't be a legal marriage, a JP couldn't do it. I was shocked at how many people had no idea that same-sex marriage wasn't legally recognized.
On the recommendation of a trusted professional, we found a woman rabbi who specialized in interfaith ceremonies. Unfortunately, it turned out that she'd never done one for a same-sex couple. "Just substitute 'she' for 'he,' there and there and there," she seemed to be saying to us as she showed us sample services. It didn't feel right.
Then, miraculously, at the wedding of another lesbian couple, we heard the inspiring words of the Unitarian Universalist minister who performed the ceremony. She agreed to marry us, incorporating elements of Judaism and Christianity without mentioning Jesus. We had wine and candles, which are elements of both Jewish and Christian services. Emphasizing our commitment more than any traditional religious concepts, she created a ceremony with which we could both feel comfortable.
The wedding day came, and so did Lynn's father and the rest of our family members and friends. Despite the deluge of rain that kept the guests indoors, it was a great day.
Both before and after our ceremony, our religious differences affected our relationship. During the first few years, I struggled with the introduction of Christian elements into our home. I survived the first Christmas tree and eventually came to enjoy choosing ornaments of my own. Easter, which usually falls on Passover, provided mind-boggling eating dilemmas. While I didn't keep kosher during the year, I did try my best to keep Passover. At Easter dinner with Lynn's family, I struggled to choose between the never-kosher ham and the not-kosher-for-Passover stuffing that was cooked in the turkey.
Lynn could never quite keep the Jewish holidays straight in her mind. "Which one is this," she'd ask, "the one with the apples and honey or the one where you fast?" I'd end up feeling insulted that she couldn't remember from year to year.
Talk of having children brought on anxiety for me, as Lynn wanted to have them baptized. Could I raise my children to be Christian? Was it fair to ask that the children be raised Jewish even though I wasn't observant? At the very least, we could raise them in both traditions and let them decide for themselves when they were old enough to do so. But baptizing them as babies would make them Christian from the start, and that bothered me.
We were spared that decision by the return of Lynn's chronic illness that had been dormant since before we met. It wasn't just that the demands of her illness precluded us from considering parenting. In the end, our relationship was unable to survive the stress it put on us, and we parted ways.
Now, three years later, I'm getting used to life without Christmas trees and Passover hams. I still miss my grandmother, but I can practically hear her kvelling (swelling with pride) to her friends in heaven. "See down there? That's my granddaughter, the writer! And next to her, that's her new girlfriend. This one's Jewish, you know!"