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An Interfaith Engagement

October 21, 2009

"Dad, I have some big news. We've decided to get engaged."

On some level I'd always been waiting to say those words. But when anticipating that moment, I had never stopped to think about what would happen next. I didn't imagine that my announcement to spend the rest of my life with the person I love would be met with anything but approval. Which is why it stung so sharply when that wasn't the case.

"Wow. That's uh ... that's good. Thank you for telling me."

That was my soon-to-be father-in-law's response when we broke the news, and it wasn't the joyous reaction we were hoping for. While he did technically say that he felt our decision was "good," his tone was less than convincing. "I thought you were just calling to tell me you got the photo I e-mailed you," he later added.

Romeo and Juliet
It was just a coincidence that Aaron was on his way to Shakespeare camp to direct "Romeo and Juliet."  (This photo is from another production of the play.) Photo:Flickr/ZSR Library.

When I told my dad, he was indeed happy and supportive. That rug would get yanked out from under us later, via a garbled series of text messages, 10 in total, chopped up and sent out of sequence by his BlackBerry. As I drove up to a remote part of Vermont where I co-direct a Shakespeare camp every summer, my phone started beeping spasmodically as I received the notes. I couldn't give them my full attention as I was driving a car full of plastic swords, campers and staff, but glancing at the screen I saw phrases like "neither you nor children will have a leg to stand on ... serious life matter ... I have certain regrets." Soon after, I passed out of cell phone range and couldn't have responded even if I had wanted to.

I am Jewish and my fiancée is a deeply spiritual agnostic with Jewish leanings, though she was raised in an evangelical Christian household, her father being a minister. Both of our fathers' dissent stemmed from religious reasons, and it was with no small degree of irony that I appreciated the play I was driving up to camp to direct: "Romeo and Juliet."

Though our Lord Capulet was only 16 years old, I couldn't help but see my fiancée's father's face when he spoke his lines.

He was upset that she was not marrying a Christian, and my dad was troubled by the fact that my wife, and therefore our children, would not be Jewish in the traditional, matrilineal sense. In addressing our fathers' concerns, serious words were had by all. Strong words, in tones more confrontational than either of us had ever had to use when speaking with family before. These were conversations that left scars that have since been healed over with varying degrees of success. To share the full content of these conversations would be to render this article unfit for such a family-friendly website and, though true, might come across as nothing short of libelous.

The weeks that spanned these conflicts were extremely trying. We experienced the typical symptoms of a short-term depression, like loss of appetite, sudden breakdowns and the feeling of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning because what's the point? Sometimes I'd cry about how her dad was treating her, sometimes she'd cry about mine. This was supposed to be one of the most exciting times in our lives, an experience we desperately wanted to share with those closest to us, but when we passed them the balloon, instead of volleying it back, they let it float to the carpet.

The fruit of our communication labors is that both fathers have now expressed their support, and the experience has only brought the two of us closer together. My future father-in-law has come to a point where he is intellectually in favor of our union, but also acknowledges that he isn't quite there emotionally. He has promised to do his best to get there by our wedding day. My father needed the assurance that we would indeed be raising a Jewish family, and he needed to be told that there are different interpretations of Judaism besides his own. For instance, I have no problem having a Jewish family with a wife who does not convert. I believe this excerpt from one of my responses to him sums it up:

To me, one's level of Jewishness is not dictated by a certificate of course-work completion, a dip in a mikvah and/or the decree of a rabbi. I believe one's Jewishness is defined by content of character, adherence to those commandments that are still relevant in modern society and by an informed cultural and historical perspective of the Jewish people. I am not concerned with the opinion of anyone who would judge my family to not be Jewish enough for their standards. I would only ever belong to a Jewish community that is open-minded enough to accept a family such as mine would be.

In the end (though I'm sure this isn't it), we're grateful for these interactions. They felt like a rite of passage as we stand poised on the brink of a new life together, and I appreciate having had a genuine, heartfelt dialogue. Though difficult, the alternative is worse.

Also, as some members of our family have wavered in their endorsement, our community of friends rose to the occasion, showing an outpouring of support from offering to help set up chairs at the wedding to unsolicited financial donations to help us in the purchase of our rings.

Now we face the challenge of creating a wedding ceremony and reception that is meaningful for us, acceptable to our families and other guests, fun, environmentally friendly, delicious and affordable. I'll let you know how that goes.

Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Aaron Kagan

Aaron Kagan is a freelance writer living in the Boston area. He blogs at http://teaandfood.blogspot.com/.

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