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
I suppose that most of my family always assumed that I would marry someone Jewish. I think I was the one least surprised by the fact that I didn't. Bethlehem, Pa., was my home. The Christmas City of the United States didn't ever sound like the hotbed of Jewish life to me. All through school I was part of a very small group of Jewish students. There were just seven of us who graduated in my high school class of more than 1,100. I was certainly aware that most of my friends celebrated Christmas.
In college, social life was not religiously centered. Sure, I dated men who were Jewish, but I did not NOT date men who weren't. In fact, I had been engaged to someone who was "technically" Jewish. (His mother was Jewish, but he was not raised in the faith.) When that relationship broke up, I can clearly remember my grandfather's admonition that if I was going to marry someone who wasn't Jewish, he had, at least, better be "special."
Enter the man to whom I was married nearly 27 years ago. Bill was gentle, kind, intelligent, thoughtful, romantic and not Jewish; but, in my grandfather's words, he was "special."
He grew up in the same area that I did, though, as he says, "we went to different high schools together." Bill was a graduate student at Princeton when we met. I was an investigator for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection and living in Bethlehem. He, too, had once been engaged to someone else. We were 25 and 28 years old. We knew what was important to us in terms of the kind of mate we wanted.
My family was probably typical of many second-generation American Jewish families. My grandparents had all been pretty Orthodox in their thinking. My parents raised my brother and sister and me in a Conservative home, and my feelings were far more Reform, though I liked the Conservative temple to which we belonged, and there was not a Reform temple in Bethlehem. My brother was already married to a Jewish woman. He is four years older than I am. Both he and my sister, who also married someone Jewish, are divorced. They were happy to know that I was marrying a good person and did not make any reference to the fact that Bill was not Jewish.
Our religious differences were certainly brought up. My mother was concerned that Bill's family might not approve of his marrying someone Jewish. If his grandfather had still been alive, he might have made a comment, but this was a moot point; Bill's family had no negative reaction. They were accepting of me for who I was, and my mother ... and grandfather ... approved of my choice and our decision to marry. Unfortunately, my father had died five years earlier.
Our wedding, though a civil ceremony, contained a number of elements of a Jewish wedding, and none of a Christian one. Our life has been similar to our wedding. Adding some religious touches to our lives has enriched them immeasurably.
Bill had no concerns about marrying a Jewish woman. He and his family are not church-goers. When he was a child, he attended a Lutheran Sunday school, but since I have known them, he had his family have never attended church services except for weddings or funerals. Christmas is the one holiday observed by his family in which we participate. Bill's mother sees the holiday as a chance to get the entire family together, which includes five children, four spouses, eight grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Usually, most of the children and grandchildren make the "pilgrimage" back to Bethlehem in December. The tree at my in-laws' home is decorated. The packages are wrapped, and food is prepared in grand style. It is a family occasion, not a religious one.
Celebrating Christmas as a family event is one way we acknowledge and honor Bill's family's tradition. Over the years, we have had our own Christmas trees. On the other hand, we attend High Holiday services, light the Hanukkah menorah together, and make or attend Passover seders.
When our son Josh was born, it was an easy decision that he would be raised Jewish. Our feeling was that we were part of the Jewish community in our town, and that Bill had never chosen to participate in the Christian community here. We both felt strongly that Josh should have some kind of religious identity and that I was probably the one who would be responsible for that aspect of his education. Today, Josh identifies himself without hesitation as a Jew and is an active member of Hillel at his college.
Over the years, though Bill has not converted, he has been a willing participant in every aspect of our being a Jewish family. As Josh approached his bar mitzvah, Bill encouraged him, and found ways to participate in the service with the full approval and support of our rabbi. He and I were both asked to serve on a committee to help determine the rules for our new Jewish cemetery. He is acknowledged by people in our Jewish community as a full contributing member. He was the impetus behind our wonderful vacation to Israel. We have several friends who live there, and it was our chance to visit not only the country, but also many Israelis we have met along the way. Most of our trip was Jewish oriented, but we did take the tour of Old Jerusalem to see some of the Christian sites as well. Of course, having both grown up in Bethlehem, Pa., we had to see Bet Lechem (Bethlehem) in Israel.
Perhaps, if Bill had been a church-goer, we would have had more religious issues to deal with over the years. Perhaps if we didn't live in an accepting, liberal environment, our life would have been more complicated. But we are fortunate to live in an academic community, where we are not the only interfaith couple. As a family, we are active members of just one religious group. Our loyalties are not divided by synagogue and church.
I value my identity as a Jew, though my ties are more cultural than spiritual, and I take pride in the fact that my husband respects that my Jewish identity is an important aspect of our life together. For us, having a marriage between people who come from two different religious traditions has not been a cause of tension nor has it created problems.