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
Originally published June, 1999. Republished July 15, 2011.
Dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, William Henry Judd and in honor of my mother-in-law, Kathleen Judd
Hanging in my dining room, above the cabinet holding my tea-cup collection, is a picture of my father-in-law as a young man, proudly wearing his new sailor suit. My father-in-law, William Henry Judd, left high school prior to graduating in order to serve in the United States Navy during World War II. To the right of this cabinet hangs a small photo of my father at five years old, with his two-year-old brother, his mother and father. The photo was taken in Berlin, Germany, in 1938, a few weeks before my grandfather left Germany for Baltimore, Maryland, where he would work for the next sixty years as a furrier. My father, his brother and mother followed by ship the next Christmas. How ironic that these two pictures hang side-by-side so many years later, functioning as pictorial brackets for the family my husband Jim and I have created together. In between the photos are two, individual pictures of our daughters, Lilly, now four and a half, and Emma Michal, eighteen months.
I met my husband, James Edward Judd — Jim, in the laundry room of our condo building in the beginning of February, 1992. I was in my third year of rabbinical school at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion. Jim was born a Catholic and received his elementary education in parochial school. When we met we said little, but about three weeks later I walked into the garden shop where he worked, and although I didn't recognize him, he recognized me, saying "You're the lady from the laundry room, right?" I stuttered through those few first embarrassing moments. I needed seeds and soil for a religious school project for Tu Bishvat, Judaism's Arbor Day. Buying what was needed, I asked him if he could please bring the soil back to our building, as it was too heavy for me to carry. He said, "Sure, yeah, whatever."
That evening I stopped by to get my dirt and sort of never left. For the next six weeks, we sat and talked nearly every night. During those weeks Pesach (Passover) came and went. Jim was there when I schlepped (dragged) down my Pesach foods — matzah and gefilte fish with horseradish. Our friendship needed to change direction — either move towards romance or end. After so much talking during those weeks, we were aware of many differences in our lives which could present a challenge to a developing relationship.
By observing the intensity of my religious feelings and the nature of my educational and professional pursuits (to be a rabbi), Jim knew I could share my life and raise a family only with a Jewish man. When romance cornered us, Jim was not surprised when I told him I could not marry someone who was not Jewish. He asked how I would feel if he converted, and six weeks later we were engaged with a wedding date for February 28, 1993. During the upcoming year, Jim became better acquainted and more familiar with Judaism and Jewish life. He began an "Introduction to Judaism" class at one of the local synagogues. Two weeks before our wedding, Jim underwent conversion, choosing as his name Adam Tzadok — a Man of Righteousness.
Most people I talk with, be it as a rabbi or a wife, express the thought that if a person chooses Judaism and marries a fellow Jew, the family is not an interfaith family. But on both a personal as well as a professional level, I challenge this understanding of what makes an interfaith family precisely that — interfaith.
While the home Jim and I have worked hard to make for our family practices only Judaism, Jim's entire family of origin — his mother and her husband (sadly, his father passed away in the late 1970s), his brother and his family, his sister and her family, as well as all his extended family — worship according to various denominations of Christianity. Yet these people are very much a part of our family and our lives.
I am an only child, as is my mother. My father's brother never married, so I have no extended family with which to gather at celebrations or holidays. It is with Jim's family, during secular holiday celebrations, that our family creates the memories of family life. It is these family occasions, adorned with children's laughter and family antics, where memories will be made and cherished forever.
Jim's family has been completely supportive of our Jewish life. They send appropriate holiday cards not only to Jim and me, but to our girls as well. It is more than just Jim's siblings and mother who have enhanced our family's observance of Judaism. His aunt Peggy and her family and his uncle John in France remember us with holiday cards, and gave us our treasured recording of "Fiddler on the Roof." Throughout the years my in-laws have added to our Lenox china collection with a kiddush cup for the sanctification of Sabbath wine, and a challah plate for the special bread eaten during the Sabbath meal. And when, during vacations, we have been able to break bread together and relish the joy of the Sabbath — we have all appreciated these ritual objects, embracing the enormous love and support they represent. When our daughters were born, both received a special charm, a chai — the symbol for life.
As I write these words, our daughters' Judaism is still being formed and solidified within the context of who they are. Both Jim and I believe that to share in the Christmas experience right now would present more confusion than our girls could grasp. There is enough to explain with classrooms and malls, television and neighborhood decorations. And so we have chosen for the time being to abstain from participating in the extended family experiences of Christmas. We feel wholehearted gratitude towards Jim's family for their understanding of our religious dilemma. Jim and I are confident that the time will come, when our children are older, that we will come together to share in his family's Holy Day celebrations. For now, we enjoy shopping for their holiday tree and decorations. Each year I order my mother-in-law an ornament with a picture of the girls, and our family sends religiously neutral holiday cards.
For many years now, I have been grateful to my father-in-law for putting his life on the line for Europe's Jews, people he didn't know and would never meet. I have often thought about the irony of marrying a man whose father fought to save families like my own, and about how indebted I feel to this man, who I will never be able to thank in person. Before beginning to write this essay, I discussed it with my mother-in-law, sharing with her how honored and excited I was to write about my appreciation of her unadulterated support of our home and our family. She said, "Why shouldn't I be supportive? You raise your children to be capable, thinking adults, able to make wise choices they can live with. I am only happy for you both."
Being part of an interfaith family has added enormously to my depth as a rabbi. It has enabled me to understand from a visceral perspective what so many contemporary Jewish families experience. It has allowed me to better serve contemporary Judaism at a more universal level while addressing the needs of individual Jews at a more particular level. It has enabled me to connect with people whom my title has, through no fault of my own, kept at bay. But most importantly, being part of an interfaith family has enriched my life — teaching me through personal encounter that God is alive and flourishing within each and every person! This truth motivates my every action and helps form my every thought.