August 30, 2013
|Magin and Carl celebrating an anniversary
In the near decade we’ve been an interfaith couple, my husband, Carl, and I have never fought about religion. But we have fought about church signs, and our most stunning argument was because of a church sign: an emblem as ubiquitous as crepe myrtles and cypress trees in the Louisiana city where we met. One day, as I was driving alongside a bayou that flowed through that town, a particularly pesky church sign caught my eye. It said, "Shalom Y'all."
Simply translated: Hello everyone. Goodbye everyone. Peace everyone.
When I saw that sign, I felt anything but peaceful. I wanted to drive my little Toyota with its “God Bless the People of Every Nation” bumper sticker up over the church lawn. “Shalom Y’all” didn’t make me feel welcomed. The sign had an opposite, othering effect: It epitomized the triumphalist attitudes of too many of our neighbors, who exploited Hebrew
language and Jewish culture to serve the conversionary impulses of their churches. Of course Jews don’t have an exclusive right to the Hebrew language, but this particular church sign crossed a line. Or so I thought.
Which is why I emailed the minister to explain how the sign looked to me through the glare of centuries of Christian-sanctioned violence against Jews. I mentioned the arrogance of a majority appropriating the language of a minority it had once oppressed. I asked him to consider the ethics of using a Hebrew word to entice passersby into a church. This was, after all, a community where many Christians viewed Israel as little more than the missing piece of an eschatological puzzle.
“This isn’t my first rodeo, Ma’am,” the pastor wrote back. And the sign stayed put.
What I never mentioned was that my husband was a minister at the Baptist church next door. And that I’d asked him to intervene. But Carl refused to get involved because he’d had conversations like these dozens of times with colleagues unable to see how their appropriation of Judaism was hurtful. Sadly, these talks rarely went anywhere. Wasn’t it enough that he lit Shabbat candles with me on Friday night, and that he’d married me in my family’s synagogue? It was hard to argue there. So we agreed to focus on what we could change: our home’s unique religious tapestry. Since then, I’ve come to see The Church Sign Crisis as a turning point for us, where we learned an important lesson about negotiating conflict in our marriage. Contrary to recent writing about interfaith marriage, this conflict brought us closer together.
Admittedly, I was unreasonably angered by the church sign. (If memory serves correctly, I may have asked Carl to punch the offending pastor in the face.) After Carl rightly refused to brawl on my behalf, I doubted my choice to enter into our mixed marriage. If I felt this unraveled by a church sign, how would I handle all the other obstacles that awaited us? We’d already encountered hurdles. For instance, there was the Reform rabbi
who refused to marry us, and whose unkind words diminished our yet-to-be-born child
. And there were friends who doubted we’d remain loyal to Judaism, given Carl’s commitment to Christian ministry.
As Carl and I sat on our couch––the same spot where he’d proposed––we talked it out. And we listened without interrupting. No matter how many times I wanted to say, “But...” I stayed silent. I began to understand why Christians would feel entitled to Hebrew language, since Christianity originated as a sect of Judaism. Carl understood and began to preach about why Jews might bristle at the flippant use of “shalom” by Christians, since it implied a camaraderie that had not been earned.
These conversations opened doors to other ones that allowed us to clarify our expectations and comfort zones. For example, I stopped attending church because it just didn’t feel comfortable. Carl supported my decision and defended it to congregants who questioned the absence of their minister’s wife. Neither of us allowed our loyalties to separate religions to get in the way of our love for each other. On this one crucial thing, we stood firm.
Through no prodding on my part, Carl eventually left Christian ministry for Unitarian Universalism. The congregation he now serves has a good relationship with a Reform synagogue in our community, which will make it easier for us to honor our commitment to raising a Jewish child. Despite our religious differences, our home is like most others. There’s always laundry that needs to be folded. Or a dog that needs to be walked. But an interfaith ketuba (marriage contract) hangs on the dining room wall, between our wedding photos. It’s the sign of our bayit shalom, our house of peace. And it’s the only sign that matters.