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 2003. Republished January 30, 2011.
I grew up in the small beach town of Hull, Massachusetts. I was raised by a mother and father who imparted a deep understanding of, respect for, and love of Judaism. We belonged to a small conservative congregation where I attended Hebrew School and had my Bat Mitzvah. I was blessed with four grandparents who were deeply immersed in their religion and culture. I always knew that when I grew up, I would marry "a nice Jewish man" and pass on this rich heritage to my children.
I loved being Jewish. I loved attending junior Congregation services every Saturday morning, and I was the first to be able to lead the "Amidah" at the age of nine. I never remember feeling as though I wanted to be anything but Jewish. Today there is so much discussion around making Jewish kids feel included in school, especially in December, but I don't remember ever wanting to be Christian. I clearly remember decorating the school Christmas tree every year, and while I thought it was beautiful, I never needed it to be mine.
I worked at a Jewish camp while I was in college, and there I did meet "a nice Jewish boy." He was from a nice Jewish family, and we were well on our way to making that nice Jewish life that I always assumed I would have.
At least that was the plan until I realized, at age 21, that I was a lesbian. I spent the next few years working through what that meant, and being Jewish took a back seat. I still spent the holidays with my family and even began attending a lesbian seder every year at the home of a friend. But creating a Jewish life for myself in my own home became less important to me, since I assumed I would not be having my own children.
So, while I still acknowledged my Judaism, I also had a sense of letting it go. I could not reconcile being Jewish and being a lesbian. Judaism had taught me that I should go forth and multiply and continue the Jewish heritage.
At 25, I met Michelle and fell in love. I knew that she would be my long-term partner. It did not seem to matter that Michelle was raised as a Baptist. I shared Christian holidays with her family, and she shared Jewish holidays with my family. We dated for two years before we exchanged rings in a private commitment ceremony and moved in together. Each December we had a Christmas tree and a menorah. Again, I appreciated the beauty of the tree and felt fine with it as a symbol of Michelle's religious beliefs. Michelle was also appreciative of the significance of the menorah.
Two years later, we began to discuss having a child and decided I would try to become pregnant. Early on, we had a discussion about the child being raised Jewish. I don't remember the details of that conversation — only that since I would be carrying the child it seemed to make sense.
It took four years for me to conceive, but it was worth the wait; we are now the proud mothers of a five-year-old daughter, Hannah. From the moment that I became pregnant, my childhood sense that I would pass along the richness of my Jewish upbringing came flooding back to me.
When we learned that we would be having a daughter, we began to plan for her Jewish baby naming ceremony (brit bat). We named our daughter after my grandfather, Tzvi (Harry) and Michelle's mother Esther — both of whom had passed away a year before Hannah's birth. So, in my parents' home, at six weeks of age, Hannah was surrounded by friends and relatives gathered to witness my parents' rabbi bless her and bestow upon her, with God's blessing, the name Tzivia Chana Esther.
That was the most profound moment in my life. I looked around my parents' living room and it was a blur of friends and relatives. Most of them were well over the age of 60 — all of them heterosexual and among them were my two grandmothers and Michelle's 83-year-old aunt. At that moment, I thought that if all of these people were willing to welcome this daughter of two lesbians into the Jewish covenant with God, then all was right in the world.
Just after Hannah turned two, Michelle and I bought a home. We had visited a synagogue in Worcester before Hannah was born, but it never occurred to us to affiliate. When we moved into our home, we lived very near Temple Emanuel, and it all started to fall into place. In July of 2000 we joined Temple Emanuel and began attending services on Friday nights. Initially, the three of us attended together, but at some point Michelle decided that every Friday night was a bit much for her. She is an active congregant in that she attends services occasionally and is a member of the temple choir. Hannah attends the temple nursery school and Michelle serves on the Pre-School parent committee. I serve on several committees as well as the board of trustees. We have worked hard to create a Jewish community for our daughter and ourselves.
When we joined the temple and began attending services regularly, I realized that a void that I had not even been aware had existed was now filled. We had found a place where we could thrive as both an interfaith couple and a lesbian couple with a child.
What does it mean to be the lesbian, interfaith parents of a young girl in Worcester, Massachusetts? What it means is that I have been given opportunities that have transformed my life, and, I believe, the lives of my partner and our daughter. I was asked to speak at our community's "Torathon" on a panel called "The Changing Face of Judaism." I had no idea that so many people would attend the workshop, and that most of the audience would be elderly members of my own congregation! I also never expected to receive the unconditional support of so many.
Our rabbi has included us in the anniversary blessings each March. Overall people have been accepting of this break with tradition. My only regret about being in an interfaith relationship is that we can not have a formal religious ceremony to acknowledge our union. Although our rabbi would happily perform a ceremony for two women, he will not marry an interfaith couple.
At times I have felt that it would be easier if Michelle converted to Judaism, but it would not be a genuine choice for her. Although she does not attend church regularly she remains connected to the religious teachings of her childhood.
I also believe that Michelle could not be a better parent to our daughter even if she were to convert. She has dedicated significant time and energy to learn about Judaism and to participate in a meaningful way. She finds all of the best Jewish children's books and reads them to Hannah. As a teacher, she has researched and taught units on the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism for years, and has impacted countless students who would otherwise have no knowledge of the subject.
Michelle's family knows that Hannah is being raised Jewish, and they are respectful when we join them for Christmas and Easter. For the first time this year, Hannah asked why we could not have a Christmas tree. We explained that ours is a Jewish home and that Jewish homes did not have Christmas trees. It was difficult to explain to Hannah why ours is an exclusively "Jewish home" when her mama is Christian.
The issue surfaced again at Easter when Hannah wanted to put on bunny ears, color Easter eggs, and hide them for Mama. I conceded on that one! It made sense in that moment that Hannah wanted to do something sweet for her Christian mother. (She also decorated an egg for the seder plate!). I am certain that these issues will continue to arise, and we are committed to working them through together. We are certain that it does not make sense for us to raise our daughter with two religions. She is clearly Jewish, and we can only give her that foundation and hope for the best!
In September, Hannah will be entering Solomon Schechter Day School and we will be entering a new chapter of our lives as interfaith lesbian moms.