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Interfaith Ignorance Is All in the Family

My wife's name is Christine. That's Christine, as in “Christ”-ine, which is about as non-Jewish as names get. A Jew named Christine is about as unlikely as a Christian named Shlomo. It's possible, but suffice it to say the guy would never get elected pope.

Yet despite her very Christian name, for years almost everyone at our synagogue and even in our own havurah thought she was Jewish. And why not: She practices Judaism, is active in our community, volunteers her time and raises our daughter in a Jewish home. She hasn't converted but is connected in ways many “natural born” Jews are not.

More than that, she is accepted as an equal. At our Reconstructionist synagogue, Judaism is lived--it is our actions, not our ancestry, that define what is a Jew. As a result, we have many interfaith families and my wife and I belong to a havurah of almost all interfaith couples.

Our Jewish and non-Jewish friends are accepting of our marriage and our choices. My wife's best friend is a Sunday school director for a Christian church. My friends don't question our marriage, although they do question how someone who looks like me got married to someone who looks like my wife (even my mom thinks I look “too Jewish”).

Of course, we can choose our friends and our spouses, and they can choose us. Family is another matter.

Silence Says it All
I have never heard a discouraging word about my interfaith marriage from anyone other than my sister--but I have heard the silence, as have others I know. And the silence says it all.

Dean, a friend from my havurah, recently converted to Judaism and renewed his marriage vows so he and his wife could have a traditional Jewish wedding. But his family didn't attend. Dean's Christian family never came to terms with his new Jewish family, and so their absence from Dean's life speaks volumes.

My family, which is 100 percent Jewish born and married, isn't much better. My sister and I used to talk, but now it's only when birthdays or mom-mandated gatherings make conversation unavoidable. When we did talk about my marriage, she would tell me she didn't accept Christine's faith, didn't think we belonged to a “real” synagogue (“it's full of Christians”) and couldn't see how our daughter, Alexandra, could be Jewish if she still celebrated Christmas with her grandparents. I feel sorry for my sister, but she's made her choice and I accept that, along with her current silence about my family.

All is not lost. My in-laws and my own mother, who may have been skeptical or even scared at first, never disowned us. Our daughter is just another grandchild, not “the Jewish one” or “the mixed-up one.” When Hanukkah and Christmas overlap, my in-laws light their own menorah and say the Hebrew prayers.

This is respect, not lip service. There is no fear of conversion from either side; we are all far too secure in ourselves for that.

The Fear Factor
I wish I could say the same for my sister. But many Jews, I must admit, feed on fear. A couple millennia of persecution can do that to a people. Nevertheless, that doesn't excuse narrow-minded thinking--at some point, the fear has to stop.

I know intermarriage is discouraged, even despised, by a large segment of Jews. My wife and I couldn't find a rabbi to marry us, so we had to settle for a cantor and a minister. Jews are afraid they will lose their identities, despite all that they might gain by embracing interfaith couples.

But we don't live in secluded villages anymore. We live in the world, with all the triumphs and all the challenges that entails.

Intermarriage is one of the highest compliments we can pay to God, for it shows that we have learned to live together and accept our differences as precious and divine--and that we can still keep Judaism and the breath of the Jewish people alive.

Intermarried Jews and Christians don't live in houses, they live under Abraham's tent --and I can't think of a better place to be.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
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.
Gary Goldhammer

Gary Goldhammer is a freelance writer based in Orange County, Calif. Visit his blog, Below the Fold, at http://belowthefold.typepad.com.

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