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Interfaith Marriage: Sometimes It's Easier

So you're in an interfaith relationship. Why not see the kiddush cup half full, instead of half empty?

Because it turns out, sometimes interfaith is actually easier.

Or at least maybe not any harder.

Perhaps you find that hard to believe, but really you should trust me, because I'm something of an expert. As at least half your relationship probably knows, 18 is a lucky number for Jews. If you're on the side of the family that doesn't wander for 40 years before asking directions, here's a quick catch-up: 18 is written as chaior chai (pronounced not like the spiced Indian tea, but with that hard throaty ch- sound, like you are trying to clear an obstruction from your esophagus. Which now that I think about it, maybe you could do by sipping some nice Indian tea, but in this instance you are just working your epiglottis and hoping for the best). Chai means life (though whether it means "life renewed because you have just dislodged an obstruction from your throat" is the subject of more than a little Talmudic dispute). I've been in an interfaith relationship for 18 years, which certainly can seem like a lifetime. And I have to say that I'm actually not sorry for our different religious upbringings.

Why? Well, no one is ever going to mistake me for the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Or even of Idaho Falls. But in our household, I'm the last word on Jewish observance. Also the first word. And, of course, all the middle words. Whether I fast on Yom Kippur or drive on Shabbat, that's my choice. It may inconvenience my partner, but it doesn't interfere with any of his religious practices.

An artist's rendering of the Chief Rabbi of Idaho Falls.

I might not have realized how lucky this makes us, if it weren't for the travails of various friends and relatives who are in two-Jew couples.

Aaron and Lisa for many years had one of the most challenging interfaith relationships I knew. He was raised an Orthodox Jew. Her father and grandfather were both Conservative rabbis. In their relationship, both parties knew exactly how to be Jewish. They also knew exactly how wrong the other one was.

There's an old expression, "two Jews, three opinions." From what synagogue to attend to which hechsher to trust, two opinions is already one too many for most households. Aaron eventually "converted" to the Conservative movement, which he devoutly describes as "a few pockets of enlightened rationalism gasping for survival amidst the prevailing trends of overwhelming illiteracy and ersatz feel-good 'spirituality.'"

Hechsher disputeWay to make friends in the new congregation! Presumably the religious disputes in Aaron and Lisa's family are now more narrowly, if no less passionately, defined.

About that time eighteen years ago that my relationship began, my sister was dating a Moroccan Jew. "It's sort of weird," she confided. "He's a Jew, but he's not like a real Jew." How a person raised so close to the Sahara could not know what shvitz means was incomprehensible to us. Even after living in New York for a decade, he seemed to understand fewer Yiddish words then you could hear on an average season of The Simpsons.

Another friend married a fellow American Jew, but with nearly the same cultural shock as my sister experienced, albeit radiating out from her in-laws, who are Sephardic Jews. "I feel like I don't even get a seder," she told me once, longing for the haroset of her childhood, which was about as likely as a bacon double cheeseburger to appear on her mother-in-law's Passover table.

The full extent of the dissonance in her relationship became clear when her daughter was born. "That's such a beautiful name," I said when I met baby Miriam. "We had to choose it," my friend explained. "It's my mother-in-law's name."

Her mother-in-law is still alive, as you might guess from the fact that she is dishing up dates and figs every 15th of Nisan.

Any Ashkenazi worth her kosher salt knows you can't name a baby for a living person, or the baby will steal that person's soul. Okay, so maybe this isn't exactly documented under rigorous laboratory conditions, but still. My husband's family forced me to let our baby steal my mother-in-law's soul--it sounds like a Weekly World News headline, and they never bother testing those under rigorous laboratory conditions.

I have to admit, my own partner's mother is very concerned about the state of souls, especially mine. She's a born-again Christian. And she loves me. Which means she doesn't want me to burn in eternal hell. Although sometimes it seems hard to tell the difference between the searing flames of damnation and the aggravating piles of Our Daily Bread devotionals (hint: if you are going to make bread the central metaphor of your faith, you might want to try some rye or pumpernickel sometime) and Christian bookmarks she is constantly sending our way.

Her never subtle attempts to convert me do drive me meshugah, I'll admit. I can even admit it to her, since she has no idea what meshugah means. But what ultimately comforts me is that she is driving all her own kids meshugah, too.

Icing on kichel. (Editor's note: eww.)

I suppose that's one universal truth in our interfaith relationship. Everyone's mother drives us meshugah. Putting up with each other's mothers isn't always easy. Neither is putting up with each other's snoring, smelly sweat socks, or styles of toothpaste squeezing (somewhere around year seven we realized it was easier to just have separate tubes).

Yes, we're in an interfaith relationship. We're also in an international relationship (he's so not Jewish, he grew up in Newfoundland). And we're in an intergender relationship. Forget separating milk dishes and meat dishes--I'd be happy if he could distinguish between clean dishes and dirty dishes.

All of that can be a challenge. But ultimately what's a challenge is just that we're in an interpersonal relationship. No matter what the ritual observance or deity belief system, any two people trying to make a life together are embarking on a lifetime of compromises.

So you don't share the same religious faith. What matters is whether you share faith in your relationship. Everything else is just icing on the kichel.

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. 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." Hebrew for "kosher approval," marking found on food and some kitchen products (like tin foil or dish soap) that shows the item has been certified kosher. Yiddish for "crazy." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish for "sweat." 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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Lois Leveen

Lois Leveen is a writer and performer who lives in Portland, Oregon. She publishes a weekly-ish humor blog at macaronimaniac.blogspot.com, and her work has appeared most recently in the Oregon Literary Review, on the NPR show LiveWire and on The Jew and the Carrot. She is currently writing the world's first memoir about a Jew from New York visiting Mary's Harbour, Labrador.

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