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Learning from Experience: Real Life with Extended Interfaith Families

At my older sister's wedding, one of my wizened great aunts came up to me, grabbed me by the arm and said, "It's a beautiful wedding!" Before I could agree with her, she continued, "But let's pray that at your wedding the boy will be Jewish."

The first time I spent Christmas with my boyfriend's family, his mother invited me to join her in picking out a Christmas tree. I was honored and excited, but it was a new experience for me. "Does picking a Christmas tree feel sacrilegious to you?" she asked. "Not really," I answered. "Oh," she responded with a bit of relief in her voice. "Does your family usually put up a Christmas tree?"

During my three-plus years in an interfaith relationship, misunderstandings and ignorant (but well-meaning) comments from family and friends have been frequent. This should not have surprised me considering the fact that, even without religious differences, my boyfriend Nathan and I come from extremely different backgrounds.

I am a second-generation American with grandparents who survived the Holocaust and a childhood filled with stories of the many other relatives who did not. My parents raised my sister and me to be driven and well educated; college was a given and graduate school a must. We were showered with affection and expected--as my grandparents had expected of my parents--to bring nachos, pride, to our family by becoming more successful than the generation before us.

My boyfriend's family has lived in the United States for several generations. His mother can trace her family's roots to the Mayflower. Nathan was raised as a true New England Yankee. He spent his summers working on a lobster boat off the coast of New Hampshire and his winters cross-country skiing and hiking. His parents have always encouraged him to follow his passion, regardless of whether it requires a lot of education or results in financial success.

So, in our years together, Nathan and I have learned to navigate each other's cultures as well as religions. Much of our respective cultures are dictated by the people with whom we have grown up and with whom we surround ourselves today: family and friends. Some of these people, like Nathan's great-grandparents, probably never met a Jew before I stepped into their house. Others, like my Hasidic cousins, would never enter the home Nathan and I share, out of disapproval of our interfaith union.

Early in Nathan's and my relationship, I was frustrated by his family's ignorance about Judaism. But because they have always been kind, I have learned to be patient with them. I know I can expect them to always treat me like family, but I do not expect them to know the difference between Hanukkah and Yom Kippur.

The situation with my own family has been more difficult. I hate disappointing them. But I also ask myself, "Aren't families supposed to love each other unconditionally? Aren't they supposed to celebrate each other's happiness in finding someone to love?" For me, the answer to both of these questions has always been yes, because I think love is more valuable than anything else, even if it involves crossing boundaries. But, of course, being in a family does not mean being in agreement. Because many of my family members value religious tradition so highly, they cannot understand or support interfaith love.

It has taken a lot of time and introspection to be proud of my decision to be with my boyfriend when much of my family is not. I have not given up hoping that Nathan's kindness and intelligence will someday be more important to them than his religion. But, in the meantime, I am realistic. I have come to expect my grandmother to include a quick plea for Nathan to convert to Judaism every time she and I talk. And I know that no matter how well he treats me, my parents will always think to themselves, "if only Nathan were Jewish . . . "

But I would be remiss if I did not share the other side of the story. While some members of our extended families have added tension to our relationship, others have been a tremendous source of support. For example, although my parents were reluctant to accept Nathan, my friends welcomed him with open arms (and his friends did the same with me). Not surprisingly, my Catholic brother-in-law reached out to Nathan from the beginning, letting him know that he understood what Nathan was going through better than anyone else, and that Nathan had an ally in him. And at my family's Thanksgiving celebration this year, a cousin pulled me aside to tell me she was "so proud" that I had stuck with my relationship despite family pressures.

My Hasidic cousins will probably never warm to Nathan, and Nathan's grandparents will most likely continue to refer to any of the dozens of Jewish holidays as "your holiday." But I am gratified to see a growing sense of openness and understanding in the rest of our families. This year, Nathan called his mother to let her know that he had invited me to spend Christmas with his family again. She told Nathan that I was welcome to take part in all the activities I had experienced with the family before--picking out and decorating the tree, exchanging presents on Christmas morning, and having a big family dinner in the afternoon--but she also asked a favor of me. She wanted me to bring candles and a menorah to her home so we could all celebrate Hanukkah together.

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. 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 "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. 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.)
Amy Elkes

Amy Elkes and her husband live in New Jersey. They were married in June of 2007.

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