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For me, appreciation of another culture is directly related to that particular culture's degree of inclusiveness. My experiences with other faiths and cultures have enhanced my own spirituality and mentality and encouraged me to share Judaism not only within Jewish circles but outside of them as well. When we open our traditions to those outside of our own ethnic group, we offer them a window into our hearts and a sign of open-mindedness. This philosophy allows me to share Jewish holidays, in a secular way, with non-Jewish people.
The om symbol
Admiring aspects or principles of other faiths does not necessarily diminish one's own belief system. Two years ago, my then-fiancé (now husband), Rajen, gave me a necklace that has an om pendant. In Hinduism, om symbolizes creation, unity, and existence. Rajen believes this necklace protects me from harm. Wearing this necklace, however, does not make me Hindu, yet I can still appreciate some of the faith's universal beauty and applications.
Similarly, it is possible to admire another culture or faith without being a member of that culture or faith. Four years ago, I worked as an English teacher in Japan. As a foreigner, I was highly interested in Japanese celebrations and customs. I was honored whenever my Japanese friends would share their ceremonies and traditions with me. While I could never be Japanese, this fact never lessoned my appreciation or admiration of Japanese festivals.
Now that I am in an interfaith relationship, I want to share my culture and ethnicity just as others have shared their cultural traditions with me. After all, the prefix "inter" signifies an entity that is "between, among, shared by or derived from two." Since we are two unique halves joined in partnership, we should take great pride in both of our heritages.
Just as I did not have to change my belief system or be a member of another faith or culture to appreciate that faith and culture, neither does my fiancé. Although he is not Jewish, he can certainly participate in Jewish holidays and traditions without diminishing his own sense of identity or ethnic association.
Celebrating Jewish holidays in a secular way helps my fiancé to be not just an observer but also a participant during the celebration. To encourage inclusiveness of other faiths and ethnicities, I like to translate what each Jewish holiday means into a universal principle. For example, Jewish people fast on the High Holiday of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Fasting is a type of awakening and a sign of compassion for those experiencing hunger. If my fiancé and I choose to fast, we are not only remembering Jewish suffering but the suffering of all who do not have enough to eat.
On my favorite holiday, Passover, we remember the Jewish people's Exodus from Egypt. On this day, we try to relive the Exodus in a spiritual sense. Each Jew should imagine what slavery and the escape from slavery was like. This is a beautiful holiday that teaches us to savor the sweetness of freedom without forgetting the bitterness of bondage.
To include my fiancé in this holiday, I make my own hagaddah, or prayer book. Instead of only writing about the Jewish people's experience, I apply the lessons of Passover to people all over the world. We can imagine all people who were or are slaves and the promise of freedom for all human beings.
While my family worried that marrying a non-Jew would take away from my Jewish identity, I actually think my relationship enhances it. By applying Jewish traditions and practices to universal principles, I am extending my faith and ethnicity to all people, not just sharing it amongst one group. Just as I am giving and sharing my culture, I feel more receptive to learning about and absorbing aspects of other cultures and faiths.
In my heart, I am and will always be a Jew, but in my spirit, I learn from every faith, tradition, and culture. So, on the wonderful holiday of Hanukkah, for example, we will eat latkes and kugel, play with dreidels and sing Hanukkah songs, just as many other Jewish families do. The only difference is that when we light the candles, we may end our Hebrew prayer with "om om om" in celebration of all people in each and every part of our world.
Heather Lazar currently lives in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Ill., and works as an associate editor for an educational publisher. In April 2007, she and her soul mate, Rajen, were married.