Steve Ettinger is a Jewish man who teaches music and lives in King City, Calif. He is married to Aya Ettinger, whom he met when he taught English in Japan, and has a 3-year-old daughter, Kayla.
Our Interfaith Relationship
My wife and I have been in an interfaith relationship since we started dating eight years ago, having gotten married five years ago and had a child two years ago. I am Jewish and she is Buddhist/Shinto. Also, I am American and she is Japanese, making us an international as well as an interfaith couple. These differences have created certain unique issues for us, but these issues have actually strengthened our relationship, helping us learn more about each other and our backgrounds.
My wife, as a Buddhist/Shinto woman from Japan, does not have a very strong feeling for any religion in particular. She was raised with aspects of both Buddhism and Shintoism, as they are present in many different aspects of Japanese life. In Japan, weddings typically follow the Shinto custom, and funerals typically follow the Buddhist tradition. Japanese people traditionally visit Buddhist temples at the very end of the year and Shinto shrines at the very beginning of the new year. My wife feels no contradiction between the different religions, as she is able to weave the two traditions together in a way that respects both.
When my wife began to attend synagogue services with me, she certainly felt the cultural differences, as people were praying in two foreign languages (Hebrew and English) with many ideas she did not understand. However, I believe her experience in Japan helped her to be able to look at another religion with a largely unbiased attitude. Even though the customs were new, she was able to look at her experience as part of a Jewish service not as something that threatened her or her identity, but as a way of learning about me and my background. We have been through the Jewish wedding ceremony together, a Jewish baby-naming ceremony for our daughter, many Passover seders, and countless High Holiday services, and she is always there by my side, supporting me in observing Jewish rituals. We were also fortunate to find a Reform synagogue in our community with a very supportive rabbi and congregation. My wife feels comfortable there and does not feel like she is being judged when she attends services. She knows that attending Jewish services is very important to me, and really appreciates that this is a vital part of my background.
I have not asked her to convert because, in the same way, I respect her background. She recites the Jewish prayers during services, sings the songs (which she loves), and endures the extra-long High Holiday services (which no one seems to love), but she is not what I would call a "true believer" in Judaism--I don't think she believes strongly in the idea of there being only one god. To be a "true believer" in my mind, a person must find something compelling about the religion itself, rather than believing just to please a person he/she is with. Judaism was not the religion she was born into, nor was it a religion she would have chosen to practice had we not married. If she were drawn to Judaism naturally and would like to convert, I would, of course, encourage her, but that has to be a decision which she makes on her own; I don't want her to convert simply to please me because I am Jewish. For now, she will remain Buddhist/Shinto, an important part of her background, and that is perfectly fine with me, our families, our closest friends, and the community of worshipers at the synagogue we attend.
Another important aspect of her background is her organ-playing, and this has brought up another issue in our relationship. Currently, she plays organ at an Episcopal church three Sundays per month. I attend these services, showing support for her in her music. She does not have a problem listening to the service, as she doesn't find any contradictions with any of the values she was raised with. However, I don't always agree with what is said in the Episcopal service, as some of the references to Jews make me uncomfortable. I attend services, though, because it is important to her that I be there to listen to her playing. If I feel uncomfortable, I try to remember that I am an observer, not a participant, and my presence does not imply my belief in the content of the church service. I simply want to be able to support her in her music similar to the way in which she supports me by attending Jewish services. I want to recognize her unique talents and background, even if it occurs in an environment which includes ideas that are different (sometimes uncomfortably so) from the ones with which I was raised.
In short, we have been able to understand each other better through attending the other's religious services, but it has been our appreciation of one another as individuals that has allowed us to really see inside each other's souls. She knows the things that are important to me, like attending High Holiday and Passover services, and lovingly partakes in them. I know the things that are important to her, such as playing organ at church, and I make sure I am equally supportive. We are able to sustain and strengthen our relationship by using the other's backgrounds as an opportunity to really understand each other. I know there are many issues yet to come, such as the religious education of our daughter, but we are confident that if we work through these issues just as we have worked through the ones in the past, we can find a way to respect both of our traditions. With love, support, understanding, and good humor, I believe we can continue to carve out our own individual path in navigating through uncharted waters of our interfaith relationship.
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.