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Religion has never really mattered to me. I was raised by my mother in an ashram community that celebrated every religious holiday and drew teachings from such widely varying sources as Confucius, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. From this inclusive upbringing, I went on to study science and have since eschewed religious belief in favor of a conviction in science and logic.
Religion doesn't matter to most of my Jewish friends either. My good friend Faye describes herself as Jewish by tradition and agnostic by belief. Despite growing up in a traditional Jewish family, she has rarely dated Jewish men. As for me, when I found myself seriously involved with a Jewish man, I didn't give his religion a second thought. Like Faye, I always believed the person to be more important than the religion. Obviously, however, the two cannot be so easily separated. To begin with, all of us come with a family.
When I told my mother, still a member of the ashram, about my Jewish fiancé, she had recently seen a TV documentary about a strictly Orthodox Jewish family. She grew apprehensive. Would I have to wear a wig? Would I have to manage two kitchens, one for milk and one for meat? Should she expect 17 grandchildren? My father, a committed atheist, fretted that my fiancé's larger family would subsume the opinions and beliefs we shared. My stepmother chimed in to articulate her concerns about child-rearing. Had Zack and I talked about this? How would I feel raising children in any religion, let alone one that I knew nothing about?
When my family questioned my match with Zack it made me feel like they doubted my judgment. Their questioning implied that religion acts as a trump card in a relationship, which need not be true. I did my best to dismiss their concerns as a minor part of my total relationship with Zack; they did not back down. Then, when I met my future in-laws I realized that as much as Zack and I might like to trivialize religion's role in our relationship, the fact that it is important to his family means that it can't be insignificant to us.
The first time I was introduced to my fiancé's family was at a Passover seder. I had flown in from Australia that morning and I was the only one present who didn't know the words to the prayers and couldn't bluff her way through liturgical Hebrew. I was very conscious of being "The Non-Jew at the Table." Though no one said anything discouraging and or gave me any strange looks, I still felt awkward and out-of-place. These were not my traditions, and as welcoming as my in-laws were, it was a struggle to feel comfortable amongst the kiddush cups and matzah.
After the seder, I was forced to accept the fact that my family may have been onto something with their insistent questioning. What was I getting myself into? Was I comfortable with my husband's Judaism? Much to my chagrin, I had discovered that addressing my family's concerns about our differences in faith was helpful; all that nagging had been for a good cause. They asked questions not to undermine my relationship, but to support it.
Compared to my friend Faye, I have it easy. When Faye's mother found out she had a boyfriend, her first question was, "What's his last name?" His name, a German one, might as well have been Goebbels for the reaction it caused. Based upon this single fact, Faye's mother refused to meet Karl until they moved in together, and then only did so grudgingly. Faye's aunt said that she would sit shiva (go into mourning) if Faye married this non-Jew with a German name. Aunt and mother agreed that Faye would be doing Hitler's work for him should she, God forbid, decide to have children with a gentile.
To say that Faye is angered by her family's reaction is an understatement. She feels deeply mistrusted, has distanced herself from her mother and worries that if she married Karl her family might not even attend the wedding. When Faye gets upset by her family's ranting, she and Karl talk through all the potential pitfalls of their interfaith relationship. In the end, they realize that they share the same ideals; it is her family that polarizes the situation.
Unlike Faye's Jewish family, my in-laws have been able to put aside our religious differences in order to get to know me as a person. While they wish that I was interested in converting, they support my choices and appreciate that I take part in their traditions.
My family's questioning, while occasionally overwhelming, has ultimately been helpful. Their queries allowed Zack and me to examine potential sticking points in our relationship before we became mired in them. By addressing their concerns, Zack and I have found consensus about what is important to us religiously speaking, as opposed to what is important to our families.
The support we receive from both of our families eases the strain of being in an interfaith relationship but does not entirely remove it. Is there a battle with the in-laws lurking in the wings if we decide to have children? Like Faye and Karl, Zack and I are able to turn to each other when such issues arise. Ultimately, we are the ones in the relationship, not our parents. We are the ones who have to make the decisions. And with love and communication, we can overcome our religious differences and thrive.
To read about her husband's experience with anti-intermarriage attitudes, see Opening Yourself to Danger.