Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Life at the beginning of a marriage is full of hope, promise and idealism. Couples can find all kinds of books on planning a wedding and "To Do Lists" for various aspects of the celebration, but few manuals tell them how to live their lives after the honeymoon.
As I have discovered in my 33 years of married life, nothing beats life experience, particularly when it comes to issues such as money, personal relationships and religious differences.
An interfaith marriage goes through a rhythm of religious life, just as it goes through life-cycle events. When I first met my future Presbyterian spouse, I thought that it would be a walk in the park for us to get married and meld our two faiths and raise our children in a Jewish home. My future husband was willing to have our children raised as Jews, and even my future mother-in-law told us that we should "choose one faith for them," knowing full well that my commitment to Judaism far outweighed my husband's concern for his Protestant denomination. My parents were willing to accept my future husband because they saw that we were in love, even though they still worried about what our children's lives would be like.
I believed, it was going to be easy! Little did I know what lay ahead in the next few decades.
The very first "conflict" arose during our first holiday season. Having been raised in Oklahoma where Jews were a solid minority and there were no interfaith families to my knowledge, it came as a surprise to be living in Oakland, California, with a Christmas tree. Seeing as my husband was so open-minded about our future children, I felt I did not have much choice about the tree. Although there was no religious significance to it, I was not comfortable with the tree in our first flat nor have I ever become really at ease with having a tree in our home.
The conflict intensified five years into our marriage when our first child was born and we had to make decisions about how to celebrate the holiday season. After much discussion and a limited amount of negotiation, we melded our traditions and have decorated our Christmas tree with many homemade ornaments, blue and white Stars of David, and have both Christmas and Hanukah decorations around the house. Although through the years, I have become less anxious as the season approaches and simply go with the flow, deep down I would prefer no Christmas tree. Compromise makes for a happier home and hearth.
With the birth of our son and daughter, who are now in their late 20s, we faced the issues of bris and naming ceremonies. Since we had already agreed that the children would be Jewish, we were only confronted with the mechanics of the celebrations--how to include Dave's non-Jewish parents and sibling without lessening the importance of the religious celebration. Because these were clearly Jewish ceremonies, we experienced little direct strain about how to conduct them, but I always felt the need to "educate" my husband and my in-laws about the meaning of the events. This needed to be done in a welcoming and careful manner, and as a lifelong educator, I needed to avoid being pedantic or know-it all.
Hebrew School, Sunday School, and B'nai Mitzvah preparation posed issues similar to those faced by other suburban two-working-parent households dealing with competing athletic and religious schedules. When can a child miss a religious school event for a soccer or basketball practice and when is the attendance at Friday night services inviolate? These discussions were more easily resolved on the side of "We're going to temple" in elementary and middle school, but by the time of high school, athletic events and high school activities seemed to win out. I would have preferred Shabbat dinners and temple attendance on a more regular basis, but I gave in to the general overall suburban culture of participation in secular activities on the weekends.
When the college years came and both of our children went to the Midwest to attend university, I realized I needed some new connection with my roots, and found myself attending temple more frequently. My participation increased when I retired. With no children at home, no professional career, and the death of my father, a strong reconnection with Judaism seemed like the natural thing to do at the next phase of my life.
While my husband had never converted to Judaism, nor ever considered it, he began to attend services with me a bit more regularly. We've been members of a havurah (informal study and worship group) for more than 25 years, and while we are the only interfaith couple where the spouse has not converted, over time Dave seems to have accepted so many aspects of Jewish values and ethics that it is hard to tell the difference between the conversionary couples and us. We still joke about Dave's not being Jewish, but the differences are seemingly negligible at this point in our havurah's life.
I had always hoped that our children would choose Jewish spouses and felt some disappointment that they did not. But the fact is that they chose great partners who are quite well-suited for them as individuals. My husband and I certainly discussed the topic of their partners' religion between ourselves, as it matters much more to me than to him. He understands my feelings but has pointed out that we've done well in our interfaith marriage and that we should trust our kids' judgment as we have had in our own.
Our son married a wonderful Catholic woman and they will be raising their children in her faith. Since we both are comfortable with Jewish practices and values, we will face some unknown obstacles with our Catholic grandchildren. We are both aware of this fact, but we will be supportive because these will be our grandchildren and we admire and love our son and his wife. Our daughter made a marriage like my own. Her husband has agreed that she can raise their children as Jews. At the time of their wedding, my husband told our son-in-law, "We are both lucky men to have wonderful Jewish wives and you will be lucky to raise your children as Jews."
The issues in our interfaith family around religion have changed over the years. While our commitment to observance may have waxed and waned through the years, I believe that our fundamental values have remained intact. As our children launch their own lives, they will raise their own children in interfaith households with the values that they learned around many dinner table discussions in our interfaith California home, and they will go through their own life cycles where the issues rise and fall in prominence.
Sandra (Sandy) Anderson is a retired educator and sales professional involved in temple board and social action projects. She is married and the mother of an intermarried son and daughter both living in the Chicago area.