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
"What would you do if I married a non-Jew?"
I don't remember how old I was when I asked my mother that question. Maybe 14, with my faded blue jeans, frizzy halo of hair and round granny glasses. I do remember leaning against the kitchen door as she answered. Mom was facing the sink. I don't think she even bothered to turn around.
"That won't happen," she answered with great assurance. "Your brothers, maybe. But you? Never."
I could see her point. I had been an enthusiastic bat mitzvah, I was active in the youth group at our Reform synagogue and I was always reading and discussing books on Jewish topics. Later, I would take Hebrew and Judaic Studies courses in college, apply to rabbinic school and--when I was not accepted--move to Israel, where I was to remain for seven years.
Fast-forward 25 years, to the mid-1990s. I am engaged to a wonderful man who was raised a Catholic. He has not maintained a connection to the Church, yet he does not plan to convert to Judaism. I do not insist. I have promised to love him just as he is, and he has already agreed to my primary prenuptial condition: "Our kids will be raised as Jews," I had mandated, shockingly early in our relationship.
He had agreed with a shrug: "Sure, whatever."
The relationship progressed. We took an Introduction to Judaism class together at the JCC and began constructing a Jewish home life. Mom came to visit, and expressed some surprise when we prepared Shabbat dinner, lit candles and recited the Kiddush.
"I don't know where she gets it from," she said to Sean, almost apologetically. "It certainly wasn't from me."
My mother was thrilled when we announced our engagement. I was almost 39, her youngest child and only daughter. Dad had died two years earlier, and Mom was relieved to see me settled with a terrific guy who loved me and made me happy.
"Does it bother you that he's not Jewish?" I asked one day.
"If he is Jewish enough for you," she answered, returning to the subject at hand, "he's Jewish enough for me." That was her final word on the subject. We had her blessing.
Sean's father and sister and my two brothers congratulated us warmly. None of them had a particularly religious bent, and all were pleased at the prospect of our marriage.
Among the happy phone calls, I anticipated an awkward moment. My mother wasn't the only one whose child was entering an interfaith marriage. How would Sean's mother feel about the prospect of a non-Catholic daughter-in law? She and I did not know each other very well, and on the surface, we had little in common besides love for her son.
She welcomed our news. I thought the conversation was going pretty well. Then my future mother-in law asked the 60,000-dollar question: "Have you thought about how you will raise your children?"
"Yes," I said, as gently as I could, "we plan to raise them as Jews."
There was silence on the line for a brief moment.
Then she replied: "I thought you would. The children usually follow the mother."
There was another pause.
"I'm glad you're choosing to raise them with a religious tradition," she continued. "Children need to know where they belong."
I was touched--and relieved--by her graciousness. I had heard stories of in-laws who were bitterly opposed to their grandchildren's religious upbringing. I had just been told that my future children and I would face no such battles.
"There is something else," I added. "We will teach our children to respect and accept people of all religions, especially in their own family. That's how Sean was raised."
"Yes, he was," Sean's mother acknowledged, with a catch in her voice. "Thank you for saying so."
Of all the conversations between us in the years that have followed, that one still stands out in my mind. We struck a bargain that day, over the future of a grandchild who was no more than an idea, "a twinkle in her father's eye."
Today, that child is daily growing more confident and proud of the traditions, language and religion of her mother--and of the culture and heritage of her father. Her birth swept away any doubts that may have lingered in the minds of her grandparents, and they love and accept her without reservation.
As the parents of that beloved child, Sean and I have been gathered into each other's families in a way that our marriage alone could not have brought about. Our differences have not disappeared, and they are not inconsequential. Within our families, our differences bring new perspectives to our lives and relationships--a legacy of the blessings of our mothers.