When I was a child, I despised my last name: McKenna. Almost everyone was Jewish in my elementary school, and I felt excluded. Even though I was the Jewish daughter of a Jewish mother, my last name hinted at Catholicism, the religion of the father from whom I was estranged. It connoted crucifixes, not Kiddush cups. My name spelled treif (non-kosher) with a capital "T."
I always assumed I would marry a nice Jewish boy with a nice Jewish last name. Because I loved these names, how they could identify me clearly as a Jew, how they rolled off my tongue in a tumble of syllables, how they conjured images of Torah scrolls, matzah balls and bubbes (grandmothers) who smelled like Estee Lauder counters.
Given these fantasies, no one was more surprised than me when I fell in love with a big Jesus freak. My boyfriend didn't just go to church on Sundays. He gave the sermon. At 24, I became the Jewish girlfriend of a liberal Baptist preacher.
He had a WASPy last name and absolutely no Jews dangling from his Southern family tree. I didn't think our relationship would go anywhere, given his job as an associate pastor and my religion. But it did.
My friends and family believed I was one step away from passing out Bible tracts on street corners. One day, my best friend called to tell me that I would be the perfect candidate for Jews for Jesus. I didn't like her intimation that I was cult-shopping, but I ignored it. My sister went a few steps further: to the rabbis. She added my name to a prayer list, then sojourned to Israel, where she phoned--crying, screaming and pleading--for me to change my errant ways.
It would have been far easier, I found myself thinking, had I come out as a lesbian.
Instead I was coming out as a "PG" (preacher's girlfriend). I had Jewish friends who dated Christians. But these were lapsed Christians, people who hadn't been to church in years, and whose sole religious practice boiled down to exchanging gifts at Christmas. I, too, had dated Christians. Most of them were atheists by the time they found me. Never had I kissed a man who actually believed this stuff.
Sick of ignorance, I started going to my boyfriend's church on Sunday mornings. I liked listening to his sermons, which inevitably centered on social justice. I never believed in Jesus as a personal savior. He was a Jew who wanted to change his world. And that was that.
My religious curiosity threatened my family, who saw it as a rejection of them. My sister penned an e-mail, in which she wrote: "Our mother sacrificed everything to make sure you had a strong Jewish education. You are mocking her memory."
The guilt of disappointing my family (not to mention my deceased mother) overwhelmed me. Once, at work, after I read a particularly angry e-mail from a relative, I cried inconsolably at my desk, as stunned colleagues looked on. (I work in the Bible Belt, and a co-worker told me at the time that she was praying for me to "find Jesus"). In the end, I asked my family for space and found a new job.
A few months later my boyfriend proposed. A rabbi raised serious questions when I queried about a synagogue wedding. My fiancé had committed to having a solely Jewish wedding, and raising our children as Jews, but the rabbi's words left me feeling diminished. And I wondered how my fiancé's career played into this apprehension.
It didn't matter that I am in a committed relationship with Judaism, that I attend synagogue services every Shabbat (Sabbath) and that I occasionally lead worship at my temple. I told the rabbi that our children would not attend church. I don't either, anymore, since I'm busy teaching Hebrew School on Sunday mornings.
Eventually, he gave us permission to get married in his synagogue. More than a dozen members of my fiancé's liberal congregation plan to attend. A swarm of my Jewish relatives--aunts, uncles and cousins--will be there, too.
My family greeted our news of a Jewish wedding with relief, yet they worry about the challenges we will inevitably face as a pastor's family. And we have become experts at navigating the stares and questions that arise when people hear that we have chosen Judaism for our future children.
"It's my religion," I say. "There are so few Jews in the world," says my fiancé.
When I light the Shabbat candles, my preacher fiancé stands beside me. Then he sings the Kiddush (blessing sanctifying the Sabbath that is recited over wine), and no longer confuses it with the Kaddish (prayer for the dead).
Neither of us expected this life, but we have faith in one another. There's a line from a Rumi poem that says lovers don't finally meet somewhere, they're in each other all along. That's how I feel about our impending marriage. Something this crazy is bashert, meant to be.