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Our Jewish-Bah?'i Interfaith Marriage

May 24, 2010

My sister called me to talk to my husband. "Turn on CNN! They're doing a piece on Bahá'is!"

As my Bahá'i husband turned to the TV and gave the phone back to me, my sister laughed loudly, despite the seriousness of the news. "Can you imagine if Calvin called our family every time Jews were mentioned in the mainstream media?!" We both laughed, and Calvin enjoyed the joke, too.

bahai star
The nine-pointed star is a symbol of the Bahá'i Faith. Image licensed through Wikimedia.

It's true, the Bahá'i Faith (as it is formally known) doesn't get as much press as Judaism. That is probably because it is a fairly new faith, founded in Persia (modern Iran) in the 1840s. In fact, nearly every time I see the Bahá'i Faith mentioned, there is an explanatory paragraph. So here it is, from the official website info.bahai.org:

The Bahá'í Faith is the youngest of the world's independent religions. Its founder, Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), is regarded by Bahá'ís as the most recent in the line of Messengers of God that stretches back beyond recorded time and that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad.

The central theme of Bahá'u'lláh's message is that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global society. God, Bahá'u'lláh said, has set in motion historical forces that are breaking down traditional barriers of race, class, creed, and nation and that will, in time, give birth to a universal civilization. The principal challenge facing the peoples of the earth is to accept the fact of their oneness and to assist the processes of unification.

Clearly, the Bahá'i Faith is very different from Judaism, and that very newness and openness has made my interfaith journey with my husband unique and possible. My husband's religion does not condemn Judaism or Jews, but does seek to teach this new Faith to all. There are very real differences between the two religions. For example, while Judaism traditionally embraces rituals, the Baha'i Faith eschews nearly all rituals and even gives practitioners a choice of obligatory daily prayers.

Bahai house of universal justice in Haifa
The Universal House of Justice at the Bahá'i World Center on Mt. Carmel near Haifa, Israel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But just as I am more than my religion, my husband is more than his. We have found those typical differences in our marriage to be more of a barrier than our religions. In fact, our religions, and our approach to them, are what give us common ground.

In 1999, at our respective colleges, my husband and were both majoring in Middle East Studies. We chose to study abroad and learn Arabic at the The American University in Cairo, Egypt. That's right, Egypt: a country that effectively expelled its Jews in 1956 and is still a hotbed of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic fervor, and a country that has made life very difficult for Bahá'is because they believe in a prophet after Mohammed.

At first, we were both too stunned by our alien surroundings to notice each other. But we both confided in a friend, an American of Egyptian and Dutch heritage. She connected us as two members of oppressed religions far from home. And suddenly we both felt very at home, with each other.

We enjoyed traveling around the city, country and region together. I introduced Calvin to some of my family in Israel, and we visited the Bahá'i shrines in Haifa. We both knew that this was the beginning of a real relationship, but because we were not free to be fully ourselves, we would have to wait to get back to America.

In America, we faced culture shock at being too free. How could we combine our passions, our dedications, our traditional religions and spirituality, with our different family and geographical backgrounds? Figuring this all out at age 21 is difficult enough when you're single, and on a college campus. Fortunately we had each found the right person to figure it out with, halfway across the country. There were many midnight phone calls and long emails and even a few letters and cards. (Remember those?)

My childhood rabbi, who presided over my confirmation, made me cry when I consulted him with questions. Fortunately, another rabbi gave me a great book on interfaith marriages from the Jewish perspective. The quote I always keep in mind is that our marriage is "an ongoing conversation," and it truly has been. Those midnight calls were just the beginning of our adventure.

We knew we were right for each other and began to plan for our long-term relationship. As it happened, we spent some time in Atlanta with my family, and some time in New York City, before we moved to Washington, D.C., and got engaged.

Planning our wedding was also stressful, as most wedding planning is. But we had the stress of differing expectations. Try combining 3,000 years of culture and tradition and rituals with 150 years of pretty much … not that. Calvin's parents converted to Baha'i and were married with six weeks notice, in their backyard, with no officiant other than someone to sign the license. Very different from the black-tie simcha my parents had!

Our family and friends of every background loved learning about the Baha'i faith from the elected head of the Local Spiritual Assembly. They also loved dancing the hora and hearing our rabbi explain how a wedding breaks the glass, but a marriage puts the pieces back together. It was so wonderful to celebrate with our family and friends and know that they support us in our unique partnership, and to see our friends of all faiths at our son's bris in the Fall of 2008.

When I say unique, I mean it: we have met only one other Bahá'i-Jewish couple, who were eerily similar to us. This article is as much a 35,000 feet view of our relationship as it is an appeal to meet others like us in the same situation.

A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. Hebrew for "gladness" or "joy," it is often used to refer to a festive occasion or celebration, like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or bris. 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. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit." Hebrew, derived from the Greek word for "dance," a variety of dances done in a circle, popular in Israel (and the Balkans).
Davida Steinberg

Davida Steinberg currently lives in suburban Washington, D.C. Her career focuses on helping companies integrate sustainability into their operations, management and strategy. She enjoys bringing Shabbat into her home with her Baha'i husband and their son.

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