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
Reprinted with the permission of Reform Judaism magazine, published by the Union for Reform Judaism. Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue under the title "Celebrating Our Differences." Also see Beverly's daughter Joelle's essay, I'm a Jew Just Like You.
Despite 12 years of Catholic school education, I had never conceived of the possibility of raising my children Catholic, never mind Jewish. Although I am a very spiritual person and have a deep faith in God, by the age of 18 I had formulated a real distrust for any organized religion. Ten years later I met the man I would marry and he helped to mitigate that mistrust. So begins our story.
We were college professors in the field of criminal justice, the two youngest faculty members in a department of much older colleagues. Prior to this my husband-to-be had been a police officer and I was a social worker in a police department. When I first met Jay, I thought, "Who ever heard of a Jewish cop?" Later I learned that his grandmother often boasted to her friends that her grandson was in the "field of law," perpetuating the myth that Jews are not cops.
Our friendship would develop into a love story.
In the three years we dated I witnessed Jay's true devotion to Reform Judaism: he was observant, attending services twice a month and really living Jewishly. His spirituality and mine were truly in sync, except for this Jewish thing. I felt strongly that if we were ever blessed with children I would want to raise them in a religious way, though not necessarily in an organized religion. But then I realized that one of the traits I so admired in this man was his complete, unwavering belief in his religion--a comfort level with his faith I wished for myself. After reading, questioning and seeking the professional counsel of a rabbi, I not only accepted the idea of raising my children as Jews, I fully embraced it. We made this decision before we were married, both of us seeing the critical importance of defining in advance our family and ourselves.
Then my fiancé and I began to approach several priest-rabbi teams to perform our ceremony. Unfortunately, none of them were spiritual authorities we could respect. Our first choice of spiritual leader would have been my husband's identical twin brother Howard--he is a rabbi--but we'd decided not to raise the matter with him. He had never performed an interfaith service and we didn't want to place him in an untenable position.
On the very night that we were discussing our dilemma, something occurred that I have always seen as an act of divine intervention: Howard called me to say he would be honored to marry us in an interfaith ceremony. My eyes tearing with joy and gratitude, I agreed ... and then I asked him what Jay's response was to his offer. "I called you first," Howard said. And that was the commencement of a bond between the two of us that continues to flourish. (Many friends tease me that when you marry an identical twin you get two for the price of one--and they're right!)
Having married at the mature age of 31, Jay and I experienced a smooth transition into our new life together. Our families were extremely supportive and developed such a close relationship with each other, our parents socialized without us. There are so many warm and wonderful stories, such as our first Hanukkah together, when I, a Sicilian American, made the challah and my Jewish mother-in-law the lasagna--and all the guests at the dinner table assumed it was just the opposite.
My favorite story is when I taught the children how to make hamantashen with their Italian grandmother. My husband called from work and my son, who was 4 years old at the time, answered the phone. "Daddy," he said, "we are cooking a surprise for you." Since Purim and the Sicilian Catholic Feast of St. Joseph fall around the same time of year, my husband elatedly responded, "You are making the special pasta and dessert for St. Joseph!" When my son said we were instead making hamantashen for Purim, my husband couldn't mask his total surprise and mild disappointment that he wasn't going to have one of his favorite Italian meals. It was clear: My Sicilian background and his Jewish culture blended quite nicely together.
Throughout our marriage, Jay and I have explored and celebrated our different cultural and religious backgrounds with a sense of joy and respect. In our home these heritages and traditions thrive as "ours." We have reveled in our differences with both sides of the family--from my Jewish in-laws' celebrating a special Sicilian meal for the Feast of St. Joseph to my Catholic family's planning and conducting a seder. It never seemed strange that he was Jewish and I was not, at least not in our family.
In our 27 years of marriage I can only recall two incidents that were difficult for me as the non-Jewish spouse. The first: Before we were married, a relative of my husband's commented to the both of us that our parents probably would have liked it better had we each married "our own kind." Appalled, we assured him that this was not at all the case. The second: During the preparations for my daughter's bat mitzvah my role was defined repeatedly as that of the non-Jew. I actually came to feel that I should have "non-Jew" branded on my forehead. My husband spoke to the persons involved and they were quite repentant; they had never before considered the negative impact of their words.
For our children, as for us, our family makeup seemed like the most natural thing in the world. From a very early age they understood they were American Jews of Sicilian heritage and that their mother was not Jewish. We had chosen to live in a community with many interfaith families. It was I who drove the children to Hebrew school at the Reform synagogue we'd joined and I who facilitated the practice of Friday night Shabbat blessings and dinner. I also strongly encouraged them to attend Jewish summer camp. Despite all these involvements with my family's faith, I have never considered converting to Judaism. I am very comfortable with who I am and do not feel the need to redefine myself.
Now in their 20s, our children are on wonderful spiritual journeys of their own. Our daughter works for an organization that serves Jewish youth, and our son is active in various Jewish organizations at college. They embody the unique blending of cultures, custom and faith that speaks to our strong commitment to raise them as Jews. It has all been incredibly rewarding. And in retrospect it seems effortless, what with strong familial support and Jay's and my strong commitment to each other.
I wouldn't change a minute of it.