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 permission of the author from United Synagogue Review and Dovetail.
Rock a bye, Baby
In the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come Baby …
Cradle and all
The cradle will fall . . . and fall, it did. The cradle of Roman Catholicism--the faith into which I was baptized as an infant and which I participated in until adulthood--"came down" recently and catapulted me into a decision to convert to Judaism. Unlike the nursery rhyme baby who finds herself adrift and without anchor, after my decision I found myself finally at a place in which I felt as if my "authentic self" had space to breathe, to think and to rest. My decision to convert was not made lightly--nor was it made in the glow of impending marriage. My decision to convert was not made to appease future in-laws or to please a spouse. My decision to convert was made because--finally--a confluence of abstracts had come together in an almost mystical way --"the time" for me to claim my father's heritage had come.
As the adult daughter of an interfaith marriage, I have lived a life full of the richness of two different--but intertwined--traditions. Because I am in my early fifties, I was born in a time before there was a publicized "December Dilemma" for interfaith households. I was raised in a time when intermarriage was still a real oddity--a time in which many Jewish partners in interfaith marriages found themselves metaphorically dead to their families and many non-Jewish partners in those marriages found themselves ostracized by both their families of birth and their families of marriage. How I managed to be lucky enough to be raised by individuals who remained dedicated to their respective religious traditions through their entire lives--and still fostered an atmosphere of respect for their spouse's tradition--is beyond me. But--lucky I was, because that is exactly what my home was like growing up.
Yes, our family had a Christmas tree. Yes, my sister and I had Easter eggs. Yes, my Irish-Catholic mother, my sister and I attended Mass on every single Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. But . . . we also were weaned on chicken soup and matzoh balls. We saw our father kiss a mezuzah upon entering and exiting our home--but never thought too much about it because it was as ordinary a part of his daily behavior as was brushing his teeth. We kept a pishka for the General Israel Girls' Orphanage in our kitchen. We watched my father mark the yarzheits (yearly memorial anniversaries) of his parents. Many childhood Sunday mornings found us returning from Mass to feast on a potato kugle prepared by one of my father's relatives and brought to our home . . . as much to provide an excuse to visit with us as to provide lunch for us ! In major ways--like observing our father spending the High Holy Days in the neighborhood synagogue--and minor ways--like learning not to hang wash on the line on a Jewish holy day, we lived a delicate balance between the worlds of the "doer" and the "watcher."
I think that in my secret heart, however, I was meant to be a "doer." My sister was not--and that is all right. Just as children born from the same parents can have different colored hair and eyes and different likes and dislikes--so, too--the ability to connect with religious identification can be as different for siblings as any other thing might be. The journey for me to move from the world of the observer to the world of the participant was a long one. It not only took years, but it also took agonizing introspection, a complete upheaval of my personal comfort zone . . . and the support of two men: my husband and my rabbi.
My feelings for my cradle religion were affected deeply by its theology--(including--but not limited to--the role of women) and by the scandals which have ripped the Church's members to their core. My personal desire to listen to sermons about God and man's relationship to Him rather than to pleas for participation in debt reduction campaigns also, if truth be told, colored my feelings about the Catholicism which surrounded me. As I found myself sitting in church--week after week--being agitated and unsettled rather than connected and comforted, I started to wonder why I was still going through the motions of slipping envelopes into collection plates and dashing madly to sit in a weekend Mass--to insure that my body was present while my eyes searched through the monthly missal to find the "Old Testament" reading for the weekend. Finally, I stopped attending Mass. No one was more surprised--or bothered--by that decision than my husband.
Like my mother, I had married a Jew. My husband is funny, tall, funny, smart, funny . . . and a deeply religious Conservative Jew. When he fell in love with me, I know that he was as surprised as anyone else--including his children! I am a "subsequent spouse" . . . not the one who is biological mother to his children--but the one who came along years after the dissolution of that relationship. I know that he was surprised, because he had always preached against the evils and dangers of intermarriage to his children--but, as he discovered, the heart follows its own direction. And, sometimes, "b'shert" can present itself as the extraordinary juxtaposition of two opposites . . . and that is just what happened with the two of us. After making some painful decisions himself (which included the severing--not by his choice, but by hers--of the relationship with one Orthodox daughter), our marriage marked the establishment of a home in which the two traditions of Catholicism and Judaism existed side-by-side. Just as in the home of my youth there was great respect for each other's religious identity and observance. Things might have continued as they had forever . . . except for the stirrings and turbulence within my own spirit.
I cannot explain--even now--how it came to pass that I started to feel more connected to Judaism. Perhaps it happened when I decided, one Chanukah, to learn the blessings in Hebrew so that I could gift my husband with that new skill as we lit the menorah. Or, perhaps it happened when I convinced my husband that it was our responsibility to remain in our hometown (rather than visit other family) to host the annual seder for his elderly relatives. But, actually, I think that watching my husband live his daily life unfettered by continual internal rantings against his religion is what sealed the deal for me. I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to feel that same kind of peace that he felt . . . and I finally quieted myself sufficiently to listen to what my soul and my heart had been trying to tell my mind for years: my essence was Jewish.
Had I been allowed to make the choice of religious affiliation myself, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have opted for my father's tradition rather than my mother's. That decision would have had nothing to do with caring for one parent more than the other or even with identifying more with the essential tenets of one faith as compared to another. Rather, that decision would have been made simply because everything about Judaism always seemed to "feel" better to me than anything about Catholicism. A "spiritual changeling," it took me decades to gain the confidence to correct the cosmic glitch created by infant baptism.
Accomplishing the conversion process was not as difficult for me as it might have been for others. Certainly, growing up exposed to concepts, traditions and practice made much of the mandatory instruction relatively easy. But, I suspect that the real challenge for people who are brave enough to change an aspect of their personality as seminal as religious affiliation lies in finding the support needed to make the journey seem possible. That support came for me, first, from my husband. Although I made the initial contact with a rabbi without my husband's knowledge, his reaction to my decision was instantaneous. Never once during our marriage had he asked me to convert or to consider doing so. But his delight in my decision was palpable . . . in fact, several months before I actually summoned up the courage to approach a rabbi, my husband observed--rather offhandedly--"Gee--you already do everything we do. Why don't you just come on over?" Remember--I told you all at the beginning of this piece that my husband's character trait which shines over everything else about him is his humor!
The architect of my journey, however, was not my husband . . . and it was not even me. The man into whose hands I placed complete trust was my husband's rabbi, a rabbi who had just accepted the pulpit of the Conservative synagogue a few weeks prior to my approaching him. Perhaps it was his newness to the city and to the congregation that made him so open to my first contact. Or, perhaps it was his willingness to listen to my story and respect the family from which I had come as well as the family of which I was now a part that made me feel as if he could help me navigate through this new experience. Or . . . quite possibly, his appearance in my town . . . in my life . . . at this time was "b'shert" in the truest sense. "Rabbi Joe" provided me with a series of individual classes that helped me understand the "why" behind the "what' . . . in other words, his enthusiastic teaching helped me frame the traditions, practices and rituals I had observed and participated in throughout my life into a context that was rich and meaningful. Most significant, however, was Rabbi Joe's philosophy: conversion was not the ceremony held at the end (although his insistence on the traditional mikvah and Bet Din was absolute!) . . . conversion was the process he guided me through as weeks turned into months and months moved from season to season. The culminating ceremony was, to Rabbi Joe, the "punctuation mark at the end of the sentence."
Despite feeling that the approaching change was a positive one for me, I found that the days immediately preceding the ceremony were difficult. I could not sleep. I had an almost constant headache. My back ached. My temper was shorter than usual and my emotions were running even closer to the surface than they normally do. In short, I was a wreck. My husband's even-tempered responses to the chaos around him and his silent efforts to give me as much room as possible manifested themselves in a thousand ways . . . and, while I was unable to acknowledge his kindness then, I will never forget it.
Finally, the day came. I found that the feelings I dealt with that day were, in many ways, similar to what I had experienced on my wedding day. More than anything, I wanted to be by myself--I wanted to not simply prepare physically for the experience, but to still myself and listen to the voice of God as I had when I made my initial decision. And--that is exactly what I did. The hours I spent getting ready to meet my husband, Rabbi Joe and the other members of the Bet Din were hours I would not have traded for the world. The reflection and contemplation steadied me and supported me as I made the drive into town.
Rabbi Joe's approach to the conversion ceremony inverted the more traditional order of things in that he asked me to visit the mikvah before meeting with the Bet Din. When I asked him why, his response made perfect sense: he felt that it was important for me to make the physical step prior to asking that the legal one be certified. Knowing the "why" behind the "what" had been his paradigm for my entire course of instruction, so, of course, he had no difficulty connecting the last two dots for me!
Walking across the street from the synagogue to the mikvah accompanied by my husband and the three men who comprised the Bet Din was almost surreal to me. They all tried to make the journey an easy one--and each man said something lighthearted and comforting. Hearing them talking outside of the small room in which I made my final preparations provided a sensory anchor for the experience . . . walking into the actual mikvah room and completing the immersion rite was, truly, an experience unlike anything else I have ever encountered. Every fear I had experienced evaporated and I felt confident and strong as I recited the ancient Hebrew blessings. I felt as if I were getting closer to where I wanted to be. Each chorus of "amen" from the waiting and listening men strengthened the sensory anchor and urged me forward through the next steps.
Following the immersion rite, we walked back into the rabbi's study where--true to his word--the "conversation" commenced. It was friendly and focused more on my personal story and intentions than on attempting to find minutiae from law and history with which to confound me. After a very long time, the pronouncement came: "We're ready to sign"! And, sign they all did! Each man's signature attested to the fact that I was, now, in my spiritual home. My husband was invited into the room then and all four men stood and sang a song of congratulations and joy to me . . . how could I not feel loved, respected and honored in the midst of that? The last part of the ceremony included only Rabbi Joe, my husband and me. We walked into the sanctuary so that the Aron Kodesh could be opened for me and so that I could make my personal declaration of faith. So there, before God, anchored by the love of my life on one side and the architect of my journey on the other, I became--fully, finally and forever--part of the people of Israel . . . part of the family into which I had been born--but not raised.
My home town is far from Oz . . . but Dorothy's words could not be more appropriate . . . "There's no place like home." This home, this Jewish spiritual home, took me a long time to find--but the journey was worth the effort.