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How Marrying A Protestant Minister Made Me A Better Jew

Originally published April, 2004. Republished August 12, 2011.

On my first day of graduate school, back in 1977, I accidentally spilled my ice cream cone on the gentleman sitting next to me at the counter. To my surprise, he was quite chivalrous about the incident, and thus began the relationship between John, a student at a Protestant seminary, and me, an indifferent Jew. Dating a budding minister made me think a lot more about religion and spirituality than I had previously. It soon became obvious that I needed a religious community of my own in order to maintain my identity among John's Christian colleagues.

Although I wasn't aware of positive feelings toward Judaism when I met John (and completely ignored even Yom Kippur as a college student), the taboos from my childhood were just too strong, and my rebellious streak too wide, to buy into the Christianity of the surrounding culture.

I tried to become a Unitarian, but the particular Unitarian church I attended was a little too prim and proper for my 21-year-old self. I started feeling very Jewish at this point. Finally, in my second year of graduate school, I started attending a Reform temple.

Despite the fact that I'd had five years of Jewish religious education, John knew more about Judaism than I did because his seminary education entailed the study of Judaism, the root of Christianity. As I learned more about Judaism and Christianity, I was struck by how deeply embedded Christianity was in its Jewish roots. Like many courting interfaith couples, we had fascinating discussions about religion.

In my third year of graduate school, I married John. He received ordination as a pastor. As I struggled through graduate school, I staved off depression by learning a lot about Judaism, celebrating an adult bat mitzvah and eventually joining Havurat Shalom, a congregation in which the members share the role of spiritual leader.

By the time I finished the Ph.D. program in Economics, I was secure in my identity as a Jewish woman, although as a pastor's wife I found myself attending church more than I would have liked. (In the 1970s and 1980s and even the 1990s, there were still expectations that the pastor's wife would attend church occasionally and be sociable with the congregation, and my Jewishness hurt John's career.) I sometimes fantasized about becoming a rabbi.

In 1993, John and I actually wrote an article for Dovetail Magazine about our unusual marriage (practicing Jew married to Christian clergy). I wrote that my marriage had brought me back to Judaism. My husband wrote that being married to a Jew lowered his tolerance for prejudice of any form. We were both aware of, and hurt by, the disapproval of interfaith marriage, especially in the Jewish community. This awareness was a contributing factor (although not the decisive one) in our decision not to bear/rear children.

After we moved away from Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Massachusetts, it took me a long time to find a spiritual home in which I felt comfortable. I knew the music was important; thanks to my parents, I had an excellent music education, and my fantasies of becoming a rabbi had long since turned into fantasies of becoming a cantor. I joined my current synagogue because I was impressed with the cantor. It didn't take me long to approach him and ask if he could train me. He, in return, referred me to the Maalot Cantorial Seminary in Rockville, Maryland. Fortunately, this school (unlike most cantorial schools) accepts Jews who are intermarried, and caters to people with full-time day jobs. Now, I had fantasies of co-officiating at interfaith weddings with my husband, the Protestant minister.

Thus began a period of formal study of Jewish tradition, Hebrew, vocal training, prayer modes, modes for chanting from the Bible, Jewish liturgical music (from popular to art songs) and how to officiate at life-cycle events. I graduated from the program with a certificate from Maalot in 1999, started to tutor bar and bat mitzvah students and officiated at life-cycle events soon after, and served a pulpit (part-time).

Who would have thought that marrying a Protestant seminarian would result in my becoming a cantor?

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. 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.
Emily Blank

Emily Blank teaches Economics at Howard University and serves as cantoral soloist. She lives in Maryland with her husband John Dillon and their three cats.

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