One of my earliest memories was marching down the streets of Washington D.C. with my family, the apex of the Washington Memorial looming behind a sea of people. Patchouli and incense infusing the air, vibrations of Dylan and the Dead punctuated the electrifying speeches by civil rights leaders, politicians and "movement" people who riled up the crowd. And everywhere the chant, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?"
A photo stands out in my photo album more than any other. It was shot in New York at a demonstration protesting the napalming of children in Vietnam. It appeared on the front cover of the leftist Guardian--me wearing my Mighty Mac jacket and mittens, barely tall enough to be seen beneath the protest banner.
As a family, we sojourned to New York City, Washington or Philadelphia frequently when we weren't canvassing door to door, attending meetings, demonstrations or rallies. At these gatherings, in addition to the standard labor and peace songs, we sang "Frayhayt" (Freedom), "Zog Nit Keynmol" (Never Say Die), "Ale mentshn zainen brider," (All Men Are Brothers) and more, songs that crossed through time and geography, reflecting Jewish values and the call for social justice both at home and abroad. Many of these songs began as religious Hassidic melodies that later became protest ballads against czarist oppression. They lived again as Holocaust fight songs and finally became battle cries against sweatshop conditions or musical appeals for peace and civil rights songs.
My wife grew up in an Irish Catholic household and the stories of desperate times in America and the struggle to make a living were never far from the dinner table. The teachings of Jesus and the homilies in church were more than aphorisms to the Ryan children, but a call to duty. "Love thy neighbor" was a clarion call for action. Not surprisingly, in a quest to make a difference many of them became teachers, lawyers and nurses, as well as activists within their professions and in their spare time. Getting involved in the world around her came naturally to Liz as a teenager and later in life.
Throughout history, the Jewish people found themselves facing liberation struggles against inquisitions, reformations, and pogroms. Having a natural empathy for the downtrodden was almost genetic. These principles enshrined in Jewish law--tikkun olam, saving the world, and mentschlakayt, becoming a true human being, were at the core of Jewish thought. In fact, given my family's almost constant quest to further these principles, it was nearly two decades before I came to realize that there were actually Jewish people who didn't take these principles to heart as much as we had.
Catholic theology shares many of these same values. The Catholic Worker movement tied spirituality with strong positions against war and fervent efforts to help the poor. Liberation theology took this a step further, supporting movements that worked for social change against dictatorships. Of course it is impossible to understand the relationship between Jewish and Catholic stands for social justice without speaking of the roots of Jesus' teachings. He was, of course, Jewish, and his teachings reflected much of the spirit of the Jewish prophets.
My relationship with my wife was forged at activist functions we attended together. Farm worker organizing, No Nukes demonstrations, anti-war protests against the Iraq War (both versions) became part of our way of life and invigorated our marriage. We worked together in the Green Party, helped to run an alternative health organization in South Florida, and organized several rallies in Miami against the current Iraq war. In law school, we created an organization and newspaper dedicated to highlighting equal justice under the law and the lack of access to representation for millions of Americans. We ran public seminars on issues such as "breast cancer, the environment and the law", the invasion of Panama, the civil rights movement and how the legal principles that were established in the 1960s and '70s could be renewed today, and much more.
Twenty-first century America demands that men and women of conscience stand together to fight against injustice. Thomas Jefferson was neither a Catholic nor a Jew, however his words should be heeded by people of all faiths: "The price of democracy is eternal vigilance." More than ever, it is critical that we look beyond skin color, ethnic and religious background or political labels.
Interfaith couples are uniquely qualified to be leaders here, because of the lessons learned in respecting different cultural/religious/ethnic traditions and from the strength gained by sharing cross-cultural experiences with each other. The more we learn about the value of all of the cultures that live on this planet, the easier it is to find peaceful solutions to the world's intractable problems. Inter-faith, inter-cultural relationships are living, breathing examples of how love can bridge the distance between us.
Our interfaith marriage was consummated in our desire to live in a better place. It is one small step on the path to being true to our children and ourselves…