When We First Discover Our Religious and Cultural Differences

By Jim Keen


Excerpted and adapted from Inside Intermarriage by Jim Keen (URJ Press, New York, 2001). All rights reserved.

Do you remember when you saw your significant other for the first time? Your heart may have skipped a beat. You may have suddenly forgotten how to speak intelligibly. You may have even walked into a brick wall without noticing. Chances are, if you’re Christian, you were only hoping that she’d agree to go out with you. Chances are, if you’re Jewish, you were also hoping that she’d turn out to be Jewish too.

As an eighteen-year-old Protestant, making my way through my first year of college, I found out fairly quickly that interfaith dating wasn’t going to be a piece of cake (as if any kind of dating is?). As a Christian, I had no idea what I was getting in to. My first clue came from just normal conversation. There were some very nice girls who liked to talk to me but whose conversation was sprinkled with Hebrew or Yiddish words that were unfamiliar to me.

Sometimes it felt like this: “Hi, my name is Jennifer, and last week at my sister’s bat mitzvah, I sprained my ankle while dancing the hora, and that made me get shmutz all over my dress when I fell into a plate of chopped liver, which made my uncles mad, not because I made a mess, but because there actually was chopped liver, because the simchah was supposed to be milchig.”

My response: “Hi, my name is Jim. What’s shmutz?”

Of course, nobody in real life actually talks like this, except for the comedian Jackie Mason, but it just emphasizes how foreign the culture was to me. Even a few Yiddish and Hebrew terms, sprinkled here and there, made me realize that I had a lot to learn.

As a still-wet-behind-the-ears freshman, a conversation like that seemed to be a hint that the person was looking only for Jewish guys to date. However, looking back on it today, I can see that it was just a cultural difference that I did not yet understand. It was just like that first September when I was trying to figure out why a fourth of my dorm had gone home in the middle of the week. That’s when my friend Jackie had to remind me that it was the Jewish High Holy Day of Rosh HaShanah. How would I know? It wasn’t on my calendar.

Most of my Jewish dating edification came in college. Here I was, a freshman at the University of Michigan. The U of M gets a lot of its student body from all over the world. However, a good chunk of it comes from Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. In particular, many are from Long Island, New York. Many students from this area of the country are Jewish. Was I looking for Jewish women to date? No. But, my chances of meeting Jewish women were now proportionally higher than they were in high school.

While many of the Jewish women I met were giving me what I felt was a subtle signal of “I’m Jewish, so back off” (of course, there couldn’t have been any other reason they didn’t want to go out with me), I knew that there were some who would take the attitude, “What harm could it do if we take one day at a time?” By the second term of freshman year I met a woman named Bonnie. Actually, I chucked a Nerf football at her as she walked by my dorm room door. She threw the ball back at me, I whipped it back at her, she ran down the hall with it, and our relationship had begun.

For the next week, before I got up the nerve to ask her out, we would bump into each other in the cafeteria. I didn’t know that she was Jewish. I actually thought that she might be Italian. It didn’t really matter to me. She was cute, so my brain went into caveman mode. “Me big strong he-man. You woman. Must have.”

It worked. I didn’t make too big of a fool out of myself. Bonnie liked me. We went out to see a mindless movie, and she still liked me. I don’t even think she told me she was Jewish until our second or third date. She laughed when I told her that I thought she might be Italian. She informed me that the two cultures have a lot in common: family gatherings that revolve around food, talking with your hands, etc.

Of course, once we had unceremoniously informed each other what our religions were, it didn’t take long to learn more specifics. Bonnie had grown up in the Conservative Movement of Judaism. She still felt that she belonged there. Some of her greatest memories were of getting together with her family for Passover and the High Holy Days. Being away at college for the first time ever, she also deeply looked forward to going back home to rekindle those feelings. She didn’t keep kosher at the time, but her identity was strongly Jewish–religiously and culturally.

My story was very different. My grandpa Keen had grown up a Presbyterian in Oklahoma. As a young man, his prairie church once reprimanded him for attending a dance. So by the time he moved to Michigan in 1925, to become the university’s head wrestling coach and to attend law school, he had found a different church to call home. That’s how I was baptized a Methodist, instead of a Presbyterian. My family regularly went to services on Sundays, until we discovered hockey. My brother and I both played the sport. Unfortunately, and much to the chagrin of my mother, hockey games were scheduled on Sunday mornings.

Notwithstanding our decreasing attendance at Sunday school, my parents made sure that my brother, sister, and I never lost our faith in God. We always said our prayers at night, and we tried to go to church as often as we could after the hockey season was over. By the time I became a freshman in college, I rarely went to services. Yet, even though I was out of touch with the church of my youth, I still believed in God. I still felt that Jesus was the Son of God. I still felt as Protestant as ever.

Despite being firmly rooted in our faith, my family had never stressed that there was only one true religion. As kids, we would ask my parents about Judaism or Islam. My dad always quoted my grandfather as saying, “Who’s to say which religion is correct? There are many ways to explain God. All of them should be Respected–except for those Lutherans.” My grandpa Keen had a Mark Twain sense of humor.

Meeting Bonnie, I quickly discovered that many individuals from Jewish families have a strong desire to marry within their faith–more so than Christian families. A lot of this has to do with Jews being a minority. A lot of it has to do with the sheer tragedy of the Holocaust, still fresh in the minds of parents and grandparents. And much of it has to do with the fact that Judaism is both a culture and a belief system, whereas Christianity is primarily a belief system. You can be Jewish either religiously or culturally. You can be an atheist, but still strongly identify with Jewish culture and history. You can’t be a Christian and not believe in God. You then become just American, or Scottish, or whatever your national heritage is.

It’s not that Christians don’t try to find other Christians to marry. Of course, they do. Many Catholics may look for other Catholics to marry. Lutherans may look for other Lutherans. Greek Orthodox may seek other Greek Orthodox. What I didn’t know, however, was that I was about to open Pandora’s box. It never occurred to me that just dating could be a problem.

Whatever the backgrounds and circumstances, whatever the geographical origins, for some reason or another, Jews and Christians often find themselves falling in love. That’s why you’re reading this book. I hope I can straighten out some of this beautiful mess and show that the relationship does not have to end. People can work around their religious and cultural differences and live to tell about it. They may also find their lives exquisitely enhanced. How often do we get a chance to learn about, moreover, become a part of another culture? Many people view that as a chance to broaden their minds, build understanding, and breed tolerance. Intentionally or not, Bonnie and I were about to go down that path. But it would not be without struggle.



About Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.