Interfaith or Intercultural?

By Sue Feder


Sue and Ira married when they were quite young. Both came from the standard two-parent family with a reasonable, but not excessive, number of siblings. Both families were of lower-middle-class income and upper-middle-class aspirations. They went to the same schools. Each had a reasonable, but not excessive, number of failed youthful romances. Both were New York born and bred. Both were Jewish. Sue’s family was secular, Ira’s family Modern Orthodox. They were married by Ira’s rabbi, under a chuppah (wedding canopy), and Ira smashed the glass (The custom is for the bridegroom to stomp on a glass–ask six Jews why, you’ll get six different answers.) on his first try. They had a cute little apartment. Things looked good, right?

By their second anniversary the marriage was over.

Trish and Larry married when they were quite young. Trish came from a standard two-parent family with a reasonable, but not excessive, number of siblings who hid a dark secret. Larry was an only child whose father died when he was nine. Both families were solidly middle class with high aspirations. Both went to parochial schools. Each had a reasonable, but not excessive, number of failed youthful romances. Both were from small suburban communities in the Baltimore area. Both were Catholic, attending church regularly with their families until their teens. Larry served as an altar boy for two years. They married in Trish’s family church and were able to buy a small home immediately, as each also pursued a graduate degree while working. Things looked good, right?

Although they technically made it to their eighth anniversary, Larry had emotionally left the marriage years earlier.

Sue, the Brooklyn secular Jew, met Larry, the Baltimore-area lapsed Catholic, and they recently celebrated their seventeenth wedding anniversary. Why did this pairing take while the other, more seemingly compatible ones, failed?

Because, goes the short answer, despite the similarities of socioeconomic advantages or disadvantages, of lifestyle and of religion, between the members of each original pair, these were really intercultural marriages. In both cases, each young bride and groom brought to the relationship a completely different set of wants, needs, likes, and priorities that overwhelmed the commonality of such things as religion. When we speak of the difficulties of interfaith marriages, we are really making the assumption that two people who share a religion also share the same set of values and priorities in life.

It ain’t necessarily so.

A secular Jew, for example, is likely to have an entirely different set of life–and relational–expectations than a Jew who comes from the Modern Orthodox tradition.

So when Trish wanted to spend every spare moment making improvements on the house and Larry had no desire to learn to hammer a nail straight; when Trish wanted to shop for clothes and Larry wanted records (black discs, 12 inches in diameter, that held music before CDs); when Trish enjoyed soft rock and romantic comedies while Larry enjoyed psychedelic music and Ingmar Bergman; when Trish’s idea of an exotic meal was lasagna and Larry was ready to try every cuisine that used hot peppers; when Trish insisted on festive Christmas celebrations and Larry faced anew the memories of his father’s early death each year at that time; when Trish assumed they’d eventually have children and Larry grew weak at the thought, their shared Catholicism became very unimportant.

And when Sue wanted to discuss books while Ira wanted to watch the ballgame; when Sue wanted to return to graduate school to advance in a career while Ira was content to work as a film projectionist just like his father; when Sue spent all day preparing a dairy meal in disposable serving dishes to serve to her kosher in-laws and Ira said nary a word when they wouldn’t eat a forkful; when Sue knew she never wanted children and Ira always assumed she’d change her mind; when Sue was perfectly content with her secularity and Ira’s family pushed for more involvement in the synagogue, their shared Jewishness may have even become counterproductive.

Sue and Larry may not share a religion, but intellectually and emotionally they share the same culture. They have the same vision of life; enjoy the same leisure pursuits; share the same priorities about home, work, and family life; and recognize that they are not tied at the hip, that the other is allowed to enjoy things alone. It is really the difference in culture that creates difficulty in marriage, not the difference in religion. Such differences can overlap, and historically probably did overlap to a great extent, but in modern Western society this is no longer true.

And that is why the marriage of Larry, the lapsed Catholic who occasionally takes Communion, and Sue, the secular Jew who has enrolled in a three-year course of Jewish studies, is still alive and well after seventeen years.



About Sue Feder

Sue Feder was born Jewish, but didn't start to figure out what it really meant to her until the half-century mark. She is now active in the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah. Larry Miller is a "cradle Catholic" who will still, every now and then, take Communion.