The Pain of Religious Differences in the Family and the Healing Power of Love

By Martha Little


I am the product of an interfaith marriage. My father came from an Irish Catholic family that practiced holy sacraments and daily worship on the one hand, and drunken irreverence on the other. My mother came from a conservative mid-western farming community where the Protestant church was as rigid and controlled as the flat acres of corn that surrounded it. Our household came alive with insults to the opposing faith, and mayhem always ensued when religious references were made. “If it weren’t for your uptight Protestant rigidity . . . ” “Why don’t you just walk down the block swinging your rosary to fix it?” And so on.

So when my brother decided to marry a Jewish woman, it all seemed only natural. We had learned as children that you are supposed to oppose your mate with religious combativeness. I think in our family, to be intimate with a person meant you had to have an inherent difference in belief systems. The object of your affection was supposed to be hard to fathom, foreign, entirely opposite in their ways to yours. An intimate moment in our family was to argue passionately in some nonsensical manner about how truly different we all are. This probably dates back to an ancestral time when warring and opposing tribes were forced to come together in love and despair, only to find a sense of hopeless isolation.

I was sixteen when my brother met his wife. At that time I went to an “integrated high school,” which largely meant there were both African-American and white children. The only Jew in our school was a boy named Jonathan Bookbinder. He was alienated and ostracized by the other children, largely because he acted different from other kids. He wore old clothes, answered the teachers with a biting wit, and argued incessantly. A few years before my brother brought home his Jewish girlfriend from Boston, I attended Jonathan’s Bar Mitzvah. I had never felt so out of place or confused. I truly knew nothing about what being Jewish meant. I could only feel how different I was in comparison. Certain stereotypes would pop into my mind, like “they’re very smart” or “they’re good at business,” but I really didn’t know who “they” were. I wondered what my brother’s girlfriend would be like.

Couple in loveShe didn’t fit any of these stereotypes. She didn’t care about money or business, and didn’t seem to have any religious inclinations whatsoever. What I remember about that time, though, is how truly different she was. She was dark and swarthy and beautiful, and had a hearty, sincere laugh. She listened to me in a way no one had ever listened. She actually asked people inquisitive questions and cared about their answers. This was a cultural anomaly for me–our family talked incessantly yet no one ever stopped to listen. I imagined she came from some dark and foreign land where people had more time to care about each other. It was inconceivable to me what this had to do with being Jewish, but on some core level I associated this quality with her ethnicity. I wanted that. I wanted to be cared about and listened to, and wanted to have the capacity to do the same for other people. If this meant being Jewish, then I wanted to be Jewish.

I was so enamored with her being different that I didn’t notice any grumblings about the marriage in our family. In fact, I think every member of my family shared in the love affair. The cultural norm in the family to marry outside your beliefs was being upheld, and no one was threatened by this. That is, until a child came into the picture.

I think the coming of the first grandchild made everyone run for cover. I remember my parents talking about the child as if he were theirs. “We’ll do a blessing in the church.” We’ll have a christening,” etc., etc., never fully admitting that this child was Jewish. He was born of them, therefore he must share their faith. I think a subtle but invasive hostility was born with him, and my parents never fully comprehended the truth, which was that their (then) only grandchild was Jewish. What did that mean for them? What did that mean about Christmas and Easter? What did that mean about their core belief in “Lord the father?”

On a basic level, this grandchild challenged their biases and internalized stereotypes. It’s very different when your own flesh and blood share a foreign religion and ethnicity. It weeds out on a cellular level the prejudice that you don’t even know exists. But nobody talked openly about it because we were all ashamed of ourselves. Our shame kept us, in some ways, from fully giving ourselves to love.

The turning point for me was when I attended my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. He brought us together in love and hope, and created a ceremony that made sense to all of us. He shone with a grace that neither Judaism nor Christianity had given him. He was truly himself, despite all the ambiguous religious messages he had gleaned from our family. The message he created that day was that love will fight like an antibody against the cruel cancer of ethnic ignorance.

And it has in our family. We have learned to live with the differences our family members have, and share Hanukkah and Passover along with Christmas and Easter. The products of this interfaith marriage, my niece and nephew, have taught me what really matters in families. They remind me that we are the product of centuries of ethnic fear and hatred, and that ultimately, the opposite of prejudice is faith.

ChooseLoveTo learn more about InterfaithFamily’s #ChooseLove campaign and to tell us how you #ChooseLove, visit /chooselove.
To see how we #ChooseLove, watch this video.


About Martha Little

Martha Little is a psychotherapist practicing in Moab, Utah, where she hobnobs with Mormons, native Americans, and peoples of all denominations.