Learning Tolerance and Compassion from My Husband

By Nina Amir Lacey


As a young adult I so wanted to marry a Jewish man. I was not raised in a religious manner, but I had a strong Jewish identity as well as a strong belief that marrying within my faith would prove easier than marrying outside it. Despite my attempts to find a husband of the same faith, this New York Jew ended up married to a Southern Baptist.

My early religious experience consisted of little more than an ethnic or cultural identitification with my European and biblical Jewish ancestors, a one- or two-year stint in religious school, attendance at High Holy Day worship services, and home observance of Passover and Hanukkah. After high school graduation, I tried attending my university’s Shabbat (Sabbath) services on a sporadic basis, but my attempts to be more observant were short lived. After graduation I continued attending services on the High Holy Days and observed Hanukkah and Passover with my family.

My husband’s religious experience was much more extensive. Growing up in Oklahoma, Ron had attended church services a minimum of three times a week and had gone to Sunday school on a weekly basis until he was eight years old. In addition, he, of course, attended worship services on all the big Christian holidays and observed these with home celebrations as well. When his father was transferred to Venezuela, the closest Baptist church lay forty-five minutes away. So, his family began attending religious school and worshiping only on Sunday mornings.

At the age of fourteen, Ron began attending a boarding school in the United States where he was required to attend weekly religious services. The next year the school abolished this requirement and he stopped attending services. When I met him, Ron observed Christmas and Easter with his parents as well as in his own home, but rarely, if ever, went to church.

Just before meeting Ron, I had become more interested in metaphysics and mysticism than in Judaism. Coincidentally, so had he, and when we began dating we spent a lot of time discussing metaphysical theories and mystical traditions and browsing in the metaphysical section of a used bookstore we liked to visit. These interests later led us to the study of Kabbalah (a Jewish mystical text). Finding that Judaism actually had a mystical tradition set me on a path back to the religion of my birth. For my husband, it opened up a new avenue of religious observance. He enjoyed Judaism’s lack of “fire and brimstone” and was attracted to its stress on being a “mensch,” or good person. After we married and had children, we agreed to raise them as Jews, and later Ron converted.

Despite my earlier fears, the differences in our religious backgrounds did not hamper us from traveling the same religious and spiritual path. However, it has caused us to approach religion a bit differently. For example, my family rarely if ever attended Shabbat services. Ron, on the other hand, attended Sabbath services every week. Thus, even before his conversion he felt that if we were going to “be Jewish,” then we had to “act Jewish.” To him, this involved being observant of Jewish holidays–especially Shabbat. To him, there was no sense in saying you were a practicing Jew or a Jew-by-choice if you never attended Shabbat services.

I was much more willing to attend services on an occasional basis, and I did not see my Jewishness as related to how often I appeared at the synagogue. However, I agreed to go two or three times a month and found myself enjoying my time in the temple sanctuary, as well as the chance to practice my religion more regularly and to feel part of a religious community. While I had never experienced the value of being religiously observant, nor had I ever felt part of a religious community, these feelings were familiar to Ron.

Another difference lies in our personal views of our “Jewishness.” As a Jew by birth, I am forever tied to my ancestors–in this case primarily my European ancestors who were killed in Hitler’s concentration camps. I am also forever tied to Israel, a country in which I do not live (although my parents once lived there, my sister was born there, and I have relatives still living there). As a member of a minority group, my ethnic or cultural heritage seems almost as important, if not more important, than my religious beliefs or practices. I am a Jew whether I practice my religion on a daily or weekly basis or don’t observe the holidays at all.

Ron, however, feels no special kindred with Christians or people from a specific nationality. He has never felt the effects of anti-Semitism or persecution of any sort. He is an American, and now he is a Jew. Being Jewish, however, for him is a religious choice, not an ethnic or cultural heritage, and he expresses this choice by doing Jewish things. As a Jew, he now knows how it feels to be different–to miss work on the High Holy Days when the majority of our nation and the world are still seated at their desks. He now knows how it feels to be the only family in the neighborhood with no Christmas lights decorating its house during December. And, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, he now knows how it feels to be associated with a country that faces terrorism on a daily basis.

Lastly, while I tend to criticize non-Jews for their lack of knowledge about Judaism and Jewish holidays, Ron, who was once one of these people, is much more understanding and tolerant of their ignorance than am I. When I complain that most non-Jews have no inkling about any Jewish holidays, but that most Jews know quite a bit about Christian holidays, he gently reminds me that these people simply have had no reason to learn about Judaism. When I gripe about school events or other activities scheduled on major Jewish holidays, Ron urges me to remember that the planners of these events are not being malicious or even thoughtless; they just had no idea that their plans conflicted with Jewish religious observances. And, when I am ignorant about a Christian holiday, Ron educates me so that I will be tolerant and understanding of people of other faiths.

For Ron and me, our different religious backgrounds have opened our eyes to how others view religious observance and community and have provided us with a greater degree of tolerance and compassion for those of other faiths. It has enhanced our understanding of what it means to be Jewish, to practice our chosen religion, and to belong to the nation of Israel. Because we were raised in different faiths, our religious life has more depth and breadth as well as meaning. Marrying outside of my faith did not create as many difficulties as I believed it might, and by doing so my husband and I both have found ways of being Jewish and seeing Judaism that go beyond either of our early religious upbringings.


About Nina Amir Lacey

Nina Amir Lacey is a freelance journalist, nonfiction editor and the author of several booklets about practical spirituality, human potential and personal growth from Jewish perspective. She sees herself as an "everywoman" and her work as crossing religious and spiritual lines. She also serves as the spirituality and holiday expert on Conversations with Ms. Claus, a weekly podcast downloaded by 85,000 listeners each month in 90 different countries and offered on www.yaktivate.com. You can learn more about Nina at Pure Spirit Creations.