Has This Marriage Destroyed the Jewish People?

By Nicholas Cafarelli

April 2004


“Are you willing to bear responsibility for the disappearance of the Jewish people, Lesley?” the rabbi asked my fiancee in 1971. “Because by marrying Nick, that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

The university chaplain, who had treated me, a former Catholic seminarian, quite civilly, evidently did not approve of our marriage plans.

Lesley, then a fellow graduate student, is the granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrants and the only child of parents who, while celebrating their Jewishness, never affiliated with a synagogue. In fact, they had sent Lesley to a Unitarian Sunday school.

The Protestant chaplain at Wellesley College, Lesley’s undergraduate alma mater, officiated at our wedding in January 1972. I was a lukewarm Catholic at the time, and so did not object to the absence of a priest, and of course there was no rabbi present.

Since I was still a lukewarm Catholic when our daughters Micòl and Ariel were born, I had little difficulty in eschewing baptism for them, the very possibility of which horrified Lesley. By the time I returned to the practice of my childhood faith in 1979, I took consolation in the teaching of Vatican II that God continues to the present day the special covenantal relationship with the Jewish people. Micòl and Ariel were, in my eyes, part of the Jewish people and so had as authentic a relationship with God as I considered myself, as a Catholic, to have.

When our daughters were young, we celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, though both in a rather secular way. More importantly, we also started our own tentative seders. Lesley and I had attended a seder early in our marriage, a first for both Lesley and me. With that evening in our memories, and with a couple of wine-stained Maxwell House hagaddahs a friend had given us, Lesley and I “winged” it as our daughters grew, later inviting friends and adopting more up-to-date hagaddahs.

One year, Lesley felt a pull to attend High Holy Day services, and the four of us Cafarellis found our way to a large Reform synagogue here in Minneapolis. We attended as a family, off and on, for a few years, eventually choosing to attend services at Shir Tikvah, a smaller and very inclusive Reform congregation in the Twin Cities.

Lesley’s growing embrace of Jewish observance was accelerated by her discovery, through genealogical research, that most of the family of her paternal grandmother had, contrary to family lore in the United States, survived the Holocaust and emigrated from Ukraine to Israel in the early ’90s. Within months, Lesley and I were on a plane to Israel–this was August 2000–to meet her great uncle and many cousins and to hear stories of wartime survival and her grandmother’s adventures as she passed through Europe on her way to America around 1919. The trip also provided a precious introduction to Jerusalem and Yad Vashem.

Lesley and I continued going to High Holy Day services at Shir Tikvah and, in the fall of 2001, signed up for its rabbi’s course on Jewish practice and belief.

We were hooked, and both of us joined the synagogue in December of that year. While I am still active in my Catholic parish, the congregation welcomed me as a person living in a household with a Jew and accepting the congregation’s mission statement. The fact that I am so welcomed has also reinforced Lesley’s engagement in synagogue life.

Under the gifted spiritual guidance of Rabbi Stacy Offner, Shir Tikvah is a warm and welcoming congregation, firmly grounded in Jewish tradition and noted for its inclusivity. Interfaith couples, nontraditional and multiracial families, and Jews covering a broad spectrum of religious observance feel at home here.

Along with the sense of community, the centrality of Hebrew and music to each service and the weekly Oneg Shabbat have immersed us more fully in Jewish observance. At home, we light Shabbat, Sabbath, candles and bake challah, and we have just completed two semesters of Hebrew. In addition, Lesley has joined the choir and been elected to the board.

Had the university rabbi been as warm and welcoming as Rabbi Offner and her congregation, our religious journey might have turned out differently. Ironically, our daughters might have grown up to be more observant Jews if that rabbi had not pushed Lesley away from institutional Judaism by insulting her and rejecting our marriage. As it is, our now-adult daughters at least have memories of Hanukkahs, Pesachs, and High Holy Days, and they think of themselves as Jewish. Regular observance of Shabbat and affiliation with institutional Judaism, however, is not on their agenda.

But then, it was not on Lesley’s agenda 32 years ago either.


About Nicholas Cafarelli

Nicholas Cafarelli, a freelance editor and writer who worked for 22 years at Catholic Digest magazine, is an active member of Holy Rosary Parish and also, with Lesley, his Jewish wife of 32 years, a member of Shir Tikvah Reform Synagogue, both houses of worship in Minneapolis. This article was an entry in the InterfaithFamily.com Network's Essay Contest, "We're Interfaith Families...Connecting with Jewish Life."