Spirituality and Shishkabobs: A Jewish Journey Through Dialogue

By Larry Rosenwald


I met Cynthia Schwan in 1969, we were married in 1976 and we’re still very happily married. I’m Jewish, she’s not; she was an unaffiliated ex-Baptist when we met and is now a serious Quaker. When I met her I was largely indifferent to Judaism, having been raised in a Jewish but entirely secular family. I grew up celebrating Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July–no Jewish holidays at all, and my late mother sent me Easter baskets throughout my time in college. I attended my first seder when I was 20, and that was my first Jewish holiday observance of any kind.

I’m now not at all indifferent to Judaism, which occupies a fairly large part of my life, as it does, more importantly, of our family’s life. We observe Shabbat and most of the holidays and we host seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners. Two of our twin daughters’ birthday party plays were purimshpils (dramatic retellings of the book of Esther). Both of our daughters–they’re now 28–strongly identify as Jewish. Cynthia herself lights candles on Friday night even in my absence. This shared and deepening sense of Jewish practice and thought are the product, first, of Cynthia’s ingenious and supportive imagination and second, of the pressures, the dialogic situation, of an unhierarchically organized mixed marriage.

Ipswich RiverCynthia’s imagination helped me to solve problems that had felt insurmountable. When our daughters were 10 or 11, I wondered how they were going to learn something, given that we weren’t affiliated with a congregation. I was angst-ridden but Cynthia had a useful idea–that I study with our daughters on Saturdays, after their violin lessons, that I take the responsibility rather than bewail the difficulty. What we ended up doing flouted Jewish law but became wonderfully productive: Saturday for lunch the three of us would go to Loui’s Coffee Shop in Wellesley Farms, Mass., and study the week’s Torah portion over chicken shishkabobs (two with fries, one with mashed). We brought with us Plaut’s commentary on the Torah, Everett Fox’s translation of it, and Ellen Frankel’s Five Books of Miriam. We studied, argued or agreed, explained, told stories, considered odd details, and then drove home “the pretty way.” We continued doing so almost every week all through high school, and occasionally even afterwards. It was a very happy experience stretching over eight years or so, a blessing.

Here’s another example: our daughters were turning 13. It seemed good to have something happen, but we weren’t affiliated with a synagogue and a bat mitzvah ceremony felt impossible. I was–as before–in a state of unproductive angst. Then Cynthia said, “Why not teach them to do what we actually do?” They could learn to lead a seder and the Friday night blessings. A brilliant solution, which I think she was able to devise because she saw the situation as a problem to be solved, not as a tragic crisis, and because solving problems is something she’s very good at. We carried out her idea. I did the technical coaching and our daughters met the challenge beautifully and authoritatively. And they liked doing so, to the degree that the three of us have been sharing seder-leading ever since; Elizabeth led our seder last year on the theme of Jewish journeys.

My Judaism has been shaped, and in my view strengthened, by my dialogue with my wife; my Judaism has had to be such that I could present it proudly and with conviction to a serious Quaker. That doesn’t mean that it has to conform to Quakerism, only that it has to be able to sustain a conversation with it. I have only introduced practices I was committed to and each of these has made its way into our shared Jewish life. It has been good to have the test of commitment be so pressing. I’ve never proposed keeping a kosher home, for example, because I don’t have a real commitment to that goal; I have proposed not answering the phone on the evening of Shabbat, because I am committed to being inside the space of Shabbat, not being subject to the professional or commercial demands of the week, and that proposal has for the most part become our practice.

Moreover, my Judaism had to be a Judaism stripped of hostile or disparaging attitudes towards non-Jews, because there I was, sitting opposite Cynthia, literally or in my imagination, and because being in that situation gave me a clearer sense of what I believed. The reason, for example, that I can’t chant the traditional text of the Aleinu, the almost-concluding prayer on Saturday morning, with all its self-satisfied, invidious comparison between Jews and non-Jews, is that I imagine chanting it in Cynthia’s presence, and–this is crucial–that I feel in her imagined presence how deeply I myself am at odds with that language.

The bottom line: my Judaism, our Judaism, the overall sum of attachment to Jewish tradition, have been augmented and strengthened and refined, not weakened or diluted, by this particular mixed marriage. I wish that those interested in this set of questions would begin by separating the question of intermarriage from the question of sustaining Jewish tradition, and then see where that clarifying separation might lead.


About Larry Rosenwald

Larry Rosenwald, Professor of English at Wellesley College, joined the Wellesley faculty in 1980. He writes on American literary representation of language and dialect contact; the theory and practice of translation; the relations between words and music; early music theater; and pacifism and nonviolence. His third book, Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature will be published by Cambridge University Press in October, 2008. Larry lives with his wife, Cynthia Schwan, in Wellesley, Mass. and is a member of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass.