It’s Friday night and the warm, moist dough feels familiar as it seeps through my fingers. Jonny is preparing a second batch, skillfully mixing the water, yeast, flour, sugar, salt, oil and egg. If only my parents could see me now–a half-Christian, half-Muslim girl preparing challah bread for Sabbath.
As I place each smaller braid on top of a large braid, Jonny helps me tuck in the ends underneath the bottom layers. Ironically, as we prepare the Sabbath dinner, the music of choice is Munir Bashir, a traditional Iraqi oud player.
Two years ago, I would have never imagined being in a relationship such as this. With a Christian Korean mother and a Muslim Pakistani father, growing up was difficult–and confusing–at times. I abhorred Sundays because Sunday was deemed “religion day” in my household. Every week, my sister and I were forced to first attend a church for Korean/Christianity classes, followed by the mosque for Arabic/Islam classes. Sometimes, we felt ostracized because we didn’t look like all of the other kids. Now, I identify with both religions, but as a child I felt torn between two worlds, neither of which I knew anything about.
I never thought I’d date a Jewish boy. After all, why make my life more confusing? When I was younger, I didn’t realize (as I often pleaded with my parents not to make me go to Sunday school) that my multicultural background would prepare me to appreciate and accept those unlike me.
Jonny’s religious upbringing was not so different from mine. Being half-Christian and half-Jewish, he faced internal conflicts as well. Like me, he identifies with both religions, although it took him time to come to this conclusion. In fourth grade, his parents enrolled him in a Catholic elementary school where he was discouraged from participating in Catholic practices. Because he wasn’t baptized, his teacher told him he was guilty of original sin. Because Jewish descent is passed maternally according to traditional Judaism, he also felt unaccepted in his father’s Conservative synagogue.
We met in elementary school in our hometown of Toledo, Ohio. After reuniting 14 years later during winter break, we started dating. Two years have since passed. In this time, through exploring our differences, we have found that religious faith actually plays a greater role in our lives. Although no one religion takes precedence, through each other (namely our differences), we learn something new about ourselves–and our faiths–everyday.
Holidays can be stressful, especially for us. Think dreidels and sweet dates (used to break the fast during Ramadan), both neatly wrapped under a brightly lit Christmas tree. In spite of all the hassle, we love to celebrate; in fact, we have found that the different holidays actually complement each other.
During Ramadan, Jonny will often take part in the fasting ritual. During Rosh Hashanah and on the eve of Yom Kippur, I’ll devour the matzah ball soup (and I’ll even manage to stomach a few bites of gefilte fish). We both go to the mosque and synagogue for services and participate in prayers and hymns. It means a lot to me (likewise for him) that we partake in each other’s rituals.
Jonny and I are both in school, so we’re very busy. We still try to take the time to prepare special meals once a week. Oftentimes we will do our own version of Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner with tzimis, a traditional stew made with carrots, yayin (wine) and lechem (bread). We also have made Pakistani dishes and Korean dishes, paying tribute to my upbringing. It’s not uncommon for us, later in the week, to eat leftovers from all three meals. It’s actually quite special; we are repeating our parents’ pattern in celebrating and cherishing multiple cultures at the same time.
Besides the Muslim and Jewish feasts, we have also had Christmas dinner twice a year–at each of our parents’ homes. This past Christmas was special, as it marked the first holiday feast that had our two families gathered around the same table breaking bread together. Jonny’s father articulated the sentiment beautifully when he said grace. If there was any scintilla of discomfort, it was assuaged by his prayer for peace among all of the children of Abraham, the patriarchal figure of all three religions. I think everyone at the table realized that we are not so much different, as we are the same.
Jonny’s interest in my background has encouraged me to learn more about Islam and Christianity. Also, we have together learned a great deal more about Judaism. Maybe our relationship works because we don’t strictly adhere to our religious doctrines, but I like to think that there’s more to it.
Our experiences together have catalyzed a longing to branch out and explore other faiths as well. Just last week, we attended a Catholic mass and witnessed a baptism. We’re also reading a book on Zen Buddhism. Next summer we are planning to take a trip to India and learn more about the Hindu tradition. I’ve found that different cultures have many similar values, common links, and shared principles. Faith is part of the human experience, and the more I learn about religion, the more I am realizing all religions are like similar vehicles that converge on the same path, all in the pursuit of inner peace.
As Jonny takes the bread out of the oven, its aroma fills the household. Warm. Familiar. Comforting. I like to think of the challah as a representation of the role that our faiths have played in our relationship. Like us, the braid is composed of three main strands: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. All the strands are woven together as a whole. Together we braid the bread. Together we break the bread.