When Cokie Roberts’ daughter needed the recipe for haroset–the apple and nut mixture traditionally served at the Passover seder (ritual meal)–she called her Catholic mother. In all, Cokie has hosted thirty seders in her home, so haroset now comes easily to her. After thirty-four years of marriage to her Jewish husband, Steve Roberts, Cokie has become adept at all sorts of Jewish practices from attending synagogue to seders to Hanukkah celebrations, to which she usually invites many mixed-religion couples.
“There’s a joke that Cokie is the ‘best Jew in the family,'” tells Steve, “and there’s a lot of truth to that.”
Both Steve and Cokie are well-known political journalists who report for the gamut of media from television to radio to newspaper to magazine.
The two first spotted each other across the yard at a student political conference at Ohio State in the summer of 1962. After an enjoyable, but somewhat stressful courtship (due to their different faiths), they introduced the idea of marriage to their respective families.
Converting or abandoning one of their religions was not an option for either member of the couple because both Cokie and Steve value their own faiths too much. Neither family was thrilled about their prospective union, considering both sides were firmly committed to their own religious traditions. But after the Roberts got to know Cokie, and the Boggs (Cokie’s father, Hale Boggs, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for thirty-two years before his death) became acquainted with Steve, the families grew to love their future daughter-in-law/son-in-law. As Steve’s father once told his son of Cokie: “It would be a lot easier to oppose this match if it weren’t so obvious that she’s the perfect girl for you.”
The bride and groom waited until after Shabbat (the Sabbath) to get married and stood under a chuppah (a Jewish wedding canopy) during their wedding. A Jewish elder of the tribe took part in the ceremony, but a priest officiated.
More than three decades later, Cokie and Steve are happily married and have raised two now-grown children, a son and a daughter, in both the Catholic and Jewish traditions. “School’s out on how good a job we did [with our kids], but we feel very strongly that it has worked for us,” Cokie says. “We have enriched and enlarged our lives by embracing each other’s traditions. The children have had wonderful exposure to both traditions and faiths, and we have a very loving and encouraging and faith-filled household.”
Although Cokie is Catholic, she has tried to embrace Judaism at the same time. In order to welcome the religion into her home, she knew she would need to participate in the more religious aspects of the faith. Many of her friends had grown up as secular Jews, and their sense of Judaism was more cultural than religious, according to Cokie. But since she wasn’t Jewish, she felt she couldn’t behave like a cultural Jew. She would need to celebrate Judaism fervently and maintain a Jewish presence in her home. Cokie found accepting Judaism easy, as she saw many similarities between the Catholic and Jewish faiths.
Steve made similar strides in welcoming the Catholic religion, such as going to church with Cokie and the kids. Until recently, Cokie’s mother, Lindy Boggs, was the American ambassador to the Vatican. Consequently, Steve–“a Jewish boy from New Jersey”–attended two of the Pope’s masses.
Although their mixed marriage has been successful, they recognize the concerns over intermarriage in the Jewish community. They understand that many Jews worry that Judaism could eventually die out if it continues along this path with growing numbers of intermarriages. But they say Judaism is here to stay.
“There’s a tremendous desire to stop the statistics and I totally get that,” Cokie says. “I sit there at Passover and say, ‘Here is a celebration that’s been going on for thousands and thousands of years all over the world, and what a terrible thing it would be to lose this,’ but I don’t think that’s where we are.”
Steve and Cokie co-authored a book, From this Day Forward (William Morrow). Written in dialogue-form to retain their own separate voices, the book describes their own marriage, as well as other American marriages, many of which are intermarriages.
Part of their goal in writing the book was to allay fears about marriage in general. “I had a suspicion that America was a hard place to be married because our founding documents are so much about individual liberties and individual rights,” Cokie remarks. “It really fights against the ideas of couples and community and all the things that are necessary in marriage.”
Steve, who teaches at George Washington University, discovered that his students are some of the biggest skeptics of marriage. “I have been very struck by how many of my students have been discouraged by marriage–their parents were breaking up, their friends, their teachers, their coaches–and a number of them were frightened of marriage,” he says.
At the same time, despite the poor odds, most of the students yearn for their own marriages, says Steve. They hungered for someone to provide good news about marriage, a little encouragement.
“When I would go out to the campus bar with kids, they didn’t ask what Al Gore was really like,” Steve explains. “They asked what Cokie is really like.”
Steve’s words of marital wisdom: “You can often tell a good marriage by the number of teeth marks on your tongue.” He then explains why biting one’s tongue is essential to a good marriage. “Candor is often overrated in marriage. I don’t mean deceit or lying, but tact and tolerance. Often, the very best thing you can do in a marriage is shut up.”