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Have You Heard the One about the Priest and the Rabbi?

“So, there was a priest and a rabbi. . . ” Whenever my husband Barry and I tell the story of our wedding, it sounds as if we are telling a joke. I assure you that planning an interfaith wedding that met our hopes and our family’s expectations was no joke. We worked hard, but the results were well worth the effort.

There was so much that went into planning our wedding that it would be easy to overlook that for us, the groundwork for a successful wedding day was laid long before the question was popped and the engagement toasted. In our case, we began our wedding planning by wooing the in-laws a year before we got engaged.

Wooing the In-Laws
“Teresa? But, that doesn’t sound very Jewish!” My future mother-in-law’s immediate and spontaneous reaction when Barry informed her that he was dating someone named Teresa was my first indication that she just might prefer someone Jewish for her son. At the time, Barry and I were not serious so I laughed it off. To be honest, I agreed with her. I thought that Barry and I would never last and that he would some day settle down with a nice Jewish woman. He was wonderful, but he didn’t make my heart pound–and there was the interfaith problem.

What I hadn’t counted on was how comfortable Barry and I would be together. I felt more at ease around him than I’ve ever been with anyone. He was and is my best friend, an intellectual sparring partner, and a witty guy who knows how to diffuse my bad moods with a sly remark. The final missing piece fell into place after two years of dating. I was coming off a plane to see him after a month apart. The sight of his smiling face made my heart literally jump and start pounding (it still does). I was in love, but more importantly, I knew that–interfaith and all–we made a great couple for the long haul.

As Barry prepared to move to another city, we discussed our future together. We agreed that we were heading toward marriage but, because of commitments to graduate school in different parts of the country, we decided that the wedding should wait for two years.

We used our time wisely. Barry and I informed all parents and grandparents of our intentions a year prior to the official engagement, which came a year prior to the wedding. We wanted them to have a chance to get all their concerns resolved so that when the actual announcement was made they could be truly happy for us. We wanted them to feel confident that we were aware of the potential challenges an interfaith marriage posed. And, we wanted to prove we were not naive enough to think that love alone could overcome difficulties that might arise. We joined an interfaith couples group and read books on the subject. We encouraged our parents to read and talk to us about concerns they might have so that we could all feel comfortable, confident and joyful when the engagement was made official.

Neither set of parents immediately embraced our choice of a partner as the ideal match for their child’s future happiness and each expressed concern about potential grandchildren adding unforeseen difficulties to the situation. Since our parents took the opportunity we gave them to ask their questions and voice their concerns, we were able to provide answers. We were able to show them that we had not entered into our decision without forethought and awareness.

I knew I had sufficiently wooed my mother-in-law when she confided in me that she had never seen Barry so happy. In fact, his whole family congratulated me on the difference. My parents loved Barry as well but needed a bit more time to be sure this match could weather the religious differences. I think as we happily approach our ninth anniversary (having produced two beautiful grandchildren) we are finally convincing them that an interfaith marriage can thrive.

Finding an Officiant
With the family on board for the marriage, we turned our attention to planning the actual ceremony. The first challenge was created by our desire to have both of our religions represented in the ceremony. We understood that what we were doing qualified as neither a Catholic nor a Jewish wedding. However, we did feel that religion was an appropriate piece of our wedding ceremony. We wanted both a rabbi and a priest because we wanted to honor and acknowledge both of the religious beliefs that we brought to our union.

In both religions it certainly seemed that the most important thing about the wedding was laying claim to future children. The sureness of a decision we had made prior to our marriage–to raise our future children as Jews while I remained Catholic–made many of the priests and rabbis with whom we met uncomfortable.

The Catholic Church requires couples to sign an oath that future children will be raised Catholic or that we had not made any decision regarding their religious upbringing. I would have thought that having come to an agreement with Barry prior to our marriage would have been given more credit than having avoided the subject altogether. One priest with whom we met assumed that I only wanted a priest at the wedding to please my parents rather than as an indication of my own beliefs. We continued to search until we found a priest who respected Barry and me as a couple and who understood that I could have my own religious beliefs and still raise my children in another religion.

Responses from rabbis were not much better. Barry didn’t approach his childhood rabbi, as he anticipated that the rabbi would not only say no but would also convey a challenge to and disappointment in Barry’s decision to marry me. Since we were going to raise our children as Jews, we attended services at synagogues and joined a Jewish-sponsored interfaith couples’ group. It was one of these group discussions that sealed the alienation that Barry had been increasingly feeling from the Conservative Jewish faith with which he had grown up. He realized that, while this synagogue was anxious to welcome us back when children arrived, they were adamant that they would have nothing to do with marrying the two of us. He found their emphasis on reclamation rather than proactive inclusion to be short sighted. Why would we want to join a congregation with our children where we were clearly not welcome as a couple?

This incident solidified Barry’s choice to move away from Conservative Judaism. We found a Reform congregation that welcomed us as a couple.

The Nuts and Bolts
I love the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Zero Mostel says something like, “Why do we do it? (a shrug) Tradition!” In other words, some things are done just because that is the way they have always been done. Catholic weddings are held in churches. Jewish weddings need only two Jews and a ring. Barry and I were having neither a Catholic nor a Jewish wedding. We needed to incorporate traditions and symbolism that were meaningful to us both and also brought meaning to the ceremony for our family and friends.

We included family in the day as much as possible. I asked my Catholic mother to make a chuppah (wedding canopy) by recreating a family heirloom tablecloth that had been embroidered by her grandmother. My three sisters and Barry’s brother were our attendants and, with our parents, stood at the four corners of the chuppah. The prayers were crafted to provide familiar verse for both Catholic and Jewish friends and family. Both officiants provided explanations of sections of the service that might have seemed unfamiliar to some in attendance. Barry’s grandfather said the blessing over the challah at the reception.

Passing the Test
I would argue that the process of planning an interfaith ceremony can be a strong indicator of how the rest of the marriage will play out. I recommend that couples pay attention to how they negotiate differences of opinions. What ends up getting compromised? Does any one feel that she or he is losing rather than gaining–giving in more often than creating something new together? How does the couple respond to explicit or implicit expectations from family members? Was each individual true to him- or herself, or were difficult decisions avoided or ignored? What makes a good marriage isn’t lack of conflict, but rather the ability to work together to resolve the conflict.

Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.