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History is Not Destiny

In the days surrounding my father’s yahrtzeit, I have been remembering him and all he shared with me. On Friday evening, I lit a yahrtzeit candle to honor him in that particularly Jewish way.

My thoughts about interfaith marriage are also closely connected to the story of my father’s family. My grandmother converted to Judaism to marry my grandfather. I don’t have much memory of her, but what I noticed as a kid was the difference between my family and my uncles and cousins. Both of my father’s brothers married women who weren’t Jewish, and none of my cousins on that side of the family were raised Jewish. There was no big Passover seder. They would send me Hanukah gifts, but we sent them Christmas presents in return.

I don’t think my father was particularly concerned about interfaith marriage, but he happened to fall in love with my mother and she happened to be Jewish. Together, they raised me to have a strong Jewish identity and to find beauty, meaning, and connection in the Jewish holidays and traditions.

When I was a teenager, I never thought I would marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. Judaism was too important to me and I had seen what happened in interfaith households in my father’s family. I drew a line in the sand and said that I would only marry someone Jewish. As I got older and started dating more, though, it seemed impractical to only date Jews. Besides, there were a lot of nice guys who weren’t Jewish!

A turning point came in high school when a camp counselor I looked up to asked me why it was important to me to marry someone Jewish. I realized then that the most important thing for me was having Jewish children. But he didn’t stop there — he asked me why it was important to have Jewish kids. Now there was a question I’d never stopped to consider! Instead of taking it for a given, I actually had to formulate for myself the meaning I drew from being Jewish.

It wasn’t hard to come up with a list of reasons. I love the connection I feel to the Jewish community; how I can imagine Jews the world over all lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night, binding us to each other and to our history. I love the holidays and the symbolism in the special foods we eat. And I love the rituals that help me draw meaning from different times of the year and different stages of life. Judaism has truly sustained me through my life.

Fast forward to after college. My relationships were becoming more serious and marriage seemed an encroaching reality, not a far off possibility. Now I had to make a real choice about who I would marry. The bottom line I kept coming back to was knowing that I wanted a Jewish family — not only Jewish children, but a partner who would understand my love of Judaism and participate in creating a Jewish household with me.

I dated several Jewish men who couldn’t give a flip about Judaism or were even hostile to it. That wasn’t going to work. I dated a Christian man who understood my love for my faith, but who also loved his own religion. We shared a lot — and even talked about marriage — but ultimately could not find a way to talk about how we would have religion in our lives together. The discussions always became defensive or contests about which religion was better. Further, they were symptomatic of bigger communication issues in our relationship.

Finally, I met Andrew. He was funny and caring, but he didn’t really like the whole idea of organized religion. Although he had gone to church and Sunday school as a kid, he saw more of the pain and suffering that organized religions had inflicted on people throughout history. But he knew Judaism was important to me and was willing to come with me to Shabbat dinners and high holiday services. He has since told me that he came to see a different side of religion, the possibility of beauty and meaning, through these experiences with me.

Before we married, Andrew fully committed to raising Jewish children and creating a Jewish household with me. I love how he’s jumped into learning more about the history and traditions. His friends even joke that he’s now “Jew-ish.”

So what’s the moral of this story? History is not destiny. Just because I can see in my own family how interfaith marriage can lead to disengagement in the Jewish community, it does not have to be this way. I decided that for me, it was less important who I married and more important that my partner committed to living a Jewish life with me. I found the man that I love, but I didn’t have to choose between him and my Judaism. Together we can pass on the beauty, the meaning, and the connectedness of being Jewish. I discovered that it’s less about who you love, and more about the love of Judaism.

Stacie Garnett-Cook