Recently, I’ve been studying Mussar, the Jewish practice of self-improvement. Mussar focuses on personal and spiritual growth by working on inner traits that need balancing. While reading about the trait of gratitude I was struck by the idea that our limited perception of a situation does not allow us to know with any certainty what is good and what is bad, despite appearances. I realized that this concept of a blessing in disguise was how I had come to view my interfaith marriage.
Marrying someone who isn’t Jewish was never my plan. I always intended to marry someone Jewish, and I did once. My Jewish identity is and has always been important to me. I studied for my bat mitzvah and confirmation, marched on Washington on behalf of Soviet Jews, was president of my temple youth group and traveled to Israel. But, considering my dating history, I should have realized that the probability of actually marrying a nice Jewish boy was slim.
The closest I came to a serious Jewish boyfriend was on my teen tour to Israel when I was 16. My high school boyfriend was Catholic and most guys I dated in college were of one Christian denomination or another.
As I prepared to graduate and go into the “real world” my mother reminded me that it was just as easy to date Jewish men as ones who were not. This was followed by, “marriage is hard enough when you’re the same religion.”
Then I found a nice Jewish boy. I was a counselor on a teen tour the summer after I graduated and I met someone that was with another group from the same company. We dated for two years. While the relationship didn’t last, I proved to myself (and my mother) that I could date Jewish men.
My next boyfriend was also Jewish. We dated for two years and then got engaged. Before the engagement I felt that the relationship wasn’t a good fit, but my family and friends seemed to like him and he was Jewish. The Jewish part was important.
My ex-husband grew up Conservative, but was not very connected in practice. Attending services on the High Holidays and eating a holiday meal on Passover and Hanukkah were enough. He didn’t want a more Jewish home. Still, I sensed that my mother was relieved.
A big Jewish wedding followed. Even though I grew up Reform, it was important to me that we incorporate many Jewish traditions and elements into the wedding. My grandfather walked me down the aisle to the music of Shalom Rav.
Marrying someone because you think it is what you’re parents want is never a good idea. Shortly after our two-year anniversary, we separated and then divorced.
I assumed I would meet another Jewish guy. Instead I met my husband, who wasn’t Jewish, and fell in love. It was clear early on that our relationship was serious. We talked about our religious identities and beliefs, and whether we could make an interfaith marriage work, within the first few months of being together. I wish I could say all the conversations were easy.
Our first Valentine’s Day dinner ended in a heated discussion about religion and a silent cab ride home. There were conversations while running in Central Park about how religion was created to govern, protect people’s health and explain the unexplainable. And there were tears shed at our kitchen table as I realized that no matter how much I tried to be open to having two religions in my home I couldn’t do it. I remember articulating the guilt I felt for considering intermarriage. I said, “After all the things the Jewish people have endured, how can I turn my back? If I don’t help to carry on the religion, who will?”
Shortly after that painful conversation an advertisement arrived in the mail for a course on interfaith relationships taught by a rector and a rabbi. Fate? Divine intervention? Coincidence? Regardless of the answer, we signed up to see if we could find a way to make our interfaith relationship work.
The class taught us about what Christianity and Judaism have in common and the importance of choosing one religion for a child and provided tools to navigate an interfaith marriage. Using the ideas we learned in class we decided that we would have a Jewish home and Jewish children. A few months later, we got engaged.
Has the interfaith journey been worth it so far? Absolutely. In many ways it’s been a gift. Being in an interfaith relationship has forced me to confront my own feelings and beliefs about religion, spirituality and God and to think about how they influence other aspects of my life. At times this has been disconcerting, but I’ve gotten to a more comfortable place with my own religious and spiritual identity, not just my Jewish cultural identity.
I’ve had the opportunity through our temple’s outreach programming to learn more about Jewish texts and traditions. This has lead me to explore more about Judaism on my own and has helped me to connect with the religion in new ways. I enjoy sharing my discoveries with my husband and son.
We have embraced Jewish holiday celebrations beyond the High Holidays, Passover and Hanukkah. Shabbat, Sukkot and Israel Independence Day are just a few that we celebrate. Without the “need” to instill a strong Jewish identity in my son because of our interfaith home I might not have been motivated to expand beyond the basic observances I grew up with.
Can different religions add a unique twist to relationship issues? Yes. Is interfaith marriage one challenge after another? Not necessarily. Today, as a member of an interfaith couple, I feel more connection to Judaism and more fulfillment from it than when I was married to a Jew. Marrying someone I love was an unmixed blessing for me. For my Jewish practice, it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.