I don’t remember all of the lessons my mother tried to teach me as a child; let’s be honest, most of us don’t. But I vividly remember one phrase she repeated. She’d say, “I don’t care who you end up with—what color, size or gender. All I care about is that they’re a good person who’ll walk to the end of the Earth for you, treat you with respect and is preferably—but not necessarily—Jewish.”
Needless to say, my coming out process in high school was pretty easy for my family, despite how many times I changed my labels before I settled comfortably into my adult identity. It also made teenage dating (relatively) painless, given the few criteria my mom had for who was worthy of my affection. And, by complete accident, I only seriously dated other Jews: Queer Jews, secular Jews, Jews who chose to follow other religious beliefs and didn’t yet identify with Judaism but would never deny their ties to the Jewish people. All Jews that is, until 2019.
That’s when I started dating Jo, a man who hadn’t met a Jew until he went to college, where we met. Jo is a small town boy from Central Oregon who went to a conservative Christian school. I’m a nonbinary Jew from Southern California raised by a kosher but secular hippie and a non-kosher but observant Jewish teacher for neurodivergent children. Other than our visible queerness and affinity for tattoos, we don’t have much in common. I love school. He hates it. I’m a dancer; he dislikes live theater. I’m going to be a rabbi; he doesn’t follow organized religion. Let’s put it this way: He’s the reason I had a Christmas stocking for the first time and also why there’s a Buddha statue in the fish tank.
At face value, my current relationship should be doomed to fail, right? In the words of Yente from Fiddler on the Roof, “Of course right!” So why is this man, the only one of my past partners with different interests and no ties to Judaism, the person I will marry? Why does this relationship work?
My brain, notoriously ridden with the iconic Jewish anxiety, has pondered these questions too many times. I’ve wondered what it is about our love that makes me feel like, despite our many differences, we can be happy together. After living with him through the COVID-19 pandemic, tripping over each other in our one-bedroom apartment with four pets, I’ve concluded that our differences are superficial. What we disagree on are interests, not values. He enjoys gaming with his friends online while I watch a show on Netflix he’d hate—and later we discuss values we hope to instill in our not-yet-existing child.
We’ve spoken for hours about the ways we believe in divinity, often arguing until we realize we’re using different language to discuss the same thing. Despite my liberal Jewish upbringing and his relative Christian conservatism, we surprisingly agree on most religious concepts; I just use more Hebrew.
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges. Jo hadn’t met a Jew until he was 18 years old, a fact that absolutely frightened me when he first brought me home to his family. For him, a lot of our relationship has been a learning curve. As a white person from a Christian background, there were many things about Jewish ethno-religious practices that were foreign to him. Much to my delight, he has shown me his willingness to listen and learn. My mother even caught him chanting the Hanukkah blessings with me on FaceTime! For me, however, I’ve had an internal struggle.
My relationship with Christianity is complicated. To boil it down, I have always viewed the institution of Christianity as synonymous with the oppressor. That certainly doesn’t mean I think there aren’t good Christian beliefs or good Christians. It means I see the impact of institutionalized Christianity on the world, especially the Jewish world, as largely negative. It’s not historically inaccurate to claim that Jews have been persecuted for 2,000 years simply because we aren’t Christian. So, celebrating Christmas or going to Jo’s family gatherings have presented internal crises for me at times. However, these struggles have prompted me to soul search about my biases and become more tolerant.
And that’s the thing—being with someone so different from me has not changed or diluted who I am. If anything, our differences have strengthened connections to the parts of me I love the most. Our relationship has made me a better communicator, something I’ve been practicing since “magic circle” at my hippie elementary school that taught nonviolent communication and problem solving as mandatory curriculum. Waking up every morning, not surrounded by a Jewish presence and actively seeking out that connection, has confirmed what I’ve been debating since I became b’nei mitzvah: I want to be a rabbi.
Going to bed every night next to the person that my heart fell in love with, even though my brain knew we had the odds stacked against us, has reaffirmed how proud I am of myself: the strong, out-of-the-closet queer that I am. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from living out of that dreaded closet, it’s that denying oneself the ability to love for the sole purpose of social acceptance is never the right choice.