I always knew I wanted to have a Jewish family. My family had been profoundly ambivalent about its Jewish identity–both my parents were fairly alienated from any Jewish practice by the time I was born, and my brother and I were essentially raised as atheists with a mezuzah on the door and a menorah in winter-time.
One year I asked if we could have a Passover seder. We wound up having burritos instead. (It would be cute if it wasn’t true.) Around middle school I started getting very interested in Jewish identity and reading everything I could find, but still wasn’t sure what form I wanted my own practice to take. What I did know was that it was very important to me to eventually feel part of a community, and to have a family that shared my interest and commitment to Jewishness, whatever that ultimately looked like.
So I was a little conflicted when my first–and only–girlfriend turned out to be a lapsed Christian.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t open to dating people who weren’t Jewish–I had some Jewish friends and acquaintances growing up, but it wasn’t something I sought out. But I had also never dated before, which gave me the very convenient option of never really needing to think about the issue. I had read various anti-interfaith marriage essays online and in print and knew that some people considered it to be one of the worst things a Jew could do. Towards the beginning of our relationship, I had been nervous about slowly introducing my girlfriend to my own evolving Jewish practice. We were fortunate that one of our close mutual friends was a religious Conservative Jew and made a point of inviting us to participate in all sorts of Jewish activities. This made it fun and accessible for us to try different things out during our college years. We went to shul, we celebrated holidays like Passover and Sukkot and we lit Shabbat candles. One night I thanked her for “being open” to me exploring this part of my heritage. She replied, “I’m not just open. I’m in.”
Our relationship differed from the “classic” interfaith marriage stories I had read about from the 70s and 80s. My girlfriend, whom I’ll call Athena, had stopped being interested in Christianity long before she met me (not that her parents knew that). For us, there was really very little conflict. Yes, she gets nostalgic for Christmas trees. But stockings are a decent compromise. Yes, eight days of Passover is kind of a pain to go without bread. But when you eat rice and avoid matzah recipes, it’s fairly tolerable. Don’t get me wrong, Athena has no interest in being Orthodox. But as far as basic home observances go, she actually seems to like those more–and seems to enjoy synagogue more–than she ever did back at her family’s church.
What do our families think? Well, my family is actually pretty easy. They just plain don’t care. In fact, it was Athena’s parents, the Alabaman Episcopalians, who were concerned. First of all, they were pretty disappointed that she had burst their imaginary bubble of what their potential-son-in-law would be like. (Californian? More liberal than them? Not Protestant? Oy.) Second, they assumed that because they were always hearing about us doing this Jewish thing or that Jewish thing, I must be really religious. Hearing about my beard probably did not help. I’m guessing they were picturing our future home looking like a scene out of Fiddler on the Roof. “We don’t want you to be judged,” they told her. Yes, maybe my parents didn’t mind (that could be chalked up to living in San Francisco, after all), but what about the rest of the family? How would they accept her?
When the time came to introduce my girlfriend to my extended family at a cousin’s bar mitzvah, I remember that she relayed her mother’s concern to me–wouldn’t some of the older relatives, well, “mind?” I had to laugh. My mother and father are the only ones out of their combined four brothers and sisters who married Jews, and as far as they’re concerned, that was pretty much an accident. My grandmother has long made her peace with it. In fact, her only question after meeting my girlfriend was to ask when we were getting married. So much for worrying about the cold shoulder. We’ve actually had a harder time getting her parents and grandparents to accept the idea that we may wind up having little ones who don’t do much for Epiphany or grow up never knowing the (questionable) joys of Maundy Thursday.
No, she doesn’t want to convert. I had to think very hard about whether that was OK. Could I have Jewish kids without a Jewish spouse? But more importantly, Jewish according to whose standards? Before then, I had theoretically had the entire Jewish spectrum open and available to me to sample and dabble in as I chose. I had worn a yarmulke for a few months in high school and liked it. I was intrigued by praying in Hebrew and had a certain fascination with growing my beard long and sprouting sidecurls (if only to mess with my parents). I had even studied some Kabbalah and Talmud in college. Would choosing to date or even marry someone of another faith wind up limiting my Jewish practice before I even really started?
I had to choose, and I did. I knew she made me happy. I knew she made me a better person. I knew that half the time, she was the one nagging me to go to shul. I decided that I was not going force her to do anything she didn’t want to do. It does not bother me whether she is Jewish, as long as she does Jewish things with me. I trust that our still-hypothetical kids will grow up in a far more Jewish environment than I did. And for now, that’s enough for me.