It is a sunny spring Sunday in Sacramento. As has been our custom for the last twelve years, my wife and I and our two daughters enter our Unitarian Church. As I sit quietly in the sanctuary, bedecked with banners representing twelve of the world’s religions, I muse on how I, who was raised in a moderately observant Conservative Jewish family, have wound up here.
It is the spring of 1987 in San Francisco. My fiance and I, well-educated, well-traveled thirty-somethings, are planning our wedding. Among the myriad details that must be addressed is who will officiate at our wedding. It is a not a simple decision.
My wife was raised in a churchgoing Presbyterian family. Her churchgoing days are long past. As an adult, I have drifted away from my Jewish roots. I attend the yearly Passover seder (ritual meal) at my sister’s house, sporadically attend High Holiday services when I can get a ticket, and once a year go to Friday night services to say Yahrzeit (yearly remembrance) for my mother. My drift away from Judaism is not merely the product of my busy single lifestyle. There has not been enough spiritual “there” there for me for many years.
My wife, who has lived all over the world, is open to a number of options. Having been exposed to a variety of religious traditions, she feels that all religions really have the same message: “be good and do good.” Her view is “all the rest is politics.”
For the sake of my ailing father, it would be easiest if we were married by a rabbi. But I want the ceremony to feel inclusive for my wife’s family and our friends who were mostly not Jewish. Our first stop is a phone call to a large Reform congregation in our community. “Would the rabbi be willing to perform a wedding for a Jewish man and a woman who is not Jewish?” “Only if she commits to convert.” My wife is very open-minded about religion, but I know this is out of the question. She decided to marry me, not my religion. She encourages me to contact other rabbis.
We then visit another Reform congregation. “Would the rabbi be willing to perform a wedding for a Jewish man and a woman who is not Jewish?” “Of course.” Would the rabbi be willing to co-officiate with a Protestant minister?” “Absolutely not!”
Our next stop is a smaller, more liberal congregation reputed to be a home to many interfaith couples. “Would the rabbi be willing to perform a wedding for a Jewish man and a woman who is not Jewish?” “Yes, definitely.” Would the rabbi be willing to co-officiate with a Protestant minister? “She has done that on occasion. She would need to talk about that with the minister directly, but it is a possibility.” There is, however, one condition. We must sign a contract which binds us to raise any children of this marriage to be Jewish.
Somewhat uncertain as to whether I can, in good conscience, sign such a contract, I nonetheless tell my future wife about this. “They certainly don’t make this easy, do they? You would think they would be delighted to get a foot in the door with us, and then let the obvious benefits of the religion—its rich heritage and family orientation—sell itself.” I couldn’t disagree.
Frustrated, we find a non-demonstrational Christian minister who is open to having us write our own wedding ceremony, promises not to mention the “J” word [for Jesus], and in an odd acknowledgement of my Jewish heritage, is willing to end the ceremony with my wife breaking a glass.
It is the spring of 1988. I am joyfully pregnant with our first daughter. Once again, there are myriad details to attend to—child-care arrangements, nursery decorations, pediatrician interviews. Once again, we must face the “religion” issue. We are both committed to giving our children a religious education, but in what religion? With great relief, we think we’ve come up with the perfect solution. We will raise our children in both of our religious traditions! As they approach adulthood, they can decide which religion to call their own. We’ll celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, Easter and Passover.
To fill in the details of our decision, we attend a workshop for interfaith couples at Temple Emanuel in San Francisco. Here, we are confronted with the harsh reality: How can we expect a twelve or sixteen year old to make a decision which we, as mature adults, find too daunting. What may seem like a “simple” choice between two religions is in reality a choice between dad and mom. It is not an option for me to raise my child as a Christian. My wife feels so unwelcome by Judaism that raising her child as a Jew is not an option. We are back to the drawing boards!
We attend a Sunday service at the Unitarian Church in San Francisco. We both find it acceptable. Little mention of the “J” word. Much respect paid to the teachings of all the world’s religions. Beautiful music. But most of all, no coercion.
This spring, I find myself sitting in the synagogue about to celebrate the B’nai Mitzvah (ceremony in which a person assumes the privileges and responsibilities of an adult Jew) of my youngest nephew and niece. The synagogue is full to overflowing with well wishers from all over the country. I am a bit wistful about the fact that my daughters will not experience such a sense of support from their religious community as they approach adulthood. I wonder what might have been had one of those rabbis so many years ago been more willing to take a chance, to be less rigid, to let Judaism sell itself.