I'm Jewish, he's not: How we learned to count our mixed blessings
When I told my family that my non-Jewish boyfriend and I were tying the knot, my grandmother countered with an announcement of her own. "Fine," she said. "I'll just go upstairs now and kill myself."
Her reaction was dramatic, but not exactly original. For as long as lovers have been saying "I do," they've been pressured to pick partners from among their own kind. Montagues weren't to woo Capulets. Mennon- ites, Muslims and Mormons all encourage endogamy. Anti-miscegenation laws once criminalized cross-race unions in 30 states. My own parents' marriage was considered mixed in its day: Mom's people were Russian Litvaks, Dad's Galitsiyaners, from Poland. But at least they were all Jews.
Grandma's vow to do herself in was a twist on tradition. Jewish children who "marry out" were supposed to be considered dead to their parents; they lamented the loss by sitting shiva -- observing ritual mourning. My parents were having none of that. Sure, they would have preferred that I had chosen a Jew. But they liked David. And since we'd already been together four years -- I'd moved 3000 miles away to live with him -- they were mostly relieved that we were making it legal.
The focus now was on the details. The ceremony would take place at my family's home in New Jersey and we would cater it ourselves. I would wear the dress my mother wore as a bride. Most importantly, it would be a Jewish ceremony, complete with canopy, broken glass and rabbi.
That last detail seemed like a no-brainer. Even though my mate wasn't a member of the tribe, I still was. At least, that's how I saw it. My intention was to keep practicing my religion as before: attending synagogue a couple of times a year and celebrating Hanukkah and Passover at home. Our children would attend Hebrew school, as I had. They would be named Horowitz, rather than Christensen.
All of this was OK by David. He's the product of a mixed marriage himself: His Danish-American father was raised as a Protestant; his Parsi mother was born into the ancient Zoroastrian religion, whose members were exiled from Persia and settled in India about a thousand years ago. Although his scientist parents had brought him up pretty much religion-free and he had no interest in converting, he understood what my legacy meant to me. Plus, he liked lighting candles and eating latkes.
Negotiating these terms between the two of us turned out to be a lot easier than finding clergy to oversee our nuptials. The rabbi at my parents' Conservative synagogue was out of the question. Conservative and Orthodox rabbis are barred from performing intermarriages. They're even prohibited from attending such ceremonies, and aren't supposed to congratulate intermarried couples or their families. Clergy within the more liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements can decide for themselves whether to bless mixed unions.
Around half do, according to the Rabbinic Center for Research and Counseling, an organization that helps mixed couples find a place within Judaism. But the RCRC's findings also show that even intermarriage-friendly rabbis have their limits. Close to 60 percent require that the couple commits to establishing a "Jewish home." More than half won't co-officiate with clergy from a different religion. And still fewer will participate if the venue is a church, or if a cross or other Christian symbol is present.
Why all this resistance? Building a lasting bond is difficult enough, opponents point out. Why add extra stressors such as differences in background and belief? Another argument is that the kids will be confused -- especially if both parents are committed to their faiths. Practical considerations aside, traditional Jewish law is clear: Intermarriages aren't considered valid. Because Jewish identity passes through the mother, children whose fathers are Jewish and whose mothers are not have to convert in order to be considered Jews.
Visceral reactions like my grandmother's are driven by demographics. Ever since Exodus, Jews have been struggling to stay off the endangered religious species list. The Holocaust made horrifyingly real the possibility of disappearing as a people. Ironically, since the Second World War, as anti-Semitism has declined and Jews have been welcomed into more schools, neighborhoods and jobs, intermarriage rates in the U.S. have soared. Around 50 percent of Jews marrying today are getting hitched to non-Jews. And the rate is likely to increase. Studies show that Jews who "marry out" are less apt to raise their children within the religion, and those offspring more often marry non-Jews themselves.
Like other aspects of globalization, social integration threatens cultural uniqueness. And Jews aren't the only ones sounding the alarm. Among Parsis living in the West, intermarriage rates are roughly the same as those for Jews. But the existential calculus for Zoroastrians is more dire, as a posting on zoroastrian.com points out. "The world Jewish population is about 13,000,000," the author of "Save the Parsi!" notes. "The world Parsi/Irani population is 130,000 . . . If the Jews are in grave danger due to intermarriage, what would you say about the Parsis?"
Exacerbating the problem for Zoroastrians is their religion's tenet against conversion, and its policy of not recognizing half-Parsis, such as my husband. Calls to slow the group's decline by loosening these restrictions are being hotly debated. A parallel conversation is underway within Judaism.
Organizations such as the RCRC and the Jewish Outreach Institute take an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. The best response to the reality of intermarriage, they argue, is to make Judaism more welcoming and attractive to mixed families. Often, the make-or-break moment occurs when the wedding is being planned. Not surprisingly, interfaith couples who try to have a Jewish wedding -- and succeed -- are much more likely to raise their kids within the religion than those who get turned away.
To improve the odds, the RCRC maintains a list of intermarriage-friendly rabbis. For $30, you can send for a roster of 338 individuals in the U.S. Those who would rather not shell o ut the bucks can look online. A Google search unveils dozens of niche-market-savvy clergy with websites such as interfaithrabbi.com, faithtofaithweddings.com, the euphemistic rabbinetwork.com and the all-business RabbiRentals.com. Purists may wring their hands, but intermarriage is a growth industry.
In 1981, we found our clergy through word of mouth. My parents first turned to the rabbi they'd hired for my older sister's interfaith wedding, 10 years earlier. He wasn't available. David and I weren't able to speak with the rabbi they did find until just a couple of days before the ceremony. He seemed disappointed that we hadn't written our own vows and weren't interested in incorporating any personalized rituals into the service. We just wanted him to do his thing.
We stood under a canopy of fresh flowers. We shared wine. The rabbi recited the Seven Blessings. I repeated the traditional Jewish vows in Hebrew, and David recited a modified version in English. David stamped on the glass. Once the rabbi had driven off, we moved to the front steps for a Zoroastrian benediction.
David's mother and her sister had arranged a silver tray with symbols of sweetness and abundance: fruits, nuts, flowers, rock sugar, coins. His aunt made paisley patterns on the walk with white powder tapped through special tin stencils. His mother mixed red powder with water, then dipped her finger into the paste, drew vertical stripes down our foreheads, and pressed rice into the damp stripes. The blending of backgrounds felt natural and relaxed. Even Grandma -- who hadn't carried out her promise after all -- seemed to enjoy the day.
That ease extended into our marriage. When Sophie and Sam were born, David and I followed our original agreement. After we moved to Burlington, I joined the Conservative synagogue, Ohavi Zedek. On the High Holidays, the children and I went to services there, and then came home to share the festive meal with David. On Hanukkah, he coached the kids as they learned the Hebrew blessings over the candles. On Easter, I helped them hunt for hidden chocolate eggs and marshmallow peeps. They learned about God in Hebrew school, then listened as David read them a children's book arguing for atheism.
The arrangement worked well for 18 years. But we hadn't counted on a crisis. My parents passed away within a few years of each other and, in my grief, I turned to religion. I appreciated the community support and the structure of established ritual. The minor melodies and Hebrew words reminded me of my childhood, and felt comfortingly familiar.
My twice-a-year synagogue habit became a daily fix. Before long, I wasn't just attending services every day. I was leading them. And my increased observance spilled over into my home life. When David wanted to go shopping on Saturday afternoons, I silently resented the intrusion on my Sabbath. Although I had never kept kosher before, I surreptitiously started experimenting with not mixing milk and meat. Because I was loath to provoke a confrontation, I never discussed any of this with David. But he could see what was happening. One day he asked, "You've stopped buying pork chops, haven't you?"
I had to admit that he was right. And I wasn't just forcing my will on the family. I was reneging on my side of the bargain. But what could I do? In the 18 years since our wedding, I had changed. I found myself trapped between spirituality and my spouse -- caught between the rock of being a bad Jew and the hard place of failing as a wife. If only I'd listened to my grandmother, I thought, I wouldn't be too embarrassed to say my morning prayers aloud. During services, I gazed longingly at those congregants who attended as couples, and wished I had a Jewish husband sitting beside me, too. More and more, I started feeling like an outsider -- both at the synagogue and in my own home.
It seemed like a no-win situation, but it wasn't. Ultimately, the solution came from within Judaism. Rabbi Joshua Chasan, at Ohavi Zedek, had helped me find comfort in spiritual practice. Now he explained that the point of religion wasn't to make people slaves to ritual but to foster freedom. He stressed the Jewish concept of shalom bayit -- peace in the home. With his encouragement, I remembered what had drawn me to David in the first place, and saw that those qualities were still there. I started dwelling less on the life I imagined I might have had and more on the one I was living. It was pretty damned good.
At the same time, I looked around the synagogue sanctuary more carefully and realized I wasn't such an oddball. Most participants came without partners. Lots of them were also sharing homes with non-Jews. And even single-religion households sometimes had their spiritual squabbles.
Couples who weather conflicts often end up stronger than before. David and I started discussing religion more openly, and working together to find a new formula that would work for us both. I dropped my campaign to keep kosher and settled into a twice-weekly synagogue schedule. We began welcoming the Sabbath on Friday nights as a family -- saying blessings over wine and bread, and lighting candles. David bought me special silver candlesticks and my own prayer shawl to wear during services. Although he rarely comes to synagogue, when I wrap the shawl around me, I feel his embrace.
My self-confidence as an intermarried Jew increased significantly about four years ago. I got a call from a couple asking if I could perform their wedding ceremony. She was Jewish and he was not. They wanted a Jewish wedding and hadn't had any luck connecting with the handful of clergy who officiate at intermarriages in Vermont. They'd gotten my name through a friend who knew my story, and had seen me leading services and chanting from the Torah. Although I had never performed a wedding before, I figured I could learn.
One thing I found out is that a Jewish wedding doesn't even require a rabbi. The couple essentially marries each other. Because I didn't have any legal standing with the state, we brought in a justice of the peace to sign the license and declare them united in the eyes of Vermont.
We stood under a wedding canopy in a field in Goshen, my prayer shawl fluttering in the wind. The couple shared wine. I sang the Seven Blessings. Together, they broke the glass. I looked out at the guests and there was David, cheering among the crowd.