This year has been extremely busy, I got a new job, I am finishing up my master’s degree, and this summer I got married. All of these thing are relatively commonplace and don’t really warrant a whole lot of explanation. The only thing, of these three, that is exceptional is the fact that the woman I married belongs to a different religious tradition that I do. I was raised Catholic outside of Chicago, went to Sunday school and ended up studying Catholic theology. My wife grew up just outside of Birmingham, Alabama; she also attended Sunday school and minored in religious studies at the same Catholic institution that I attended. We both came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and share a lot of the same values and interests. One of the few major differences between us is that, while I was attending Sunday school at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, my wife was attending Sunday school at Temple Emanuel. I prepared for confirmation while she prepared for her Bat-Mitzvah. Her Sabbath is on Saturday and mine is on Sunday.
I had never planned on falling in love with a Jewish girl. I actually didn’t really restrict myself to any particular religious tradition when considering who to date. I grew up knowing that my mom was raised Protestant and my Dad was raised Catholic. Their situation is definitely more common than mine, but still was a challenge and I grew up feeling as though their ‘mixed’ marriage was something that helped me to be open minded and accepting of difference. When I started dating my wife I didn’t plan on marrying her, but it soon became clear that I didn’t want to be with anyone else. From the very moment that feeling was shared between us we started to deal with some very serious questions that, from what I can tell, many couples do not discuss until after the wedding, if at all. We had to talk about religion and what it meant to us. It was a challenge for both of us. Luckily she had been to Mass and knew a pretty good amount about Catholicism and I had studied Judaism so we had a little bit of context. What became clear is that religion is not defined by the institutions we identify with but the personal connection we find within those institutions.
She would ask me questions and I realized that I was trained very well to answer these questions – even though I did not fully understand the answers. My wife found it much more difficult to explain what it meant to ‘be Jewish.’ I began to understand that struggling with identity and wrestling with questions is a huge part of the Jewish tradition. Having answers for everything is almost counter-intuitive to the Jewish imagination. As we had these conversations we both started to explore our own traditions with new eyes. This process continues, and it has enriched both of our lives in ways we could not have imagined.
Another aspect of our interfaith courtship was encountering the limits of ‘traditional’ religious ideas. To this day, whenever we share our dual-faith relationship, everyone has to ask a follow-up question, “how does that work?” Or suggesting that one of us converts. It isn’t easy facing suspicion at the very premise of the most important relationship in your life. What was especially frustrating was reading priests and rabbi’s talking about how interfaith marriages are destructive to tradition and threaten the integrity of the Tradition.
My wife has been involved in the local Jewish federation, and even worked for them for a little bit. She is really committed to the Jewish community and really wants to be involved as much as she can. About six months before our wedding she started writing for a blog for Jewish young adults in the city. When she was asked to write, she told them that she would probably write about her interfaith relationship. They agreed and she wrote a few articles. A couple of them were about our relationship, but some were about other issues she faced as a young Jewish woman.
One day she wrote an article about a Catholic-Jewish couples group we had attended. The group was a place to talk about the issues facing interfaith couples and perhaps share some solutions. Among other things, we discussed the issue of raising children. The woman who ran the group shared that she and her Orthodox Jewish husband had raised their three children in both traditions. Her story gave many of us hope and some ideas about what our life could be. When she submitted the article she got an email back that said that they could not publish the article because it was too controversial. My wife and I were both incredibly hurt, not only because they knew this is what she would write about but also because if the purpose of the blog is to engage young Jewish people, these are the kinds of real issues that they are dealing with.
This is the most extreme example of something we have experienced, especially from the Jewish community. A majority of Jewish leaders reject the notion of inter-marriage because of some fear that it will destroy the integrity of the Jewish community. The problem is that anyone who has been on J-Date knows that finding a partner who fulfills you in every way a spouse should, and is also Jewish, is incredibly difficult. The reality is that the Jewish community is losing people who would otherwise be involved, because they condemn their choice of spouse.
Obviously these issues are much more complicated than I can explain here but, since I have been engaged to my wife, I have felt like I am part of some group of outlaws. I hesitate to share my wife’s religious identity with people out of fear that they might treat me as less Catholic because I didn’t force her to convert for me. Fortunately most people in the Catholic Church that I have met have been incredibly supportive. We were married by a Priest and a Rabbi, both of whom we felt connected to and we continue to explore the dynamics of an Inter-faith marriage. I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I know that as long as I face it with my wife, I don’t have to worry about anything.