Six Things I’ve Learned Over Six Years In An Interfaith Marriage
I met my husband when I was 29. With nearly three decades to picture exactly what kind of guy I was going to end up with, I had a lot of expectations. For one thing, I was certain he’d be Jewish. And if he wasn’t Jewish, he’d have at least played his fair share of Coke and Pepsi at his friends’ bar mitzvahs and danced the Horah at their weddings. I never imagined I’d be the first Jewish woman my husband would have ever known, let alone dated. But that’s exactly what happened.
Over the six years we’ve been married, I’ve learned a lot about my husband, myself, and what it takes to create a happy interfaith marriage.
- Communication is Crucial
I met my husband, Dan, at a bar on Valentine’s Day. By St. Patrick’s Day, I’d told him if we were going to be serious, we’d need to raise our kids Jewish. He told me he wasn’t sure what that would look like, but he was open to learning more. I wasn’t sure where to begin. He’d never even been to a Jewish wedding. I started with basics; if we had a son, he’d have a bris and we wouldn’t have a Christmas tree. I wasn’t sure about the rest, but we’ve been figuring it out as we go. It hasn’t always been as simple (or as scary) as that first conversation. But the fact that my husband’s first exposure to every Jewish holiday and customs has been through me, coupled with the unfortunate circumstance of him not being a mind-reader, means we talk about raising our kids Jewish—what that means and how we will do it—a lot.
- It’s Ok To Figure It Out As You Go
I didn’t know exactly what it would look like to raise Jewish kids with a gentile partner when my husband and I met—and nine years later, I still don’t. So far, we had a naming for each of our two daughters, we’ve experimented with different synagogues, and we take our kids to Tot Shabbat every month. As our oldest approaches kindergarten, we plan to join a congregation where she will attend Sunday School. Though we’ve never had a Christmas tree, I admit I enjoy putting a treats in their stockings at their grandparents’ house. My husband attended first his bar mitzvah with me on the east coast last year. The next morning, he asked whether we should start saving for our girls’ bat mitzvahs. Our eldest had not yet graduated preschool. I told him I hadn’t gotten there yet. Like so many other things in life and parenting, I’m ok with playing it by ear.
- I Have Awesome In-Laws
The second time I met her, my mother-in-law asked me how my parents felt about Dan not being Jewish. “They don’t care,” I said. “They’re happy that I’m happy.”“That’s exactly how Dan’s dad and I feel. Religion is just so personal,” she told me. I remember being glad we got that conversation out of the way.My in-laws are entrenched in their church community. They are regulars at bible study. My mother-in-law enjoys books about Christianity. But on her bookshelf is also a worn copy of “The Jewish Book of Why,” and a children’s book about Jewish girl who teachers her gentile friend all about Chanukah. My mother and father in law are happy to take their turns reading the Hagaddah at our seder. My sister-in-law gave me a necklace with my daughters’ birthstones and their Hebrew names. I don’t mean to brag, but I feel like I won the interfaith marriage in-law category.
- When You Can’t Figure It Out, Professional Help Is Worth It
Make no mistake; my husband and I communicate a lot, we are ok with some ambiguity about the future, and my in-laws rock, but that doesn’t mean it has always been easy. There have been times (and I’m sure there will be more) when we couldn’t discuss certain aspects of raising our kids Jewish without becoming frustrated (him), or raising our voices in anger (me). Those conversations never allowed real dialogue. Rather they opened the gate to the land of hurt feelings and power struggles.Until we enlisted the help of a therapist.When an unbiased professional asked the right questions and offered an alternative perspective, we were finally able to have productive conversations. There’s no shame in seeking professional help when you’re stuck.
- I am Capable of Answering My Kids’ Big Questions About Religion
Among the many tricky exchanges I’ve had with my preschooler over the past couple of years:Why are you Jewish and Dad’s not?
Mimi and Papa are Jewish and raised me to be Jewish, but Grandma and Grandpa are Christian, and Dad just isn’t into religion.What’s religion?
It’s what you believe about God and the world, how we should live, and what happens when you die.
Why don’t we celebrate Christmas?Because we’re not Christian.
Why doesn’t Santa come to our house?
Because he knows we stay at Grandma and Grandpa’s on Christmas Eve.
Why are we not Christian?
I’m Jewish, Dad’s not any religion, and you and your sister are Jewish because that was important to me and Dad was willing to go along with it.
As a parent, I consider myself an expert at making mistakes. That said, I feel I excel at coming up with age appropriate answers to big, confusing questions. While I have plenty of chances to answer to random secular questions on the fly (just today my four-year-old asked me what a pantyliner is for), the religion questions keep me razor sharp.
- My Husband Was Jewish in a Past Life
At first glance, he’s a fourth generation Colorado WASP who enjoys outdoorsy pursuits, like backpacking, rock climbing, and beekeeping. But scratch the surface, and some very Jewish traits emerge.Never content to accept anything at face value, he loves to turn an issue over like a Talmudic rabbi. Among friends and colleagues, he is known for asking hard questions. Not only does he think like a Jew, he eats like one, too. He would nosh on matzah all year long if the grocery carried it outside of February, March, and April. He also likes gefilte fish. I’m not saying he tolerates the mysterious fish mixture or that he acquired the taste over time. I’m saying he straight up loves gefilte fish. Though he prefers a local IPA, he’ll drink Manischewitz. Meanwhile, he’s doing his best to pronounce the “ch” in “l’chaim.” (It’s coming along). He’s a total mensch.
Dan and I don’t always understand each other. For example, after six years of marriage, no matter how many times I’ve explained it’s just how we are, he still doesn’t understand that my family isn’t being rude when we loudly talk over one another at the dinner table. And as much as he tries to tell me that his family is just reserved and polite, I’m always left wondering why the vibe at my in-laws’ house is so chill. We are two different people from two different backgrounds, sharing one life. While being an interfaith couple raising Jewish kids adds complexity to the marriage, it also adds richness and opportunities to grow, learn, and connect. I’ll count that as a mitzvah.