You might consider this the companion piece to my previous post. It’s my June column for the Jewish Voice and Herald — basically a shortened version of a piece I wrote for Seven Days five years ago. When it ran in Seven Days, I heard from lots of people who were preparing to enter their own intermarriages. A few years after it was published, I even heard from a mother who was looking for someone to officiate at her daughter’s wedding. I’ll be curious to see what sort of response it generates in this other venue.
My husband David and I celebrate our 30th anniversary next month. When I told my family we’d gotten engaged, my grandmother countered with an announcement of her own. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll just go upstairs now and kill myself.”
My parents were more gracious. Sure, they would have preferred for me to marry a Jew. But they liked David.
The ceremony would take place at my family’s house. I would wear my mother’s dress. It would be a Jewish service, complete with canopy, broken glass and rabbi. Once we were married, I would keep doing what I’d always done: attend services a few times a year and celebrate Hanukkah and Passover at home. Our kids would go to Hebrew school. They would be named Horowitz, rather than Christensen.
All of this was fine with David. His father was raised as a Protestant, his mother Zoroastrian. They’d brought him up religion-free, and he had no interest in converting. But he understood what my legacy meant to me. Plus, he liked lighting candles and eating latkes.
Finding a rabbi to marry us proved harder than we’d expected. Traditional Jewish law is clear: Intermarriages aren’t valid. Visceral reactions like my grandmother’s are driven by demographics. The Holocaust made horrifyingly real the possibility of Jews disappearing as a people. Ironically, as anti-Semitism declines, intermarriage rates rise. Jews who “marry out” are less likely to raise their children as Jewish, and those offspring more often intermarry, themselves.
Rabbis who officiate at marriages like mine believe welcoming mixed families is the best response to the reality of intermarriage. Interfaith couples who have a Jewish wedding are a lot more likely to pass down a Jewish legacy than those who get turned away.
Similar arguments are taking place among Zoroastrians. In the West, Zoroastrian intermarriage rates mirror those of American Jews. But their existential calculus is more dire. There are only 130,000 Zoroastrians in the world, compared to 13 million Jews. And, unlike Judaism, Zoroastrianism doesn’t accept converts or recognize the children of intermarried parents. Reformers want to loosen these restrictions in order to slow the group’s decline.
David and I found our clergy through word of mouth. We stood under a huppah. We shared wine. The rabbi recited the seven blessings. David stamped on the glass. After the rabbi left, David’s mother performed a Zoroastrian benediction. We held a tray arranged with fruits, nuts, flowers, rock sugar and coins – symbols of sweet abundance. His mother drew lines on our foreheads with red paste, and pressed rice into the stripes. The blending of backgrounds felt natural and relaxed. Even Grandma seemed to enjoy the day.
Afterwards, David and I followed our original agreement. On Yom Kippur, the children and I went to services, and then broke the fast at a meal David prepared. The kids learned about God in Hebrew school, and David read them a children’s book about atheism.
The arrangement worked well for a while. But we hadn’t counted on a crisis. My parents died and, in my grief, I turned to religion. My twice-a-year synagogue habit became a daily fix. Soon I wasn’t just attending services, but leading them. At home, I started surreptitiously imposing certain laws of kashrut on our family meals. When David realized I’d gone back on my word, he called me on it.
What could I do? In the 18 years since we struck our bargain, I had changed. I felt trapped between spirituality and my spouse. More and more, I felt like an outsider – both at synagogue and in my own home.
Ultimately, the solution came from within Judaism. My rabbi explained sh’lom-bayit, the value of harmony in the home. He reminded me about the concessions David had made so I could live Jewishly, and encouraged me to compromise.
I also realized I wasn’t such an oddball. Lots of our Jewish friends shared homes with non-Jews. And even single-religion households can have spiritual squabbles.
David and I started discussing religion more openly. I dropped my campaign to keep kosher and settled into a weekly synagogue schedule. We began lighting candles on Friday nights. David bought me my own tallit.
Then one day I got a call from a couple asking if I’d officiate at their wedding. She was Jewish and he wasn’t. They wanted a Jewish wedding, but couldn’t find a willing rabbi. I had never performed a wedding, but figured I could learn. We brought in a justice of the peace to make it legal.
We stood under a huppah in a field, my tallit 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.