Good and Bad Interfaith Marriage: On Stage, and Off

It is second nature to look for reflections of our own lives, and affirmation for our own choices, in both fiction and in the media. Happy interfaith families are rarely rewarded with seeing our experiences depicted in print, or on the screen, or on the stage. Happiness is boring. Conflict is necessary to drama, whether it is the “real life” drama in a blogger’s column, or the more constructed drama of the theater.

So I was prepared for the inevitability that the interfaith marriage in Renee Calarco’s new play “The Religion Thing,” (at Theater J at the DCJCC through January 29th), would be conflicted. And I was drawn to the witty dialogue, the elegant set, the surprising plot twists. I also want to credit Theater J with recognizing that the topic–interfaith marriage–merited a talk-back or audience discussion after many of the performances. Folks have a lot to say on this topic, and Theater J organized a way for us to say it.

On Sunday, three of us served as panelists in an apres-matinee discussion on the topic “Every Interfaith Family is Interfaithful in its Own Way.” Therapist Jennifer Kogan, Rabbi (and therapist) Arthur Blecher, and I, shared the stage: all three of us are in longtime interfaith partnerships/marriages. Together, the three of us have worked with or interviewed hundreds of interfaith couples. All three of us testified to the existence of healthy, happy, interfaith families. Rabbi Blecher’s most recent book, The New Judaism, chronicled that reality, as will my own book, forthcoming in 2013.

The interfaith relationship in this play is not just conflicted: it’s a train-wreck. After four years of marriage, this fictional couple had not even discussed how to raise children. They excluded religion from their wedding. They failed to educate themselves or each other about their respective traditions. And in the course of the play, they pull away from each other as they return to their religions of origin.

Such intermarriages do occur. Some couples are deficient in communication and collaboration skills, some lack support from family and clergy, some blame underlying issues on religious difference. And of course, there’s no law against portraying such a bad marriage on the stage.

Unfortunately, this play comes in the wake of a scandalously misleading Washington Post opinion piece that purported to show that interfaith marriages are prone to failure, using extreme anecdotes and outdated and twisted statistics. This opinion piece was written by an affiliate of an anti-gay-marriage and “pro-marriage” think tank (an affiliation the Post failed to acknowledge). Because this piece appeared in a major newspaper, it has been subsequently quoted as a “source” for the “fact” that interfaith marriages tend to fail, with little acknowledgement that the piece was published on the editorial page, not in the news section, and contained no original research.

Given this recent incident in the Washington media, it was hard not to see this play as, presumably unintentionally, fueling anti-intermarriage polemics. Most disturbing, for me, was the play’s framing device, featuring a comedy sketch about the Amish tradition of rumspringa–a period when adolescents are permitted to sow wild oats before choosing whether or not to return to the strict demands of their culture and religion. It was hard not to conclude that the playwright intended to draw a parallel to the Jewish and Catholic characters in the play experimenting in a sort of interfaith rumspringa before returning to their cradle religions. As the child of a tremendously successful 50-plus year interfaith marriage, I have to admit I find this metaphor misleading and inept.

I was relieved to see that a large cohort of the play’s audience stayed after the show for the discussion. Some were eager to testify about the vibrant interfaith marriages in their families. And others who pointed out the challenges of interfaith marriage (the challenges are real, of course), felt that the couple in the play, who had not even discussed “the religion thing,”  strained credulity.

In the end, the points I made on the panel are the same points I often make on this blog. Interfaith families can be successful. Choosing one religion for your interfaith children has benefits and drawbacks but clearly can work. Choosing both religions for your interfaith children has benefits and drawbacks, but is working for over 100 families in my interfaith community, and in other communities across the country. Providing interfaith children with a sense of community (whether it’s a Jewish community, Christian community, interfaith community, or secular community) is essential.

I know it’s just a play, but given the sensitivity of this topic and the weight and history of institutional opposition to interfaith marriage, I must conclude with a reminder that one bad (and, in this case, fictional) intermarriage does not a trend make. Look around you, and I suspect you will find in your own family and community happy couples reflecting the dynamic and fluid religious, racial, ethnic and sexual diversity of our culture. Maybe we make for boring theater. But we lead satisfying lives.

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6 Comments on “Good and Bad Interfaith Marriage: On Stage, and Off”

  1. Marci Shegogue Says:

    We definitely should not underestimate the power of theater. Theater can serve as a reflection of our lives in many cases… playwrights write what they feel needs to be said, and messages are often magnified so that the audience gets the underlying issues as well as the main concept. I am glad to hear that the audience considered the post-show conversation an integral part of the experience. Theater always seems to invoke discussion, and that’s a good thing… glad that you and the others on the panel were there to create a space to debate, discuss and educate. Putting the concepts out there, even if in a negative light, is just another way to spark the conversation. Thanks for being a positive interfaith voice!

  2. Ari Roth Says:

    This is a very important contribution to the discussion of our play at Theater J, and I thank you, Susan, for re-framing the politics of intermarriage as presented in THE RELIGION THING into a more progressive and positive position The play doesn’t aspire to be a textbook or manual on how to lead a more enlightened, sensitive life as an intermarried couple. As you so rightly point out, the play trades in surprise and unbidden revelations that create a train-wreck of a relationship where a once seemingly blissful couple threw dinner parties in their remodeled condo. Brian and Mo have worked out superficial compromises in their modern marriage, and have treated their own faiths shabbily. The fierce, and apparently authentic religious fervor evinced by their friends Patti and Jeff prove to be a destabilizing force for the couple that swept their religious differences under the rug. So the play presents a different kind of politics — that the ardency of evangelicalism has a way of steam-rolling those who pray with less passion. Ineffectual Believers Beware and Be On Guard! The complicated brethren that make up the New Crusading Missionaries have a lot of Force on their side. What’s a sensitive (and woefully out of touch) couple going to do in the face of a locomotive barreling down the tracks?

    Thank you again, Susan, and the rest of your fine panel — Jennifer and Arthur — for engaging our audience so meaningfully. We’ll keep welcoming you back to our theater again and again.

    Ari
    (artistic director, theater j — check out out blog postings at http://theaterjblogs.wordpress.com)


    • Ari,

      Thanks for your comment, honored that you stopped by this blog. (And partial spoiler alert…sorry.)

      Theater J produces a lot of provocative theater, and that’s a good thing. And I appreciated one message of the play: that religion is important, that couples would do well to discuss religion before planning a life together (and throughout the relationship). But for me, personally, it was hard not to perceive the “net effect” of the depiction of a disintegrating intermarriage as anti-intermarriage, given the long history of institutional anti-intermarriage rhetoric and bullying, and the impression that the play leaves of comparing intermarriage not only to rumspringa, but to alcoholism, and to hiding and denying one’s sexual identity. In the play, shared faith appears, strangely, to be more potent than shared sexual orientation. Fiction is fiction, but neither does creating fiction absolve one of responsibility for the sociopolitical messages in a work of theater.

  3. Rev. Julia Jarvis Says:

    Sue wrote, “The interfaith relationship in this play is not just conflicted: it’s a train-wreck. After four years of marriage, this fictional couple had not even discussed how to raise children. They excluded religion from their wedding. They failed to educate themselves or each other about their respective traditions. And in the course of the play, they pull away from each other as they return to their religions of origin.” This is exactly what our interfaith community DOES do–we discuss how to raise our children, we have an amazing interfaith Sunday School that teaches our children about both traditions and we educate ourselves about our traditions during Adult Group discussions. The results–we come together more closely in our honest explorations of what it means to be Christian, Jewish and interfaith!

  4. KNM Says:

    did see the play but I thought the WaPo piece was informitve and thoughtful. thank you for the link!


  5. I come to your blog periodically and wanted to comment on an earlier post. I was saddened to read that Ned Rosenbaum passed away. Dovetail was an important help to my husband and me in the early years of our interfaith marriage (we’re still going strong at 21 years). Thanks for your remembrance of Ned.


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