Posted tagged ‘interfaith marriage’

‘Til Faith Do Us Part: A Contrary View

April 2, 2013

The world needs many more books documenting interfaith marriage and interfaith children in the 21st century. However, Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley takes a strangely pessimistic stance. The book title itself compares the inevitability of interfaith divorce to the inevitability of death. As the daughter of parents who have been happily intermarried for over 50 years, and someone who has spent decades researching this topic, I have a very different view: one that celebrates the benefits of interfaith families. What’s more, I don’t believe Riley’s doom and gloom is supported by her own data.

A few years ago, Riley wrote a piece warning against interfaith marriage in the Washington Post, and was met with strong pushback and multiple critiques. Her work is funded by various conservative organizations and foundations. Quoting notably conservative Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources, Riley seems to be trying to dissuade people from intermarrying, despite the fact that she herself married a man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.

How might conservative funding affect Riley’s perspective and conclusions? She states that interfaith couples are ignoring the challenges of intermarriage because of “our obsession with tolerance at all costs.” She claims that her survey shows that interfaith marriages are “generally more unhappy” and “often more unstable.” She then goes on to state that she would be “sorry if too many people entered into marriages that were unhappy or unstable.”

One issue is that Riley’s survey only included 44 Jews, and most of her conclusions about “interfaith” marriage are actually based on what I think should more accurately be called “interchurch” marriage. She defines black Protestants married to mainline Protestants, or mainline Protestants married to evangelical Protestants, as “interfaith.” Riley’s own survey found “no discernible difference” in divorce between intermarried and same-faith marriages overall. She did find that evangelical Christians, specifically, were more likely to divorce if married to non-evangelical Christians–an effect I attribute to inflexible fundamentalist theology, rather than the risks of interfaith marriage. Those who believe the Bible is literal truth will find it hard to be married to those who believe otherwise.

The fact that most of Riley’s “interfaith” couples were Christian/Christian couples skews her data. For instance, she writes about how few couples had clergy co-officiating at their weddings. A Christian/Christian “interchurch” couple might not feel it is necessary to have both ministers involved in a wedding. A truly interfaith couple, whether Jewish/Christian or Muslim/Hindu, would have a lot more incentive to involve both clergy members, if they can find clergy to support them.

In short, intermarried Jewish couples (or anyone in an interfaith marriage other than Christian/Christian “interchurch” couples) should hesitate before applying Riley’s conclusions to their own families. Riley found more divorce among intermarried Jews, but because her sample was so small she admits the finding is “tenuous.” To bolster her claim, she goes back to Evelyn Lehrer’s 1993 study of stability in interfaith marriages. Given the dramatic recent shifts in attitudes towards marriage (whether interfaith or gay), I am not compelled by statistics from an era twenty years ago when Jewish families were still commonly disowning children for intermarrying. In contrast, my own surveys and interviews document people in happy 21st-century Jewish and Christian interfaith marriages, supported by family, friends and clergy.

In terms of marital satisfaction, again, Riley found that the evangelical Christians were the group most unhappy in “interfaith” marriages. Those with a creed centered around being born again or saved may find it difficult to be married to anyone who does not share those concerns. No surprise there. The surprise, for me, was that Riley found that Jews actually reported being happier in interfaith marriages than in same-faith marriages, though the difference was not statistically significant because of the small number of Jews in her survey. Or, maybe I’m not surprised, given the rarity of divorce among Jewish/Christian couples in our interfaith families community.

Riley states that “those who marry outside their faith tend to take religion less seriously or lose their faith entirely.” In my research, I found the opposite effect among couples celebrating both family religions. For instance, many a Christian spouse has testified to the fact that their Jewish spouse is far more engaged with Judaism after intermarrying.

While Riley’s detailed profiles of specific (though largely anonymous) interfaith couples are a contribution to the literature, I found myself simply disagreeing with many of her conclusions. She writes that the “cultural pressures of pluralism” are “pushing people toward interfaith marriage.” In contrast, my observation is that interfaith marriage is still something we choose in spite of cultural pressures, not because of them. And I believe our “obsession with tolerance” is a good and necessary trend, not a threat.

In her conclusion, Riley writes, “There is nothing about having diverse perspectives in a marriage that will make it inherently better–in fact, it may be less likely to succeed in the long run.” I don’t believe Riley’s own statistics support that statement. My own experience, and my research on interfaith families who chose both religions, brings me to the opposite conclusion. Diverse religious perspectives can lead to deeper questioning, deeper communication, deeper empathy, deeper bonds. And happy interfaith families.

Note: This post was updated on 6/16/13 in response to various recent articles.

Interfaith Marriage in America: Past and Future

March 21, 2013

Interfaith Marriage in America

In case you missed it, here’s my most recent Huffington Post column…

Many books have characterized interfaith marriage as a challenge, a risk, a threat, or worse. Georgetown University’s Erika B. Seamon bring a new perspective to the topic in her recent book Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity, part of a series entitled “Christianities of the World.” This important academic work chronicles the history of intermarriage, and the effects of contemporary interfaith marriages on religious institutions, when viewed through a Christian lens.

“Christians have been marrying non-Christians all over the globe for centuries,” Seamon writes. Of course, historically, it is not only Jews who objected to intermarriage: under Constantine in the fourth century, those who intermarried faced the death penalty. In medieval times, Christians were not allowed to dine with Jews, let alone marry them. And in 1222, an English deacon who converted in order to marry a Jewish woman was burned at the stake.

Seamon goes on to describe how Protestant reformers including Martin Luther and John Calvin helped to pave the way for greater acceptance. Luther said of intermarriage, “Pay no attention to the precepts of those fools who forbid it. You will find plenty of Christians—and indeed the greater part of them—who are worse in their secret unbelief than any Jew, heathen, Turk, or heretic.”  As Seamon notes, “Luther did not just open the door to religious intermarriage; it is as if he came blazing right through the door with all his might.” She goes on to describe the resistance to interfaith marriage by both Jewish and Catholic religious leaders in the immigrant communities of America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In order to explore contemporary interfaith marriage, Seamon draws on interviews with 40 intermarried people, conducted by a team of Georgetown students. (I should note that one of the couples belongs to my interfaith families community, IFFP.) The couples, she notes, describe how their marriages were “greatly enhanced not in spite of, but because of their religious differences.” From a Christian perspective, Seamon describes how, although they may not necessarily get married in the church or always baptize their children, “aspects of Christianity remain vital” to these families.

Seamon points out that theologians and religious authorities have sometimes inappropriately “projected secular identity” onto interfaith families. At the same time, they have disparaged what they saw as “syncretism” or reductive religious blending in these families. Instead, Seamon describes interfaith couples as “complex,” and as using “legal, theological and social freedom to creatively reformulate the role of religion in their lives.”

Seamon concludes that interfaith families are changing the religious landscape, creating what she calls the Interfaith Space. In short, she has discovered the world in which many interfaith families live, the world I chronicle in my blog and upcoming book. It is encouraging to note that this year, for the first time, the American Academy of Religion will have a Group at their national conference devoted to Interreligious and Interfaith Studies. Building on Seamon’s work, I hope that academia will continue to explore the intersection of interfaith families, religious pluralism, and interfaith dialogue.

“Interfaith marriages are the material representations of the shifting boundaries among religions and between religious and secular space,” Seamon writes. She concludes that scholars of Christianity can no longer ignore those of us living in this Interfaith Space. I would add that Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan and other religious scholars will find this book equally illuminating, and even essential.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: In a Blizzard

February 13, 2013

Boston Snow, photo by Susan Katz Miller

I spent a lot of time worrying this week about my pioneering interfaith parents (88 and 82) braving the New England blizzard. More than two feet of snow covered their home, the house I grew up in. But miraculously, the power and heat stayed on. My mother, an artist, finds the snow thrilling, gorgeous. As the storm approached, I heard excitement, not fear, in her voice. I suppose there’s a reason she loves a February snowstorm.

Fifty-three years ago today, my parents got married in my mother’s hometown in upstate New York. A brave rabbi presided (few rabbis would perform an intermarriage in those days). My mother’s Episcopal minister from across the street said a blessing. And then, a blizzard descended and the guests got snowed in at the hotel. An epic pyjama party ensued.

The next morning, on Valentine’s Day, my parents consumed a giant chocolate heart for breakfast–a wedding gift sent by a friend. To this day, my parents are chocoholics. My father hides chocolate espresso beans and nonpareils in his sock drawer. And every year, my father sends all of his children and grandchildren heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, with handmade cards drawn on shirt cardboards.

I don’t usually give my parents anniversary or Valentine’s gifts. But exactly sixteen years ago this morning, I gave birth to their first grandson (in a hospital just a baseball’s throw away from Fenway Park). The next day, a nurse put a foil heart sticker on my son’s tiny hat for Valentine’s Day.

These are the themes of February in my family: snow, chocolate, love. The snow reminds us to slow down, experience awe, and snuggle. The chocolate represents the sweetness between grandparents and grandchildren. And the love of my parents for each other continues like a powerful blizzard, sweeping away all objections, blanketing our family, our world, with beauty.

A Hanukkah Surprise for Interfaith Mom

December 11, 2012

Menorah Pin

Hanukkah feels strange and slightly melancholy this year, with our firstborn away at college. With only one teenager left at home, I declared the official end to kids hunting for little Hanukkah gifts hidden under sofa cushions and behind bookcases. My son was fine with this. Adults rarely give each other Hanukkah gifts in my extended family, and he is well on his way to becoming an adult. But as it turns out, I did not actually have the authority to make this abrupt and unilateral proclamation. Just because I represent the Jewish side in our interfaith family does not make me the boss of Hanukkah.

So after we lit candles and said blessings and sang “Rock of Ages” on the second night, my (Christian) husband surprised me by saying he had hidden little Hanukkah gifts for me and our son. I was touched, and irrationally excited: I hadn’t hunted for a present since I was a kid and my (Christian) mom instituted this Hanukkah tradition in our family.

My bemused son and I quickly located the little tissue paper packets–in a clay pot on the mantel, and on the windowsill behind the curtains. They turned out to be utterly fabulous, completely cheesy blinking LED Hanukkah pins–a menorah and a dreidel. I wore them both at a Hanukkah party the next night.

So my husband created a moment of role-reversal comedy (mom acting like a kid and receiving a goofy “kid” present). At the same time, he distracted us all from missing our college girl. And he paid sweet tribute to the interfaith family created when we got married 25 years ago, and to the tradition instituted by my pioneering interfaith parents, who are still happily married after more than 50 years. Such small gestures, combining tradition and innovation, respect and humor, bind interfaith families together.

Interfaith Marriage and the Rise of the Religious “Nones”

October 10, 2012

Clouds, sun, ocean

The proportion of religiously-unaffiliated Americans has grown rapidly to almost 20 percent of the population, according to a report entitled “Nones” on the Rise,” released this week by the Pew Research Center. And yet, a follow-up survey by Pew and the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly found that the majority of the country’s 46 million religiously-unaffiliated adults believe in God or a universal spirit, and many are religious or spiritual in some way. Those of us who are in interfaith families did not find this seemingly-paradoxical portrait the least bit surprising.

The new study did not address the role intermarriage may play in the rise of those who are religiously unaffiliated, or how the rise of the religiously unaffiliated may play into the growth of the “raising children with both” movement. But for me, as someone in a three-generation interfaith family, several connections seem worthy of exploration:

  1. Those who intermarry face barriers to religious affiliation. Interfaith families who want to educate their children in two religions often cannot affiliate with religious institutions. Many religious institutions discourage or even forbid families from belonging to more than one religious community, or enrolling their children in more than one religious education program. These families may turn for support and religious education to independent interfaith communities such as the ones in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Or they end up religiously homeschooling their children in both religions. Either way, they may become part of the “religious but not religiously affiliated” demographic documented in the study.
  2. Those who are not religiously affiliated may face fewer obstacles in intermarrying. Without a religious institution or clergy member to tell them they cannot or should not do so, they are free to marry for love. As the Pew study points out, these religiously-unaffiliated people may still see themselves as spiritual, or religious, or both.  And they may feel culturally and historically connected to one or more religions.  They may want to continue to practice a religion, experience spirituality, celebrate cultural connections. And they may even want to pass all of this religious heritage on to their children. But they do not necessarily need, or want, affiliation with religious institutions.
  3. The new study points out that “none” is not a very accurate or objective term for people who may have rich religious and spiritual lives but who do not happen to belong to a church or synagogue. The Pew report authors state that they prefer the term “religiously unaffiliated,” but that the term “none” has been so widely used now, both in the press and in research, that they chose to use the term in the title of the report. I am both the child of interfaith parents and the partner in an interfaith marriage. Like many interfaith children, and many intermarried people, I am religiously unaffiliated, yet resent the term “none.” I belong to neither church nor temple, yet spend hours each week in religious and spiritual engagement with two religions, in the context of an independent interfaith families community. I am deeply, not minimally, engaged with theology, religious practice, and spirituality. I am not a “none.”
  4. I am grateful to Pew for drilling down into data on the “nones” and discovering some of the rich complexity of religiously-unaffiliated spiritual life. In an interesting parallel, many of the early studies on interfaith families conflated “doing nothing” with “doing both.” Just because a family does not affiliate with a church or a temple does not mean they are doing nothing. On the other hand, families may claim to be doing both, or attempt to do both, but cannot always follow through successfully without the support of clergy, family, or like-minded interfaith families. It will be important in future studies to examine the full range of practices, beliefs and experiences of unaffiliated interfaith families.
  5. The Pew study attempts to tease out some of the reasons for the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated. Some of the people in this category doubt the existence of God, some believe that religious institutions are too concerned with rules, money, power and politics. On the other hand, the study found that the majority of the religiously-unaffiliated do appreciate how religious institutions strengthen community bonds and provide community service to the poor. For those who want community without dogma, Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregations provide one option (an option that has provided a home to many interfaith families). In light of the rise of the religously-affiliated, I was not surprised to read this week of the recent concomitant growth in UU communities. Another option, of course, both for Jewish and Christian interfaith families and for anyone interested in religious education and spiritual practice without institution or creed, is the growing interfaith families community network represented by this blog.

I hope that this new study inspires further research on all of us outside of official religious institutions, and on the relationship between the increasing religious fluidity and hybridity of our world, the rise of interfaith families, and the role of religious institutions.

The Book of Mormon Girl: Mormon and Jewish

September 19, 2012

Few writers are chronicling the interfaith family journey from anything other than a “raising the kids Jewish” perspective. So, soon after I started this blog, I was thrilled to discover an essay written by Joanna Brooks about her Mormon and Jewish family. As she explained in that essay to her daughters, “You are what we all are: composite, recycled…You are a whole soul living in a divided world.”

Brooks, I soon learned, is an English professor who writes a blog called “Ask Mormon Girl,” in which she dispenses thoughtful advice and perceptive explanations to troubled Mormons, and curious non-Mormons. This year, she launched a self-published memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl, into the midst of the prolonged “Mormon moment” which has now reached an extended climax with the a Mormon candidate for President. During the run-up to the election, Brooks became the go-to media voice of progressive Mormonism, her memoir was picked up by a commercial publisher, and she even appeared with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

For Mormons, as for Jews, growing up as part of a misunderstood religious minority with distinct foodways and cultures exerts a powerful effect, even on those who move outside the formal borders of the community. In her memoir, Brooks chronicles her idyllic childhood as part of the Mormon community in southern California, her painful alienation over Mormon opposition to feminism and same-sex marriage, and her eventual, rather unorthodox return. She brings affection and charm and wry humor to her depiction of Mormonism, while also agonizing over how to confront the difficult realities of exclusion in her cradle religion.

Brooks displays her trademark bravery, independence and vision when she and her Jewish husband decide to raise their daughters with exposure to both Judaism and Mormonism, despite the usual advice from clergy to choose one religion. Her pioneering role as an interfaith parent plays only an oblique role in this memoir. And I admit I was disappointed that the topic did not come up during her appearance with Jon Stewart (another intermarried parent, since he is Jewish and married to a Catholic).  In the book, Brooks stands firm in the choice she and her husband have made. She writes, “…to put away either one of our stories, our families, our peoples, to hold back these huge parts of ourselves from our children seems more damaging than the confusion that well-meaning people grimly prognosticate.” These words will resonate with many of the parents on this blog—parents who have chosen to raise children with two religions.

Brooks has said that a publisher dissuaded her from making her Mormon and Jewish interfaith marriage the central element of her memoir, fearing such a combination would be too obscure. But as the election nears, Mormonism is no longer so obscure, and Brooks has become its most eloquent commentator, with the ideal “insider/outsider” viewpoint. I hope that her next book will continue her interfaith story, sharing more of her perspective as part of a growing movement of interfaith families raising children with more than one religion.

An Interfaith Child in the World: Rise Up Joyful

August 24, 2012

My children have grown up in an interfaith utopia: a shimmering bubble of Judaism, Catholicism, Unitarianism, Protestantism and Buddhism swirling around them, creating gorgeous patterns. As interfaith couples raising children with more than one family religion, we created a community for our children, to show that interfaith families can be successful and happy while celebrating their full heritage.

Now comes the moment when my daughter, my first-born, must emerge from the beauty of this bubble, or so they say. In a few days, she leaves for a college that is thousands of miles away. She will encounter religious institutions still attempting to assign binary religious labels: Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Hindu, never both. She will hear that interfaith families must choose, interfaith children must fit into one religious box.

And yet, I expect my daughter to change the world as much as the world will change her. I have spent the past year interviewing grown children raised in interfaith family communities for my forthcoming book (Beacon Press, 2013). Based on the experiences of this new generation, I have great optimism that the gifts we have given our children in intentional interfaith communities will serve them well as interfaith activists and as ambassadors for religious peace.

My daughter is literate in two religions, and hungry to learn about others. She stands ready to defend both Judaism and Christianity, and to explain their interconnections. She can ponder the mystery of the universe in two languages. She is primed for deep empathy, building bridges, resisting intolerance.

For my daughter, interfaithness has never been incidental. Her confidence is bolstered by the presence and support of a beloved pastor, and a beloved rabbi. Since graduating from the interfaith Coming of Age program in eighth grade, she has taught in Sunday School classes for four years, getting up on Sunday mornings all through high school to teach interfaith kindergarteners.

At the final gathering of our interfaith community before the summer break, Our daughter stood at the front of the room, so that we could sing a parting blessing for her: an adaptation of a verse from the poem “Prayers and Sayings of a Mad Farmer” by our favorite farmer and poet Wendell Berry:

When I rise up let me rise up joyful, like a bird.
When I fall let me fall without regret, like a leaf.

We also said our weekly interfaith responsive reading, including a Benediction and Charge written by Cantor Oscar Rosenbloom, from the interfaith families community in Palo Alto, California. On the eve of my daughter’s departure, these words took on new resonance:

May we go out into the world carrying with each of us the love and blessing of this Interfaith Community.
May we continue to hold on to what is good
and to stand as beacons of light and understanding for all people.

Demographics are on my daughter’s side. There is no stopping the formation of families across the lines of race, culture, religion and tribe. Some of us will choose one religion, one tribe. Some of us will not. I send my daughter out as a messenger bringing the good news that interfaith children raised with both religions can, not just survive, but truly thrive.
In my mind, my daughter does not exit, vulnerable, from our bubble into some harsh climate. Instead, I imagine that she is breaking off into a smaller bubble, rising on an updraft, taking the beauty of religious fluidity with her, floating out into the world for all to admire. Rather than leaving behind the idea of interfaith community, she will take it with her, gathering the interfaith children of her generation–Buddhist and Jewish, Wiccan and Quaker, Sikh and Catholic—and inviting them into this new reality.

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes: What Exactly is the Interfaith Lesson Here?

July 13, 2012

In recent days, I have been frustrated by bloggers who cite the breakup of celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes as a cautionary tale about interfaith marriage.

Interfaith marriage does not have to be difficult. My parents have been happily intermarried for over 50 years. In my community of interfaith families, out of hundreds of couples, my minister and rabbi can only think of a handful who have gotten divorced. Over 25 years of marriage, my husband and I have often argued. We have never had an argument about our religious differences.

It is particularly frustrating to see writers citing the outdated statistic that interfaith divorce is “three times more prevalent.” I recently spoke to one of the authors of the study that was the source of that statistic, the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001. Barry Kosmin confirmed to me that there is no valid measurement reflecting the current divorce rate or prevalence among interfaith couples. A survey from 2001 reflects divorce in the previous century, in the decades prior to that study, when interfaith couples were often excluded and shunned, and still had little support from extended family or clergy or houses of worship. Times have changed, and no one has produced the updated statistics.

I am not questioning the idea that religious difference, and pressure Holmes felt to raise her daughter as a Scientologist, may have been a factor in the Cruise and Holmes breakup. Press reports speculate that Holmes, who was raised Catholic, will return to Catholicism. What lesson do I take from this? The same lesson I take from the spectacular Reyes interfaith divorce case, in which a Catholic father who felt forced into converting to Judaism took his daughter to church for a stealth Baptism.

Bullying or sweet-talking a spouse into giving up his or her religion “for the sake of the child,” does not contribute to the stability of the marriage or benefit the children. The belief, often promoted by well-meaning clergy, that choosing one religion for the family will “solve” the challenges of being an interfaith family, can backfire if both parents actually have deep roots in and strong connections to their own religions.

Do I conclude that interfaith couples should not get married? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they don’t care deeply about religion? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they are willing to capitulate and subsume their own religious beliefs and desires for the good of the child? No.

I conclude that parents have the right to freely share their beliefs and family history and beloved rituals with their children. Both parents. And that the children will benefit from this rich religious and spiritual education.

The Five Year Engagement: Jason Segel’s Interfaith Worldview

May 2, 2012

Plenty of movies depict interfaith couples: Exodus, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally. The new romantic comedy The Five Year Engagement chronicles the courtship of chef Tom (Jewish), and graduate student Violet (Christian). Actor Jason Segel, the leading man and script co-writer, happens to hail from an interfaith family himself. So I went to see the movie, searching for traces of Segel’s view on interfaith life.

Last year, Segel co-wrote and starred in The Muppets. The first time I heard “Man or Muppet,” the Grammy-nominated song from that movie, the song immediately struck me as a metaphor for the choices the world forces on interfaith children. I would love to find out whether Segel ever thought of the song in those terms.

Generally, I have to say I am not a fan of  the work of Judd Apatow, producer of The Five Year Engagement. Though I appreciate the sharp and witty dialogue, I prefer my romance without Apatow’s signature drunken vomiting, potty humor and crude guy talk, all of which appear in this film. The Five Year Engagement also runs too long, with a rambling chronology. On the other hand, the film centers on a real and bittersweet exploration of the dilemma for both partners over work, geography, and marriage.

Religious difference plays very little role in this film’s plot. Segel has said that some of the religion material ended up on the cutting-room floor. I like to imagine that by minimizing religion as a source of conflict, Segel, as an adult interfaith child, is making a positive statement about the possibilities of interfaith love.

We do get a glimpse of religious difference in each of the successive wedding plans, as the couple repeatedly approach and then back off from tying the knot. In the first wedding planning session with all four parents and a clergy member representing each side, the Jews announce that the men will wear yarmulkes, and the Christians counter with a plan to have communion at the wedding. Interfaith lesson #1: passive-aggression, willful religious ignorance and hardline negotiation are not effective interfaith communication skills. The wedding plan falls through.

In their next attempt, the couple approach a Chabad rabbi at the last minute, who asks if the bride is Jewish. The couple dissembles and the rabbi dances at the engagement party (in a barbecue joint specializing in pork!). But the wedding again falls through. Interfaith lesson #2: dishonesty about who we are and last-minute random religious choices are not helpful. The wedding plan falls through.

In the end (spoiler alert, though you will see it coming from a mile away), the couple succeed in getting married. Choosing between a Christian, an “extreme Christian” (who appears to be Eastern Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Rabbi, and a justice of the peace, Tom chooses the lay officiant. Cue the happily-ever-after credits. Interfaith lesson #3: the desire for a sense of balance often leads interfaith couples to choose a secular officiant. If both members of the couple are secular people, this works fine.

For those of us who want balance, but also care deeply about religion, finding clergy to co-officiate is the alternative to a justice of the peace. But this solution would have been too complex for the rushed wedding in this movie, and perhaps too much religion for the fictional couple in question.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, Segel described his upbringing this way: “My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything.” Note that he introduces his own religious background with a description of balance, rather than choice. His lament is familiar to all of us who felt excluded growing up as patrilinial Jews: “I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school. What occurred to me is, ‘This is not God’.”

Segel had a Bar Mitzvah. But when asked if he considers himself a “cultural Jew” he replies: “Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of ‘I know better than someone else’ is wildly arrogant.” Here, Segel sounds to me like a classic adult interfaith child. Having lived the experience of growing up in interfaith families, we tend to see the world from more than one viewpoint, and we tend to question the idea that only one religious tradition could be the true path. We are also likely to feel alienated from religious institutions that have rejected us.

Rather than bitterness, Segel’s fairytale ending expresses optimism that interfaith couples can achieve happiness. For those of us who grew up in functional interfaith families, interfaith love is not just a romantic fiction. We need to stand up and be counted, to let the world know that in spite of the obstacles our parents still love each other, that we are not confused, and that we draw creative power from our double-belonging.

Good and Bad Interfaith Marriage: On Stage, and Off

January 17, 2012

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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