I have two very tangible reasons to believe that interfaith marriage can be an unqualified success: my mother and father. My parents met in 1953, when they shared the last cab from Logan Airport on a rainy Boston night. For seven years, they courted on and off, cautious in part because of their religious differences. My father is a rabbi’s grandson from an isolated community of Jews who sometimes resorted to marrying cousins rather than marrying out. My blond-haired, blue-eyed Episcopalian mother had contemplated applying to a Protestant seminary after college. So at first, the idea of marriage seemed like a true leap of faith.
But leap they did, and went on to raise four children. This weekend, my parents hosted a family dinner and dance to kick off a season of celebrating 50 years of the strongest and happiest marriage I have ever had the privilege to encounter. When I called my mother and told her I was going to write about the anniversary celebration, she said, “Why would anyone want to read about that?” I guess she was thinking of Leo Tolstoy’s insistence that happy families are all alike. But the media rarely depicts happy interfaith families: those stories tend to focus on conflicts and dilemmas, especially as the “holiday season” approaches.
Tolstoy also wrote, “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.” My parents dealt with their religious differences by deciding to raise us as Reform Jews. But the “interfaithness” of my extended family was obvious this weekend at the exuberant anniversary celebration. My mother’s family (Episcopalian and Catholic backgrounds) flew up from Florida to my father’s hometown in Pennsylvania, joining about 40 of my father’s extended Jewish family who gather there each year for Thanksgiving. The vast majority of the Jewish cousins in my generation are in interfaith marriages. But the Rabbi from the temple where my father had his own Bar Mitzvah was one of a handful of guests from outside the family.
One brother, who is raising his children Catholic, began the celebration with an adoring toast. My sister, who is raising her children Jewish, read a rhyming verse she’d written about that fateful taxi ride. I’m the one raising my children as both: I read a schmaltzy poem of thanksgiving. As a highlight, my youngest bachelor brother performed my parents’ official love song, “My Romance.”
With a live band and a packed dance floor, the boomer generation then shouted the words to “We are Family” by Sister Sledge. Later, I spotted my Episcopalian husband with his arms around the shoulders of my Jewish cousins, dancing in a tight circle of men during an extended klezmer sequence. I had to wave off cousins who wanted to lift my parents on their chairs at the center of a whirling hora circle—they are 87 and 79 years old, after all. But mostly, my parents did not sit, they danced together. Though my mother can’t stand without support for long, my father held her as they “swayed” to Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington tunes from their heyday.
The adoration between my parents is constant, powerful, a high standard for the rest of us to live up to. When my mother was in the hospital a couple of years ago, my father serenaded her on a piano in the nurses’s lounge, playing “My Romance” each day until she recovered. The nurses all fell in love with their love story. Who wouldn’t?
So if I’m sometimes a starry-eyed optimist, if I insist that interfaith marriage can work, that interfaith families can be close and vibrant, that interfaith children can be happy, that it’s all good–I have my reasons. Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.
Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.