Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.
Ralph came from an evangelical Christian family, Thelma was Jewish. After 34 years of very successful interfaith marriage, Ralph was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, at age 64, and died a year later. Thelma started a blog, Widowsphere, in loving memory of her husband, and to chronicle her journey as a widow. Recently, Thelma contacted me to point out that I had not devoted much attention on my blog to second marriages, or interfaith marriages later in life. I also know that I have barely begun to address all of the issues surrounding death, burial, and mourning in interfaith families. I appreciate this opportunity to appreciate the inspiring marriage of Thelma and Ralph, and to launch a conversation about facing the inevitable, natural ending in a happy interfaith marriage.
How long did you date your husband before marrying, and what were your thoughts about the benefits and challenges of interfaith marriage before the wedding?
We met at a party, my first foray into the singles world after a divorce. He called the next day and asked if he could come by, then he asked me out. What went through my mind was, “He’s not Jewish, but he’d be okay to practice on.” By the time we married two years later, I was more comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t Jewish than with the fact that he was five years younger than me.
Who officiated at your wedding? How did your extended families respond to your interfaith marriage?
We were married by a justice of the peace, who deleted all Christian references from the ceremony at my request. My two children were nine and seven, Ralph’s son was five. I think my family was outwardly supportive but inwardly very upset. His family was very accepting of me and my children but never quit hoping that I would convert to Christianity. I have remained very close to them since Ralph’s death and will be visiting them next month.
After marrying, did you and your husband continue to practice your religions? Did you share any of the rituals or traditions with each other?
After we married, we joined my synagogue as a family. We always went to church when we visited his family. We celebrated Jewish holidays and we exchanged gifts at Christmas and had a dinner then because as the children got older, they were home from college at that time. We did not have Christmas trees or any other decorations.
How did your interfaith marriage influence the children? How were they raised, religiously?
The children went to synagogue with us. I was not a particularly religious Jew, more of a cultural, ethnic Jew, although I did have a cousin who was a rabbi. Neither of us made any effort at converting the other. We were what we were. Today, my children identify as Jewish; his son does not.
When your husband fell ill, did the interfaith nature of your marriage pose special challenges?
Just before he entered the hospital for a stem cell transplant, Ralph confided in me for the first time that he wanted to convert to Judaism. I don’t know if he shared this with his family. At the hospital he listed himself as Jewish and became great friends with the Jewish chaplain, but as he got sicker he returned to the faith of his childhood. His funeral and burial were in his hometown. The first time I visited Ralph’s grave, I brought a stone from our backyard garden, and explained this Jewish custom to his sisters who went with me. His family now puts stones on his grave when they visit. We had a memorial service at the synagogue a few weeks later. I said Kaddish for him and observe Yahrzeit.
I think death is the greatest spiritual challenge and one that is rarely addressed when discussing interfaith marriage. For a long time, I felt abandoned by his return to Christianity, probably not logically. I came to terms with it and realized he needed the comfort of Christianity as he faced death.
How do you feel when you read that the challenges of interfaith marriage are going to be too great for many couples to overcome?
My experience with interfaith marriage was a joyful one. I think the strength of our marriage came from commitment to one another and understanding and acceptance of each other’s backgrounds.