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Post opinion piece that purported to show that interfaith marriages are prone to failure, using extreme anecdotes and outdated and twisted statistics.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.