When a family chooses a religious identity, each family member has a unique response based on background, expectations, and personality. Today, I post the thoughts of Anne Stewart, a long-time Sunday School teacher in our Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). Her husband, Danny Weiss, arrived at IFFP deeply sceptical, and quickly became Chair of the Board. Anne speaks to the benefits, and the drawbacks, of choosing the interfaith pathway for themselves, and for their two daughters, who are now 12 and 15 years old.
I was raised in a Vatican II-era Catholic Church in Pittsburgh in which social justice work in the community was the primary concern of the parish. I went to Catholic school through the fifth grade, and to a Catholic women’s college. My father was raised Protestant, and he did not attend church with us. He did, however, go to a Catholic college, and was pretty comfortable with the traditions. My parents were married in the Catholic Church, but they had to stand “outside the altar” because my father was Protestant. Both of my grandparents accepted that their children were marrying “outside the faith” in part because they were all in the same neighborhood/social class.
Danny was raised in a culturally Jewish household that celebrated all the major Jewish holidays–Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover–at home, not in a temple. They did not belong to a temple and did not attend religious school. They had a secular Christmas celebration during which they exchanged presents, but they did not have a tree. He grew up overhearing a lot of talk from one side of his family about “Goyem this…” and “Goyem that…”, which Danny interpreted as disparaging of non-Jews.
We became a couple in 1988 and married in 1992. Our first serious discussion of religious identity as a couple came with the planning of the wedding. I insisted that we be married under some greater authority than the State, but had no preference about a rabbi, priest, or both. When Danny and I first became a couple in 1988, Danny was living in the home of Reverend William Sloane Coffin, and his wife Randy. Bill Coffin was an old and close friend of Danny’s mom. It became obvious that the Weiss family, including Danny, would feel most comfortable with Bill doing the wedding. In our first meeting with Bill, Danny asked that Bill not use the word “God” in our ceremony. I strongly disagreed, as that was the point of having a person of the cloth. Bill was used to this sort of thing, and said. “Danny, my boy, you’ll get over it.” Coffin was a hero to my liberal family, so that was an easy compromise. To this day, I believe that the presence of Bill Coffin in Danny’s life played a pivotal role in my trusting that Danny would “come around” to being okay with religion in our lives.
Choosing a Religious Community
As a married couple, we went to a few masses at Georgetown and to our local church. For me, they were too white and upper-class, so that was that. We went to a service at one temple because Danny had a connection to a rabbi there and I went to check out another one. I didn’t like the Reform synagogues—too much like Protestant churches, or something. Danny did not really feel comfortable in a synagogue, anyway. I saw an ad in a paper for IFFP, and decided we would check it out. When we got there, we saw our pediatrician, which gave us the feeling that it wasn’t “weird.” I think Danny may have chatted with a kindred sceptic. It was Danny who felt comfortable. I could be comfortable anywhere, so this was a big plus that he liked the guys he talked to there.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Choosing Both
The Benefits seem obvious—you live in a bigger world, you learn more, you understand more, you discuss/debate more. All things we both like, that suit our personalities.
Drawbacks—what we are/do is really hard to explain; no helpful vocabulary (we are NOT Unitarian); we are a minority; our children are “different” from their observant Catholic or observant Jewish friends—there is no getting around this one—they have the burden of explaining; they get told things like: You can’t be Jewish because your mother isn’t; You can’t take Communion (but they do); You don’t really know Hebrew, right? In the end, telling someone you belong to an interfaith congregation is either a conversation starter or a conversation stopper. On average, I would say that it is a conversation stopper if I am talking to someone who is Jewish.
My extended family is progressive/liberal thinking, so our choice has not been an issue. I think the fact that my Irish Grandfather married a Hungarian and that my Catholic Mom married a Protestant were helpful in all of this. Danny is a special person—everyone loved him from Day 1, so that helped. My extended family was thrilled to come to our older daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. It has been an added benefit that Rabbi White is from Georgetown (a Jesuit university).
Danny’s family has had a harder time with Danny being in any religious community, particularly his mom, who was raised atheist. In recent years, Danny’s dad has thanked me for bringing Jewish learning into the family. It was very moving that Danny’s dad participated in our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah—he hired a tutor for himself to learn the Torah Reading. I believe strongly that without IFFP, Danny would not have found a comfortable place to develop a religious identity.
Identity of the Children
Our older daughter has stated that she is glad she can “count herself as Jewish” when she is with Jewish kids. When asked why she feels she can, she says it is because she had the Bat Mitzvah. She hated IFFP, because of the touchy-feely nature of the program/gatherings. But she loved the Bat Mitzvah process she went through with a close friend from IFFP. She may have been better-off in a traditional Sunday school/church/synagogue setting—she is not a person who likes to stand out or be different.
Our younger daughter is a more naturally spiritual soul. She does not mind IFFP, and sees herself as both. However, the rituals that you get in a Mass, or maybe even in an Orthodox Jewish service, are probably something that she would like more. She would have liked to know more about angels, mystery, etc. She loves to go to Mass with my Pittsburgh family—the candles, the smells… It concerns me how quick she likes to say that Jesus did not really rise from the dead. I have to coach her about being more sensitive about this topic. I believe both my children are missing a sense of wonder, mystery, overall “Godness” that I had growing up in the Catholic Church. This is a loss, and they may get it on their own someday, but I think it is harder as an adult.
The Secrets of Successful Interfaith Marriage
I hear a lot of people say that the way interfaith marriage works is through acceptance. In our marriage, I would say that each of us has embraced the other’s traditions. I mean really enjoyed them, learned about them, got excited about them, looked forward to them and then shared them. I have loved all the cooking I’ve done for Jewish holidays—and inviting people who may have never celebrated them. My mother’s 70th birthday was over Passover—we had a formal Passover dinner as part of the weekend celebration. Danny loves to go to the Christmas Eve Service, the tree, the crèche, all of it. So I think the “secret” is that you remember why you married the person—to expand your life, to make your world bigger. That has given us the rich opportunity to learn more about the religious traditions we grew up with, and then learn about each other’s, and then create more traditions together. Danny and I and our children have a more spiritually fulfilling life as a result.
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.