Iâ€™m Jewish. My fiancÃ©e is not. Already youâ€™re thinking, â€œOy.â€
I could list, at length, my past involvement in Jewish youth groups, Jewish summer camps, Hillel and so on, but it would be boring, so letâ€™s just pretend that I did and that youâ€™re impressed. After college I taught music, Hebrew school, and Sunday school at a local Reform congregation, and, oh by the way, fell in love with a woman who was raised as a Unitarian Universalist.
She tells me that I once told her that I could never marry a non-Jewish woman, so clearly my thinking on that front has evolved. But Râ€” and I talked openly about our plans for our families (before and after our engagement) and she knew that it was important to me for my children to be raised as Jews. Once we were engaged, she was still on board, but insisted (and justifiably so) that her familyâ€™s traditions be represented as well.
Our co-habitation so far has proved pretty successful. When the winter holidays come around I help her decorate the Christmas tree, and she joins me in lighting the Chanukah candles. Itâ€™s all very ecumenical and heartwarming.
Râ€” even suggested that we take an â€œintroduction to Judaismâ€ class at the local Reform congregation so she could get more educated (and so that I could relive the experience of being the smartest kid in the class). We did. The rabbis who taught the class loved us. We started attending Friday night services not every week, but once or twice a month. We celebrated Shabbat at home most weeks. We hosted a Passover seder. I think we were kicking ass, Jewishly speaking.
Clearly, this â€œintermarriageâ€ was going to work out.
Andâ€¦ then it was time to find someone to perform our wedding. I decided I wanted to have as Jewish a wedding as we both were comfortable with, and that meant having a rabbi preside. Râ€” was agreeable, so long as we were equally involved in defining the ceremony, and so the search was on.
Let me just say that I understood, intellectually, that especially in the Northeast it would be difficult to find a rabbi to perform a wedding in which one of the participants wasnâ€™t Jewish. I was not, however, prepared for what the experience would be like emotionally.
One of the rabbis from my home congregation in St. Louis was moving out east to Massachusetts, and seemed a good first try. He knew our family well (and was particularly acquainted with my younger siblings). Our family had been active in the congregation. He officiated at my motherâ€™s funeral. He seemed a good bet.
Well, Rabbi Jay said â€œno.â€ It wasnâ€™t that he wouldnâ€™t marry us, he insisted, it was that he couldnâ€™t. Iâ€™m sure there was some kind of justification in there, but all I heard was “blah blah blah no.” Can you tell I was stunned? Can you tell I was pissed? I walked out of my temple â€“ the place I grew up, the place that taught me the love of Judaism that made me want to find a rabbi to marry us in the first place â€“ in a bewildered fog. He said no.
So, ok, I was angry. But at this point I was angry at Jay, nothing larger, and we resolved to mark him down as a bad egg and keep looking. Clearly a more open-minded rabbi would understand our desire to have a (mostly) Jewish ceremony and a (mostly) Jewish family and would want us to be a part of his or her congregation.
The young rabbi who taught half of our class at the synagogue took us out for a beer and made it clear that we shouldnâ€™t ask him, because heâ€™d say no.
The kindly older rabbi met with us for over an hour, and opened with, â€œWell, I think what you should do is find a nice judge to marry you.â€ When we insisted that we were looking for a rabbi, he spent the rest of the time putting the hard sell on Râ€” to convert to Judaism. (Ew.) He told us that he could never perform an interfaith wedding â€“ that he wouldnâ€™t even for his own children. (Wow.)
With a little persistence, we finally found a rabbi who is willing to marry us. Sheâ€™s been great about the process, making sure that all three of us are comfortable with the ceremony weâ€™ve created, and weâ€™re really grateful to her.
Iâ€™ve tried, really, to understand the rabbisâ€™ point of view. I grew up in Reform Judaism. Iâ€™ve heard the doomsayers wail about â€œassimilation.â€ I read The Vanishing American Jew. I believe that these are good men and women who want to preserve the American Jewish community.
What makes it so infuriating is that theyâ€™re hurting their own cause. Râ€” summed it up when she said, half-jokingly, â€œWith an interfaith couple, you get a Jewish family and only â€˜use upâ€™ one pre-existing Jew.â€ Itâ€™s two for the price of one, baby! We came to them, asking for their help in starting a Jewish family, and they turned us away. Iâ€™m not sure what they hope to accomplish with the hard-line stance. Do they think Iâ€™m going to dump Râ€” and find a nice Jewish girl? Or do they think weâ€™ll try to find a more welcoming community? Which do you think is more likely?
Certainly, a rabbi would be completely justified in turning away an interfaith couple with no interest in being part of a Jewish community. I think a rabbi would be justified in turning away a Jewish couple that had no interest in being part of a Jewish community. I think Jewish couples like that are married by rabbis all the time, and that says something kind of ugly.
I came away from the Great Rabbi Search feeling ashamed of my religion. If weâ€™d lied and said that Râ€”â€™s motherâ€™s last name was Moskowitz instead of McCoy we wouldnâ€™t have had to ask four different rabbis. Because of an accident of her birth, we were told that our marriage was second-rate. (Could this be what it feels like to be in a mixed-race relationship? A same-sex relationship?) For a people whose identity is based, in some part at least, on a shared experience as â€œthe otherâ€ we show remarkably little charity towards the others among us.
My family, with the exception of one bigoted uncle whose opinion doesnâ€™t matter to me, has been incredibly supportive. I know we’re lucky in that. My rabbis, on the other hand, blew us off. Is it any wonder that, since that fateful meeting with Rabbi Gutterman, we havenâ€™t been to Shabbat services once? That weâ€™ve given up on lighting candles at home?
Maybe Iâ€™m giving up too easily. A friend reminds me that I can be a good Jew and still be mad at Judaism. (We are, after all, Yisrael, those who wrestle with God.) Probably Iâ€™m more angry at some Jews than at Judaism. And Iâ€™ll get over it. It would be ridiculous to give up my observances to spite the rabbis.
So weâ€™ll be married by a rabbi. Weâ€™ll probably join a congregation when we have kids so that they can become bar/bat mitzvah. But for right now, Iâ€™ve lost my faith, I guess you can say. Iâ€™ve never been a particularly religious person; I was always attracted to the Jewish community. I always considered it to be safe, welcoming, and familiar.
Now? Not so much.
Shver ist a yid tsu sein. (â€œItâ€™s hard to be a Jew.â€) Apparently, itâ€™s hard to marry one, too.