Balancing faith and marriage
Published 1:48 pm, Friday, October 6, 2017
What do you get when an Irish Catholic girl from the Berkshires marries a Conservative Jewish guy from the Bronx?
This isn’t the start to a bad joke, but rather the start to my marriage 29 years ago this October. The journey to balance my marriage with my faith has made me feel at times like a tutu-clad hippopotamus trying to balance on a tightrope. Raised eyebrows, shock and disbelief are typical reactions when I share that I’m a practicing Catholic married to a Jew and raising Jewish children.
My story begins one winter afternoon in 1987 when I pulled off the road. I’d had an epiphany.
Ira and I had struggled in interfaith counseling sessions over how we would raise our children. As I watched the falling snow through my windshield, I felt a wave of relief. On that winding, snow-covered road, I had made a choice. My future husband was the only child of a Holocaust survivor, and I was determined not to do what Hitler couldn’t do — end the line for this Jewish family.
Our journey as an interfaith couple was just beginning. My mother had died prior to our engagement, but I hoped to receive my grandmother’s blessing. She was the matriarch of the family, attending church daily to say the stations of the cross until becoming wheelchair bound. She quietly cried as I explained how we had found a rabbi willing to perform an interfaith wedding, yet she gave her blessing.
As the graduate of the College of New Rochelle, a Catholic women’s college, I next sought counseling from my campus priest. Like so many students before me, I had daydreamed of being married in the college’s chapel by Father Bernie. Father regretted being unable to marry us, but his final comment to me was to “follow your heart.”
I was married outdoors under a chuppa (wedding canopy) built by my brothers, who had never seen one before, never mind built one! In fact, my family hadn’t known anyone Jewish until they met Ira. I walked down the aisle in my mother’s wedding dress. Pinned inside my bra was a red ribbon which my mother-in-law insisted would keep away the evil eye!
Our early marriage was not much different from those of same-faith couples. Of course, it took some time to gain my kosher mother-in-law’s trust when helping wash the dishes. She feared I might mix the meat with the dairy silverware! Jewish holidays were spent in the Bronx and Christian holidays in Massachusetts.
Children changed everything. I remember holding back a wave of panic at my first daughter’s baby-naming. Was I making the right decision? Recently, a colleague had reprimanded me for damning my baby to Hell. I ran upstairs fighting my tears and turned to find the rabbi in the doorway. Somehow he understood.
My husband and I decided to convert both girls shortly after birth. In contrast to that first baby-naming, this time I held back laughter as I watched my anxious husband dunk our child into the water of the mikvah (Jewish ritual bath).
I agonized that December. I didn’t want a secular Christmas or confused children. There would be no more tree to decorate or wreath on the door. I had grown up singing “Happy Birthday” beside an empty manger on Christmas Eve, and then celebrating baby Jesus’s arrival Christmas morning. Now, I strung multi-colored dreidel lights and hung blue tinsel for Hanukkah. We lit candles and the girls unwrapped one gift per night for seven nights. The eighth night’s gift would go to someone less fortunate.
At first, Christmas Eve was spent like those of so many of our Jewish friends -- Chinese food and a movie, which resulted in a good deal of self-pity on my part. Eventually, I found ways to make Christmas easier, like volunteering at the homeless shelter on Christmas Eve and delivering donated toys collected from our temple’s family Hanukkah dinner. Still, Mass feels lonelier than usual at Christmas and Easter.
My husband and I committed to building strong Jewish identities for our children. Both girls completed religious education through confirmation and recently traveled to Israel together.
Yet after all that effort, I know I can’t determine who they will fall in love with any more than my own parents could. Hopefully, we have taught them a bit about finding a balance between love and faith.
MamalaD@aol.com, United Jewish Center, 141 Deer Hill Avenue, Danbury, CT 06810