Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Celebrating Christmas for Jewish Girls : A Guide (Part II)

In Part I, I described what I would call the interfaith low point of our relationship. I was angry that Neill knew nothing about Judaism and unsure if he could ever "get it." I'm not quite sure what Neill was feeling at this point. My guess is that he was probably feeling confused ("Why is she so angry about this? What is the big deal?") and frustrated (Why is she acting like I'm a bad person or that this is my fault?"). But, I think there might have also been a part of him that understood where I was coming from to some extent. Having grown up as an ethnic minority in a predominantly White area, Neill knows a thing or two about being the odd man out.


In this post, I want to focus on how we got from Point A to Point B. I am writing this not only to reflect on our relationship, but also with the hopes that others going through the same thing might be able to take something useful from this.

How I Made Our Interfaith Relationship Work For Me*

+Being Honest With Myself
Even at 19 I was aware there were certain things that I would be unable to compromise on in regards to religion. For example, I felt strongly that my future children be raised in the Jewish faith and culture (i.e., no going to Church one week and Synagogue the next). I was honest with myself about what I felt were my deal breakers and I didn't even pretend to want to compromise on these.

+Being Honest with Neill
Given that there were issues I knew I could not compromise on, I directly asked Neill about his views and was honest with him about where I stood from early on in our relationship. I believe the conversations went something like this,

Me: Do you want kids?
Neill: Sure, one day. I love kids.
Me: Great. Just so you know - if I ever have kids they will be raised Jewish. Okay?
Neill: Um. Okay.

It probably wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that I interrogated him about his beliefs. Somehow, Neill managed to pass! But if he hadn't? I don't think I would have stuck around. I feel bad saying this, but it just wouldn't have made sense for me to invest my time and energy. For example, one of my deal-breakers was the belief that Christianity is the one true religion. Why would I be with someone who looked down on my religion?

It's worth noting that the process of being honest with myself and with Neill is not something that you can just check off your list and be done with. It is a continuous process. Plus, people's feelings on religion can change. Now that we are married I obviously wouldn't run in the opposite direction if Neill decided to recommit himself to the Church (at least not right away), but if that ever happened we would have A LOT of issues to work out.

+Letting Go of The Anger/ Finding my Sense of Humor 
Ohhh my good friend anger. It was hard to let you go, but I'm so glad I ditched you at the curb. 

Why did I have so much anger in the first place? The answer to that is much more complex than I can adequately describe here, but I'll share the key pieces of information. My grandfather on my father's side was a Holocaust survivor. He escaped from Austria and came to the United States, but the majority of his family did not survive. Obviously, this experience drastically changed my grandfather's world view and to a large extent his view of Christians. This was passed down to my father who then passed it down to me. But, by the time I was 19 I could see that this anger had not served my father well. Anger, unless put to good use, rarely does.

That's not to say that some of that old anger doesn't pop up once in a while. Now, however, I direct my anger at systems - not people. For example, instead of: "I'm angry at Neill" it is "I'm angry that there are school systems in our country that do not educate their students about Judaism and other world-religions." I fully believe that people are a product of their environment and so redirecting my anger in this manner is consistent with my values. Furthermore, statements such as this are more productive in that they suggest institutions that need reform instead of just raging at one individual. 

The second part of letting go of my anger at Neill was finding a reaction to take its place. For me, it really helped to approach situations with a sense of humor. Joking about our differences can sometimes help bring us together.  

+Involving Neill in My Family's Traditions
Whew! After all of that hard work, we are finally getting to the fun part! Once we figured out that Neill was willing to learn and I was willing to teach, it was time to get down to celebratin'. In thinking about what was really important to me, I decided that I didn't care whether or not Neill had a large body of knowledge about Judaism. In general, what mattered most to me was that he got my flavor of Judaism. In other words, I wanted him to understood my beliefs, my culture, and my faith much more than I wanted him to know factual information on the religion.  

And what better way to learn than by doing? Sure, Neill was like a deer in headlights his first time at a Passover seder, but now after a few go-arounds through a haggadah he is a pro!

I remember the first time we went to celebrate Chanukah at my mom's house we practiced the Chanukah song in the car the whole way there. Now, fast forward five years. This past Chanukah, Neill blew my socks off by being able to SING THE HEBREW prayers for lighting the menorah ALL BY HIMSELF. Yep. Pretty amazing, right?

And of course, Neill took an immediate liking to the food. But, I guess it is pretty hard to not like a bagel with cream cheese and lox :)


+Clearly Communicating Expectations
This is last, but certainly not least! I don't think I can over-stress how important this was to making things work. Because we are still figuring out how we want to celebrate these holidays and developing our own traditions, we still have to communicate about our plans. But, sometimes I have this nasty habit of thinking that Neill should just magically know what I want (example: "What do you mean you didn't know I wanted you to cancel band practice so that you could be home all 8 nights of Chanukah????"). So, I have to work doubly hard at making sure I communicate what I want. This means that I have to first decide what I want in advance. For me, this can be the most difficult part! But, I appreciate that it helps me be more purposeful in how I celebrate the holidays. I've found that if I can clearly communicate with Neill about what I'd like, Neill is usually more than happy to make that happen.

 So there you have it - the five things I think are the vital elements to our interfaith relationship: honesty with self, honesty with partner, having a sense of humor, involving your partner in family traditions, and communication. 

With all of these things coming together, Neill and I have been able to successfully navigate our interfaith world. In fact, the longer we are together the less it feels like we even are an interfaith couple! If you take away the labels of "Jewish" or "Christian", we have more beliefs in common than not. And when we pray, I believe we are praying to the same God. Plus, as Neill has become more invested in celebrating Jewish holidays, I've found myself becoming more open than I ever thought I would be to celebrating the Christian holidays in our home.

In Part III, the last installment, I'm going to talk about how we are bringing the Christmas cheer into our home for the very first time!

*I can't really speak to how Neill came to terms with our interfaith relationship.

1 comment:

Anni said...

I really enjoyed reading this - I think it's a great model of how two people can love and respect each other even with different fundamental beliefs. My parents are kind of interfaith (Lutheran and atheist. Inter-no-faith?) and they have one of the best relationships I've ever seen, although I know the church didn't always make it easy! Thanks for writing so openly about this.