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Celebrating Our Differences

We met before the Flood, before the invention of the wheel -- we met, that is, before Vatican II, when Good Friday prayers still referred to "perfidious Jews" and it was common for Jewish families to mourn one marrying out as dead.

Almost 40 years ago, when Ned's brother brought me to his house after a high school party and I met this brilliant Jewish graduate student, marrying a non-Catholic was not on my agenda. I had a Lutheran father, and had seen the alienation that resulted from his "odd man out" religious status in our family. I was determined, at 17, to go on to college and establish a career. Then I would cultivate a relationship with someone of my same background and religion, and we would learn to love each other. An hour's conversation the next night, December 23, 1961, canceled all my careful plans. By the end of the evening, Ned had said to me, "What are you doing this spring?" "Uh, graduating from high school, why?" "Because I have plans for you this spring, and the spring after that, and the spring after that...." "Oh," I said. "Yes."

Then the fun began. The first objection people had was our (my) youth; I agreed to go to college for a year. The second was the difference in our backgrounds: Ned's family, unusually for Jews, was 5th-generation American; my grandparents were immigrants. We ignored that. The crunch came with the religious difference: I was religious, he wasn't. When we met, I knew more about Judaism than he did. Conventional wisdom was that this should simplify matters: he would, if not actually convert, at least remain religiously passive, and we would have a Catholic household, Catholic children.

We did the opposite of received wisdom. From the beginning, we determined to raise our children with roots in both traditions, and knowledge of both systems. "They'll be confused; they'll be alienated; they won't know who they are," people objected, drawing on theory rather than any experience they'd actually had.

In addition, I was horrified at Ned's lack of connection to his Jewishness To my way of thinking, it was only to my advantage -- and that of the marriage -- for Ned to have a stronger sense of self and develop a channel to the spiritual riches of Judaism. So I began to help him open up to what his family thought of as irrelevant and outdated. The first Passover seder he ever attended was the one he led, at my behest, the first year we were married. Two years later he came home to find Sabbath candles lit; "I thought it was time," I told him. By then he was working for a Ph.D. in Judaic Studies from Brandeis University.

This religious encouragement was mutual. When the reforms of Vatican II combined with the fulminations of an insensitive priest drove me from the Church, it was Ned who pointed out, "The Church Visible is not the Church Triumphant" -- that is, in Catholic terms, what we see before us on the workaday level is not the ideal we work toward. I started going to Mass again, at a church where the pastor was not a bigot.

Not that bigotry was all on one side. Ned's graduate career was almost derailed when an acting chairman questioned that someone married to a gentile could be serious about Judaic Studies; when he later became a professor, his college lost potential donors because of his marital situation. From the Christian end, the bigotry was both more institutional: homilies against the hypocritical Pharisees and "the yoke of the Law" -- and personal: people using phrases like "Jew him down" and expressing surprise that Ned had not run away from the near nuclear disaster at TMI.

For us, the problem differences were more cultural than religious. Jews and gentiles often have different expectations about, for instance, how money is handled and even spoken about within the extended family.. People whose families have been prosperous for a long time tend to have different ideas about food and what it means and how much of it there should be at a celebration than those for whom abundance is a novelty. We worked out these problems by, first, identifying them -- not always easy, since they're unspoken and unexamined-- and then keeping in mind that they are merely differences in cultural pattern, not matters of right and wrong. We worked out compromises: we each deal with our own family when it comes to money, in the way that feels comfortable to each of us. Or we capitulated: Ned says he converted me to Jewish humor, while I converted him to Italian eating habits.

And the children? They're all adults now, and not alienated, confused, or any of those other terrible things we were warned about. Our older son once said he thought it was because we were each so sure of who we were ourselves, they never felt there was a problem. Our younger son admits he did sometimes have thoughts like, "Boy, Dad will be sorry for grounding me when I become a Christian," but in fact feels his spiritual life has been enriched and enlarged by not being limited by a set of pre-cut assumptions. Our daughter feels the same way so strongly that, even though she formally converted to Judaism, married a Jew, and keeps a kosher kitchen, she plans to raise her children the way she was raised: with a deep understanding and connection to all the elements that shape our family.





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