A Christmas Tree in My House? Over My Dead Body
Warning: I am about to get very personal.
In October, I am getting married to a terrific guy. He’s thoughtful, caring, funny—and not Jewish. In fact, he was raised Mormon, though he now considers himself agnostic, and a majority of his close family are practicing Mormons. I, in case you haven’t already guessed, am Jewish and my faith and culture are a very important part of who I am and how I (try to) live my life. The process of planning a wedding and thinking about our life together has raised many questions for us individually and collectively about our spiritual lives and identifications.
For me, these questions have included:
- If having a Jewish environment in my home is important to me (which it is), (how) can I do this in a way that is respectful of the fact that my partner is not Jewish and this is our home?
- Does it make me a jerk if I insist that we do not bring pork into our home?
- How do I act in a respectful way when my in-laws pray in Jesus’ name without compromising the principles of my faith?
For him, these questions have included:
- How do I support my partner’s spiritual and cultural needs without ignoring my own and without converting to Judaism?
- Am I turning my back on who I am if we don’t celebrate Christmas and have a Christmas tree?
And it has us both asking:
- How can we be spiritual together without having to sacrifice our individual core identities and beliefs?"
According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, my fiance and I aren’t the only couple grappling with the questions that are raised when entering an interfaith marriage or partnership. This study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York was the first national survey to examine the religious composition of marriage and domestic partners in large enough numbers to be able to make generalizations. The study found that of all the surveyed households that contained either a married or domestic partner couple, 22% reported a mixture of religious or spiritual identification amongst the couple.
From this data, researchers found that, "in all, about 28 million American married or otherwise coupled adults live in a mixed religion household." That’s almost 10% of the overall population, and the rates of interfaith marriages or partnerships are far greater in certain religious groups, such as the Buddhist, Jewish, and Episcopalian communities. Interfaith marriages and relationships are not a recent phenomena, but certainly the heightened levels of interaction and interconnectedness among people of diverse beliefs and faiths brought on by migration and immigration, technology, and globalization of our workforce has accelerated this.
So how do couples of different religious or spiritual backgrounds and beliefs build a healthy, respectful marriage or partnership together? This answer is going to be different for each couple as every relationship is unique. However, more and more resources are now available for couples who are navigating these issues.
One of the most helpful and practical articles I’ve read is by authors and e-How marriage columnists Sheri and Bob Stritof. In their article, "Coping Strategies for Interfaith Marriages: Some Do’s and Don’ts for Interfaith Couples," they list several simple but essential items to consider and discuss with your partner before you formalize your commitment to one another (such as, where and how the two of you will worship/practice your faiths or beliefs) and offer some helpful suggestions for understanding and communicating with one another about your religious/spiritual needs, beliefs, and practices. Over the past three decades, several nonsectarian and non-profit organizations, such as the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources, have formed to provide resources and support for interfaith couples.
More and more faith communities now welcome interfaith couples into their communities and also are developing resources for these couples. These include websites from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Islamic Society of North America. It should be noted that just as interfaith couples vary, so do the approaches, philosophies, and resources of these sites. So, for some communities, welcoming interfaith couples may mean making it easier for the non-member to convert, and for others, it may mean creating an environment where interfaith couples can belong and be connected without the expectation of the non-member converting.
Being in an interfaith relationship brings its own set of joys and challenges, and I certainly do not recommend it for everyone. But for me, it has provided a powerful opportunity for me to learn more about myself, including what beliefs, practices, and customs are essential to being authentically me and to deepen my relationship with my fiance by discovering our shared values and learning about our different religious and cultural backgrounds.
I’d love to hear from you if you have been in or are in an interfaith relationship, as well as those who have friends and family members interfaith marriages.
- What have been some of your or their joys and challenges in these relationships?
- What are some suggestions or resources that you or your friends and family members have received to strengthen these relationships and foster understanding and communication?
I look forward to your feedback!