When Jews and Christians Wed

How to raise the kids is one of the many questions facing interfaith couples.

January/February 1998

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When Jews and Christians Wed

Photo: Stephen Engelberg/Courtesy Houghton Mifflin

No one was particularly surprised that my sister and I -- like half of all American Jews since 1985 -- ended up marrying outside of our religion, she to a Quaker and I to a Catholic. Finding a Jewish mate just didn't matter much to us.

Our parents grew up with a strong sense of Jewish identity; how could they not? They still vividly recall the aftermath of the Second World War, when the horror of the Holocaust was revealed and the state of Israel was created. Coming out of school, they faced discriminatory quotas and restrictions that limited their life choices. And during those years, most of their friends and dates were Jewish.

My sister and I never assumed the same degree of Jewish identity. We assimilated easily, joined whichever groups we chose, dated both Jews and Gentiles. Marrying outside our religion was an uncomplicated decision.

And yet each of our interfaith marriages has created profound dilemmas. In Strangers to the Tribe: Portraits of Interfaith Marriage (Houghton Mifflin, 1997; $24), Gabrielle Glaser, '86, captures the reality of intermarriage, with all its challenges and complications. Glaser presents the stories of a dozen Jewish-Gentile couples from around the country, each grappling in their own way with disappointed parents, marital tension and questions over how to raise children. Glaser, a journalist, writes smoothly, shows a keen eye for detail and withholds judgment on her subjects.

One thread that runs through Glaser's stories is the reluctance of parents to accept an "outsider" into the family. "It'll never work -- you'll end up divorced," one anguished Jewish mother tells her son. "This will kill your father." Glaser even suggests that at least one of the mixed-faith relationships she profiles was fueled by rebellion against intolerant parents.

The absence of spirituality among many of those who opt to marry outside their religion emerges as another theme. The Christians in Strangers to the Tribe frequently seem like strangers to their own church. And the Jews, while identifying culturally with Judaism, don't seem, for the most part, to have strong religious beliefs. "When it comes right down to it," says a Jewish husband, "it's more being a member of a tribe than even being a member of a religion." The Jewish son of one interfaith couple says that while he feels comfortable in temple, he can't remember the last time he went.

Some of the deepest thinking about Judaism comes from those who, as converts, chose their religion. Rick, a Methodist of Irish-Italian descent, married a Jew and then studied Judaism prior to converting. According to Glaser, he was taken by "the Jewish notion of man's responsibility to atone for his wrongdoings to his fellow man, rather than praying to God for forgiveness. He was impressed that Jews see rabbis as learned peers, not as intermediaries to God." Ironically, by the end of his studies, Rick appeared to have accepted the tenets of Jewish faith far more seriously than his father-in-law, who had tried to prevent his daughter from marrying Rick because he wasn't Jewish.

The most vexing issues for many interfaith couples center on child rearing. "The arrival of a baby," notes Glaser, "forces parents to confront their religious legacies, to reconsider decisions made long ago and to revisit the spiritual dilemmas of their own youth." Glaser's couples reflect this turmoil. In one scene, a Jewish man who married a Catholic sits somberly in the pew watching as his wife holds their son at the baptismal font. Later he confides to her, "When I saw you up there, I felt all the love I had for you and Zachary drain out of me."

So how do Glaser's subjects couples raise their children? Every way you could possibly imagine. Some of the couples she profiles are raising them as Jews, others as Christians. Many attempt to expose their children to both parents' religions. ("Although Zack and Danielle go to Sunday school and love Christmas and Easter, they also light candles . . . on Friday nights.") One couple has even chosen to raise their first child Catholic (Catholic school, first communion at age 8) and their second child Jewish (Hebrew school, bar mitzvah at age 13). "The kids could become confused at some point," the father allows.

The most engaging story in Glaser's book is her own. She was raised as a Protestant in the small farm-and-mill town of Albany, Ore., but felt distanced from her more devout peers. From an early age, she was fascinated by modern Jewish history, notably the Holocaust and the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. She later married a Jew and embarked on an investigative journey that indicated her great-grandfather was a Polish Jew. She ultimately converted to Judaism, a move that "stunned, hurt and disappointed" her mother.

As a result, Glaser's mother wondered how she had failed to give her kids a stronger faith. "She had the wrong question, I thought," Glaser writes. "It was exactly what she'd done right, in exposing us to other cultures, in fostering understanding and in imbuing us with a need for religion that made me seek my own."

The author is equally sanguine about the future of American Judaism, dismissing arguments that interfaith marriage will be its undoing. "Judaism survived the travails of exile in Egypt, forced conversion in Spain and the Holocaust," she writes. "It will surely survive modern intermarriage."

Charlie Gofen, '87, is a frequent contributor to Stanford.


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