Why being in an interfaith relationship rocks

Guest post by jane murphy
A rabbi and a minister walk into a chuppah…

Before my husband and I got married, both sides of our families expressed a little concern about how we were going to navigate the waters of an interfaith relationship. Everyone in his family is Catholic. Just about everyone in mine is Jewish. People kept insisting that it would be so difficult for us — and just think of when we had kids! I have to say, I have found being in an interfaith relationship awesome for so many reasons. Here are a few…

No fights over where we spend holidays

This might sound superficial, but it is absolutely 100% amazing that we don’t have to “split” holidays. No “one Christmas at my family, the next at yours.” No battle over Easter, or which set of parents gets the first night of Rosh Hashana. Jewish holidays are with my family, Christian holidays with his. That leaves Thanksgiving as the single holiday of the year where we have to figure out what to do. (I solved that one by hosting Thanksgiving for anyone who wants to come).

We get to emphasize the things that are important to us

Everyone who practices any faith has some parts of the practice that they like more than others. For example, my mother loves Jewish music, both traditional and modern. Me, not so much. When you are the same faith, the stuff that one partner likes might not be the same stuff that the other partner likes. Since we’re each primarily responsible for bringing our practice to our family, we each get to do the stuff we enjoy. For example, we do Christmas with a Christmas tree, because that’s important to my husband, but we basically take a pass on Easter. I cook lots of traditional Jewish foods for many holidays, but, in my house, the singing is pretty much out.

A new appreciation for different customs

Before my husband and I met, he knew very little about the Jewish faith, since he grew up in a predominantly Irish Catholic environment. He has really enjoyed learning many of the different traditions and the reasons they exist. These aren’t just the formal rituals, but the fun little things, like trying to get the hottest horseradish possible for Passover. For a variety of reasons, I had been a real Christmas curmudgeon. Although it’s not my favorite holiday now, seeing the joy that it brings to those who celebrate has really helped me to soften my tone.

You learn to make hard decisions early on (and to defend those choices)

When we got married, we didn’t want a secular ceremony. I felt very strongly that I didn’t want a Catholic ceremony either. My now-husband and I talked it out, and we agreed to have a traditional Jewish ceremony that incorporated one or two Catholic-inspired rites, and we had an Irish blessing at the reception. My husband acknowledged that the religious piece of the wedding was much more important to me than to him, and he took on the responsibility of explaining those choices to his parents. We have been extremely lucky in that everyone has been very accepting of our decisions, but it was nice to know that we were presenting as a united front. Years later, we were faced with the decision of having a Christmas tree in our house, and I realized that, in this case, the right thing was for me to do what was important to him. It’s something I struggle with personally every year, but I also know that it is the right decision for our family.

Kids learn that there are different, equally valid, beliefs

We decided to raise our kids Jewish. They identify as Jewish. They go to Hebrew school. They celebrate Jewish holidays. They also know that Daddy isn’t Jewish. Contrary to what so many people warned us before they were born, this hasn’t created one iota of confusion. We believe different things. The very concept of faith means that you can’t ever prove it anyway, so we all just try to believe the things that make us the best people we can be. It’s astounding to me how easily children get this as an idea when so many adults struggle with it.

All that said, I realize that I have been exceptionally privileged to have both of our families accept us and our choices at face value, with virtually no problems at all. I am also lucky that most of our religious beliefs and practices are inclusionary. I would imagine that it would be much more difficult to be in an interfaith relationship when one partner is genuinely concerned that the other might go to hell for all eternity. However, differences in belief don’t have to be a detriment to a long-term relationship; in our case, they have served as a positive force throughout our relationship.

Comments on Why being in an interfaith relationship rocks

  1. <3 this post! I had a boyfriend once who was Jewish and didn't understand why I found it so fascinating, but this is exactly it: I was being exposed to new ideas and cultures and he got to celebrate Christmas like he always wanted as a child.

    I'm so glad you posted this- I have several friends that always ask the same questions to our other friends who date out of their religion. I've never been able to help them out (I married someone else), but I will so pass this on now!

  2. I wish it always worked out that well. My in-laws are almost impossible to deal with. My marriage is great. Not that this is always true, but in my case where my (Christian) faith is more important to me than his (Jewish) faith is to him, my in-laws have reacted very strongly to even the knowledge that I celebrate Easter and Christmas. I go to their events with no expectations for them to attend mine and no complaints, but they still want more from me. It has been a major source of stress for me, and any conversation he has with them about it just winds with them in tears because we (meaning our marriage in particular) are destroying their heritage. It’s been stressful.

    • I too am not having a lot of interfaith love. Although my Future in-laws are Hindu and my family is Protestant, it doesn’t neatly divide into separate holidays. They celebrate christmas in a non secular way. Also there was a general lack of acceptance of our future union on his families side. If it wasn’t frustratingly true, it would be like one of those in-law rom-coms. I hope that after our wedding, some of the craziness will die down, or something like that.

      • Have hope that things will settle down after the wedding! My family is Hindu and my partner’s family is Catholic and it does have its challenges (i.e. we totally celebrate all Christian holidays in a secular way and it’s a long-standing family tradition to do so)

  3. What’s interesting is that I consider my relationship to be “inter-faith”, though my husband is openly atheist. I know it’s not a faith or religion in and of itself, but it does carry a certain mindset with it that fascinates me. I have learned a great deal from him, namely critical thinking and the power of simple explanation. He listens to my reasons for what I believe (which have changed drastically within the past year!), and I do the same for him.

    Yes, we definitely had concerns and hesitations expressed about our relationship and marriage, although in our case it was from the concern that, not only was he going to hell, but he was going to drag me down with him! (I was raised in and until recently heavily involved in a very conservative branch of Protestantism.) I disagree, and I think that his influence on me has helped me to become a better version of myself, with a clearer understanding of my own beliefs and the reasons behind them.

  4. This is a great article. I’m sort of doubly in the same boat; my father is Catholic, my mother is Jewish, I was raised and consider myself Jewish, and I married an atheist from a born-again non-denom Christian family. My mother is active on the board of her shul, and my father is an usher at his church. I grew up without too much spiritual confusion… I was Jewish, the end. I went to Hebrew School, had a Bat Mitzvah, took several youth group trips to Israel (including my entire freshman year of college), and up until college attended shul more regularly than my mother. I observe all of the “major” Jewish holidays, as well as many of the “minor” ones. On the flip side, I go to mass with my father for Christmas, Easter, and Father’s Day. I stand with everyone when it’s time, hum along with the hymnals, and politely stay seated and silent during communion. We observe his holidays at home by bringing everyone together and celebrating, and not mentioning Jesus outside of mass. When Chanukah falls during Christmas, we make sure the candle lighting is completely separate from the rest of the Christmas celebration.
    I’ve used my upbringing as guidance for my own marriage. When my husband and I started dating, he knew from the start that I wanted a Jewish home, but that I was welcoming of the presence of other faiths as long as it did not impact my own personal space and what I wanted for any future children. I was very lucky in that he turned out to be a very open-minded Atheist. He doesn’t personally believe, and doesn’t identify with any religion, but he respects my heritage and spiritual choices and accomodates them. He’s happy to have our kids be Jewish like me, as long as he gets the Christmas tree that is part of his own heritage, if not belief system. He’s beyond supportive and actually participates in all of the Jewish holidays with me.
    Our wedding ceremony was officiated by a Rabbi, which followed the Jewish ceremony exclusively, and just changed the various spoken words to make them inter-faith.In the end, I’ve found that more than anything it’s about the balance you and your partner strike. If it works for you and meets both of your needs, then it’s *right*, regardless of what others think.

  5. Mom, is this you? No, Thanksgiving and a couple of other details are different, so I can tell you’re not my mom. However, I can definitely identify with a lot of what you said -at least as regards my family of origin. Turns out that mine is the third interfaith marriage in my family: I married a (lapsed) Catholic boy whose twin brother also married a Jewish girl. It makes holidays…unique. Jewish holidays are with my family…except when my sister in law throws a Hanukkah party, but for Christian holidays we bounce around between his family and my paternal extended family (luckily everyone lives in the same metro area!). SIL and I also bring a menorah to the Christmas eve fish dinner at our parents-in-law’s house when the timing matches up, adding on to that tradition. It’s complicated, but everything seems to work out.

  6. This is a really wonderful post! I agree on a personal level with so many of those points. I am a raised-Jewish, agnostic daughter of a Jewish father and a Dutch Reform (see Presbyterianish) mother. Holidays and religion in general have been great for the reasons that you list, but also very, very challenging for my siblings and I. When my parents married it was important to my Dad for us to be raised Jewish, and my Mom was fine with that. Hebrew school, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and confirmations followed. Over the years though, I think that she has realized or developed a lot of regret. Her family is unfortunately almost non-existent through estrangements and deaths, and I think that she feels a huge sense of loss. None of her traditions and beliefs may make it past her Jewish children, and I think she feels very alone sometimes.

    I think the other spouse has a huge role to play in supporting their mate. Kids generally don’t realize these things when they are little, but they can pick up on suppressed feelings. A lot. Things muttered without thinking like “Maybe if I had raised you Christian you would have learned to act better….” Woof. Zinger. You don’t forget those.

    There are a million things we could have done better in our family, but I think support for the “odd man out’s” beliefs could have been a game changer. We’re trying to make up for it, but it’s hard. Kudos to you and your husband for navigating this issue well! I’m dating a Catholic, and we’re starting to run into these concerns. Your post gives me hope 🙂

  7. I grew up in a Jewish/Christian family, and frankly I hated it. Although my parents had never said or done anything to make me feel this way, I felt stifled and unable to express an interest in religion for fear of appearing to favor one parent over the other. What’s more, if one of my parents was correct, than the other had to be misguided. It really screwed with my head.

    Now I’m a Baha’i, and have made my peace with the experience, but I don’t think that I ever could have been comfortable choosing the faith of either of my parents. I know that some kids in interfaith families are totally okay with choosing to follow the faith of one of their parents, but it would have torn me apart.

  8. Thanks for this! I was raised Protestant (though I identify out somewhere in the left field that doesn’t really stick to one specific religion–I agree with too many to choose, I guess) and married a Reform Jew. We had a Jewish-inspired ceremony (officiated by a friend of ours who has studied various religions in depth–not actually sure what his religion is!) and plan to raise our future children Jewish, although we both believe that ultimately, our children should be given the encouragement to choose their own path (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i, or any other of the tons of perfectly valid, wonderful religions out there). I hope that our children will not feel that choosing a faith will in some way make them seem to favor one of us over another–or that we would in some way be disappointed in their decision.

    I consider myself more spiritual than religious, and learning about my husband’s religion over the years has been a fascinating experience. It’s funny, often when we get to know new people, they think I’m the one who is Jewish, simply from the amount of knowledge I’ve gained from years of trying to have a better understanding of how my husband was raised and what is important to him, with regard to religion.

    It is wonderful to not have to choose between families for most holidays, I must say, and I love that we are able to teach one another about customs and traditions that mean so much to us.

  9. This is interesting for us. I am atheist, my husband is agnostic (he says. I think he’s atheist really). His family is strongly Catholic on every side. Mine is Hindu on one side, Protestant on the other. We sidestepped a lot of conflict by our families being well used to us not partaking of their religions. I think it would have been worse if we’d subscribed to any one of them. It is really good to have the opportunities to experience all those different cultures though.

  10. I have a fun one: I’m Pagan and he’s Jewish. I have no problem cooking kosher and celebrating holidays with him, and he’s fine to let me do whatever Pagany things I feel are necessary on my end. We also agree on our approaches to life in general.
    The kicker is that I’m not Jewish and I want kids. He is reserved on the kid front, and is concerned about passing on his Jewish tribes-membership to any potential offspring… which means me converting, as said card is passed down automatically from a Jewish mother.
    So I’m left at a crossroads: my faith, our kids. Pick one.

    Part of me is upset that he insists I have to change this thing I’ve been discovering about myself and building for years; part of me thinks snarkily “oh we’ll have kids anyway”. I have no problem raising them Jewish and then letting them decide when they are mature enough to do so. But he seems intent on making sure they are automatically in the tribe as it were. Any advice guys?

    PS he was raised pretty Orthodox (darn near Chassidic) but he’s relaxed a bit with time. Still keeps Kosher, always wears a hat out of the home, and we do go celebrate some of the holidays with his mom. And his Hebrew is pretty good (coming from a shiksa anyway :P)

    • Is he not concerned about the hypocrisy involved in your converting just to pass the faith on? I mean, I’m presuming you don’t subscribe to the belief system so surely that’s not a great example for your kids for you to just pay lip service to being Jewish?

      • well, obviously, if he wanted Jewish kids he would have married a lady Jew.

        but the thing coming to my mind is that I would definitely like kids and he ranges from on the fence to downright squeamish. I think this might just be a way for him to put it off until/when he feels ready; I agree with your thought that faking it isn’t the way to make it.

        I’ll say it: oy vey.

          • Lol don’t worry, you didn’t sound snarky at all. If anything it was nice to hear someone else’s view on the matter. Thanks! ^^

  11. Great article. I was brought up in the UK and my mother is Christian and my father Muslim. I was sent to the mosque as child to learn the Quran and my mother sent me to Sunday School. I wouldn’t say I am particularly religious but I try and promote the common values of all religions. I am a mature male and I have recently married a Saudi here in Riyadh where I teach. My wife is 7 months pregnant so interesting and exciting times ahead.

  12. Hi, I loved reading your article. I am a Muslim woman living in a Southeast Asian country and now in a relationship with a Catholic guy. Well, my boyfriend is basically an atheist but he was raised Catholic and still does some rituals, like going to church for a mass, simply because he doesn’t want to disappoint his family. In my country, interfaith marriage is still rare. Many people do it, I guess, but it is illegal. As for me, I would love to have an interfaith marriage. However, I have no idea on what to do with our kids later. I want to raise my children with Muslim traditions and I bet he wants to do it in his Catholic ways. He thinks it’s very important to keep his traditions alive, even though he no longer believes. When i was reading your article, i couldn’t help but wonder, how did you have that big talk with your husband about raising the kids? Did he just agree or did you two have to go through a rough conversation? 😀

  13. Hi,
    I’ve been married for 25 years and in marriage counseling for the last 3. All was fine up until year 19 (or so I thought), when my born again Christian husband (who never elaborated on his beliefs until then), started to practice his religion. I am Jewish. I am not an over-religious Jew but my heritage and beliefs are very important to me. It was fine as up until this point we always celebrated both holidays with both of our families. However, our families could never tolerate each other. I was blind to all of it, I thought me being Jewish was accepted by his family. No one ever said anything to me. We have three kids. Still, no one said anything. We continued to do our interfaith celebrations.
    Then something changed. My husband started taking the kids to a fundamentalist church where they were taught I was going to hell if I didn’t join the club. I was so naïve being raised Jewish. It took me a few times going to catch on to what this was. I stopped going and asked my husband to stop but he wouldn’t. My kids came home asking why they were being told to only date Christians and why they should be ready to die to go to heaven. I pleaded with my husband to stop taking them and he refused. He told me I was going to hell. I finally put my foot down and gave him a choice to go to marriage counseling. After 3 years of counseling things are better. My husband stopped going to that church and he is less extreme. However, one thing still eats away at me. It’s that he thinks his kids are now going to hell. That because I am Jewish and demand things go back to what we had before, which was interfaith, I have given him condemned children. That hurts. What I am is not good enough. He believes you are either saved or not, and don’t ask questions.
    My advice, any person that is marrying outside their own beliefs, find out exactly what your spouse believes and what the family is. Family has a huge influence. Also, just because things are agreed to, there is always possibility someone can change their mind. One partner may become more religious and it doesn’t matter who, it will be a problem. You have to work through it. It’s just unfortunate we all just can’t accept each other for who we are.

  14. This article pretty much sums up my marriage! But in my case, I’m the Catholic and my hubby is the Jew. We had a Jewish ceremony, but we’d like to raise our kids to love and understand both religions. Once they’re old enough, they can choose which they’d like to stick with and either get confirmed or bar/bat mitzvah-ed.

    Our family has been very supportive, and even though I know my family was a little disappointed that we didn’t have a Catholic ceremony, nobody said anything negative.

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