Six weeks ago, when I sat down with my Rabbi in anticipation of my upcoming Bat Mitzvah, I was most nervous to tell him that I was in love with a WASP—who happens to be the kind, caring person I’m marrying.
Before I could be officially accepted into the religious education program—which would consist of six sessions with Torah discussions, guest speakers, lots of falafel, one community service project, one full, 24-hour Shabbos, and the option for a (very reform) Bat Mitzvah (something I, while Jewish, had never had)—I had to get the Rabbi’s approval.
After answering some very basic questions about my background and why I wanted to take the class, I had a few questions of my own: Would the Rabbi view me differently knowing I’m marrying outside the religion? Would I stick out like a sore thumb in these classes? Would I be transported back to some sort of middle school social environment where the cool kids are the most Jewish, most familiar with the Torah and, oh yeah, most open to marrying other Jews?
I took a deep breath and told him about my upcoming, interfaith marriage.
“Congratulations! How exciting!” he said
He showed no visible shock, no horror, no chastising—in fact, my Rabbi seemed totally cool with me marrying a gentile and becoming a “real” Jew at the same time.
So, why was I seeking a Bat Mitzvah at age 28? Long story short: I was born to Jewish parents, but ones with varying levels of religious backgrounds. My dad grew up as your standard, New York City Jew (temple, Bar Mitzvah, the works); my mom, on the other hand, was educated by nuns, and her mom converted to Catholicism when I was a teenager. So, naturally, when my siblings and I were born, my parents—who were in Chicago, far from their families on opposite coasts—didn’t quite know what to do with us, religiously. We followed a somewhat atypical (or, in this day and age, very typical) religious path throughout our childhoods. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, and that’s about it. We knew we were Jewish, and we were proud of it, but we had no clue what that meant.
That was pretty much where I stood up until my meeting with the Rabbi. The only difference being that I was ready to do something about it. For a long time, I paid lip service to wanting to learn more about Judaism, but didn’t do anything about it aside from attend some high-holiday services in college with the few Hillel members at my central-Iowa, private school. Three years ago, when I returned from my Birthright Israel trip (yes, it’s free and yes, it’s amazing), I had a renewed connection to Jewish culture. I truly felt, after that trip, that it was time to really “become Jewish.” But, alas, I still didn’t follow through. When I moved back to Chicago from NYC a year ago, I finally felt ready. Being back at “home base,” spending more time with my family, and yes, planning not a wedding, but a marriage, made me think more about big picture things. Throughout most of my 20′s, I didn’t feel like a grown up, but now I do. And part of that, for me, means fully exploring my religious beliefs.
Even though the Rabbi couldn’t have been cooler about my impending marriage to a gentile, the fear of being judged—by the Rabbi and my fellow classmates (most of whom clearly grew up with more Jewish education than I did, and seemed to have stronger Jewish identities)—stayed with me as I began the course. After all, when I went on Birthright, my 60-something year-old Israeli tour guide’s favorite catch phrase was, “Don’t be lazies; make Jewish babies.” Most of the devout Jews I’ve met—from families in America to soldiers in Israel—made no qualms about the fact that they believe we should all marry within our religion. And I get it—sadly, Jews make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population. And with every interfaith marriage (and the children that result), that can get diluted. It’s no secret that we, as a people, have been through tough times, and fortunately, have made it through. We want to stick around.
I couldn’t relate when, during our first class, the Rabbi mentioned (multiple times) that this course was a great opportunity to meet other Jewish singles. But, I could relate to the greater conversations we had about love and relationships. That first night, the Rabbi discussed the relationship with God that is formed through Judaism. Love, whether for God or someone else, is a reflection of how someone makes you feel. People love in the direction that they’re giving, he explained. While it was in the context of Judaism, the focus wasn’t on having to marry other Jews; it was more about ideals that keep a relationship strong. Later that night, when the girls in the class sat with the Rabbi’s wife to talk about customs and laws about sex within Jewish marriages, I realized I wasn’t the only one with questions. In fact, lots of the other girls were learning new things, and it felt like an old-school gab fest; we were all on the same playing field. Just because many people in my class went to Hebrew school, and had Bat or Bar Mitzvahs at age 13, I was starting to realize they weren’t know-it-alls who memorized the Torah; they were other young professionals who wanted to learn how to best fit Judaism into their lives.
And then there was the Shabbos. I was terrified to spend a full 24 hours with the Rabbi’s family and community. I feared the fraud in me would finally be revealed. But, from the Friday night dinner, to morning tea (while the Rabbi’s Orthodox family pre-makes theirs so as not to cook on Shabbos, his wife graciously assured me the option was mine; it was okay either way) and Saturday afternoon lunch with a non-Rabbinic family, I felt nothing but acceptance and kindness.
A few weeks after that, a couple from our class invited everyone over for a more casual Shabbot dinner at their apartment, significant others welcome. I cautiously mentioned bringing my fiancé, only to be met with a simple, “Of course!” Because it wasn’t a big deal to them for me to bring a gentile; he was just another person, and this was just another dinner with friends, that happened to be cooked in a Kosher kitchen, with a few religious components. My fiancé was sick and couldn’t make it to the dinner after all, but I went, and had a great time. We lit some candles, said a prayer, and enjoyed a delicious, home-cooked dinner and plenty of wine. After eating, we played several rounds of Cards Against Humanity and drank even more wine. I went home feeling content and, yes, accepted.
It had slowly become clear to me that my religion, and this course, were not just about following specific rules or memorizing the Torah. Much of it was about relationships–with God, our peers, and our significant others–and that’s no different for me than it is for anyone who was raised in a traditional, Jewish household. Everyone else seemed to get that, and now I do, too.
As far as how my Bat Mitzvah and my interfaith wedding—and marriage—will work together, I think it will all be just fine. I’m not going to suddenly start attending temple every weekend, or transform my kitchen into a Kosher one—that’s never what this was about for me. But I am learning things, through the vehicle that is Judaism, this course and my Bat Mitzvah, that I think my fiancé and I can apply to our relationship, in ways that make sense to us and that make us a better couple.
When I do have my Bat Mitzvah, my fiancé will be there, supporting me as I speak about my Torah portion and what Judaism means to me. And he’s pretty excited to stomp the glass at our wedding, too.
[Photo from Shutterstock]