by Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
Allow me to introduce my friend Jacqueline Cutler â€“ a Jew â€“ raising her two Jewish children in New Jersey with her husband of 27 years â€“ an Irish Catholic.
â€œWith my husband, it was more important to me who he was and we have made it work,â€ says Jacqueline, a fellow TV journo who writes for Tribune Media Services.
â€œWe decided early on that if our kids were going to have any religion it would be one â€“ and it would be Jewish, but it was very worked out.â€
Interfaith marriages like Jacquelineâ€™s are growing in the United States, and according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 37% of couples in the U.S. in 2008 didnâ€™t share the same faith. Twenty percent of Protestants have married out so says the survey. Another from American Religious Identification Survey in 2001 found the intermarriage rate was 39% for Muslims, 27% for Jews, 23% for Catholics and 12% for Mormons.
I decided to chat with Jacqueline as well as Marc Berman, another Jewish writer friend of mine, for some perspective on this issue after we got a bit of flack for posting racy JCâ€™s column about the recent union of Chelsea Clinton, a Methodist, and Marc Mezvinsky, a Conservative Jew. In her piece, JC suggested that Jews can find it quite heavenly being married to someone outside the faith while maintaining their own religious and cultural traditions.
Then all hell broke loose with readers criticizing JC, a non-Jew, for being (and Iâ€™m putting this nicely) unqualified to speak on Jewish issues.
As it was, a number of Conservative Jews raised their holy hell in the media about the Clinton-Mezvinsky union, believing such marriages further diluted Jewish culture in the U.S. — some even suggesting that the former First Daughter convert to Judaism.
â€œYou canâ€™t go into a relationship expecting someone to change,â€ Jacqueline says. â€œI mean, you can change tiny little things like: Please-donâ€™t-leave-the-towels-on-the-floor-because-I-will-kill-you-in-your- sleep kind of thing. But those are little things.
Asking someone to convert [to another religion] is a huge seismic change. I never asked my husband to convert. I never would.â€
But, says Marc, Judaism is a matriarchal religion. That means â€œwhen a Jewish woman marries outside of the religion they stay within the religion and raise the children Jewish,â€ he says. â€œTraditionally a Jewish man who marries outside of the religion would convert. So I would imagine since Marc Mezvinskyâ€™s Jewish and Chelsea Clinton is not, he would be the most likely to convert. But whatever they decide is a personal issue.â€
Not that this is just a Jewish thing. There are plenty of right-leaning Christians who are not too thrilled about the trend either.
In a recent article in USA Today, one pastor said he wonâ€™t officiate a wedding between Christian and non-believer because of the increased difficulties that can arise for people who â€œhold their faith firmly and stronglyâ€¦The idea of absolute truth is what is at stake here.â€
The truth for Jacqueline is that her interfaith marriage has actually made her faith stronger, as has her resolve to raise her children in the faith. â€œBoth my children speak Hebrew,â€ she says. â€œMy daughter works at our synagogue. My son will have his Bar Mitzvah this year. I have an Israeli student living with me this summer. My kids go to Jewish camp. I donâ€™t think being born of a Jew is enough. You have to practice it.â€
Even her husband, who after years of Catholic school studies is no longer practicing, is gung- ho about his wifeâ€™s religious traditions.
â€œHeâ€™s the one who on Friday night will come and say, â€˜Letâ€™s go down stairs and do Shabbat!â€™â€ she says. (Shabbat celebrates the end of the week on the Jewish calendar — candles, wine and a wonderful breaded egg bread called challah are part of the festivities.)
â€œI asked him the other day why he liked it so much,â€ says Jacqueline, â€œand he said itâ€™s because itâ€™s a clear demarcation that the work week has ended, and it is very peaceful. Heâ€™s learned a lot over the years.â€
Marion Usher is a marriage and family counselor whose DVD course Love and Religion is offered on InterfaithFamily.com. She told USA Today she recommends couples pick a â€œlead religion,â€ while showing respect for the cultural heritage of the other knowing that â€œthey will face losses acceptances and compromises.â€
For Jacqueline, that compromise is an annual Christmas tree.
â€œWe celebrate Hanukkah and the children receive presents for eight nights,â€ she says. â€œBut my husband really needed a tree. So he gets his presents on Christmas Day under the tree, but the kids donâ€™t. That was important to him, and it is important to me to keep him happy. The whole thing is about respect.â€
Marc, who is married to a Jewish woman, is raising three children in the faith. But Marc â€“ or Mr. Television to those who read his daily columns for MediaWeek â€“ says heâ€™ll be happy regardless of whether his children opt to date or marrying outside the faith.
â€œWould I prefer they married within the religion? Yes, because I think it would be easier because you donâ€™t have to deal with issues of how do we raise children and all that sort of thing,â€ Marc says, adding that his 18-year-old daughter is currently dating a non-Jew. â€œBut itâ€™s 2010, and thereâ€™s nothing wrong with interfaith marriages. So if my children decided to marry outside of the religion and were happy, Iâ€™m happy.â€