When I got engaged four years ago, some of my relatives asked if my fiancé Chris was planning to convert. The answer was no: I was Jewish, he was Catholic, and none of that would change once we were married. Being an interfaith couple wasn’t something we worried about much. Our thinking, we recognize now, was matter of fact and fairly superficial. At 24 and 25 years old, we’d been together for five years already and lived together since senior year of college. Religion never posed an issue before—why should it now?
We were young. We had much to learn.
Although we grew up with different religions, Chris and I shared parallel origin stories, like superheroes from separate yet similar comic-book universes: an Avenger meets Justice League-member love story, if the Avenger knew all the words to Our Father and the Justice Leaguer could conjugate verbs in Hebrew. I attended Jewish day school in Southern California, remained active in my parents’ Reconstructionist synagogue until I left home, and still wear (and sleep in) the chai necklace that my grandpa gave me for my bat mitzvah. Chris was baptized and confirmed in a suburb of Kansas City, attended weekly Mass through high school, and wore a St. Christopher pendant well into his first year of college. Our independent youths were heavily wrapped up in our respective religions—two only children sent to faith-based summer camps, who accompanied our parents to church/temple without argument because that’s what good only children do, who prayed and sang not with religious zeal but with reverence and historical perspective, honoring connections to the cultures that wrought us and reared us.
A nice Jewish girl may not necessarily have been what his parents once envisioned for their nice Catholic son, and my parents later admitted that they assumed I’d one day marry a fellow member of the tribe. But conversion wasn’t something that either set of parents demanded; they had long ago accepted and welcomed the partners their children picked, and gave us their blessings with zero hesitation. (Had Chris wanted to convert, he certainly would’ve collected points with my parents. But he also would’ve broken his parents’ hearts.) Chris’s mom told us how grateful she felt that he and I shared similar concepts of faith, even if the roots of our faiths differed. We felt grateful for that support, and confident that our analogous value systems would instill our marriage with spiritual structure.
I’d loosened my level of observance as I grew older, but I remained strongly Jewish-identified. Same for Chris and Catholicism. “Either/or” never entered our conversations about the future; instead, Chris and I contented ourselves on the idea of “both.” Both Passover and Christmas. Temple with my parents, and church with his. A mezuzah in our doorway, and a rosary in the knick-knack drawer—because that’s where Chris kept his things. And when we had children someday, and inquiring minds asked about their religion, they’d say “both,” too.
But while we were fairly certain about how we hoped to navigate the religious aspects of our marriage, we hadn’t fully thought out the event that would start it off: our wedding. Planning an interfaith ceremony—trying to honor both our families’ different religious traditions without offending either one, yet still creating a ceremony that felt authentically ours—would prove an unforeseeably immense challenge.
In our initial vision for the wedding, “both” translated to “nothing.” Let’s keep it simple, secular, we agreed, and leave both religions out of the ceremony. Why get each other’s God involved and complicate things for ourselves—and our parents?
We quickly discovered how difficult it would be to make an interfaith wedding uncomplicated.
“Have you thought about where you’ll hold the ceremony?” my mom asked, two days after our big announcement. I told her we didn’t know yet. Maybe a restaurant? Some kind of neutral territory? “It won’t be religious,” I said, quickly realizing that she was really asking (without actually asking) if we’d get married in a synagogue. I could almost hear her heart breaking over the phone.
My parents continued to ask questions over the ensuing weeks, and Chris’ parents asked none—moves signaling to us that all four were worried. Supportive and excited, but worried. At first I thought their worries hinged specifically on the ceremony itself, that either they feared feeling out of place amid the nontraditional celebration, or that a lack of religion would cheapen the ceremony’s value for them, or all of the above. But I soon learned that these concerns stemmed from anxiety over our future. If we weren’t prioritizing religion in our wedding, would my Judaism fall by the wayside in our marriage? Would Chris’ Catholicism evaporate? Were we sacrificing our identities for the sake of political correctness?
Our plans for a secular wedding, we recognized, unintentionally translated into a rejection of how our parents raised us, and the ceremony turned into synecdoche, one (key) part encapsulating the full sum of their fears. We hated to hurt them in this way.
Of course a wedding is about two individuals coming together to create a new unit, a new family. But that doesn’t necessarily mean eschewing our individual ancestries. A fully secularized wedding would deny us a meaningful, spiritual, once-in-a-lifetime experience specific to our backgrounds, too. “Will you look back on our wedding and wish you’d had a hoopah?” Chris asked me, mispronouncing chuppah. Yes, I admitted, I would.
So, leaving our individual religious traditions out of our wedding was off the table. Now we needed to find a way to inject both our religious backgrounds into the ceremony in a way that would be more inclusive of our respective families, since it would be their day, too—which meant a new type of compromise. If our marriage was going to be about “both,” then our wedding would need to reflect that. Mix-and-match became our wedding planning motto. We strove to carefully curate a ceremonial buffet highlighting everything we loved about Judaism and Catholicism, a real expression of that “both” idea.
We selected our favorite wedding traditions from each religion like we were picking teams for dodge ball. I drafted the chuppah, the Sheva Berakhot, the Kiddush over the wine, and the breaking of the glass. As I kept my parents abreast of all the Jewish rituals we’d picked, their fears dissipated. In a reach-across-the-aisle sort of move, we stitched Chris’ mom’s wedding veil into our patchwork chuppah, and asked seven special members on both sides of our families to write original, personalized blessings.
Chris had a harder time choosing Catholic traditions that wouldn’t offend my Jewish relatives. “We can’t say Jesus,” I told him as we scrolled through a webpage called Catholic Wedding Help. He laughed. “Everything has Jesus in it. That’s the point.” But I wagered that any invocation of Jesus as God would make my parents feel just as uneasy as Chris’ family might feel in a synagogue.
Eventually, he settled on a traditional unity candle—really emphasizing that “uniting two individuals” symbolism—and an Irish benediction. We agreed that the two readings be nonreligious, and Chris’ dad suggested that we include an explanation of traditions in our program, so that no guests would feel as if they were in a foreign land without a translator or guide.
Much of our decision-making walked this tenuous balance of appeasing one set of parents while not insulting the other. The debate of whether or not our parents would stand underneath the chuppah lasted weeks. Mine expected it; Chris’ were terrified. They’d never heard of the custom before and were not eager to be on display. We finally agreed that both sets of parents would walk us down the aisle and stay under the chuppah for the first portion of the ceremony, before “presenting” us and sitting in the front row. “That’s a good compromise,” my mom acknowledged when I reminded her that the parents of the groom needed to feel just as comfortable as the parents of the bride. She agreed and thanked us for meeting her halfway.
Problem-solving! Happy parents! Finally, the planning felt fun. But we’d focused so much on the ceremony’s construction that, with just a few months to go, we realized we’d forgotten a crucial element: the actual person who’d oversee the ceremony, our officiant.
My parents’ Reconstructionist rabbi back in California often officiates at interfaith weddings, so my mom arranged for Chris and me to meet with him for some guidance during his visit to New York. He enumerated for us all the Jewish wedding traditions typical of a Reconstructionist wedding and related how he might explain each custom during an interfaith ceremony. I liked everything he said. It was of course very familiar to me from my Hebrew school days, but it sounded easy and accessible the way he described it. Egalitarian blessings? Modernized translations? Perfect! Where do we sign?
Unfortunately, Chris left the lunch hurt and stressed. What I failed to see at first was that the rabbi’s prescription for an interfaith wedding did not necessarily mean a union of two faiths, but rather a Jewish ceremony where the groom didn’t convert. And that distinction, Chris explained, would make him feel like an outsider at his Big Day.
I felt lost. Though I’d been trumpeting the maxim that “the wedding isn’t just about the bride” since day one, I hadn’t earnestly internalized it yet.
OK, we agreed: no rabbi. And no priest either. But then who? We’d heard of people finding officiants online, but we wanted someone with whom we already shared a close bond. We wondered aloud if any of our friends were up to the challenge, but we were young, and our friends were young, and we knew we needed someone a little older and wiser, someone whose presence, experience and insight bore an element of spiritual weight.
Enter Uncle Phil.
This was Chris’ idea. My dad’s brother 12 years his junior, Phil overcame difficulties in childhood and serious battles with depression to become a gentle, empathic adult. He prefers not to pigeonhole himself in one belief system, but he bears all the trappings of a “JewBu,” a Jewish-born, Buddhist-practicing spiritualist. Rather than spouting off rote pseudo-mystical catchalls, his thoughts are meditative and his musings wholly original. He’s funny. When he was a little boy, he wrote a school paper about his dream of one day becoming a monk. He became a psychiatrist instead, but he’s still very much a man of God.
Phil happily agreed. We felt relieved and checked another item of our To Do list.
And yet, we worried. Would Phil’s soft-spoken nature hamper a crowd of 175 from hearing him? Would his peculiarities—epitomized by his go-to gussied-up look of feathers adorning his long ponytail—distract from the day? He mentioned to Chris at the rehearsal brunch that he thought he might pull some quotes from The Kama Sutra. Chris hastily advised that anything pertaining specifically to sex would probably not sit well with his conservative grandparents. My dad wanted to know if Phil remembered how to read Hebrew. Phil responded, “I improvise.”
We didn’t know what to expect. We were out of time. We left it to faith.
Ultimately, it was that “wackiness,” as Chris puts it, that pulled all the disparate threads of our hodgepodge ceremony together—particularly when Phil surprise “smudged” us with lit incense (giving my fire chief father-in-law heart palpitations, no doubt). I heard an audible gasp among our crowd of assembled guests. I laughed. Chris laughed. And then I heard more laughter scattered around the room—not derisive, but tickled, gleeful. Phil waved the burning sage bundle in the air between us and performed the Heart Sutra blessing in Sanskrit:
GATE GATE PARA GATE PARASAM GATE BODHI SVAHA
“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond; Enlightenment hail!”
I felt the room come together in that initial laughter and the ensuing “Ah’s” of palpable relief. I felt the room breathe as if one.
That ancient mantra, combined with every “Mazel tov” from my family and each “May God be with you” from Chris’, essentially summed it up. Spirituality in the broadest sense proved the key. It didn’t matter the language, or the wording, or the specificity to one faith—it boiled down to faith in each other, and faith in our future.
The next morning, the day after The Big Day, Chris and I met our parents for a late brunch. All six of us smiled like crazy, basking in the afterglow high that only comes with huge accomplishments. “That was a peak life experience!” my dad declared. It took me a moment before I realized he meant it was a peak life experience for him. “Phil was unbelievable,” Chris’ dad marveled, still clearly not able to wrap his head around how an eccentric psychiatric from backwoods Sonoma County managed to lead the perfect ceremony.
Chris and I shared a smile. We pulled it off. All our hard work and stress and worry paid off. And sitting around the table, watching Chris’ parents laugh with mine like they were all old friends, I realized our wedding not only created a new family between the two of us—it created a new Super Family, too, containing our four parents, extending to all our relatives, and encompassing a variety of religions and faiths. We were one.
Looking back three years later, I’m grateful for the by-committee process. What once felt more like obligation resonates now as reaffirmation of who Chris and I both are and how we want our someday children to view their history. The wedding, too, helped us reconnect and check back in with our faiths. I feel like a prouder Jew now than I did three years ago, and I think Chris feels similarly about his Catholicism.
It hasn’t always been easy since then. We often grapple with this question of how to be “both.” We have yet to find spiritual homes that are just that to us both: homes. Is there a church where I won’t feel uncomfortable when the homily gets into Christ dying for our sins? Is there a synagogue where Chris won’t feel like he only understands half of what’s going on?
Interfaith centers definitely exist, and they definitely exist in New York, where we live. But here’s the honest truth: Attending a service that minimizes our differences will mean acknowledging that “both” isn’t always achievable. And that’s a concession we haven’t yet been able to make. In order to be both and not begrudge one another, we may need to, at times, do our own spiritual thing.
The “where will you marry?” question has now been replaced by “how will you raise your children?” Will our (at the moment, still hypothetical) kids study for their bar/bat mitzvahs, and study for their confirmations? Or will we leave the choice to them? What if one of Chris’ relatives gifts our child a crucifix—will I feel hurt? What if our kid learns fluent Hebrew—will Chris feel left out?
As with preparations for our wedding, we know that plans for our children will be a continuing, fluid conversation. There are still many unknowns, and there is no simple path. But we do know this: We’ll raise them with love, with a sense of historical perspective, and with an appreciation for the gifts inherent within compromise.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.