Chelsea Clinton's wedding to Marc Mezvinsky took place on July 31st. Mezvinsky is Jewish, Clinton is not. What will their ceremony look like? I hope a huppa is involved. Certainly the lovebirds have their work cut out for them -- not because theirs will be a "mixed" marriage, but because marriage itself is a leap of faith. If the couple brings intelligence and imagination to the interfaith aspect of their marriage, its "mixed" (Jewish and non-Jewish) nature can not only be the least of their problems -- it can be among the greatest of their family's strengths.
I came to marriage, almost twenty-five years ago to the day, with a longstanding admiration for Jewish faith and ritual. The agnostic Jew I would marry but came to marriage man dubbed by his buddies of Hibernian ancestry an "Honorary Irishman." It was in me to love the religion my husband did not practice before even before I met him, and it was in him to love my culture before I came along. It was in us to create a family of Irish Jews.
Neither of us cared about china patterns or nuptial pomp. I had contempt for the idea of a veil. I bought my wedding dress for a hundred bucks from a design student in a Lower East Side NYC storefront. And my lone "Bridezilla" specification was to have a rabbi and a priest (beloved to me) officiate. We found the only rabbi in New York City who would "marry" a Jew and a non-Jew. A friend called it "dueling clergy."
Today I am a practicing Catholic (under protest) and my husband thinks organized religion has caused more harm in the world than good. He lacks patience for Jewish worship, but I have plenty. When the local guys in black hats and tzitzyot accost us at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn asking, "Are you Jewish?" my husband grumbles a brusque "yeah," and rushes by with the kind of determined inertia only the hardest core New Yorkers can pull off. (He is, after all, a New Yorker by conversion.) I, on the other hand (a "cradle" New Yorker) often wish the Hasdim a Good Shabbos (if it's Friday) or otherwise take a moment to schmooze -- During Sukkot a few years ago a pair of adolescent guys approached me.
"Are you Jewish?"
"No." Pause. "You?"
One of the guys laughed so hard he nearly lost his lulav.
A good sense of humor helps in this, and the famous exhortation coined by the mother of the bride of has its applications: "It takes a village."
Couples in mixed marriages benefit from support as they try to navigate faith. Our children have been schlepped distances, bound up in neckties and itchy dresses and behaved themselves admirably at attended more than twenty Christian Sacraments, yet I am the only non-Jewish blood relative (if I count as such) who has ever wished them "Happy New Year" at Rosh Hashana. Our family gave up, long ago, on trying to include non-Jewish relations in Jewish celebrations. Last Thanksgiving, as my husband and I were plating the food in the kitchen, we heard one of our guests kick off the children's prayer of thanks before the meal with "We ask Jesus Christ our Lord" -- I slapped down the sweet potatoes, dashed to the dining room and big-footed my way into the prayer with a not very graceful poor man's Shema-inspired preface of "Hear us, O Lord -- so we can thank you for our blessings..."
This was not the first time Jesus had been invoked at our table before meals in our home but it was the first time I spied the "WTF?" look in the religion context on my children's faces. They were old enough to know that it is an affront to pray to Yeshua at a table where Jews prepare to eat. This was an innocent mistake made in the ignorance Catholic education tends to promote -- not malice. I suspect Hillary and Bill will do better. That they aren't Catholic may be a plus. That the bride's family is worldly helps. Celebrating Jewish festivals and holy days --and honoring the Jewishness which now makes its way into their family won't be a stretch for the Clintons because Jews are not alien to them.
I enjoy a thirty-year-old friendship with my college Latin professor from whom I learned all the Church Latin I know. The ironies of our dates are sundry and sumptuous. A proud, not exactly observant, but mystical and holy Jew, he makes the reservation and we meet to slurp up a sinful quantity of raw oysters (Traif, yeah.) while running our mouths about religion, politics, and poetry. A scholar of European Medieval literature and language, he has encyclopedic (literally -- he has written text for encyclopedia) expertise in Roman Catholic Church history -- both real and counterfeit. We have a lot of common metaphysical ground and have even collaborated on a translation of what might be the most holy Catholic poem ever written: the last canto of Paradiso, Dante's account -- for lack of a better way to say it -- of meeting God!
At our last lunch the Medievalist and I picked up on an earlier conversation about what's wrong with the term "Judeo-Christian. " It took about a year, but he finally persuaded me to concur that "Judeo-Christian" was invariably anti-Semitic; no matter how it is used, the "Christian" component never fails to imply its completion of the "Judeo" component.
If Chelsea comes to marriage with an intuitive sense of what's wrong with "Judeo-Christian" -- she'll be ahead of the game.
Clinton and Mezvinsky have, no doubt, had the "What to do when children come?" conversation couples in "mixed" marriages are urged to have before pledging their troths. But those conversations offer few guarantees. Spouses change. Highly intelligent spouses, which Clinton and Mezvinsky likely are, grow in more directions than dull ones. And that "How will the children be raised?" question begs the larger question of "Can parents make their children believe?" The answer is "no." I can and do, for example, compel our children to observe the Sabbath, but only they, themselves, can "keep it holy."
When my (then) fiancé and I discussed how to rear our children before we married, the fur flew. In one corner there was the Jew who wished to eschew Hebrew school entirely, preferring to worship at the sacred temple of bagels and smoked fish on Saturday mornings. In the other corner: an Irish Catholic girl who wanted her children to grow up to be B'nei Mitzvah.
The big difference between us was not so much the Jewish-Catholic divide but the believer-agnostic divide. When the time came to send our children to Hebrew school, my husband, whose own Bar Mitzvah remains a nightmarish memory, wasn't "feeling (the Hebrew School) love." And though there were moments in the last 25 years when I might well have been open to conversion, Jesus at the door started knocking, came in and rather shut the door on ritual conversion for me. The truth is, I think authentic, substantive, non-perfunctory conversions are rare and lack respect for pro-forma conversion.
Secretly (now, not so secretly, now, should our kids read this) I'd like to see our children "throw down" with practicing Jewish religion. I am introducing Torah, preparing Shabbat on most Friday nights. Their father thinks they are Jews. I think they're Jews. On an intuitive level, regardless of what the Jewish authorities say, I have always felt like a mother of Jews. Although the current developments on Jewish conversion sadden me, my long and frustrating experience with disregarding my own religious patriarchs leaves me well disposed to disregard any patriarch who would presume to know the mind of God.
During our honeymoon in Spain, 25 years ago, we newlyweds were walking down an ancient alley in Segovia, Spain when a Lubavitcher gentleman approached asking whether we were Jewish. (One of my favorite aspects of all Jewish doctrine is that Jews don't "proselytize." The world would be a better place if members of every religion sect shared this approach.) The man invited my husband to pray in memory of Jews who had been tortured, murdered and exiled in the Spanish Inquisitions. The alacrity with which my beloved allowed Lubavitcher man to strap the black phylactery on took me by surprise. Tears came as I watched him wearing the T'fillin, and listened as he repeated the Hebrew. I prayed too, silently, without moving my lips -- in my mind's ear.
When people ask me what religion my children are, I say we're educating them in both. It's the short but not entirely accurate answer. This does not mean Chanuka bears in blue kippas dangling from the Christmas tree. We don't faith mix. As I wrote in my essay "Many are Chosen People: A Few Even Know What that Means ":
A 'Christian Seder' in my house? Over my dead body."
Teaching children about religion is not the equivalent of indoctrinating them. The latter certainly persists in Roman Catholic Catechesis. Children are still taught to look to the Vatican for the last word on all things God. Our mixed marriage offspring were spared this, yet they were lucky enough to benefit from growing up in a parish. They've visited the home-bound, been to mass in Spanish and Creole. They have worked in a church food pantry since the youngest was a toddler. Their father cooks macaroni in volume, every third Sunday, for the HIV/AIDS ministry's monthly dinner at our church, as the children help to set the tables and decorate. Our daughter is neither the first nor the last (I suspect) Jew to sing in the choir. Our children sometimes accompany me to mass but they have grown up knowing that they are there to support me. I would require all my toes and fingers in order to count out the number of times I've "yelled" in a whisper: "Don't kneel. Jews don't kneel!" when on rare occasion, early on, they would fall in line following Catholic kneeling, sitting, standing patterns. Our children have experienced the the beauty of worship and learned about Torah and the Psalms from excellent priests and rabbis, but they have been spared the tyranny of indoctrination.
About a year ago I wrote an essay about being Catholic. It generated a lot of response from readers. Flak flew from all directions. Catholics thought me a heretic. Atheists thought me a boob. Jews reminded me that my children could never be considered Jewish. Progressives deemed me a throwback. The most ignorant remark came from a traditional Catholic who called my choice to teach my children about both Jewish and Christian religious practice "confusing." Not teaching my kids that Christ was the true messiah was "bad parenting."
The margin of error, with sizing up God, is always wide. God is too big to boil down to a tidy certainty.
Do our children see a Jewish parent at home who prays daily, believes in God, and unwaveringly observes the Sabbath? No. Do they see a non-Jewish parent who prays daily, believes in God , and unwaveringly observes the Sabbath? Yes. Is what they learn from this -- this discipline -- transferable across the creeds? It is.
This past academic year, my eldest daughter had the great fortune to study with a brilliant history teacher who required his first-year high school students to follow international news closely. As a consequence, my girl developed an interest in the Middle East, which demanded that she think more about Israel, Jewish history and her own Jewish identity. The content of our years of dinner table talk of politics and two religions -- three, if we include atheism -- seemed to fuel, in some small measure, this new growth on green wood. This is not confusion. This is the opposite of confusion.
Whether our children will grow up to worship will be for them to decide. I know, however, that on any given Friday night anywhere in the world, they will know how to recite the Hebrew blessings over the lights, the bread and the wine and thus feel part of something ancient, holy and bigger than they are. If they believe in one at all, the God they envision is not on their side, but on everyone's side, because children in mixed faith homes learn early what is wrong with religious isolationism, and that such thinking causes bigotry and war.
My mixed faith offspring are learning that a believer and a non-believer can have common ground in their understanding of the soul, that the atheist's argument can magnify the soul as gloriously as can the Sh'ma , Ave Maria aor those songs Johnny Cash wrote about God just before he died.
Reports suggest that Chelsea has no plans to convert, and although the default culture/religion in mixed Jewish -- Christian marriages is Christianity, her ability to promote Jewish faith and identity in her home need not, in my opinion, be predicated on her conversion. If Chelsea Clinton grows in her understanding of what it is to be a non-Jewish woman married to a Jew who cares about Jewish tradition, and wishes to promote Jewish tradition in her home -- I hope she does -- the interfaith aspect of their marriage can be a rich source of various blessings.
If children are born of this mixed marriage, their parents can be sure that regardless of determinations made by Talmudic scholars, Jewish theologians and the Knesset, the degree to which the children of Mezvinsky and Clinton are Jewish will always be up for grabs. The Mel Gibsons of the world will always have their say. The rule of thumb whereby children with a Jewish parent are Jews will ever apply; I, ironically "throw down" with the their definition of "who's a Jew?"
Because a broken clock is right twice a day, God works in mysterious ways, and, in because, in this Irish Catholic writer's opinion, the world needs more Jews, not fewer.
Follow Michele Somerville on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYpoet