Does “Faith” Separate Us?

religious baby?“You ruined my life,” my mother told me. The first time she said it was decades ago, when I first married, and she’s repeated it more than once since then.

The distress I caused her (which, perhaps oddly, never seemed to impact our loving relationship), was due to my marrying a non-Jew. Nominally, he was Greek Orthodox.

He and I had two children. And, according to ancient superstition, Jewish women have a supernatural power to bestow (inflict?) a religion on their young from birth. Thus my kids became Jewish, too.

Their father thought it wasn’t a parent’s role to influence his kids’ beliefs, so he didn’t even try to answer their big questions. The boys and I celebrated all the traditional Jewish and Christian holidays in a light-hearted way. If I had to do it again, I’d make up my own rituals and my own special days.

When we divorced and I remarried 13 years later, I again chose a non-Jew, this time someone who was raised Protestant but who isn’t even certain what branch. But it didn’t matter as much to my family. You see, I’d had my tubes tied by then. The funny thing is that the only “religious” disagreement he and I ever have is over his insistence on calling himself technically an agnostic, rather than an atheist like me.


I recently read ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, by Naomi Schaefer Riley. It’s a thorough sociological look at what happens when Americans of differing religious beliefs marry, raise children, celebrate major holidays, and divorce one another (not necessarily in that order). Most of these mixed couples start out believing that love will conquer all differences, which is often the case. At least until there are progeny in the mix. And then, some adults find themselves clinging more tenaciously to the rituals and certainties they themselves were raised with.

Apparently, according to Riley’s broad research, Jews marry out of their “birth” faith most often, Mormons least, and Muslims in the middle of the range. Rates are increasing, and younger generations seem to care less about all this.

Reading Riley’s book at this stage of my own evolution was a strange experience. All those nonsensical beliefs, all those quandaries in which mixed-faith couples find themselves at different times in their relationships! And rather than finding wise relationship guidance in the words of their religious leaders and books, they are told they are going to hell if they screw up, or letting down centuries of their people who suffered and died for the faith, or dooming their children to confusion, rootlessness, and amorality. Such so-called wisdom appears obscene to me.

However, if your religious beliefs or rituals or birth culture retain any importance to you, and you’re of marriageable (or remarriageable) age, reading Riley’s book may offer you a dose of reality beyond thinking, “Oh, we’ll work it out, it won’t matter.”

Because it turns out, to many people, that intermarrying ends up mattering more than they expected. Riley herself admits to an occasional sense of loneliness when she participates, without her husband, in her local Jewish community’s events, which she began doing, well, religiously, when they had kids.

Then again, my dad won’t even go with my mom to High Holy Day services, and they were both raised Jewish. At which point she yells at him and blames him for ruining me.

There are many ways to be lonely.

Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry … Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape.

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