At my very first job in New York, a colleague jokingly informed me: “You came in a WASP, but you’re leaving a Jew.”
That statement was in reference to the demographics of the office’s staff. Almost everyone who worked there was Jewish, and I, a recent college graduate who had spent my adolescence in a largely Christian community in the South, was not. At the time, I had no idea she would end up being so right.
As a teenager, I attended exactly one bat mitzvah, but moving to New York provided endless opportunities to learn about the Jewish faith. Friends invited me to join their families for Passover seders and Hanukkah celebrations. However, it was through my various romantic relationships where I learned the most about Judaism — a religious faith and culture I have grown to love and respect, but that has also contributed to two of my biggest heartbreaks.
Over almost seven years and two serious relationships with Jewish men who at first said religion didn’t matter — and then backtracked and decided it did — I’ve optimistically begun interfaith relationships with an open mind twice, only to become the last woman these men dated before settling down with a nice Jewish girl.
I can now say with certainty that I am tired of being a Jewish man’s rebellion.
At first glance, I fulfill the stereotypes of a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). I’m blond, often wear pearls and can mix an excellent, and very strong, martini. Manners and etiquette are important to me, and when I’m stressed, I often cope by cleaning. I do describe myself as Christian, but loosely and in the most liberal sense possible. I don’t discuss my faith the first time I meet someone or on first dates. But if I find myself falling for someone who does not share my spiritual views, I bring up the subject. If it’s going to be a problem, I want to know.
That’s exactly what I did in my previous long-term relationships, both of which were with Jewish men. And both men said it wasn’t a problem that I was Christian, as they considered themselves culturally, but not spiritually, Jewish. At the very least, they were the most lackadaisical Jews I’d ever met. They never fasted on Yom Kippur or observed Jewish holidays on their own. And when they traveled to celebrate holidays with their families, they made it clear it was an obligation rather than a choice. On more than one occasion in conversation, we laughed about the fact that I knew more about the Jewish faith than they did.
I knew having an interfaith relationship could be complicated, and if we stayed together there would be some difficulties. But I thought it could work. Neither of us were looking to convert the other; we respected each other’s faith and culture. And as long as we were able to talk about it, I thought we’d be able to work through any issues that came up.
An interfaith marriage is nothing new or shocking. In the 1950s, only 20 percent of marriages in the United States consisted of partners of different religions. But by the first decade of the 21st century, the total was 45 percent — a total that includes marriages of one person affiliated with a religion and one who is not, of mainline Protestants to evangelical Christians and Catholic-Protestant marriages.
Of all the faiths polled by Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of “Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America,” Jews are more likely to intermarry than other religions. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013 reported that almost half — 44 percent — of married Jews in the United States have a spouse who isn’t Jewish. The tradition seems to be passed from generation to generation: Eighty-three percent of married Jews who have just one Jewish parent are married to someone who is not Jewish. A small group of leaders in the Conservative Jewish movement are even working to promote acceptance of interfaith marriages.
For the first few of the years I was dating these men, the fact that I was not Jewish rarely came up. My boyfriends helped decorate my Christmas trees, attended parties hosted by my friends from church, and their parents seemed to like me. I loved learning more about Judaism and sometimes even reminded them when certain holidays were approaching. When a spam email showed up in my account advertising a service to help me “Find Sincere Jewish Singles In Your Area!” I laughed and forwarded it to my boyfriend at the time, saying: “I think I’ve got that covered.”
Riley reported that less than half of the interfaith couples she surveyed did not discuss, before marriage, how they might raise their children someday. Before I was in a serious relationship, I had considered the religious upbringing of any possible children. Regardless of the faith of my theoretical partner, I would encourage religious education or exploration of any kind. I want my family to have an educated and respectful view of the world, including of different religions, regardless of my partner’s faith. As we see more clearly every day in America, tolerance and respect for different cultures is vital to peaceful coexistence. And according to Riley’s research, partners in interfaith marriages are more likely to have a positive opinion of their spouse’s faith.
Sure, there were some tense moments in these relationships. One of their mothers was extremely overbearing, somehow getting my cellphone number and calling me, asking where her son was. I didn’t know where he was, and her calling me made me incredibly uncomfortable. I asked my boyfriend how she got my number — he swore he didn’t give it to her — and told him I didn’t want this kind of involvement to be part of our relationship. When he talked to her about it, she exploded, yelling, “If she were Jewish, she’d understand!” I wasn’t invited to the seders that his family held, despite my saying I had loved attending them with my friends. There were times at church that I saw couples worshiping together and felt pangs of jealousy. But I told myself every relationship had its problems and these were relatively minor.
These issues weren’t there at first, but they started to appear after some time had passed and we were already in love. After years of dating, religion was suddenly a problem when it never had been before. I didn’t understand where it was coming from, and they weren’t able to explain it.
Not being Jewish was not the official reason either of these relationships ended. There were other problems — money, careers and plans for the future — problems I wanted to at least try to work through. But when I tried to talk about them, somehow the fact that I wasn’t Jewish came up — even in conversations that had nothing to do with family or children. When I asked, “What does that have to do with this?” they didn’t — or couldn’t — answer and kept talking about Judaism.
After we broke up, both men went on to find serious partners who were, in fact, Jewish. And while I try not to look back after a relationship ends, to go full-on Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was not just a coincidence but a pattern I should pay attention to. I didn’t doubt the love we’d had for each other, and I knew religion was one of the top reasons couples break up. But why did they say it didn’t matter and then decide it did — and find partners who fit the description they said they weren’t actually looking for?
I guess dating me had been their last act of defiance against cultural or familial expectations before finding someone who warranted their parents’ approval — perhaps the equivalent of a woman dating a motorcycle-driving, leather-jacket wearing “bad boy” before settling down with a banker with a 9-5 job. I now half-jokingly consider myself a Jewish man’s rebellion and guard myself against again landing in that role.
But, living in New York and working in theater, I frequently meet Jewish men. At almost every event I go to, they approach me. As flattered as I am, I don’t welcome the complications and potential heartbreak I’ve experienced back into my life.
In the meantime, I’ll continue dating and meeting my friends — Jewish and not — to swap Tinder horror stories over drinks, hopefully while sipping the cocktail I’m determined to create, named “A Jewish Man’s Rebellion.” I’d like it to feature a bourbon base and be garnished with a slice of bacon.