Would you mind just introducing yourself quickly however you normally do that?
Rabbi Handlarski 00:05
Sure. So I'm excited to be here. I'm Rabbi Denise… you know, even a couple of years ago a sociologist who studies Jewish demographic trends and I were co presenting a workshop and one of the things we spoke about was demographic, on intermarriage and how intermarriage is clearly unstoppable. We have lots of demographic data. And I talked about how that doesn't have to be the crisis we thought it was, and that actually a lot of these people, demographically speaking are staying Jewish or raising kids with Jewish identities. And in the Q & A somebody was like, Okay, but how do we stop the intermarriage trend?
I'm Emma Newbery and this is Breaking the Glass, a podcast from Jewish Rhody Media about multifaith relationships, and how religious communities particularly Jewish ones, react to and navigate them. I'm a podcast producer and a journalist. But more importantly, I'm a child of a multifaith family. My mom is Jewish, and my dad is Episcopalian. They themselves are the children of some pretty incredible if very different people. My dad is the son of an Episcopalian minister who was following in his own father's footsteps. And my mom's father was a man who counted sliced tongue among his favorite foods and who hid his dog tags as an underage American radio operator flying over Nazi territory to avoid being identified as a Jew. Religion in America is in steep decline. As of 2021, Gallup reports that less than half of Americans are part of an organized Jewish, Christian, or Muslim community, along with that the polarization of the American public has skyrocketed. The more pressing moral questions we must ask of ourselves and our communities about health, safety, equity and more, the less eager we seem to engage with those answers in an institutional way. And in recent years, it seems the only thing we're less eager to do is find common ground with each other. But there are those who are finding commonality and even love. In a divided society. The people you'll meet over the course of this series are multifaith couples, people who were raised in a different religion from their partner, who have bridged vastly different backgrounds and the community leaders and advocates who are fighting for a place for these couples in religious communities. The words that we usually hear around this topic are ones like interfaith marriage, or in-marriage, or intermarriage. And you will hear all of those over the course of this series. But we will be using the term multifaith to encompass all of those definitions, and any other ones that couples feel are right for them. In that spirit, this is really a podcast for everyone. We're putting this out into the world to uplift and support multifaith couples and understand why it is that many religious communities remain rigid about who they include and who they don't, even as communities shrink and falter, maybe you're part of a multifaith couple or family like me, and can find your own voice in the joys and hurdles shared by these couples. Maybe you're struggling to come to terms with a multifaith marriage in your family, maybe you're navigating a community response to one, or maybe you're not religious at all. All of us understand the urge to belong. It's human. And I think all of us understand too, that when community is defined by who we aren't, we're on the defensive. For minority groups in particular, this is a familiar position. But when community is defined by who we are, and could be, there is no combat stance to take anymore. To change our standards of community, to reflect who is actually seeking us out, is an act of profound release of generations of expectations, pressure, and fear. It's not a doing as much as it is an undoing. So we're actually going to start with a story from two people who have been in each other's lives for as long as they can remember—siblings. While not a couple, each of them are in multifaith relationships, and their sibling bond reflects an important component of multifaith relationships. They're about the individuals, yes, but they're also really about family. Okay, so Adam Greenman and I are sitting in the studio waiting for his youngest sister Jenni to join us virtually. Jenni is 36 years old. She's a licensed clinical social worker and she lives with her wife Karen in Erie, Pennsylvania. While we're waiting, we make sort of awkward conversation. Adam is my boss, and I was still relatively new to the role at the time we recorded this. So it felt a little strange, but also really special to be able to not only meet a member of his family, but to hear something really, really personal from her—her coming out story. So that's how the interview started. And here's where we landed…
Not from a place of judgment, but oh man, Jenni, like, if you want to give mom and dad a reason to be upset about this, it's not that you're gay, it's that you're dating somebody and serious with somebody who's not Jewish.
Adam’s response will make more sense in a minute. I can start by telling you that Adam is in a multifaith marriage too. Karen, Jenni's wife, is an atheist, and Adam's wife, Erin doesn't align herself with any one religion in particular. Adam and Jenni were raised Jewish, as you might have figured out from him anticipating his parents’ reaction. The next thing I can tell you is that Jenni and Adam have a very clear dynamic, and they know it too…
Jenni Greenman 06:07
I am the youngest and Adam is the oldest. And then we have one in between
I have very oldest child tendencies, and she has very youngest child tendencies
Jenni Greenman 06:17
Jenni and Adam were raised sort of on the border between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, a distinction that Adam likes to call “Conservadox.” And that meant that for them, and more so even for their parents, and then their grandparents, Jewish identity was a really important part of their life. It was the same for my grandfather. And I think about him a lot in these interviews. And I wonder, as I mentioned about him hiding his dog tags, what it was like for him to do something like that, to keep something so important to his identity hidden. For far too long experiences that fall outside of the traditional understanding of an “in-group” have remained similarly hidden, unspoken. The reason that we're starting with Adam and Jenni today is not just because they're both in multifaith marriages, but because Jenni's process of sharing herself and her identity with her family echoes that same idea, speaking the unspoken. Here, Jenni shares her experience coming out to her family, explaining what it feels like to, in sharing your truest self, have to implicitly ask, hope, for acceptance.
Jenni Greenman 07:34
I didn't say anything to anybody until I started dating my wife. I decided to come out to all the family at once, because I knew that it was serious…
Jenni stays relatively matter of fact, in her recounting of all of these experiences, and as she's talking, I can see her sort of glancing off to her right where I know her wife, Karen is sitting just outside of the frame. Karen declined to participate in the interview. But it's striking how much you can tell about a relationship between two people just based on how one partner acts and how their responses or their body language are shaped by the presence of someone they love. Especially in difficult conversations
Jenni Greenman 08:12
Adam said, “I hear I hear I missed something big.” And I was like, yeah, so I told him, and he I was working at Barnes and Noble at the time. And he just immediately was like, Can I ask you about the Nook versus the Kindle? And I was just like, yeah, sure. Okay. This is, yep… All right, this is where we're at? And then like, of course, asked me if I'm happy.
No, that was the first question. The first question was, are you happy
You’re right. You’re right.
I'd only been working with Adam for a few months when I heard this story. But even then it struck me as one of the most Adam-like responses I could imagine in a situation like this. For someone who's contemplating coming out to family or friends, even if it is in a supportive environment, which Jenni tells me she was lucky enough to have, there can still be a lot of fear associated with that process. And among other things, sharing that part of your identity with someone, especially with people that you love, can bring to the surface different responses that sort of indicate where people are coming from.
Jenni Greenman 09:16
It's interesting, because I always knew, I mean, we grew up with people in our lives, who were gay, Married for whatever that looked like at the time since it wasn't legal. So I knew that I would be accepted by my whole family. And yet it still, there was still so much fear there. Which is interesting, because a lot of kids especially in the work that I do a lot of kids that I talk to are terrified to come out, and rightfully so. But for me, it was a really scary thing that felt very heavy, even though I knew that my family would love me and accept me no matter what, like I knew that there was no question about that, but it was still terrifying. My wife full disclosure is older than me. And so when she came out it was a very different time and experienced a lot of that negativity that backlash. And I never thought that I would experience that and didn't really, it honestly wasn't until I moved here that I experienced some of that... in Erie, Pennsylvania
To Adam, Jenni coming out as gay was…
not at all a big deal. Like it was so happy for her that she was finally happy.
But after making sure she was in a happy relationship, and I guess also making sure that he bought the correct E-reader for his lifestyle. The next question that came up really gets at the heart of what we're talking about here on Breaking the Glass. Adam asked Jenni, “is she Jewish?” An unassuming question on its face maybe. And like I said, at the beginning, Adam himself is in a multifaith marriage. So he wasn't asking it out of any kind of judgment of Jenni or of Karen. Instead, while he says that quote, you heard at the beginning, almost jokingly,
Oh man, Jenni, like, if you want to give mom and dad a reason to be upset about this, it's it's not that you're gay. It's that you're dating somebody and serious with somebody who's not Jewish.
A question like this, not unlike Jenni's process of coming out, comes from a kind of fear, a worry.
Being in an interfaith marriage, having gone through the sort of unspoken disappointment that existed in my family because of that. Really, you know, not wanting my siblings to have to go through that same sort of unspoken disappointment.
Jenni had come out to her mom, and this is how she described it.
Jenni Greenman 11:45
It was awkward. I was like, so I'm dating someone and she said, “Who is it?” And I said, “Well, it's a woman.” And she said, “Okay…” I said, “They're also older than me.” And then I said, “I also work with them. They're my boss.” And she was like, Okay. And then she said, “Is she Jewish?” And I was my reaction was like, after all that does it matter? And she was like, yeah, it does. And I was like, she's not. And then we went shopping, and it was fine. So like, not really a reaction. But it's just funny that that was, after all that that's still came up as a question of like, it's important, it matters.
This anecdote from Jenni and Adam shows just how many layers make up any relationship between people or with oneself. There's identity in the form of sibling dynamics, sexuality, childhood, motherhood, and somewhat bizarrely to Jenni, religion. After all that, as she said. If you grew up in a religion, or some form of spirituality, organized or not, it's clear how inextricable it is from all of those other factors. Whether you connect with God or not, or how you choose to do so is always undeniably a relational experience. And in a family, a community or in a partnership, you're exploring and living that profound relationship alongside other people. If I sound like I'm stating the obvious, it's because I'm trying to. The core of this series is that multifaith relationships are relationships first. Our identities are expressed and experienced through relationships with others and any marriage—multifaith or not—is a coming together of different backgrounds, experiences and reference points. In just a minute, we're going to hear from a mom, not Jenni's mom, a different mom about her reaction to both of her children, telling her that they would be entering into serious multifaith relationships, and then marriages. We'll hear from her right after this short break.
[AD BREAK] 13:51
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Welcome back to Breaking the Glass. At the beginning of this episode, we heard about an interaction between Jenni and her mom. And while I wasn't able to talk to her mom for this series, I was able to talk to a mother who had to confront her own feelings about both of her children entering into serious multifaith relationships, and eventually marriages
Ben and Catherine… We always always liked Katherine a lot. She's been in Ben's life for, I think it was nine years before they got married.
This is Susan Froehlich, she is 66, quick to laugh, and honest about the cultural shock of multifaith marriage occurring within her own family, as her life had been deeply focused on the importance of maintaining a traditionally understood Jewish home and family. She married her husband John, who is also Jewish, in 1988. Both of her children, her son, Ben and daughter, Allie, are in multifaith relationships. Ben and his wife Catherine, who she was just mentioning were married two years ago and Allie and her husband Scott were married last May.
The first time that Ben told me he was going to go home for Christmas with Katherine. I was like… that was hard for me.
That was really hard. Not as hard for John, but for me. You know, she grew up in a Catholic family. Christmas time was always the time that our family went away on a vacation. Jewish people go south for Christmas. They would do Christmas with Catherine's family, and then they would come to wherever we were. I didn't know whether to get her a Hanukkah present, or a Christmas present. These are the dilemmas that a lot of us parents have of children who have intermarriage, we were very front and center about what our traditions were and what we wanted to do, and she liked it.
This was definitely one of the lighter stories in our interview. Susan explained to me that she grew up in a conservative Jewish family and her grandparents around whom a lot of the community, and her practicing of Judaism was centered, were Orthodox. And her husband's mother had made it out from Europe on the Kindertransport, meaning that she as well as her husband, were survivors of the Holocaust. And their parents and other members of their family didn't make it. Susan tells me this not as a way to excuse but more as a way to explain her initial feelings when she first learned that Ben and Catherine were going to get married.
When I realized that Ben and Cath were serious, I may not have been as open and accepting. It's taken me some time to kind of move along the spectrum with my kids.
In this first episode, and in the next one, we're really focusing on the specific dynamics within families around multifaith relationships, and anxieties about how they fit into the family framework. While the stakes of each of these kinds of conversations really vary, depending on the family, I just want to leave you with this as we keep going. Communities are made up of families. So a lot of these interpersonal reactions, experiences and conversations reverberate across the larger groups that we all count ourselves to be a part of. Starting with families gets at the heart of the hesitation and anxiety around multifaith partnerships, which can then help us to understand how those kinds of feelings drive communities towards exclusivity. With each of our guests, one of the first things I usually ask them is, what was the messaging that you received growing up around multifaith marriage? Take for example, what Susan's parents passed down to her.
Had I married someone who wasn't Jewish, I think my parents probably would not have been able to process it. But John's mother who went through so much as a young Jewish girl said to me, God bless her. “That's your son, you're gonna love your son. And if he marries her, you're going to love her. You're gonna love your children however they are.” Well, I never forgot that. I don't think my mother would have said that.
After hearing this last comment about Susan's mother-in-law, I thought back to what she said initially about how she had a much harder time coming to terms with particularly her son Ben's relationship than her husband John did. And the contrast she's drawing here between her mother-in-law and her mother is similar. While I'm speaking in broad strokes saying words like community or communities, and even words like family in general, we do have to keep in mind that the experiences of Jews as a people have actually varied really widely depending on where you were from—meaning all too often, where you were expelled from at different points in history. Over the course of this series as we trace the aspects of relationships from meeting each other, to meeting parents, to planning a wedding, to potentially having children and integrating into a new community, as a family, we’ll also need to sort of keep plugging back in this sort of mosaic of experiences across generations and denominations of Judaism, and oftentimes other religions as well. Joining me to help with all of this is a handful of experts on the history and the current state of multifaith relationships across differing religions. Today, I'll be introducing you to two of them right after this short break.
[AD BREAK] 19:25
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Rabbi Denise Handlarski, whose voice you heard at the beginning of the episode and Edmund Case are both authors of books about multifaith relationships. Ed wrote the book “Radical Inclusion,” and Rabbi Denise is the author of “The A to Z of Intermarriage.” To use the tagline for Rabbi Denise's book, both she and Ed are invested in making “more joy and less oy” for multifaith couples looking to incorporate Judaism into their lives. Rabbi Denise is a part of the denomination of Humanistic Judaism and is a rabbi for the online community Secular Synagogue. Ed is the founder of Interfaith Family, now called 18 Doors, an organization focused on engaging multifaith couples and their families in Jewish life. Now he runs the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism. Here's how they describe the central issues they want to address in the communities they serve.
I do think attitudes have changed a lot.
This is Ed, he's very matter of fact, and highly analytical, I would say in his assessment of the current attitudes toward multifaith relationships. He left his career as a lawyer to pursue advocating for and providing resources for couples like this. I grew up with two lawyer parents, so I wasn't really fazed when he asked me to clarify my questions a couple of times to make sure that he was answering exactly what I was asking.
It's interesting that there used to be more surveys done about attitudes among Jews than there are now. We now there is pretty much the Pew Report, which you know, which has been done twice, which is national, and doesn't really ask a lot of questions about attitudes. And then there are local community surveys that mostly the Cohen Center at Brandeis does. And they don't ask a lot about attitudes, either. The American Jewish Committee used to do a survey of attitudes. And it started showing high percentages of people did not disapprove of interfaith marriage. And then they stopped doing the surveys. I don't know if it was because of that. But I think that the um…
Both Ed and Rabbi Denise know their history and their numbers really well. But the thing that they both emphasize is really the emotional and communal impact that accepting multifaith families can create, and what can grow from that kind of acceptance. I should say, too, that they are each in multifaith marriages. So they both have a personal stake in this as well.
Rabbi Handlarski 22:21
I've been thinking about writing a book on intermarriage for many, many years, because, you know, it touches my life in so many ways
Rabbi Handlarski is just as frank as Ed is, but in kind of a different way. She uses a combination of candor, compassion, and bone dry humor, to evoke all of the many emotions that she's seen occur in multifaith relationships.
Rabbi Handlarski 22:42
I am intermarried myself, the majority of the weddings I do are between a couple that is made up of somebody who's Jewish and somebody who isn’t Jewish but loves the Jewish person. And most of my community members are either intermarried or in intercultural partnerships, or the children of them, the adult children of them. And so I wanted to create a book that would help folks who are considering intermarriage or who are intermarried, or whose family members are, and give them meaningful tools to help create as strong and robust a relationship as possible.
I mean, there was a lot more acceptance of interfaith marriage. And I think probably, obviously, that is because there's such a high rate of interfaith marriage among non-Orthodox Jews at 72%. So you have all those parents, and their children are marrying people from different faith backgrounds, and they want to get along with their children. And so attitudes have changed in that way. On the other hand, it's such an important I feel that engaging interfaith families is such a crucially important issue because again, because of it's so widespread, and Jewish organizations, you know, religious organizations, communal organizations, I feel, by and large, don't talk about it, they just there is resistance to talking about it. And I believe that the reason why the policies are restrictive is this residual tribalistic attitude of there's us and there's them and we just have to you have to have these boundaries, or else we’ll fall apart.
Rabbi Handlarski 24:15
And I also wanted to help change the narrative. I'm certainly not doing it alone. But I wanted to be part of changing the narrative that's against intermarriage in Judaism and really look at the opportunities intermarriage presents in Jewish life.
I think Rabbi Denise said it exactly right. And I hope you'll join us over the course of the next episodes as we do work to change the narrative by replacing one that has been dominant for so many years with one that is real and grounded in the experiences of those who are closest to this experience, rather than a narrative based in doctrine, or in fear. Anxieties and tensions around multifaith marriage can be dated back to the fourth century and probably even earlier, if we think anecdotally. There are going to be a lot of names throughout the series, but I'll just throw out a few highlights for this first episode of thinkers throughout history that have touched on this subject. One of the more well known names is actually that of Martin Luther, a German priest, theologian and author of the very famous 95 theses whose groundbreaking proclamations of the 16th century included this take on multifaith marriage.
“Pay no attention to the precepts of those fools who forbid it, you will find plenty of Christians and indeed the greater part of them who are worse in their secret unbelief than any Jew, heathen, Turk or heretic.
Julius Draxler, a Columbia University graduate student who was Jewish and believes strongly in assimilation as long as it was in service of the greater American identity.
“With a younger generation inheriting something of the cultural past of its group, the process will go ahead on a progressively higher cultural plane. America will thus gain far more in the long run that she loses.”
And people like Steven Gibson, an atheist from Altadena one among many who wrote into the Burbank leader in April 2013. To answer the question, “In theory, can interfaith marriages be effective?”
“There is no one representative interfaith couple. Instead, every interfaith couple has a unique story with lessons to learn and share about pressures and love with family members, challenges around social and work obligations, and tensions over raising children. As we experienced the differences that separate us and draw together, we realize that every couple and every individual is different. And we can all grow from our differences, as well as from our shared experiences. Successful marriages come from how we treat one another and love one another.
In this episode, we heard from different counterparts of couples. So now we'll look ahead to some of the other people who contributed their stories to this series, we have some lighter anecdotes about the kinds of sticky situations you can end up in as a multifaith couple… Like this one from Jana Knibb and her partner, Ryan Foreman, who are in both a multifaith and multiracial relationship. Jana is black and Ryan is white.
I gotta say, I, myself have been proven consistently wrong.
From day one
From day one about any sort of preconceived notion I had about Ryan, our relationship, his family's reaction, my family's reaction, like my whole family made me a liar. And so…
Her mother had me carving up the turkey. And then I was like, somehow got roped into carving up a ham.
He carved up a ham. I was in the bathroom. And then I come out and I'm like, “Oh, my God, mom!”
Just in case you're confused. This is a reference to the fact that Ryan keeps kosher, which is a set of dietary rules that originates from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which are books from the Torah. People keep varying degrees of kosher, but the primary starting place for a lot of people is not eating pork, or in this case, ham.
So you know, yeah. So it's, it's, um, you know, and I'm pretty sure that if Ryan would have said something, he she said nothing. He just had the knife, and he was going.
We have inward looking and deeply thoughtful meditations on identity from Rimini and Reza Breakstone. Rimini, who's an oncologist was raised Catholic, and Reza, who is a personal injury lawyer was raised in a multifaith and multi-nationality household, or as he likes to call it, “compound identities.”
I would describe ourselves as an interfaith marriage with no desire to have, like faith supremacy over each other. That's not part of our relationship. I see Rimini first and foremost, and the sort of Catholic identity, sort of in the back row, as I see it. And yeah, I think that's how I would describe us.
My sense of religion is, I think, a very personal one. And I never like to impart my faith or my values on other people. And I like to, I like to at least believe that I respect every individual's right to believe what they want to believe. I always knew that it would never impact or veer me away or be prohibitive to any relationship that I ultimately wanted to pursue. I love that he has a different faith that he has a different kind of spirituality. I think every faith has their own beauty in their beliefs. I think that most feeds at the very root believe in family and love and you know, supporting your fellow person, at the very root of it and then everything else is just kind of details above that.
We have the stories of rabbis and other leaders who have taken a stand to make multifaith marriage and multifaith couples feel welcome in their communities, including Rabbi Howard Voss Altman of Temple Habonim in Barrington, Rhode Island.
Rabbi Howard Voss Altman 30:19
I wanted to do them and I felt it was right. And so I gave a sermon talking about my values and my worldview about interfaith marriage,
Imam Imaad Sayeed from the London Nikah
Imam Imaad Sayeed 30:33
There is a verse in the Quran that says that there is no compulsion in religion. And I think when you think of it from that perspective, that there is no compulsion in religion, you cannot force anything upon anybody
And Reverend Tim Rich from St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island
Reverend Tim Rich 30:49
The more religion becomes engaged in the business of, of control, the more it does a disservice to the holy and the divine, which is all about expanding beyond anything that we can get our hands around, you know, the more we try to white knuckle belief, the more we just choke out the spirit.
And while many of our guests share stories that paint an uplifting picture, which is certainly part of the narrative, there are also stories like this one from Ed… You also maybe mentioned this to me when we first spoke, a meeting that you had with your then fiancé and the rabbi that I guess you had grown up with
And he said…
You'd be stabbing your father in the back with a knife.
Here's where we'll leave off in our first installment of Breaking the Glass. Our next two episodes focus on earlier generations of parents and families reckoning with multifaith relationships, and sets the stage for some of the tensions and great strides made in understanding multifaith families as an asset and not a threat to religion and community. If you're interested, both Rabbi Denise Handlarski’s book and Ed Case’s book will be linked in the show notes. Thank you all for listening, and I hope you'll join me next time on Breaking the Glass.
Today's episode was made possible by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island. If you're enjoying Breaking the Glass and you'd like to help support this podcast series, please share it with others, post about it on social media, leave a rating and review and subscribe. And be sure to check out the links and resources included in the show notes. As always, you can head over to JewishRhody.com for more original content with a local spin. And please consider supporting local Jewish journalism—including impactful content like this podcast series—by visiting JewishRhody.com and clicking donate. Your gift to Jewish Rhode Island will allow us to continue to provide high quality Jewish content that readers, listeners and viewers find beneficial and informative.
Breaking the Glass is produced by Emma Newbery
Executive producers are Brian Sullivan and Adam Greenman
Artwork by Alex Foster
Editorial support from Fran Ostendorf
And music sourced from Storyblocks
This episode features voiceover work from Daniel Viellieu.
In studio interviews are recorded at the Residential Properties LTD Studio at the Dwares JCC in Providence, Rhode Island.