Welcome back to Breaking the Glass. I'm your host, Emma Newbery and you're listening to episode two, Breaking the News, part one. I'm going to throw us back in headfirst with something that Ed mentioned in our last episode. If you'll remember, Ed is the founder of Interfaith Family now known as 18 doors and is an author and an advocate for multifaith families to feel included in Jewish spaces.
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.
Here Ed is talking about someone like Susan Froehlich, who you may remember from last episode, her son Ben and her daughter, Allie are both married to people who are not Jewish. And that was really difficult for her particularly with Ben who was married first, to come to terms with as someone who grew up in a very traditional Jewish home, and who has family on her in-laws side who survived the Holocaust. But as Ed points out, there's sort of this more organic than structured shift towards “okay, this is my kid.” And, well, I'll just remind you of what Susan's mother-in-law said about all of this…
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 gonna love her. You’re gonna love your children however they are.”
This response is obviously the ideal one, and may actually come as a surprise from someone like Susan's mother-in-law, who did go through so much at the hands of people who ostracized and attempted to kill her for who she was. In today's episode, we're going to be looking at how responses differ within and between generations of parents and children reckoning with their family shifting and growing. And I say within generations, because it's important to note that as Susan said,
I don't think my mother would have said that.
Unfortunately, responses that land on maybe the less receptive side of the spectrum are all too common, especially ones like the one that Ed and his fiancée and now wife, Wendy faced, which we ended our last episode with on kind of a cliffhanger. Now we can tell that story, Ed and Wendy went to see the rabbi that I've looked up to and grew up with in his community to discuss their plans for the wedding. When they sat down in his office, and the rabbi learned that Ed was marrying someone who wasn't Jewish, he said…
You'll be stabbing your father in the back with a knife.
Ed included this story in the introduction of his book Radical Inclusion, so he's not hesitant to share it. But when he could tell I was starting to prompt this story, his reaction was pretty much
Um… well, it was a really long time ago.
And there were some similar moments in a lot of my other interviews, actually
Back in the day, you know, my kids had a lot…
It was the old days… you smoked at day camp, I guess…
Um… Because in those days
Rabbi Howard 03:16
You have to understand that actually… let me go back.
I want to pin down that “back in those days” catch all because for many of our couples on this show, those days hold great importance for these ones. In these next two episodes, Breaking the News parts one and two, will first take stock of the experiences couples had when sharing their decision to pursue a serious partnership with someone outside of their religion. Not only will we follow those stories and the varying reception they received from family, but we also need to break the news to ourselves, the pain and the hurdles that multifaith couples have faced across generations reverberate today. And we want to acknowledge that as much as it should be, it isn't so rosy and easygoing for everyone. In short, if you felt or experienced any of these things before, it's not in your head. Those rosy moments are worth celebrating, but it's the ones that have been buried and silenced that need to be brought into the light.
Reverend Timothy Rich 04:21
I mean, I, I thought very seriously about marrying this woman.
The Reverend Timothy Rich may not seem like the kind of person who, as he put it to me in our introductory email, came very close to marrying a Jewish woman. Namely, because he's a reverend, serving St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. He's boisterous and funny, and is talking to me virtually from a cramped corner of his office.
Reverend Timothy Rich 04:46
You know, I remember vividly going to meet with her family and… horrible to me, gave me at the Seder, gave me a hunk of gefilte fish with horseradish, but I'm convinced I lost at least 50 IQ points by that. Yeah, it was it was really I mean, it's, we can laugh now, but it was hazing. So she comes back, the woman I was dating and says, you know, my mom said to me well, that maybe she could take it, but she she looked at me and she said, you know, your dad's got a weak heart. And I'm not sure he can take this. We still dated for another stretch. But what I learned is, for centuries, for generations, one of the experiences of Judaism is a very real threat to the existence. And, and so interfaith marriage was seen as, as watering down weakening the Jewish identity and representative of a threat.
It's striking that Reverend Tim is able to really put his finger on the pulse of the key issues specific to Jewish responses to multifaith relationships, because of his experience of one. And he's absolutely right. Susan Froehlich is a great example of someone who struggled with the painful history of our past as Jews, reconciling it with a newer, broader present.
At first, I just didn't know where to put it. I didn't know where to put it, not the intermarriage, I think the fact that he was going to be married in a church… I thought a lot about my history and my husband's history. And that was hard.
I touched on this last episode. But there's a sprawling history of trauma that's integral to the relationships of Jews across the world with themselves and with each other. Our minds may go to one of the more recent instances in the legacy of persecution, the Holocaust, but even long before that, the Jewish people were targeted in communities, the world over, much of which is baked into Jewish culture and practice. And this in itself, as a context for reactions to multifaith partnerships, is worth looking into.
You know, when you think of someone getting married, you think of having grandchildren. So I was just really, really sad, and a little bit, a little bit angry. Like, whoa, you know, our lives have been led in this, you know, linear way. How can this be? How can this be happening to us? I was glad my mom wasn't still here with us, I just think that would have been really hard for her. But it was a good process that I went through.
As I mentioned, in the last episode, Susan is really honest with me, this is how she felt. The phrase I want to draw out, though, is actually the last thing she said.
It was a good process that I went through.
That's really the key here, I think anyway, understanding that you are allowed to feel, whatever it is your feeling, there is a very real and very upsetting history that is acting as a foundation for all of these responses happening today. But as much as that is the history of our people, processing it in a family in a way that won't harm the people that you love really does need to be a personal journey. So it's okay to go through it. But as Susan says,
You have to be careful with the kids because you don't want to alienate your kids—even though you might need the emotional outlet, you can't rely on your kids who are going through this.
Jann Knibb, a sociology professor at the Community College of Rhode Island, thinks about these things not only in the context of her personal multifaith relationship, but academically too.
Our families important. Is the community important for a marriage? Absolutely. Like I teach this to my students all the time when we talk about arranged marriages, when we talk about marriages that take different forms than what we see here in the United States of America. I'm like, remember, the one thing that marriages overwhelmingly have in common is family and community.
It's hard to deny what Jana is saying. Community and family are two of the biggest stages on what your relationship plays out. Importantly, though, as many of our couples attest, they're prepared for some friction and won't stop pushing just because there's resistance. Take Karen Voci and Howard Zimmerman. They met at a Jewish summer camp in 1967, where they were counselors. Howard was raised in a traditional Jewish home. And Karen was the only Catholic counselor there that summer, and probably ever
I was pretty stressed at this orientation because I'm looking around and I’m thinking my mother said none of these boys are going to be able to date you and I have never actually been with so many Jewish people before. Not that, you know, it was odd or anything. But it was just I was just stressed
Karen is willowy and elegant with a big smile and a bigger laugh. Her bracelets jangled throughout the interview. She may have been nervous showing up to camp at the time, but she was also the kind of person to show up to her lifeguard duties in a glam Italian bikini.
I just pulled it out of the drawer, I didn't even really think about it.
But she actually met Howard before that. On their first day there.
There was a boy lying in the grass with his head on his hands like he was napping, and he had cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve. And I went up to him.
I was a bad boy.
And I said, I went up to him and said can I have a cigarette. He says sure, so he lights one for me, lights one for him. It was the old days you smoked at day camp, I guess! And then he started to tell him he asked me what I was doing there. And I told him I was going to be the major counselor and then he started going on about all the bears that were in the woods and all the wild animals and I was gonna have to keep everything… I was just, it was hysterical. I was just laughing my head off.
After meeting that summer, Karen and Howard have been together ever since. Karen converted to Judaism in 1968. By 1971, they were married and ultimately had two boys. The reason for conversion wasn't particularly spiritual, and they actually speak about it with a certain kind of hilarious irreverence.
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, I’ve taken a royal exam
That was the part that I wasn't sure about.
I passed with flying colors. I was one of the best ones they ever… I was the best Italian they ever had, I think.
We needed to get married. We couldn’t just live together.
No, no, because our parents would have killed us. This was like 1970, they would have killed you, they would have killed us. And we really needed the money from an Italian Jewish wedding. So we can go to graduate school. So this was a fundraiser. It was gigantic. My uncle Vinny comes into the synagogue and looks around and says “Do I have to wear this stupid beanie.” And that and the rest of it is like puck drop at Boston Garden let me tell you.
It was the Bruins playing the Rangers
It was the anti-wedding. Nobody was talking to each other.
No, but then, the reception got good though. There was lots of drinking. It was a big thing.
You see a picture of our parents, sort of at the wedding holding up glasses, you know, like toasting, and close to each other? Yeah. Deer in the headlights. I was like could someone, could someone wake these people up? It was just unbelievable. I have to say, I think our wedding was probably the worst day of my married life. But it's got it's got much better after that.
The two of them radiate warmth. And they have the kind of relationship where you feel like you have a deep understanding of how they relate to one another because they relate so well, that there's no use modulating it for the outside world. This is just how they are and how they are at their best—together.
I think I kind of figured out within probably a couple of weeks of meeting you that I don't know whether we were going to get married and have a family. But I kind of knew you were “the one.” I really sensed that no matter what the nature of the relationship was that for the rest of our lives, we would have some connection.
Interesting. I don’t think I ever knew that. See, it’s good that we came in.
Yeah, I was surprised that it took me that long to convince you.
No, no, you didn’t have to convince me. I think… Howard’s mother wasn't crazy about me. Let's just put it that way.
Karen and Howard have this kind of effortless Interplay about all of this. And, as you can tell, even when Karen says this, it's sort of in a joking offhanded manner. And I can't help but think that part of it must be the benefit of hindsight and perspective, as all of this happened, in this case over 50 years ago. And as you can see, through the moments of levity throughout this series, humor is a really important vehicle for confronting and processing, what can be sometimes painful memories.
I wasn't Jewish, and that was important to her. She kind of was not very warm to me. And I think that made me think a little bit about, you know, what I might be getting into--his grandmother, on the other hand, loved me and so that the stepfather, I mean, so I had sort of two other people in my camp from almost from day one. But she wasn't necessarily a big fan, I was not what she had planned for her oldest son. I think she really wanted someone who was ethnically, culturally, religiously Jewish, and sort of who would be kind of like, would fit in with her friends. And you know, and I can understand that. And I really wasn't that and we had some serious disagreements about the fact that I wanted to go to graduate school and she thought I should get a job and support Howard through law school and just sort of different, a different view of her son’s life, and our life. We smoothed that all out eventually, but it was a little rough at the beginning.
It really struck me that Karen said that wanting her son’s spouse to be Jewish was something that she really understood about Howard's mom. I just found that very almost touching because I do think there is something to be said for cultural comfort. And I think it's really okay and just a fact that comfort and reality don't always overlap. We're going to keep exploring this after the short break.
[AD BREAK] 16:14
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Welcome back to Breaking the Glass. While Karen and Howard were talking about their experience with Howard's mom, I actually thought back to a memory I hadn't really reexamined until I met Karen and Howard, which was going to see a screening of the movie Goodfellas with my prom date in high school, who wasn't Jewish, and then watching the movie over and over again, with my family… And specifically this one scene, I decided to watch it over again after this conversation to see how I felt.
He didn't call?
He’s with his friends.
What kind of a person doesn’t call?
Ma, he's a grown up…
Brief synopsis: Karen Hill, newly married to the infamous Henry Hill is living at home with her parents who are Jewish. Her mom is worried that Henry hasn't been back yet tonight.
What kind of people are these?
What do you want me to do?
Do? What can you do? He's not Jewish.
It's one of my favorite movies. So I've watched it with a lot of friends and different partners, none of whom have been Jewish. And it always feels a little bit, I don't know, heavy maybe. Just the phrase, “he's not Jewish” being that sort of build up like the big climax of her point. And its just encompassing everything she's trying to communicate to her daughter about how frustrated and disappointed she is in the situation. And if you don't know what she means, then you're the Henry. And I think that's actually pretty realistic. I mean, there is no way to, in any culture, break down every single facet of something as complex as a people. You can't just say this is Jewish, this isn't Jewish, this would be a Jewish thing to do. This wouldn't be this, you know, and sort of like what Karen, our Karen was saying was that Howard's mother wanted someone who would fit in without having to try, no matter how badly Karen did want to try. It wouldn't be the same as that kind of seamless, you're already part of us. So how do we allow for culturally specific connection without alienating newer members of a broader definition of the Jewish community? There's not one singular answer to this question. But there are some ideas. It's easy to talk about multifaith couples on a communal and even a familial level as a monolith, kind of forgetting that they're, well, people. It sounds trite, but it's actually true. One of the ways you can start is by sitting down and talking to people who are different from you. Reza, and Rimini Breakstone are a power duo lawyer/doctor couple with three different cultures in their family. Reza is Persian-American and grew up with both Judaism and Islam. Although religion wasn't a big part of his identity. Rimini is Indian and was raised Catholic. When Rimini’s father was hesitant about her decision to marry someone who wasn't Catholic, Reza wasn't deterred. Here they are describing what that stage of their relationship was like.
You know, I feel like sometimes the veil of religion or you know, race or whatever, it can initially bring a reaction or a gut reaction to a person but once you get to know that, that becomes very secondary compared to, like, the quality of the person in front of you. I think that's true of a lot of a lot of my friends who have married outside their faith, initially, there's some hesitation, but once people get to know the person, then all of that melts away.
It’s all sort of, I don't know what the term is, smoke and mirrors or its all baloney. Anyway, I mean, her dad was, yeah, superficially against it. And, you know, what do they teach you when you're meeting people, and it wasn't the first time I met him, but what did they teach you, when you, you know, are trying to bring people together, they say, try and sit down and talk with someone, right? You don't agree with someone sit down and talk with them. Don't just, you know, dislike them, and then walk away, and then just live a life of disdain for one another, sit down and talk to people. I literally did that with her dad. I felt like he fundamentally misunderstood who I was. And so I sat down with him, and I talked to him, you can find reasons to dislike people on any number of things. You can build a barrier on any type of thing you want to build a barrier on, you can also as reminisce that melt that away. So when two people love each other, the goal is to not create barriers.
The reality is that when someone is in a relationship with a person who is different culturally, religiously, racially and more, responses can range from uplifting to heartbreaking. For example, what Susan experienced in bonding with her daughter in law, Catherine, is really different from what Ryan experienced having to shift his understanding of who the people closest to him were.
I've talked to Catherine about, you know, changing the ways and feeling different and feeling really just more accepting and more open. Does she feel comfortable? Actually, she enjoys the services. And she used to sing in her church choir. So she has an appreciation of choral music. So the first time she came to Temple, I said, Come on, I'm gonna take you around to all the different services. And we went upstairs and the choir was upstairs Cantor Mayer, and she, you know, she enjoyed that. I love the people who they’re married to. I feel like I have four kids not two. And I'm grateful for that, because I don't think it's always that way.
Susan's right. It's not always like that. And whether it's biological family, chosen family, or close friends, tensions around differences between one's partner and one's community don't always end happily.
There's different things that sort of led to Ryan, you know, losing all these people who when I came into his life, were very important to him. And I didn't want to be the girlfriend, who's like, “oh, he doesn't hang out with those people anymore because of Jana.” I mean, I'll call it you know, someone's not being a friend or is not being respectful, you know, of who you are. That's a different story. That's for anybody, right? I'll call my friends out for that and I have. So, you know, but I just I told him, you know, I'm sorry, I'm here to listen. I have no idea what this feels like. And so I think Ryan really did you know, put put his relationships on the line, you know, and he told me, he's like, “No, not them. You. You're the most important person to me.”
Would I still like to be friends with the people that have walked away have stopped communicating? If they were able to learn, if they were able to listen, if they were able to hear—maybe. But the fact that a lot of them have not, or are unwilling to understand, it just makes me question if they are the right people in this time for me.
Separation is painful, and also pretty common, as Rabbi Handlarski points out..
Rabbi Handlarski 24:18
So if you're engaged, you're not going to break up with your partner, you're going to break up with your parents. And so you know, that's the conversation I have with the parents like, is that what you want? Probably not.
One of the most complicated things about all of this is like Rabbi Handlarski says, turning people away is not the goal. For those looking at it, from the outside the actions and the consequences clearly don't match up. But for someone embedded in a family or a community that is very closely tied together, and especially someone who has been thinking a certain way about community and family for a very long time. It may not be as easy to see that disconnect, tragically, the result is, like Ed says,
The couple feels—and probably the partner who comes from a different faith background in particular feels—well, how could I feel that I belong in a Jewish group. And that and that partly is a result of the kind of negative comments and attitudes that people have experienced, like I did with my fiancée, and the rabbi and, you know, happens all the time and still happens all the time. And synagogues, and movements have policies that distinguish between Jews and people, and not Jews, and there is a lot of tribalism in among Jews, which is understandable, given Jewish history, but I think in the current circumstances in this country, it's really it really is it has a negative impact, because there's so many interfaith couples. And if they, if there's, if they feel that Judaism is very tribal, then then they are not going to feel that they can get involved.
We'll be right back.
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Ed now works to prevent the likelihood of that same kind of departure he took from Jewish communities at the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.
So the Center is very focused on advocating for a change in attitudes. And saying that for interfaith couples to feel fully included, they need to be treated as equals. And that means treating the partner from a different faith background as equal to the Jewish partner. And that gets into very touchy issues. Not saying non-Jew, that's a very new development, people started saying you know, that really I hate being called a non-Jew, you know, how would you like to be called a non-Christian,
If something as simple as a prefix Jew or non-Jew can have that kind of impact, then attitudes of loved ones and community members, which, even if unspoken, can definitely be felt have the potential to be even more detrimental. On the other side of that coin, though, is their power to draw people in and welcome them. Ed spoke to me about the Torah blessings, which distinguish an “us,” the Jewish people from everyone else—that is not us.
The Torah blessings, of course, say thank you, God for choosing us among the nations and giving us the Torah. And most rabbis will say, well, you're not part of the “us.”
Families often encounter these blessings when preparing for a child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Loved ones will come up and read the blessings throughout the young person's Torah portion. Its tradition, but I remember at mine seeing my grandparents, my cousin's, my dad standing next to my mom, squinting at the giant cue cards to semi-accurately read the blessings. It felt like having my favorite people stationed at each mile of a long run, giving me water, hugs and blessings. Not all multifaith families are able to participate in this tradition, as Ed said. If you're not part of the “us,” the thinking goes in some sects of Judaism, why would you stand up here and say that? But what we really need to think about is, what is that? What does that decision say, not only to the parent who isn't Jewish, but to the child standing at the Bema, watching their other parent be unable to stand with them at a crucial moment in their life. For me, not having my dad there would have felt completely antithetical to the entire point of the ceremony. He's a part of my family, the four of us, why isn't that good enough. There are a lot of other archaic prescriptions that we've shed. My bat mitzvah was particularly important to me because my mom at hers wasn't allowed to read from the Torah. So for me, and then later, my sister to be able to do that, and have our full family together, just felt like a really important step forward and a shattering of many barriers. Keeping barriers, like the one my mother experienced, or the one that many multifaith families encounter doesn't reflect what the true depth and potential of the Jewish community is. And in my research on this, I came across a really interesting part of the Talmud. The following phrase is invoked a couple of times, and the phrase is,
We do not enact a decree upon the community, unless a majority of the community is able to live up to it.
One of the instances that this phrase is used in is to explain why the prohibition of, get this, non-Jewish oil was annulled. There was only a finite amount of oil produced by Jews in 600 CE. The choice between not lighting the candles and expanding outward to include non-Jewish oil, weighing those two options you can see why the rule was, you know, given some elasticity. The written word doesn't always match up with the lived reality of our community. For families wondering how to start this shift, here is what Rabbi Handlarski has to say…
Rabbi Handlarski 30:38
I really encourage people to lead with their values and their goals. So if your value is like Judaism is especially meaningful, we want it to continue. That's your goal. Okay? Guilt, pressure, shame, that's, that's not going to work. So what is gonna work? Make your home the epicenter of Jewish fun. Invite the kids over, make sure everybody feels fully included. Right? It doesn't matter if people are Jewish or not. Make sure everybody has a role. Make sure everybody is fully welcome. And then make it fun, you know, do a really big Hanukkah dinner and have lots of laughter and singing and candles and all the good stuff. It ultimately doesn't matter if the partner wants to be Jewish, they might just decide to do some Jewish stuff, because it works for the family. Make sure that when they come over for Shabbat dinner instead of again, the guilt and the shame model for them with joyful, beautiful Judaism is.
We'll be widening our scope in the next episode to look at community and institutional responses to multifaith relationships. The small waves of change happening behind closed doors, within families, are vital. But they cannot stand alone.
We haven't really talked about the role of the conservative synagogue in this… Frustrating.
Next time on Breaking the Glass…
Frustrating not just for, for me personally, but for a lot of people that I know, there's not a lot of room in Conservative Judaism, for interfaith marriage. Even if a clergy feels he or she wants to do an interfaith marriage, they're not allowed to. I was very disappointed. Really, really disappointed. I did talk to one of our rabbis and I said, “Look, you know, all of us are talking to each other. Can't we have some kind of a support group for parents so that you know how to talk to your kid, you don't want to alienate your kid, you want to embrace them, you want to make room for it.” And that never happened.
Rabbi Handlarski 32:44
As institutions we should know better by now. But there's emotion. And it's it is actually complicated. Here's why it's complicated. Some of the anxieties around intermarriage come from ancestral trauma, we know that the Jews are a small global population that has faced immense discrimination, violence, and genocide. And so there has been a feeling that we have to stick together for safety. And I don't want to just dismiss that, right, that's meaningful, that's real.
Imam Imaad Sayeed 33:15
It's a bit challenging at times, I think, among the Muslim community, we can at least be a bit more open to having this dialogue, because the reality is that there are Muslims who are going through these inter-religious unions, and they need a bit more support.
Rabbi Howard 33:29
And our community simply cannot afford to say to all of that generation, we're not interested. We don't want to have your most important day be our most important day. And that's just something that I can't abide.
Our next episode, we'll be turning the personal experiences you've heard today outward, and posing them as a kind of challenge to religious communities. As Ed Case pointed out, behind closed doors, tides are changing. But nobody wants to see doors closing anymore, not communities, and not people looking to feel welcome in them. We'll hear more about all of this in episode three, Breaking the News part two. 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.
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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 Sarah Katz Greenleaf.
In studio interviews are recorded at the Residential Properties LTD Studio at the Dwares JCC in Providence, Rhode Island.