Breaking the Glass
Episode 5 - Breaking the Mold
You said sort of something like there's a kind of acceptance if someone is not really willing to learn more or get to know you as a couple. What do you think that experience is like for your kids?
Welcome back to Breaking the Glass. I'm your host Emma Newbery. This is episode five, Breaking the Mold, alternate title, The Kids Are All Right. In this episode, we're focusing on how the people you've met throughout the series are creating alternatives or forging new paths on a traditional route that upend what you may expect from those in the multifaith world, and maybe even from what you've come to expect in this series. Everyone's heard expressions like the apple doesn't fall far from the tree or cast in the same mold. Well, welcome to the episode where the apple keeps rolling, the mold’s too narrow. Today, our guests and their children take stock of how they've pushed the boundaries of the general definition of a multifaith family. We're starting off with Cortney and David Nicolato of cruise ship ceremony and blue margarita fame from episode four. I mentioned offhand in an earlier episode that we'd hear more about their experience later, including Cortney's conversion years after their marriage, and their life with their two sons in Dallas, Texas, which for them was at turns an isolating, and also very empowering experience, as one of the few Jewish families in their community. They're the ones you heard at the beginning of this episode saying, “oh boy,” which will probably indicate to you that you're in for quite the story.
We had that conversation prior to kids.
So, it's not like, if we have kids, how are we gonna raise them type of thing. We said, okay, when we have children. So I think that was, you know, the planner in us.
And, you know, I had a lot of questions about the faith that I grew up in and, and a lot that I didn't necessarily feel comfortable with. So, I felt a bit disconnected with my faith. Whereas David and his family were so rooted in it, that I found the beauty in that. And so, it was one of those that I just like, well, I'm gonna learn through the family and learn through the kids. And I did. It's been pretty amazing.
Atypically—a theme for this episode—Cortney completed her conversion to Judaism just before her older son Jacob's bar mitzvah, which happened in the summer of 2021. Some of the conversions you've heard about so far, including Howard Zimmerman’s wife, Karen, Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman's wife, Annie, and Ed Case’s wife, Wendy, happened ahead of the wedding. It's often assumed, maybe unfairly, that the public declaration of a multifaith wedding, meaning one without a conversion, means that you're cementing your spiritual ties then and there. And as we know, from Cortney and others, that's not always the case.
At first, you know, my mom was like, what does this mean about Jesus for you? There are still traditions that they wanted—they were hopeful that they would celebrate with their grandchildren, which they do. But what I loved about—I think it was within days of me telling them this—my father called me and he's like, “happy...” and I don't remember the holiday.
It was like Tu Bishvat or something.
Small, smaller than TuBishvat even, and I was like, “Dad, I have no idea what that holiday is” but like they were so...that's what they do. They wanted to learn so that they could connect with their future son-in-law, so that they could connect with their grandchildren. And still, to this day, they've been so supportive, they were great during my conversion process, we just recently had my son's bar mitzvah and they were a part of that as well. They're, they're amazing. They've been awesome.
Cortney and David's son, Jacob was bar mitzvah-ed in Rhode Island. When they were living in Dallas, Cortney had still not finished the process of conversion, which is pretty lengthy and could honestly encompass its own series. Still, as she and David said, they had a plan to raise Jacob and his younger brother Ian Jewish, and they wanted to find a temple that would welcome them in Texas. It was tough.
When we were in Texas, I had to advocate not only for Cortney, but for my family that wanted to be Jewish. That normally hangs on the mother's lineage. You know, if the mom is Jewish, and kids are Jewish.
This is one of those aspects of the multifaith and Jewish experience that we haven't really had a chance to touch on yet: matrilineal descent. It's a pretty distinct aspect of traditional Judaism, as other religions like Islam use patrilineal descent to identify children as either of the religion or not. As Harvard professor Shaye D. Cohen points out in his book The Beginning of Jewishness, and I'm paraphrasing here, matrilineal descent is a socio historical construction. In the Torah, patrilineal descent is used to determine Jewish identity, which means that the shift to matrilineal descent came at a later point in history after the Torah was codified. His theories for why this happen include an adoption of the Roman custom of patrilineal descent, or a classically Talmudic foray into the specifics of animal breeding that we don't need to get into here. My point is, it changed in the past and then in 1983, it changed again. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, which oversees the Reform Jewish movement, published their resolution on patrilineal descent in March of 1983. It was kind of an institutional red rover moment, declaring that the children of any Jewish parent, not just the mother, are recognized as Jews. However, this shift has been slow to take hold in practice in communities around the country, as Cortney and David experienced in Texas.
We had a very, very hard time naming our children in Texas because Cortney was not Jewish. Not many congregations in Texas were welcoming to somebody who was—to a family like ours.
It was really hard at first for us to move in the direction of our kids being Jewish because of that lineage issue. And I remember sitting in with a rabbi in Texas, and you know, I remember her looking at me and saying, “Well, you know, your kids can't be Jewish.” And I was like, is there like a line out the door for folks that want to come in to be Jewish that I'm, like, missing? Like, is there something going on? Because, you know, we're saying that we believe in this faith, we're saying that we want to raise our kids in this faith, and you're flat out telling me no? And she said, “Yes. I’m flat out telling you no.”” And that was so unfortunate. It was the first time ever—and by that point, we've been married a while and we'd been together a while—and it was the first time I was disappointed by the faith. David was like, well, we move on, let's go. There's another shul that needs us. They missed out.
There's going to be more from Cortney and David later in the episode about the experience of their children. Because this is the point where I asked them the question you heard in the beginning: what was this like for your kids? For now, we're going to stick to the personal experiences of Cortney and David themselves as they break the mold in many ways, even before they became
a Jewish family with the Jewish PowerPoint, teaching the kids what Hanukkah is
I'll let you savor that tidbit until we return to their story but won't leave you hanging on whether or not Cortney and David found what Cortney calls a religious home. They did.
When we were moving back up from Texas to Rhode Island, we didn't have a religious home yet. And when we came up to look at houses, they were having a shabbat under the stars. And I was like, let's go check it out. And it was like, Yep, this is it. This is where we want to be, and we're willing to make the schlep to make it happen.
A lot of the anecdotes in this episode follow that same track. Outside circumstances are never something we'll be able to control. But for us, we're willing to do what it takes to make it work. And that applies to all aspects of partnership. So it sounds like both of you have been articulating sort of this idea of prioritizing your relationship and sort of seeing that as a unit confronting positive, negative, whatever comes up.
Ryan Forman and Jana Knibb, who you may remember from the story of Ryan politely carving a ham for Jana’s mom, despite him being kosher, and Jana's insights on community and the individual, are the only couple I interviewed who aren't married. And if they do choose to get married, they told me, they may not be following the traditional ceremony route. When I first reached out to them for this series, Ryan emailed me back, clarifying that they might not be what we were looking for in terms of couples who followed the expected steps of a progressing relationship. I wrote him back and told him, that was exactly why I wanted to talk to them. Despite their openness about it, I was nervous to broach the subject of marriage. And I didn't want them to think that the podcast or I myself had any expectations of what their answer might be, because I honestly had no idea.
Has marriage been something that either of you have considered in your path together? And if not, what sort of what is your stance on that?
Ultimately, when people ask us when we're getting married, I just say: in this economy? And then they leave us alone. So that's a good trick. If you ever want anyone to leave you alone about something just be like: in this economy? Are you serious?
There are a ton of options that are out there for us. You know, from doing ceremonial marriage to doing drawing up of an LLC, and being together as one unit that way and you know, we've just been in constant communication about it. And we haven't really—we care more about ourselves as a unit together than any label or documents really.
And for anyone listening, it's not like, oh, you know, Ryan clearly don't want to get married, you know, it's not—I don't, you know, I don't want it to come off that way. It's just that we're looking at different things. I mean, both of us have divorced parents. And I think personally, for me for a long time, I know that, you know, things like, well, if you don't get married, you don't get divorced, you know. And that's not to say that even people who weren't married, if the relationship was dissolved, that there wouldn't be a fallout, there wouldn't be an aftermath, especially if there were children involved, right? It's not to say that, but that was my sort of simplistic way of hanging on to, you know, this, this belief or this self-protection, self-preservation thing. And so for me, I have come to realize, I've come to accept, maybe I am a marriage person, but I'm not a huge wedding person. And so I think it's a matter of us figuring out, what is it going to look like, less so for a wedding, and more so for a committed partnership.
The past two episodes, which focused on institutional responses to multifaith unions, and then the official unions themselves, have already laid a pretty clear foundation that contextualizes why some people may not pursue a registered marriage. Jana, who again focuses on the role of community in her own sociological work, points out that one's community can find a way to insert itself and its opinions about individual relationships, regardless of what status the couple holds legally.
If you can find other ways to have your family and your community involved, which I think they already are now, right? I was publicly reprimanded at a reception the other day.
I didn't get the full story as it sounded like a pretty recent encounter. But from what I could tell, Jana was confronted by the mother of the bride at a wedding the two of them attended.
Yeah, somebody was like, don't embarrass your man in public. I was like, I wasn't trying to embarrass him. I was just asking a question. But thank you for—you know, that was someone who had just met us.
It was the mother of the mother of the bride.
Who then, yeah, who then put herself as part of the community right? To oversee our relationship.
This was in a slightly different context, but this story and the following thoughts you'll hear from Imam Imaad reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague when I first started working in Jewish spaces. I was stressed out about how to frame something I had wanted to propose doing. And my colleague said something along the lines of: people are going to have an opinion and in some cases, people are going to find something to dislike about whatever it is you do. So, you may as well just do what it is you actually want. Obviously, this advice is guard railed by the social conventions of being polite and professional in my case, but the heart of the message really rings true here and can be an encouraging sentiment for couples or individuals who feel like they're swimming against the current.
Were—did people have reactions to your decision to do this? People in your family or other imams that you know?
Yeah, I think—yeah. It's not something I guess I openly advertise, you know, to other imams. Although it's happening more now people are becoming a bit more aware, just because of the work that I'm doing and how it's, you know, obviously, becoming more widely known. And naturally, they will kind of hold upon that very conservative point, they will just generally shut it down with a view that alright, it's not allowed. And that's the end of that.
This sort of reminded me of Cortney and David's experience at that one synagogue in Texas. The “yes, I'm flat out telling you no,” moment that they had with the rabbi. But in the case of Cortney and David, and in the case of Imam Imaad, that's not the end of that. It seems to me that Cortney, David, Imaad, and all the others in this series really appreciate the humanness of religion. That things are not black and white, that people change and grow. Here, Imam Imaad talks about the primary divergence between him and other imams, and it also sort of touches on Cortney's experience.
I think the biggest difference between me and other imams is they will expect to conversion at the time of marriage. My opinion is that, you know, people have to come to faith in their own ways. And it might just take somebody a little bit longer and that's okay, right? In life, it's about the journey, you know, it's not about necessarily reaching the destination at a certain point in time. I think among the Muslim community, we could 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.
To keep the thread going from the last two episodes, it's important to note that when we do identify leaders in faith communities or communities themselves that are doing a lot to support multifaith couples, we need to realize that they need our support, too. They’re human after all.
In terms of my family, I think, you know, certain members of my family are accepting of what I do. Others are not and it just is reflective, again, of how the Muslim community in general, you know, you obviously get different people, you know, accepting and not accepting. But I've met a lot of really good people who are accepting of what I'm doing. And I wouldn't say that that pushes me to doing what I do. I think what pushes me to keep doing what I do, is being able to serve these couples. Muslims and non-Muslims.
We'll hear more about the children of multifaith partnerships after this short break. Be right back.
[AD BREAK] 16:27
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When I spoke to Rimini Breakstone about her experiences, she shared with me some of the common questions she received about her children-to-be when she was still a bride-to-be.
When I told them that Reza and I were getting married: what, what about your children? What are they going to become?
Jana also echoed similar questions she's received from community members that feel, to paraphrase how she put it, almost like stewards of their both multifaith and multiracial relationship.
And it is especially a narrative for interfaith and interracial relationships. Like, okay, well, that's fine for the two of you, but what about your families? What about your kids? What about, you know, when you have to sort of do something that causes you to interact with the outside, so to speak, then what? In this relationship that is different?
I was trying to think of what to say as a connecting thread here. But I think honestly, the best thing to say is that you don't always have to respond when people are making assumptions or trying to solicit personal information about your life choices that really aren't their business. Here, instead of responding, Reza is sort of trying to understand kind of where people are coming from with questions and comments like this, and how his own experience with his identity and his family has actually helped him to sort of put those assumptions to the side.
I think everyone reacts to life based on what they've gone through. And what I observed sort of straddling multiple identities was that I had infinitely more access to more people in life.
Here's Reza Breakstone, who I can remind you has a Persian-American and Muslim/Jewish background. Identities that, as a child, he juggled growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, a predominantly Jewish area. I was particularly interested in the insights of individuals like Reza, who were raised in multifaith households into what they wanted to impart to their children as multifaith parents themselves. Reza shared with me that his ability to have an expanded sense of identity growing up, also really helps him and Rimini in their approach to parenting.
What I'm really concerned about teaching the kids is you have to evaluate everybody for who they are, as a person. The way that you move through life is, you know, we have morals, we have values, we have family values, we can try to dig down to see what the source of those values are, are they like a particular piece of line text from the Tanakh, or the Old Testament or the New Testament, or the Qur’an or the teachings of this... whoever? You could probably try to do that if you want, but really, the way most people I think are moving through life is we have moral values, those are based on something. You put those together with your partner, and you try to raise your kids the best that you can.
The way I feel is that as long as they're loved, as long as they have a sense of morality and if they have the root of what I take away from my Catholic faith in their spirit and their soul, then that's what is most important to me. Whether they are baptized or confirmed or communed, those are to me just semantics.
They also both acknowledged that parents of any religious pairing or identity are all faced with similar situations that, while possibly informed by religion, are ultimately equalizing human experiences.
I don't know that there's any sort of Catholic teaching around, you know, your kid wakes up six times in the middle of the night. How do you handle that? You know, your kid doesn't want to get in the stroller in the morning and his writhing, crying, screaming, I don't know if there's a verse on that bad boy.
Respect your parents.
Yeah, respect your parents, ideally, but there’s not—you know. I don't know if there's a verse on you moving through life feeling like, oh my God, why is everything happening to me, versus taking responsibility for things and being more empowered and not like victimizing yourself all the time. Is there a verse on, you know, how to treat your partner with sort of like loving, forgiving eyes versus like critical, judgmental eyes? To me, these are things that are happening in like cognitive behavioral therapy, things that are happening in neuroscience, sociology, psychology. And to the extent that you need a little bit of like faith to get through the day, I have a ton of that, as well, like I have a strong belief in God and things should work out if you do the right things, and a sense of karma. I have that in spades. I mean, an enormous amount of that. But again, we're— the way we're moving through life is based on a lot of like our own, sort of put together fabric of, of how we should be as people.
We spent a lot of airtime discussing how multifaith families should be welcomed into the existing faith communities that they want to join. It's very in keeping with the theme of this episode that we'll be hearing from Cortney and David about how they took their family, which identified as multifaith before Cortney's conversion, and became their own kind of satellite advocating for their Jewish identity in Dallas, which, in their experience, compared to nearby cities, was almost entirely unexposed to Judaism. Cortney and David are a great example of how people approach situations, religious or otherwise, with the fabric of how they are as people. And that's certainly how they approach their time in Dallas, when it came to Jacob and Ian, who are two of the only Jewish children in their schools and communities at large.
For a lot of our friends, we were the first Jew—Jewish family. The first Jew. Our children, when kids came and asked, you know, how come, you know, what are you doing for Christmas? Well, number one, we’re Jewish, and they were like, well, what is that? So then the boys had to take the active role to say, you know, this is what I believe. We would go into the schools and we would be that Jewish family with the Jewish PowerPoint, teaching the kids what Hanukkah is and spinning the dreidel and making potato pancakes for 'em, because otherwise, it would be you know, let's sing Christmas carols in the school.
Those things, and our big tree, and—
And that's why, you know, taking an active role in the schools that I did as PTA president, I said, no, you know, we're not having a Christmas feast, we're having a holiday feast, or a winter celebration, and they looked at me, but then they—I was the first Jewish person that they met in public school in, in Texas.
and we wanted our kids to have a comfort level for the faith and the inclusion of faith as part of their identity. You know, and in the schools, it was the Bible Belt, right? So it was really hard to help folks understand that not everybody was Christian, not everybody was Baptist, not everybody was Presbyterian. So that and we needed to embrace that. So that was a really important part, I think of our time in Texas.
Of our two boys, we have the David and then we have sort of have the Cortney. The introvert was more of our oldest is more of the one doesn't like to ruffle the waters or feathers or anything like that. Our youngest one, however, is the exact opposite. So, someone will come up to him and say, hey, Merry Christmas, and he’s like no, like Happy Hanukkah, you know, he embraces—they both embrace the religion to the infinite degree. And I think they're comfortable in calling it out. Where they say, you know, no, I'm Jewish. I'm proud of being Jewish. They've gone to, you know, camp
Greene Family Camp, Crane Lake
Greene Family Camp you know, they were—having them surrounded by other Jews in a non-Jewish world, especially down in Texas, I think, formed that identity for them.
They’ve also always been in a situation where they're one of the only Jews. Right? So I don't think they know anything different. Right? Other than the camp situation, right? So in Texas, we were literally the only Jew on the block.
We were the only Jews in the school.
And, and we were the only Jews in the school. And then here, we pretty much are the same in our neighborhood. And then even at school, I think our little guy has one other kid in his class, and he doesn't, he's like—
He’s like half-Jewish, non-practicing.
He doesn't practice. So you know, I think they've always—this is what they've always known, right? And so, you just do with what you've always known. And I think one of the aspects of that has been to recognize their faith in situations where maybe it isn't recognized,
We find ourselves doing the holidays more, because it's important not only for the children to learn, but for Cortney to be an active part, the blessings. Moreso it was a nice timing that Cortney, you know, converted right prior to Jacob's bar mitzvah, because she was able to take that active role. She was able to do the, you know, the aliyot, and she was able to stand up there, pass the Torah, and it was—I’m gonna get verklempt
Yeah, you get verklempt, it’s just a matter of time.
But it was, I did— I became more connected to my faith, with Cortney taking that, that push into the Jewish world.
I really marveled at Cortney and David's approach, mostly because I just hadn't heard of any Jewish family willingly putting themselves further in the minority by moving to areas where there weren't many Jews. And maybe that exposes my own sort of unconscious adoption of a version of the sentiments you heard in episode three, that Jews need to stick together to a certain extent. I don't know. People are complicated. I can tell you, I definitely would have been the Jacob, the quieter, more introverted one. And my sister may still be the Ian Nicolato of Minnesota, where she lives now. But as Reza said, and as evidenced by Cortney and David, it's really about the person or the people making choices about their family than it is any one prevailing tradition or specific line from specific texts dictating how they and their children should live, at least in these cases. And that stuff sticks. As Jenni Greenman points out,
You know, you take pieces of, of childhood and carry it with you. And I think that it's really amazing.
She and her older brother Adam, like David, credit their childhood for their continued attachment to their Jewish identity. But they really credit their partners, both of whom aren't Jewish, with the actual practice and proactive inclusion of Judaism in their lives.
I got into Hanukkah again, because of Karen. Like, I did not want to speak Hebrew in front of my inlaws, or anybody and Karen brought that back. She's like, why don't we celebrate Hanukkah, you decorate our little Christmas tree every year, like why don't we do this? And so we got a menorah. And we started celebrating Hanukkah. I remember even the first time that I did, I said the blessings in front of Karen. She wanted to record me and I was like, absolutely not. Like, no thank you. And she wanted to record me out of love and out of that pride that she had for me as her partner.
We keep a kosher home, not because of me, but because of Erin. And we light shabbat candles, not because of me, but because of Erin and because of Alex, and we engage in so much more ritual than I think we would not because of me, but because of the rest of the family and their deep belief in the importance of ritual, the beauty of our religion, right? It's that Erin loves the fact that lighting shabbat candles sort of eases you into the weekend, eases you into rest, and the symbolism of that, and the beauty of that. And it's when she turns off her phone for 24 hours and she doesn't go on the internet for 24 hours because she sees it as her opportunity to rest. And you know, I think it's really something to see how, you know, the beauty of what we grew up with, even if I wasn't so into the ritual. It's the ritual that we now really live into, because others have latched on to that. And it's really, really nice.
When it comes to children, the guests you've heard from all have a very open approach to what it means to expose their children to religion. David and Cortney's children are Jewish, but they purposefully nurture that identity in a larger pool of being exposed to Christian friends and traditions. Not simply to strengthen their Jewish identity in contrast, but to help them understand their religious identity as equally important in the larger complex of religion in America. Reza and Rimini explained how their experiences growing up and then coming together help them to have a more expansive approach to parenting. And the children of these parents, though not featured directly in this episode, exemplify what Jenni said, that our childhoods inform who we are as adults, but also that kids are kids. They're going to be curious and ask questions and not like certain foods and refuse to get in strollers and like or dislike any number of things because of their status as individuals, not because of how they grew up. So, when we do encounter a set of beliefs about the children of multifaith unions, and the presumed need to raise them as one religion for their own good—
Rabbi Howard 30:40
Children need to know who they are. They need to know that they have an identity, the identity has some meaning and that that meaning that they— that goes with her identity has a certain exclusivity. These are your kids, and they need to be raised a certain way, and you're responsible for raising them. And that's just not the way I would endorse raising a child, or children. I understand why people want to do it. It’s just that it's not healthy parenting.
—It's not only excluding the reality that children all go through some kind of reckoning with their identity as a part of growing into adulthood. But it also disregards the fact that there is no way, outside of an orthodox approach, to entirely close a child off to other aspects of their own or their parents' identity, religion, background, etc. As my middle school French teacher used to say, children are like sponges, they pick up much more than we think. And we need to give them credit for that. I wasn't actually going to do this, but I decided to include part of an interview with my own parents talking about the conversations they had with my dad's father, who's a minister, and their own approach to the questions my sister and I had as we grew up Jewish with a Christian dad. We'll be hearing from them after this short break.
[AD BREAK] 32:14