When my husband, brian, stomped on the glass at our wedding ceremony overlooking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in May 2005, half the guests yelled “mazel tov.” They were from Brian’s Jewish family. The other half—mostly my Protestant family— clapped politely and whispered, “What did they say?” For our part, Brian and I beamed happily as we turned from the rabbi and the minister and walked up the aisle as husband and wife.
For some interfaith couples, marriage meets fierce resistance from family, friends, and religious leaders. I know, because growing up a Southern Baptist in Raleigh, North Carolina, I lived in fear of fire and brimstone and the demise of non-believers. At Trinity Baptist Church, the preacher’s sermons pitted “us against them.” At 10 years old, I was too scared not to believe.
When I brought Brian home in my early twenties, my family loved him, but they understood little about his Jewish faith. Because of that, I labored over creating a meaningful and inclusive wedding ceremony. Nearly two decades after sitting petrified in those velvety pews, I stood confidently under our huppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, because I realized that for me, religious doctrine mattered less than character and heart.
For millions of Americans, love trumps religion when it comes to choosing a life partner. Interfaith marriages or domestic partnerships made up 22 percent of American households in 2001, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Rabbi Harold S. White, Georgetown University’s senior Jewish chaplain, says he has presided over hundreds of interfaith weddings and has seen the rate of intermarriage rise. Some experts point to increased secularism as cause for the growing trend while others, like White, simply blame love.
Jews and Christians aren’t the only ones marrying each other. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs all want a piece of the interfaith action. Interfaith couples of every religion pay lots of attention to details like invitations, flowers, food, and music. But some of the most intense stress bubbles up when planning the ceremony, which touches on bigger issues that could shape the couple’s future. If thoughtfully coordinated, marital symbolism and messages from different religions can complement each other. But finding that balance requires compromise, open-mindedness, and trusted guidance.
In planning our ceremony, we fought over a unity candle. I interpreted the tradition, in which two flames combine to light one candle, as two hearts unifying. Brian, however, thought the candles represented the Trinity, a disconcerting symbol for him. For weeks I clung to the idea. When I sought advice from our minister, Reverend Howard Hanger, he told me to drop it. Immediately the candle seemed petty because the reverend reminded me that our future was about compromise.
For couples with little or no relationship with a clergyman, finding someone with a shared vision takes time. Our wedding planner recommended Hanger, who coordinated with Brian’s hometown rabbi. Absent a personal recommendation, some couples connect with clergy through the Web. While Internet imams and Hindu priests aren’t as common, Christians and Jews have cornered the e-clergy market through Web sites such as rabbirentals.com and rentapriest.com.
For their April 2004 nuptials, Robert and Monica Kohn of Arlington hired a rent-a-rabbi recommended by Robert’s conservative rabbi, who had declined to officiate at their interfaith ceremony.
“I’m so embarrassed. I can’t remember his name,” Robert, a local corporate attorney, says of the rabbi. “But he was great.”
Father Christopher Bisett, an ordained Catholic priest and former member of the Conventual Franciscan Order, tops the list of rent-a-priests serving the Washington area. Despite the casual connotation of a Web site, Bisett, who left the Catholic Church after deciding he wanted a family, counsels couples before their nuptials and has stayed in touch with some newlyweds afterward.
Counseling scares some interfaith couples because they must answer, or at least think about, tough questions regarding children, culture, and family. In his premarital sessions, Imam Yahya Hendi, Georgetown University’s Muslim chaplain and imam of the Islamic Society of Frederick, helps sort out intermarriage in the Muslim community by highlighting the differences between cultural and religious teachings. Hendi thinks that cultural interpretation, not the Koran, has prohibited Muslim women from marrying outside of their faith. He cannot imagine a compassionate God saying, “Don’t do it.”
“If you don’t find someone in your faith, it’s natural to find someone in another faith,” he says.
According to Hendi, intermarriage is infrequent in Islam, but it does happen. In one of the most unlikely matches, Hendi and White married a Muslim-Jewish couple. During the wedding, Hendi joked that maybe the pair could solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Cultural concerns outrank religion for some couples. Ranjit Singh has traveled the world working for an Arlington-based energy company. Through his travels he thought he would find a partner of Indian descent, as his three older siblings had. So when he decided to marry Birgit Wahl, a red-haired Bavarian beauty, he feared his family’s reaction.
“My parents were so conservative Indian, with my mom wearing a sari all the time,” he says. “For her son not to marry an Indian and not even an American, I thought there would be some resistance. But when my mom first met Birgit she was like, ‘Hurry up and get married.’ ”
Singh and Wahl married in August during a Sikh-Catholic wedding weekend in Ansbach, Germany.
The Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington has promoted a hybrid approach to life for Jewish-Christian families since 1995. “We’re creating harmony by singing different notes,” says Reverend Julia Jarvis, spiritual director of the organization, which counts about 130 members. “We’re being honest about both traditions, and nobody’s getting dismissed.”
In our interfaith family, Brian and I share a similar philosophy in raising our daughter, Eloise, and try to give both religions equal billing. Eloise’s first holiday season in 2006, Brian questioned the enormous size and blinding wattage of our Christmas tree. The small, silver menorah we lit that year disappeared amid the Christmas stockings, greenery, and ornaments. Brian had never cared about my Christmas decorations before. His feelings changed, however, when he held our two-week-old daughter in the tree’s soft glow and worried it might overshadow our Jewish traditions.
The next season we compromised. The tree stayed, but where a modest menorah once stood, we put up a Hanukkah shrub adorned with blue and green glittering dreidels and brightly colored glass menorahs and Torahs.
This year, a walking, talking Eloise will stand in awe of both traditions, pulling ornaments off branches, learning to say Hanukkah and Christmas, and radiant in the light put out by both.