My husband and I aren’t terribly religious people; at best, I am a Christmas and Easter Catholic and he is a High Holiday Jew. So when the Lord’s name is uttered in our house, it usually means that we have lost our Internet connection or that someone has broken a wine glass.
But despite our utter lack of piety, we were raised in homes where religious practice was a central part of family life. While that experience didn’t make true believers out of us, it did produce a common belief: we both feel that religion is something we should “do” together, as a family.
Of course, “doing” religion requires choosing one. For years, we have avoided making this choice, largely because nothing in our lives really compelled us to do so. But when I became pregnant with our first child last summer, we could no longer avoid the obvious question: Would there be a bris or a baptism? Or, as we liked to put it, would we dip or would we snip?
Most people settle the question of how to raise their children before they get married, and six years ago, when we were planning our wedding, many people advised us of the wisdom of this course of action. We ignored them. Instead, we planned an interfaith ceremony, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, found a Rabbi and Priest who agreed to conduct a joint ceremony. Of course, by the time we eliminated We weren’t searching for enlightenment; we were searching for a family identity. all the phrases the Rabbi rejected and crossed out all the things the Priest wouldn’t say, we were left with a wedding that was remarkably similar to the scene in The Princess Bride, where Prince Humperdink urges Peter Cook’s bishop to just say “man and wife” and get the whole thing over with.
This time, the “let’s do it all” approach didn’t seem like an option. As a ceremony, our interfaith wedding lasted all of eleven minutes. But as a lifestyle choice, doing both would be interminable. A bris at eight days. A baptism a few months later. Shabbat on Friday nights and the Sabbath on Sunday mornings. Catholic doctrine classes one afternoon a week; Hebrew school two days a week. Unless our kid happened to find a higher calling out of all that holiness, he’d be miserable. And for two quasi-heathens, schlepping our child between church and temple five days per week sounded like, well, hell.
For a few months, we kicked around the notion of abandoning both our religions and choosing a new one. We found no shortage of options: Unitarian-Universalist, Episcopalian, Congregational, Secular Humanist, Buddhist. But the problem was that neither of us a wanted a new religion. We weren’t searching for enlightenment; we were searching for a family identity. The only virtue in choosing a third option was that neither of us would get what we wanted – which we realized wasn’t virtuous at all.
As the months ticked by and my stomach grew larger, our decision came to resemble a pig-pile; everyone from family members and friends to co-workers and acquaintances heaped their own layer of meaning on top of us. My husband’s parents and grandparents bombarded him with phone calls, trying to convince him that he was more religious than he realized. The implication was that he was suffering from some sort of amnesia. “Don’t you remember your Bar Mitzvah?” his mother asked. “Don’t you remember how much that meant to you?”
On my side, a family friend claimed that my mother, who died when I was twenty, would object to her grandchildren being raised anything but Catholic. “This isn’t what I believe, mind you,” she insisted, rather unconvincingly. “I just thought you should know.”
There have been others. I have been approached by co-workers who have lectured me about the importance of honoring all the Jews who have died throughout history. Some friends have reminded me of the church’s commitment to social justice and their admirable anti-war stance; others have taken care to point out the recent sex abuse scandal. And a number of people in our lives have expressed outrage that we would raise our child to believe in any sort of God at all.
Needless to say, none of these conversations proved particularly useful. So we ruled out the Holocaust, my mother’s death, my in-laws’ agita, the allusions to pedophile priests, and everyone’s politics. We stuck to a single guiding principle: decisions made from guilt don’t feel good in the moment you make them, and they don’t feel good later.
Still, we were nowhere. We often wished out loud that one of us was a devout adherent to a faith, a factor that would surely tip the balance in one direction. But what we were, really, was adherents to ourselves. Neither of us felt swayed by a current calling, but we were affected by happy memories of a family culture that we hoped to recreate for our own children.
So we began to talk about our decision in the context of our marriage. After all, at its core, marriage is a balance of tiny bargains we strike because we love each other; one person puts aside a way of doing things to allow for the other person’s quirks. Luckily, the great majority of these compromises are idiosyncratic in nature – sleeping with the television on, listening to bad ’80s pop music, not wearing shoes in the house.
But we also deal in the larger issues, the traditions that defined our families of origin, as we establish a set of habits that become emblematic of our new family. As a child, I assumed that big Sunday dinners, fresh-cut Christmas trees and vacations at the beach were customs that both of my parents carried on from their childhoods, but of course they weren’t. They were a patchwork of traditions that one or the other of them carried into the family they created together.
In our marriage, my husband and I have already discovered this dynamic at work. Our Sunday dinners are rarely the home-cooked meals I remember, because in my husband’s childhood, Sundays meant take-out from Uncle Cheung’s. And my husband the Red Sox fan never thought he’d share an apartment, let alone a bed, with a Yankees fan. But every day, he walks by the autographed Derek Jeter ball lying on my desk and manages not to throw it at me.
When we put the religion question in these terms – as one of the infinite number of compromises that marriage asks of us and not as a question of spiritual meaning – the path to making a decision became clear to us. We needed to figure out, for ourselves, exactly which traditions it was most important to each of us that we keep, and why. So for weeks, we went about doing this so the only way we knew how – by telling and re-telling our favorite family stories to each other.
My husband recalled that his mother took him to a different museum every Friday after school. He remembered summer weekends on Cape Cod with his grandparents, and winter trips to Florida. He laughed as he described sitting down together, as a family, to watch Married With Children every Sunday night. While he also described lighting candles on Friday nights and searching for the afikomen during Passover, the memories he singled out were, for the most part, separate from his religion.
For me, the opposite was true. While I cherish the memories of our family vacations and of playing board games on Saturday nights, my fondest memories revolve around And just like that, our decision was made. the holidays – making Advent wreaths, keeping secrets about Christmas presents, painting Easter eggs with my father’s acrylic paint set and trying to guess each day at school which egg I would find waiting for me in my lunchbox. And I came to realize that of all the things I could bargain away in our marriage, recreating these moments for our children just wasn’t one of them.
And just like that, our decision was made. My husband will remain a Jew, but we will raise our child as a Catholic, and we’ll all attend church and sing Christmas carols together as a family. My husband feels some loss in this decision, as he reflects on Torah that won’t be learned and Bar Mitvah parties that won’t be planned. And I feel sad for him, knowing how hard it is to give up parts of your life that you never thought you’d surrender. But at the same time, we’re happy with our choice, and even happier with path that we took in getting there.
Sometime this summer, we will baptize our child, and instead of throwing a formal lunch reception, we’ll celebrate by catching a Sox game and eating vegetable lo mein. In the details, it isn’t what either of us imagined. But in our hearts, it’s exactly what we yearned for.