The Pork Chop: Navigating an Interfaith Marriage

Donna

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The pork chop was exhibit A.

When my husband Phil and I got married 24 years ago–he a Protestant, I a Jew–we agreed to raise our children as Jews. I had grown up in an observant neighborhood in Elizabeth, NJ, and though my family was Reform, being Jewish was simply who I was. I explained to him that when it came to our kids, it was important to me to have a plan and sense of purpose for the future.

To prepare for our interfaith marriage, we spent three hour-long sessions with a rabbi in a dank converted basement outside of Boston as she attempted to get to know us and gauge our commitment to maintaining a Jewish home. In the spirit of going forward, my husband appeared open to the discussion, though he wasn’t connected to any specific religious roots. Though his biological father was Jewish, he was raised by a single mother who seemed too busy getting by to pay much attention to religion.

In our seven years of marriage before children, there was a shared generosity of spirit in which we embraced one another’s spiritual side. During the December holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah we lined up a brass menorah and tin angel chimes side by side on the dining room table. We ate latkes with applesauce and lit the menorah. I once brought home a Christmas tree as a romantic gift for my husband, tied to the roof of my car.

When our son was born in 1992, he was circumcised, and we honored the memory of my deceased father by choosing a name for our son that started with the first letter of my father’s name–in keeping with Jewish tradition. Years passed and we skirted the issue of religion as much as possible with skeletal, but festive, versions of the Passover Seder, hiding the afikoman (matzoh) and tentatively setting a place at the table for Elijah the prophet.

In the preschool years, we were invited to the Seders of new-found friends, along with Rosh Shoshana meals, and break-fasts on Yom Kippur. Neither my husband nor I had families nearby to guide us, so we were left to wing it.

By the time my son was 8, his brother 4, I decided we had to take a firmer stand. A clock had been introduced into the situation. The Reform temple in Belmont had a religious school program that started in 4th grade, and would prepare my son–and us–for his bar mitzvah at 13, at which time he would be considered a man.

Phil was skeptical after meeting the rabbi. We went to a series of parent education sessions for interfaith couples where my husband challenged other parents into strains of doubt with his philosophical questions about god. Phil was clearly uncomfortable.

“Does any of this really mean anything to him?” he asked, incredulous, taking me aside as my son was buckling himself into the car for a religious school class on Sunday morning.

“Of course it does,” I said. “And it will in the future when it’s too late to turn back the clock. I wish you could be more supportive. I wish you could at least pretend. That was our agreement, remember?”

We argued, though at the time I didn’t completely understand why. Later, I realized that my husband’s time spent in the temple and on Jewish related things, was very difficult for him, upsetting him in ways he couldn’t articulate.

We by no means kept kosher. But I started to suspect that Phil was longing for something closer to his own tradition. He reminisced about going to mass on Christmas Eve in college, and even though we did an egg hunt in the yard, I felt red-faced and bereft knowing I could not morally produce a ham for Easter. Instead, I persevered according to plan and learned to cook a brisket.

But there was one thing I couldn’t help but notice: as my husband’s resistance to gathering at the temple for religious classes and special events tied to our son’s impending bar mitzvah increased, quietly and without a word, he started buying pork chops. Thin parcels of pink-gray meat, bone-in or bone-out as cutlets, on the surface not altogether that different from a chicken breast, except taken from an animal with cloven feet. It was actually kind of sweet. He didn’t want to seem like he was outright rebelling or thrusting his disbelief in my face, so he would buy them on nights he knew I would be out of town or out for dinner. Sometimes not just pork chops, but cans of brown bread to go with it, linking him to some alien post-depression era meals that I imagined his beloved Yankee-stock grandparents cooked for him.

We should have known our plans were doomed. As time went on, the religious choice we made ignited distrust in one another that couldn’t be ignored. Ordinary decisions about who would take our kids to temple on the high holidays, and who would participate in community service (Mitzvah Day) programs, led to altercations in which the responsibility fell to me. He didn’t exactly decline, but always seemed to need to be somewhere else. In a room full of families assisted by both parents, my two sons potted tulip bulbs in clay pots to be delivered to the elderly, crafted felt blankets for the poor, and wrote letters in support of political prisoners for Amnesty International without their father. Our children were angry too–perhaps sensing my husband and I were divided in our commitment–and began to balk at the idea of attending Sunday School. Some kind of attenuated, moral fissure snaked its way through the household days before a special event might require us all be present at the temple at once. We were by no means the only interfaith family in the congregation, but other families seemed to be coping much better. This is not to say my husband and I fell out of love with another, but our relationship during all those years was strained.

The bar mitzvah itself was a success. Our son led the Shabbat service, having worked with the temple’s cantor for the better part of a year to learn to chant select portions from the Torah (the book of Jewish written law) and his haftorah (a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets.) Even in our Reform temple, non-Jews are forbidden to touch the Torah itself, which meant that Phil was not able to engage fully in the Bar Mitzvah service at its most poignant moments. I felt terrible for him, being barred from the kind of intimacy that should have bound us together.  It seemed unfair and must have contributed to his sense of alienation. He tried to be good-natured about it, but the look in his eyes told me he felt like a second-class citizen. “I’m so sorry,” I said to Phil, taking his hand. I had no idea. You’re as much his parent as I am.”

It was only years later that Phil told me he believed in the Christ story. I stood there with my mouth open. I hadn’t had a clue that he had cared about this so passionately. How could he have agreed to my terms about raising our children in the Jewish tradition and still said, “I do?”

Looking back, I realize he must have felt he had given up something too quickly without knowing how it would feel. We had both been dishonest to a degree. I took him at his word in order to satisfy what was important to me. I wish we had been able to talk about it more openly without retreating to our separate corners. After all, our common goal was to do something protective and stabilizing for our kids. To lead the way towards some kind of spirituality that could possibly help them feel connected to the earth even after we were gone.

No matter how much we say we are, or wish we could be different, we are never far from our roots. My earliest emotional connections to belief hold true. After my older brother died unexpectedly when I was 13 and he was 15, and my mother and sisters and I returned home from the funeral, the kerchiefed orthodox women in our neighborhood—usually seen only from a distance—had joined with us to assuage our grief and were waiting on our front porch with pitchers of water to cleanse our hands.

Despite all of the conflicts, my husband and I have remained together and have made our peace. We still get a Christmas tree. We still light the menorah. My husband continues to prepare pork chops with a sense of ritual and familiarity that must feel like coming home. The kids have grown up—now 23 and 19—one bar mitzvahed, the other a devout atheist–and are free to make religious commitments of their own.

Sometimes when I think back, I wish it had all gone differently. On the surface, it all looked good. We went forward into our marriage in good faith based on a commitment to one another. Today interfaith marriages are more and more common and many successfully manage to merge belief with belief. Or omit it entirely. Today what’s important to me, with or without a specific religious doctrine, is acting from a humanitarian point of view, having a social conscience, a commitment to what our rabbi used to call gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness.

While I don’t think either of us feels good about our half-hearted attempt to create a Jewish home, after 24 years of marriage we’ve moved into another realm of appreciation for one another that acknowledges what we tried to do—even if we didn’t succeed.

Each year as I celebrate the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, a Jewish day of fasting and atonement, I know I will be doing these alone. Not because of the presence of any pork chops, but because everything in our personal history gets factored in to what we believe. Despite the presence of the North Star and Google maps, it’s still up to each of us to find our own way.

Tiny-House

Donna Gordon’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Story Quarterly, the Quarterly, The Boston Globe Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Carleton Miscellany and Solstice.  She has at various times been a PEN Discovery, Ploughshares Discovery, and a Stegner Fellow. She is completing work on a novel, WHAT BEN FRANKLIN WOULD HAVE TOLD ME.  She was a 2012 Tin House Summer Workshop contributor in fiction, a Joan Jakobson Scholar at the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference in June, and a contributor at Bread Loaf.  She had the good fortune to play tennis with Serena Williams last March at Indian Wells!