In the many years (57 to be exact) that I have been in an interfaith marriage, I felt somehow removed from antisemitism. I was raised in a Roman Catholic family, and, while there were a few comments from aunts and uncles when I got engaged, it was the 1960s, and I was in love. I believed we would figure it out as we went along.
This strategy worked for quite a while. We eloped, traveled, and had three wonderful children. There were the usual early marriage disagreements, none of which had to do with religion. When my father-in-law died at the age of 68, my husband, surprising us both, became more observant. He learned to say the Mourner's, observed , and went to temple for the . I was supportive: I learned to make kugel and went with him to temple. When our children grew older, one by one, they drifted towards Judaism.
A recent incident unexpectedly came along and rocked my world. My eldest grandson called his mother from college (such a good boy) to tell her that a roommate had made an antisemitic remark. They handled it, and he was fine. Then she mentioned it to me. I was not fine. It's not that I hadn't heard antisemitic remarks before, but this time it felt personal. It dawned on me that in the past, there was always a part of me that distanced myself from such remarks. It doesn't apply to me, I reasoned, because I'm not Jewish. But the incident pierced my defenses; it certainly did apply to me.
My husband was shocked by my confession of having emotionally separated myself from him and our children this way. I was shocked too. I made excuses: I hadn't been raised in a Jewish home, we hadn't talked about this before we were married, and had rarely talked about it at all. I felt guilty for coming to this realization so late, that I hadn't done more to prepare my children and grandchildren to face antisemitism. I wondered if parents raising Kids of Color are better prepared. Do they talk about it with other families? Are there children's books to read? How do they ease the sting of racism for their children and themselves?
Of course, I did think about antisemitism and had read about the Warsaw Ghetto, seen Schindler's List, visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and supported Facing History and Ourselves, a resource for teachers using lessons from history to challenge students to stand up to bigotry and hate . I had witnessed metal detectors and guards at synagogues and Jewish institutions across America. Still, I felt that it didn't impact me directly. Now I understood that it did, and always had.
I called a dear and trusted rabbi, Rabbi Sonja Pilz of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bozeman, MT. No one, she explained, is ever prepared to face antisemitism, regardless of whether they were raised in a Jewish home. Each person must respond in their own time and in their own way. She observed that Reform congregations today strive to welcome and affirm non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages. In an effort to be affirming, we sometimes forget to offer more explicit support for interfaith partners and to encourage them to explore one another's cultural heritage. There is no pressure to convert or to embrace Judaism, and this is good, but also incomplete. All couples, but especially couples from different religious or cultural backgrounds, benefit from opportunities to learn about each other's religion, culture, and identities.
I had gone into my interfaith marriage blithely insulated from antisemitism. Now I understand I was in denial, and that hurt me and those I love. How much better it would have been to make a point of talking about it openly, including the distant and more recent history of antisemitism, which includes the alarming rise of hate in America today.
Although it was painful, I am grateful to have awakened to the fact that antisemitism does indeed affect me to the core. My family and loved ones are Jewish, and what happens to them, happens to me. It is never too late to begin to understand what the biblical Ruth was telling me. I too can now say, "…whither thou goest, I will go…" Your people are indeed my people.