If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time you’ll know that my upbringing was very sheltered and highly conservative. I grew up in rural Tennessee, never had cable, and was 18 years old before alcohol touched my lips for the first time – my virginity remained in tact even longer.
My town had one high school and two junior highs. I can still remember going to school with the same people in the same classes from kindergarten to as far as ninth grade. Being from a small southern town with it’s slower ways and often less sophisticated means had a profound impact on me starting at an early age which would later become the driving force behind many of my future life decisions – with the primary one being to get out of that town and never come back.
I was a city boy stuck in the woods. My father had a successful forestry business that I wanted nothing to do with, I wasn’t a prolific woodsman or hunter, and would much rather listen to a recording of Miles Davis than Bocephus. As hard as I tried I just didn’t have that necessary level of southern boy in me. I wanted to see the world and faraway destinations like the ancient cities of Rome and Cairo instead of your typical redneck who never gets outside the county line. While most of my friends’ future endeavors centered around high school graduation, full time jobs at the factory, marriages to nice southern girls, and a house on the back forty – mine consisted of a corner office on Wall Street and a 50th floor penthouse overlooking the park.
It wasn’t that I felt above the lifestyle I came from it’s just that something in me wanted to break away from it all– I wanted different and what I was convinced would be better. And my desire to escape the confines of those hollers and hills went far deeper than merely an administrative assistant and swanky home address. It also influenced the person I would eventually choose to marry. I thought that if I was ever going to make it to the big city I would need to marry someone who actually knew where the big city was.
My now ex -wife couldn’t have been more different if the entire story had been scripted for Lifetime Television. She was a college student in the south by way of the New Jersey Turnpike. She’d never ridden on a tractor, had no idea how to fry a chicken or cook white beans, and couldn’t tell you the difference between a tobacco plant and a rose bush. But she knew how to get to midtown via the Holland Tunnel. And the ringer in all of it – she was Jewish. To a 26-year-old boy Southern Baptist boy from the back roads this was as close to 180 degrees as I was ever going to get.[pullquote]In 1998 fifteen percent of US households were mixed faith yet couples in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages. [/pullquote]
I still recall the night we had the ‘religion’ discussion. At this stage of my life Sunday mornings were for nursing 3-alarm hangovers and God was someone I went to only when I had really screwed up. But the most interesting part in all of this I don’t remember ever meeting a Jew up to that point. My hometown didn’t have a bagel shop or a Chinese restaurant and the only houses of worship where painted white with big steeples and bigger crosses.
“Do you know what religion I am?” – she asked
“I have no idea, Christian I guess?” I responded.
“You’re not serious? You do know my last name, right?” she said sarcastically.
“I have no idea what you are talking about” I shot back, seriously confused.
She went onto explain that she in fact was Jewish and while it had been sometime since she’d seen the inside of a Temple and often questioned if there was even a God – her parents were far more pious and she made it clear there would be certain expectations about any future nuptials which would include a Chuppah, Rabbi, a Ketubah, plus I’d get to step on a glass
What did I care? I was dating outside of my own faith and at that moment I felt like the most modern and un-Southern man on the face of the earth.
Our differences in faith were never very striking especially to the outsider. I still had misplaced God on a shelf and she had no interest in helping me look for Him. Besides we were newly married, had no children, and life was smooth sailing, what did we need faith for anyway?
When our first child was born we agreed to raise her and any others Christian. Being a serious break from Jewish tradition, especially if the Jew is mom, I will give her credit for the open mind though her choice was a tad veiled in self-interest. She knew virtually nothing about her own faith and having no desire to learn or teach our children mine was the most logical choice – and the easiest. So we put our little girl in a Christian day school and began attending services more regularly. My daughter and I would take the Eucharist while she would stay seated in the pew.
But eventually all of that smooth water gave way to dark skies and troubled seas. And the waves become so turbulent that the best and only choice we likely had was to head below, get on our knees, and pray for divine intervention. But when our tempest came however we decided to stay up top and watch the carnage as it happen.
In 1998 fifteen percent of US households were mixed faith, today that number has almost doubled with few signs of letting up. Yet according a 2001 American Religious Identification Survey people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages. If marriage in general is on the ropes, it seems inter-faith marriage is already with the cutman in the corner.
Sixteen years, a marriage, two children, an affair, a divorce, and a great deal of soul searching have come and gone since I became the modern man. All that passing of water has washed away ample amounts of pride and ego plus boatloads of misconception leaving me far wiser and much less conceited. It also taught me how important a shared faith can be to and in a relationship. This isn’t to say that had she and I been of the same faith we would have stayed together – far from it. Nor is this a condemnation of inter-faith marriages in general. But marriage is hard enough as it is without additional strain and I’ve become convinced that when those waves began crashing over the bow and we started tossing to-and-fro we might have stood a better chance making back to port if we’d both been on our knees down below.
Blogger’s note: This is Part 1 in a new series “What I’ll do differently when I get married again”.