The XX Factor

One Religion, Two Faiths


My husband and I were both born and brought up Roman Catholic. We were educated in Catholic schools, married in the Catholic church and our children have been baptized and will receive Holy Communion. But Bill-who likes to decribe himself as a “collapsed Catholic”-doesn’t believe in God or in life after death or in the very concept of religion, while I do. It’s not something we fight about. Accepted or rejected, our religion gives us a common language, some cultural reference points, and a sense of tradition that we are both comfortable with. I’m keenly aware, however, that religion-like politics-can be a source of enormous conflict in a relationship. How do you live with a belief system that you passionately reject? How do you come to terms with customs that make no sense? How do you celebrate holidays without meaning? Today, Jessica Ullian describes how she and her husband found common ground.


On warm Friday nights, my husband and I often invite our friends over for a barbecue Shabbat dinner. We grill kosher hamburgers and chicken, drink lemonade, and use our hands to eat off paper plates. At some point, as the sun goes down, the two of us quietly step indoors, and he stands by my side as I light the Sabbath candles and say the prayer. Now and then, a chorus of voices-male and female-rises with mine when we sing the blessing over the candles with my parents. My family has always said the prayers together, man and woman, parent and child. I was well into my 20s before I learned that it’s not common or appropriate. The first time we celebrated a holiday with my parents and brother, my husband remained quiet when we all gathered around the flame.

Shawn and I are both Jewish, but over time, the places where our rituals diverge have led me to think of ours as an interfaith marriage, rich with both culture and the potential for conflict as we set out to form our own traditions out of those established by our families. Before I met Shawn, I thought of myself as more observant than average: I had been bat mitzvahed and could passably read Hebrew. I fasted on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and strictly adhered to a no-grain diet for the week of Passover. But when he came into my life, he introduced me to a new form of the Jewish faith, with rules and terms that were as foreign to me as those of a Catholic or Hindu. A friend, offering a kindly warning, once told me that depth of practice, not doctrine, is what makes or breaks a relationship. Years later, I think there is truth to his words. Our relationship once foundered, and nearly failed, over this issue. Yet our marriage today is strong, because we set aside the notion of different beliefs and searched for a faith that would be ours.

Eight years ago, the idea of a spiritual divide was unimportant: We were each other’s high-school crushes, happily reunited through a chance encounter years after moving on to college and careers. I had left our hometown to become a journalist in New York; he had lost his mother to cancer and found solace through mourning with an Orthodox community. In our first months together, we were more than willing to make small sacrifices to see each other: he’d phone me on Friday nights after sundown to talk for hours, and I’d take the train back to Boston on Saturday mornings to see him when he came back from synagogue in the early afternoon.

As we moved past that early period, misunderstandings abounded, and resentments grew. The Friday phone calls ceased. Shawn thought it was a step forward; he was finally comfortable enough to explain his Sabbath rules to me. But I only knew that where once he wanted to talk to me every day, now he needed to be out of communication for 24 hours each weekend. The fact that he was not visibly observant in other ways-he didn’t wear a skullcap or tzitzis fringe, ate at non-kosher restaurants, and, thanks to his French-Canadian father, had blond hair and blue eyes-further confused me. Some rules clearly mattered, while others didn’t, and no guide from the Israel Book Shop in his neighborhood could explain why.

More discoveries emerged. I learned the Friday night happy hour he’d attended with my friends early on had been an anomaly. Normally, he explained, he wasn’t even willing to enter a bar on the Sabbath. The cold leftovers we ate when I visited him on Saturday weren’t for convenience’s sake; he wouldn’t light the stove to reheat the food or make a cup of coffee. In the winters, when night fell early, he would be lost to me for the Sabbath before I even got home from work. Summers, when sundown came late, meant that we couldn’t make plans for Saturday night until well after 9.

We stayed together, bound by the idea that finding each other after letting our high-school friendship wane meant something. Then his stepfather died unexpectedly, and Shawn embarked on the traditional 11-month mourning period, during which he prayed at synagogue three times a day, and avoided television, movies, music, and parties. I stayed with him. When his mourning was done, I left. In mourning, he had again moved further into the world of the Orthodox, and I feared to follow would mean giving up too much. Our differences could no longer be packaged into one weekly 24 hour period and set aside.

A year later, we reconciled for the reasons that people in love do-laughter, trust, passion, affection-but we had not yet reached a resolution on our faiths. Another friend, when I told her of our reunion, said, “Fool me twice, shame on me.”

But there was a difference, now: Neither of us considered a second break-up an option. Unless we were willing to commit to each other for good, there was no reason to get back together at all. This time, we took our relationship as bashert- the Judaic idea that a man and wife are selected for each other by a higher power, long before birth. It proved to be the step toward unity that changed our approach to our religion and to one another. We had a responsibility to figure this out together, to choose a faith that would be neither his nor mine, but ours.

Today we make decisions about what we practice by asking each other what the rules mean to us , not to the Jewish people, or to God. I understand that Shawn doesn’t celebrate Shabbat only because it’s a commandment; he celebrates because he needs a break from his two businesses, his commute, his BlackBerry that buzzes day and night. In turn, Shawn understands that a prohibition against cooking on Saturdays doesn’t offer any respite for me; our time spent together in the kitchen on those mornings is a shared joy we both look forward to all week. Our Friday night dinners are a time of prayer and reflection, as well as an opportunity to enjoy our friends, our food, and our home in a way we rarely find time for on other nights. (Technology has made our lives easier, too: I can program our dishwasher before sundown on Friday, host dinner for twelve, and wake up to a relatively clean kitchen the next day.)

Our wedding took place on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend in 2007, in the backyard of my parents’ home on Cape Cod. We hired a kosher caterer, and had a barbecue. Everyone agreed that the all-beef hot dogs were fantastic, and the chocolate mousse a marvel of non-dairy proportions, in keeping with the prohibition against serving milk and meat in the same meal. The traditional seven blessings recited by our friends were adapted from a Web site specializing in interfaith marriages.

This is not to say that we’ve figured it all out. (“We need to have a mezuzah on every doorframe? Every single one?” I asked incredulously when we moved into our first home.) There are days when I grow frustrated by the prospect of missing a Friday night party, and times when Shawn unhappily meets the demands of the secular world and breaks the Sabbath. We don’t yet have children, and we know that will send us into entirely unexplored territory, replete with more warnings from well-meaning friends.

Yet excitement now trumps our uncertainty. No label-reform, Conservative, or Orthodox-describes how we live, and there are rules we cannot help but break at times. There are Judaic principles we share, and areas where we disagree. But finally, we know what we believe: that our Sabbath table is a place where differences can be shared and celebrated. That we will honor each other?s families and traditions, even when they conflict with what we prefer or believe is right. That when any number of voices rise in thanks and praise, we are too lucky and blessed in each other to stay quiet. We believe in bashert . We sing together.

Jessica Ullian is currently an editor at Boston University’s alumni magazine. She holds an M.S. in journalism from Columbia and an MFA in creative writing from Boston University