Nothing brings religion more prominently to the forefront in a relationship than milestones like marriage and having a baby.
The scenario becomes, perhaps, more interesting or complex in a situation of mixed marriage—or so goes the Jewish, parental parable I’ve heard since my emergence from the womb.
But it is the wondrous, child-like innocence my Catholic co-worker at TribLocal exudes when talking about Judaism that really has me questioning things.
My co-worker and friend, Melissa Riske and her husband Jason, who is Jewish, agreed upon a mixed union with a Jewish household three years ago when they got married. Now, they are expecting a baby boy.
While Melissa has not made the decision to convert, she’s an eager pupil in the field of Judaism, particularly because she and her husband decided to raise their children Jewish.
I’ve listened with curious fascination over the past few months as I’ve gotten to know Melissa and heard her tales of exploring Judaism, holiday by holiday. She’s told me about her mother-in-law’s brisket on Rosh Hashanah and having to drag her Jewish husband to synagogue on Purim.
I love the stories—particularly, because it’s fun to hear about rituals that are otherwise commonplace for me through someone else’s fresh perspective.
Melissa’s latest challenge has been planning for a bris—one of many Jewish rituals she’s had to study up on quickly after a lifetime of Catholic practice and schooling.
As an aside, Melissa is half Mexican, Italian and German; Jason is Russian, Lithuanian Romanian, Spanish, Ukrainian and Polish. Together, they’ve had some care giving practice with their Siberian Husky, Maccabi—named after Maccabi Beer—whom Melissa calls their “first baby.” Even without a baby, their family avec dog is already a genetic United Nations.
Melissa’s curiosity, combined with her pregnancy, has seemingly revived her husband back into ritual.
While Jason grew up in a Conservative Jewish household with a mother who teaches Hebrew and Sunday school at two synagogues on the North Shore, Melissa said he seems to be gaining a new appreciation for ritual and tradition as they prepare for the arrival of their son.
Jason said it was important to raise their child Jewish because of his upbringing, although the couple doesn’t practice heavily right now.
“I went to school where two or three kids were Jewish and my brother and I were two of the three,” Jason says. “Even though we didn’t live in a Jewish community, [my parents] instilled that faith about how fun it is to be Jewish, the different things we do, how important that pride [is] of being Jewish.”
What seems so utterly healthy and inspiring about this couple is their ability to communicate, explore and take this Jewish journey together.
“[It’s] a learning experience for both of us,” Melissa says.
Before she and Jason got engaged, they met with a rabbi, who Melissa said helped to put her mind at ease. She said the rabbi—who ended up marrying them—made her feel comfortable about asking questions. “[The rabbi] made me feel like I could be myself and still be a part of the faith,” she says.
Even then, she had anxiety about knowing how to raise Jewish children.
“As our children grow, Jason says I’ll learn through our children,” she says. “[I] don’t have to know everything ahead of time.”
Melissa gathers part of her education through attending temple—which she said is easier when the prayer books offer a phonetic version of the Hebrew as well as translations.
In general, Melissa has not fully given up Catholicism. She still observes Christmas and Easter—although she can’t always get Jason to attend.
The biggest challenge, Melissa said, is getting her family on board with the changes—particularly around Christmastime.
“It’s a challenge in terms of getting them to pay attention,” she says. “We don’t want them to feel they’re losing Christmas; [we] want them to think of [it] in terms of gaining new experiences.”
The key to her and Jason’s success appears to be that they talked early and talk often, advice Melissa had for other couples venturing into a mixed marriage.
The couple confronted religious issues in their dating days and even covered the matter of how they would raise their children.
“We joke and tease each other a lot about religion,” Melissa says. “We’ve definitely found our groove with it—talking about it. In the beginning [I] had a lot of questions; I had worries. It definitely got smoother each passing year when [the holidays] became more routine to me.”
Spiritually, Melissa and Jason seem to be on the same page.
“We agreed on all of it,” Melissa says. “Even though we may pray in different languages, [we had] the same idea of what God meant and how important it was. That’s the foundation, knowing we believed in the same ideas.”
Meanwhile, Melissa says she’s discovering the art of Jewish geography. When she received a pediatrician recommendation from her doctor, she later discovered her mother-in-law knew him and Jason knew his son.
She is starting to pick up the Jewish sixth sense, where she can guess if a movie star might be Jewish.
“I hear and I wonder,” Melissa says. “I play the game too now.”