A Matter Of Faith

Driving hime from Thanksgiving dinner in New London, Conn., to Spencertown, N.Y., the Kirsch family talked about the tree. They've had one every Christmas since Claudia Ricci and Richard Kirsch got married in 1978--even though a rabbi helped marry them, and even though their three children are being raised as Jews and even though Claudia herself, baptized a Roman Catholic, became a Jew eight years ago. Over that time the tree has come to seem increasingly out of place in their home. ""How would I feel if the rabbi saw this?" Ricci wondered.

But in the car, Lindsay, 11, remembered coming down the stairs on a weekend morning to watch TV by the twinkling lights, and her younger brother, Noah, who started out the trip opposed to a tree, said quietly, ""Couldn't we just have a little one?" Of all the difficult emotional, theological and familial issues raised by Ricci's conversion, this one alone remained unsettled. In one small part of Ricci's soul, it's Christmas, and she wants her tree.

""There are many paths to God," Ricci's Catholic mother complacently observed last month after participating in her granddaughter Jocelyn's bat mitzvah. But for most of the last 2,000 years, most people lived in villages where those paths almost ne ver intersected, and if they did, the outcome might as easily have been a holy war as a wedding. Their religious traditions did not prepare them for a society in which the handsome boy next door might be any of three different kinds of Catholic, let alon e a Shiite.

We have always been a nation of seekers, and now not one bound by the religious fault lines of the past. The proportion of Jews who married Gentiles, around one in 10 for the first half of the century, according to the American Jewish Committee, do ubled by 1960, doubled again by the early 1970s, and in this decade has leveled off at just over 50 percent. To put it another way, by some estimates one out of three American Jews lives in an interfaith household and faces some version of Ricci's dilemm a every December. The comparable figure for Catholics, according to a 1990 survey cited by psychologist Joel Crohn, an authority on mixed marriages, is 21 percent; for Mormons, 30 percent, and for Muslims, 40 percent. This year, when the first day of Cha nukah happens to fall on Dec. 24, the December quandary may be especially anxiety-provoking. When Ricci's parents arrive for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at her home, they may not see a tree, but they will unquestionably see a menorah.

And as these families raise their children, they are creating, in effect, a new form of religious identification in America, analogous to the ""mixed race" category that some people want to add to census forms. Dilip Viswanath and Carmen Guerra, bo th doctors raised in New York City, were married twice on Labor Day weekend--Friday night in a Hindu ceremony in Queens, and Saturday by a Catholic priest in Manhattan. Carmen wore a sari for the Hindu service, which involved colorful rituals such as cir cling a fire and pouring milk over the couple's joined hands. She wore a white gown for the Catholic ceremony, an occasion so decorous that it had to be held at the Plaza Hotel, because the church wouldn't allow Vivaldi to be played during the service. T hey plan to have children, Dilip says, and ""we want to expose them to both religions."

By the time they're in college, a Hindu-Catholic child will hardly be a novelty in this country. Perhaps one of them might even marry Rabia Asghar, the 3-year-old daughter of Cynthia and Tariq Asghar of Chicago, who is being raised in both her moth er's Methodism and the Islam of her Pakistani-born father. Or Karenna Meredith, 2, who is learning about God from the perspective of her Mormon mother, Christine, and her Catholic father, Tony, with a little ""free-form prayer" adopted from both faiths t hrown in each morning. ""We're going to position it as "Daddy likes this and Mommy likes that'," says Tom Clark, 35, a management consultant who was raised a Methodist in a Wisconsin farm town. His wife, Amy Rosenbaum Clark, 33, grew up Jewish in New Jer sey. Their 4-month-old son, Graham, had neither a ritual Jewish circumcision nor a baptism, but a ""dedication" at a Chicago church, with a rabbi and minister in attendance. ""He'll get exposed to both, and won't be overdosed in either," Clark says confi dently. Like other parents raising their children in two faiths, they expect him someday to look inside himself and find there either a Jew or a Gentile.

Clark's system of letting Mommy's and Daddy's religions speak for themselves is less demanding than the alternative of immersing the whole family in the practice of both faiths. This is the approach of Chicago lawyer Stephen Smith, 47, who was rais ed an Orthodox Jew, and his Catholic wife, Eileen, 46. The couple, who are active in the large interfaith support group that often meets at Old St. Pat's Church, aren't just ""exposing" their children to both faiths, Smith insists; ""we're raising them a s both Catholics and Jews, and insist that they do what they need to in our view, and later on it's likely that they'll make a selection." Bringing three children under the age of 11 to Jewish and Catholic services every weekend ""is very labor-intensive , as you can imagine," says Eileen. ""We don't do soccer. We do church." And intellectually intense as well. Sometimes, she says, her 10-year-old daughter, Nora, will plaintively ask, ""Can we not talk about religion tonight?"

Raising children in two faiths promotes one of the most favored values of the Zeitgeist, diversity. The problem is, the diversity occurs within the same individual. Expecting children to choose between their mother's and father's religions ""puts t hem in the position of rejecting one of their parents," says Leslie Goodman-Malamuth, who was raised ""as nothing" by her Jewish and Christian parents and wrote a self-help book called ""Between Two Worlds." ""Children of intermarriage often feel they're not as good as their all-Jewish or all-Christian cousins. They feel like damaged goods." Moreover, to be both Jewish and Christian is the theological equivalent of squaring the circle. Judaism and Christianity don't complement each other, they exclude o ne another. You cannot believe in salvation by Christ if you're still awaiting the Messiah.

The position of organized Jewry, according to Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee, is that ""we would rather that children were raised in one faith, even another one, than in both." For Beth and Michael Berkowitz of Sudbury, Mass., the mo ment of truth came when their son Jared raised his hand at temple preschool to answer the teacher's question ""Who loves you?" ""Jesus," the toddler replied, which is what he'd been told at church the previous week. At their unaffiliated ""post-denominat ional" temple, where 60 percent of new members are in mixed-faith marriages, this was considered an amusing faux pas rather than a scandal. But the aftermath is that the Berkowitzes now go only to temple, and Beth, the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, has stopped attending church.

Meanwhile, out of concern for just that kind of confusion, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing Reform temples, passed a resolution in 1995 against enrolling children in temple school if they were also taking instruction in anot her religion. For the most assimilated of the three major branches of Judaism in the United States, this move was so controversial that former senator Howard Metzenbaum resigned from the organization's board in protest.

You might expect that most families, facing a tossup choice between Judaism and Christianity, would opt for the majority religion, which also is the one with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But Rabbi Lewis Mintz of Temple Beth Elohim in Acton, Ma ss., sees the opposite happening all the time. The religious identity of a Christian is defined by faith, he reasons. But Judaism, in America, is a culture and an ethnic identification as well. The Jewish partner in a mixed marriage will feel drawn to th ose elements and want to reassert his Jewishness. That's what happened to Jeff Bornstein, a San Francisco lawyer, but with this difference: he was forced into becoming a better Jew by his wife, Veronica Sanchez. Veronica, a Catholic, took a class in Juda ism before their marriage in 1992, although she chose not to convert. At dinner the night before the wedding, she was appalled to see that her future mother-in-law didn't know the Hebrew blessing over the Sabbath candles, which she had been forced to mem orize. She elbowed her fiancE in the ribs. ""How come you put me through this?" she demanded. When their son, David, was born, Sanchez made Bornstein go back and relearn all the stuff he'd forgotten from Hebrew school. By the same token, Joan Hawxhurst, editor of Dovetail, a magazine for Jewish-Christian families, believes that marrying a Jew has made her think more about her own Christianity. ""If I had married another United Methodist, it would have been really easy for me nev- er to question what I d id every Sunday in church."

Amazing how a child, or the prospect of one, evokes in people such strong, almost tribal, feelings of solidarity. Sitting in church without her family for Sunday mass, Sanchez feels very lonely. ""When I see the little altar boys, and realize my so n will never be one, I feel a deep wound inside me." These emotions transcend even the most deeply held secular convictions. When Constance Baker, a Baltimore lawyer, told her college-age son that, all things being equal, it wouldn't be so bad, if he cou ld possibly arrange it, not to, please God, bring a Gentile fiancEe home from college, he exploded in outrage. ""It was kind of the exact opposite of everything else she had tried to teach me, about valuing people for what kind of person they are rather than by some label," Chuck Baker argued. His mother can't exactly dispute that but, by way of explanation, says the issue came up only recently, ""as the children have grown older, and I've begun thinking about their families. It occurred to me that my s on didn't know that I felt that way." If Chuck happens to fall in love with a Gentile girl, she notes, ""conversion is fine."

But Baker's attitude is a long way from one that was common a generation or two ago, when Jewish parents would, literally, rend their garments in mourning for a son lost to the Gentiles through intermarriage. Finding a rabbi to marry a mixed couple sometimes meant a trip to another city. But last year a survey of 325 American rabbis by the Jewish Outreach Institute of the City University of New York found that acceptance of intermarriage was growing, albeit very slowly. Even 11 percent of Orthodox rabbis said they would refer a mixed couple to a Reform rabbi to perform the ceremony. One possible explanation for the shift: nearly three fifths of the rabbis themselves had relatives who had married Gentiles.

The interfaith movement even has its own model wedding ceremony, created 18 years ago by Father John Hester and Rabbi Charles Familant of San Francisco. (Catholics are allowed to participate in interfaith marriages under a dispensation from their d iocese, which requires the Catholic partner to promise to try to raise the children as Catholics.) The ceremony retains certain religious customs, but ""universalizes" them. The Jewish tradition of trampling a wineglass at the end of the ceremony is univ ersalized into a generic reminder of how grief and joy mingle in the world. (The Jewish interpretation more specifically evokes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70.) The deity invoked is the ""Lord," a term that conveniently covers Jesu s as well as Yahweh.

It isn't just Jews who have changed their atti- tudes toward intermarriage. Growing up in the 1940s in a small town in Nebraska, the theologian Martin Marty recalls that ""if a Catholic married a Lutheran, they had to move out of town, because the hassles were just too much. Before Vatican II [1962-65] Catholics weren't allowed to go into another person's church; I've heard couples say they weren't allowed to attend the baptism of their own children." Today, Marty says, mixed marriage ""is not a b ig deal" among most American Christians. ""Even if a staunch Catholic marries a Methodist, there's almost a sigh of relief by the families that at least their child isn't marrying a druggy or a cult member." ""Methodists and Catholics [share] a belief in Jesus Christ," agrees the Rev. Eugene Winkler of Chicago Temple: First United Methodist Church, whose own daughter is married to a Catholic. In contrast to Catholicism and Judaism, ""for a Protestant, religion is a necessary part of one's life, but it's not bound up so closely with who you are and who your friends are," Winkler says. But staunchly conservative sects such as Old Colony Mennonites and Missouri Synod Lutherans are less tolerant of intermarriage, and born-again Christians usually insist on born-again spouses. ""To me," Winkler frets, ""the worst-case scenario would be an evangelical Christian [wanting to marry] an Orthodox Jew." Experience suggests that he needn't worry too much about the possibility.

The amount of family strife and grief Americans have been spared by this trend toward tolerance is incalculable. But there is a price, at least for Jews. The traditional Jewish stricture against intermarriage grew out of the experience of the Diasp ora, when Jews were a tiny and persecuted minority. They are still, for all their prominence in American life, less than 3 percent of the population. When half of them marry someone outside the faith, says Elliott Abrams, the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a former assistant secretary of state, ""we're looking at a very dismal prospect" for long-term survival. Abrams argues that secularized, ethnic Judaism--the kind that finds its highest expression in writing pro-Israel letters to the editor of The New York Times--is a doomed experiment. Only religious observance counts, and only about a quarter of interfaith couples, by his figures, raise their children as Jews. But the writer Gabrielle Glaser, who studied i ntermarriage in her new book ""Strangers to the Tribe," concluded more or less the opposite: that ""a significant number of Jews who marry outside their faith are making serious efforts to pass on the religion and culture of their forefathers . . . If th e interfaith couples I met over the past three years are any measure, [Judaism] will surely survive modern intermarriage."

Jews, at least, share a history with Christianity, and most Americans have at least a passing familiarity with the faith. But the misunderstandings that can arise when an American marries into a polytheistic religion make the Christmas-tree dilemma seem simple by contrast. As a matter of fact, Ann and Rajesh, a couple from Maryland who didn't want to use their last names, don't have that problem because his family, which has lived in America for years, has always had a Christmas tree anyway. On th e other hand, Ann finds some Hindu practices strange and the statues of temple gods positively frightening. ""Whenever I go to their temple," she confesses, ""I just close my eyes and pray to Jesus." Islam is much closer to the religions most Americans f ollow than Hinduism, but it places a high value on proselytizing--as Joe Miller, a nonpracticing Catholic by birth, discovered when he announced his engagement to Rashda Buttar, a Chicago lawyer. On a courtesy visit to her family's mosque, Miller recalls , an uncle led him to a back room, handed him a Koran and a sheaf of papers in English and Arabic to sign, testifying to his conversion. Miller declined, but it made for an uneasy few months leading up to their wedding.

But love is always hard, and people who have found it don't let go. Even if, like Julie Marcus of New York, marrying Alex Gomez, a Catholic, meant that the ceremony couldn't be performed by her father, a Conservative rabbi. Even if, for Siona Carpe nter, a Baptist in New Orleans, marrying the Catholic Kenneth LaFrance on Easter weekend meant that her family couldn't have barbecue at the rehearsal dinner on Good Friday. Even if, like Christine Meredith, she worries that she will not have eternal lif e with her husband, Tony, if he doesn't get around to joining the Mormon Church.

Two days after Thanksgiving, Claudia Ricci went to her synagogue to think and pray, and when she came home her mind was made up. There would be no tree this year. She would undoubtedly agree with Dan Josephs, one of the founders of Chicago's interf aith support group. Josephs, a Catholic married to a Jew, once took his wife to a Good Friday service at his hometown and was mortified to hear the priest talk about how the Jews killed Jesus. Did marrying a Jew mean betraying his love of Christ? ""How c an falling in love and getting married be a betrayal of anything?" he asks.