In the Beginning

By Pam Chernoff


I got the first Passover of our marriage wrong. I simply didn’t have the erev (eve of) part down yet. Since I’d messed it up for the previous two years, my husband Joel figured I had learned my lesson, and thus believed me when I said authoritatively that Thursday was the first night. We planned to shop for seder preparations after work Wednesday. I arranged to leave the bookstore where I work two hours early Thursday. Then he looked closely at his calendar and that shopping day went out the window. Oy. Or as the Norwegian Lutherans I grew up around would say, Uff-da.   

I grew up in a smallish town in Minnesota. My high school had just one Jewish family. I came to my relationship with Joel knowing little about Judaism, except what I’d learned from co-workers and friends. I attended Presbyterian Sunday school, then Methodist youth groups, so I had a certain number of Old Testament stories banging around inside my head, and I’d read the first several chapters of the Bible. But culturally, my reference points ran to Annie Hall and Yentl.

When we first started dating, Joel and I spent a lot of time talking about religion and comparing our beliefs. I had a harder time accepting Joel’s agnosticism than accepting the fact that we practice different faiths. Our basic beliefs about how one should behave and how one should treat others were the same, so I decided I could live with the religion difference–and he did, too.

Then one day after we’d started talking about marriage, I sat in church staring up at the cross behind the minister and realized I’d be OK if we raised our children Jewish. I wish I could adequately describe how significant it was for me to feel that acceptance, encouragement even, as I was sitting in a church. I need our future children to learn that humans have responsibilities that are larger than themselves and that there is a God who loves them–on this point, I am adamant. They can absolutely learn those things in Judaism.

I suspect the deist-agnostic divide will loom much larger in our child rearing than the difference in our religious backgrounds.

For myself, I won’t convert. To do so, I’d have to turn my back on my own convictions. But I trust that I can be a practicing Christian and a participant in a Jewish community without being a hypocrite. Mercifully, my brand of Christianity is not an all or nothing proposition. I can embrace Judaism as an important part of my Christian heritage.

When it came time to decide how to handle our marriage ceremony, we bought a book called Celebrating Interfaith Marriages by Devon Lerner. We cracked it open thinking we’d want a rabbi and a Methodist minister to co-officiate. But as we worked through the book, that plan changed. The chuppah, Jewish wedding canopy? Beautiful, apt symbolism. Having our parents accompany both of us down the aisle? Much better than being “given away” to a man I chose. The breaking glass? A new life, indeed.

As for Christian aspects of the ceremony, a friend read the “love is patient and kind” passage from First Corinthians. Obvious, maybe, but such a beautiful passage that it deserves its standing. And, conveniently, it doesn’t mention Jesus.

The Humanistic Jewish rabbi who married us asked the first time we talked how our families had accepted our relationship. Very well, under the circumstances, we said. Oh, wait, not the circumstances you’re thinking about. Joel’s twelve years older than I am; we were co-workers; I lived in Chicago and he lived in San Francisco; he’d been married before.

Oh, you mean the religion thing? Well, before his first trip to meet them–at Christmas, no less–my parents offered to move the nativity scene I’d cross-stitched for them and the family Bibles up to their bedroom if he’d be offended by Christian symbols in the family room. We assured them they didn’t need to.

As for Joel’s father, he was used to it. Joel’s first wife was Catholic and his sister-in-law is an “FFV,” as a direct descendant of George Mason she is part of a First Family of Virginia.

I love the traditions of Judaism. I love the culture of continual debate about theological points. I love the idea of mitzvoth, sacred obligations. I look forward to becoming an engaged member of a Jewish community.

But I do struggle harder now to feel connected to my own faith. I have to work harder to engage in a Christian community than I have in the past. There will be times when being different from the rest of my family will be trying. So far, I can only imagine what will and won’t be difficult about raising a Jewish child. But we are committed to raising our children with a specifically Jewish identity in an atmosphere where they are encouraged to ask questions. I am committed to understanding Judaism well enough to allow me to give the Jewish answers to questions as well as my own answers and to liberally use the words, “Here’s what I believe, why don’t you ask your father what he believes?”

So today Joel went to Easter services with me. I wouldn’t have asked–if there’s one day in the liturgical calendar when the Jesus thing is the most in your face, it’s Easter Sunday. But the fact that he offered to go, sat there with me respectfully, and held my hand, is the perfect illustration of why I love him so much.

And tonight, as I sit here writing this and waiting for the sponge cake I didn’t quite have time to make the first night of Passover to finish baking, I believe we can create a home where our children belong to a community that accepts them, and raise children who understand that differences don’t have to be divisive. I pray that they will feel the presence of a loving God.

We’ve come a long way since the day I sincerely but ignorantly wished Joel a Happy Yom Kippur.


About Pam Chernoff

Pam Chernoff has just moved from Pinole, Calif., to Tarrytown, N.Y., with her husband, Joel, and their amazing 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Sarah, whom they adopted 10 months after they lost their twins. Pam is a part-time stay-at-home mom and a part-time project director at the National Center for Employee Ownership.