Emphasizing one religion is one path, living a non-religious life is another


March 31, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

Rosalie Streett is Jewish. Peter Streett is Episcopalian.

But they don't let religion interefere with holiday celebrations.

This year, the Streetts took part in a Seder with Mrs. Streett's family and held a Seder of their own at their home in Baltimore. Since their 25-year-old daughter, brought up in the Jewish tradition, is too old to enjoy coloring eggs, the couple is not observing Easter.

This is one way, but not the only way, Christian and Jewish couples in interfaith marriages are dealing with holy days, such as Easter and Passover.

"I love Passover and my husband loves Passover," says Mrs. Streett, who is director of Friends of the Family Inc., an agency coordinating Maryland family support centers.

"I think it's a brilliantly designed holiday because it's built right into the system and it passes down an important tradition. It trains kids, and reminds adults too, what's important and what we're all about and what we're supposed to be doing for and with each other, and how if the least of us is enslaved then we're all enslaved.

"It's a time for renewal, for affirmation of the self and the family, for affirmation of the importance of spring, which is what Easter is for us, too."

If some of the doctrinal niceties underlying the two holidays in the two religious traditions seem blurred in Mrs. Streett's version, that doesn't trouble her one bit. She says both she and her husband are fully secularized, leaving them free to observe only those elements that are most congenial to them. In nearly 30 years of marriage, religious differences have never been an issue, she adds.

"We're so non-religious," she emphasizes. "Neither one of us is observant at all, except we're so crazy about family celebrations. We love holidays and we love bringing the family together and we love to celebrate and we love the message. That's what it really means to us. The religious aspect of the holiday has never been as important to us as the other."

Secularism or the observance of a single faith, or both as in the Streetts' case, appear to be important factors in a successful interfaith relationship, according to religious clergy.

"If there are two religions in the same family, it always tends to create a certain amount of conflict, depending on the degree of involvement," says Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, who has performed numerous interfaith marriages. "So the thing that works best is if one defers to the other religiously, and religion becomes less a point of contention.

"If they don't, then you have one of two things happening: either they just ignore the whole area of religion, which is unfortunate, or it constantly comes up."

Mr. Siegel, who comes from a liberal tradition, points out that religion often becomes much more obtrusive, much harder to overlook, in an interfaith relationship than in a marriage of a couple marginally Jewish or marginally Christian.

"In that situation, [interfaith] people who are not religious often have to confront the question of their own religious identity and their spirituality in ways that a lot of other people don't," he says.

The Rev. Roger Gench, pastor of the liberal Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill, which numbers several interfaith couples among its worshipers, also believes one religion tends to predominate in marriages between Christians and Jews.

"Otherwise, it's got to be a tough balancing act," he reflects. "I would certainly encourage a couple who come to me to explore and propagate the Jewish side of that marriage as much as the Christian tradition. But I guess that would be enormously difficult. I feel I struggle to understand the Christian tradition. I can't imagine a couple trying to understand two."

Mr. Siegel says he is not aware of any couples who follow their respective religions fully.

"That's particularly difficult in Judaism because Judaism is a home- based religion," he elaborates. "And if one spouse doesn't feel part of that tradition, that tends to create a certain superficiality. I think when one spouse doesn't practice another religion and then supports the other spouse in the family's religious activities, whatever the religion, that works."

Mr. Gench concedes Holy Week can be difficult for someone coming from a Jewish background because of the anti-Judaic polemic of the Gospels relating to Christ's crucifixion. He feels that teaching once served historically to establish the unique identity of the early church and to set it apart from the synagogue, but now it has become destructive and needs to be reinterpreted.

Last Thursday, Brown Memorial mounted a dramatic reconstruction of the scene with Jesus and Pontius Pilate, in which Jesus is condemned to death. The anti-Judaic polemic was deleted and a more apt lesson was substituted.

"We as Christians have denied the way of Christ as much as anyone," says Mr. Gench, explaining the change. "We could be part of that crowd. So in this worship setting we are that crowd."

Mr. Siegel advises people who are contemplating interfaith marriage not to feel turned off by religious differences and to see each other as worthy of respect. Noting interfaith marriages are a product of today's integrated society, he says, "I feel every difficulty is a hidden opportunity. There are some hidden opportunities raised by interfaith marriages. The question is how to find them.

"I hope couples do."

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