A MIXED MARRIAGE: ALIVE AND WELL IN THE GREAT FALLS JEWISH COMMUNITY, BY JOY BRESLAUER
I was born three months premature in the early 1950’s and weighed a pound and twelve ounces. I wasn’t expected to live, and it was considered a miracle that I did. I was put in an incubator for 76 days in an environment of pure oxygen to save my life. Doctors were just beginning to find out that too much oxygen could damage eyesight. That is why I am blind. Family legend has it that when my dad saw the hospital bills, he said, “Oh, Joy!” Hence, my name.
Family legend also has it that I was very verbal at a young age, and my dad used to tell me that I talked like a fish. My family and I were in church one Sunday morning, and I knew it was getting near the end of the service when the pastor said, “Let us pray.” My two-year-old voice rang out in the quiet of the church: “You talk like a fish.” My dad was laughing so hard he had to leave.
One day in the lunch line at Great Falls High, my best friend asked me if I was a Christian. “Of course I am, isn’t everybody?” I naively replied. That was when I began to realize that no, not everybody was a Christian. I wondered why there are so many belief systems out there from which to choose, what distinguishes one from another, and what would motivate a person to choose one over the other without belonging to the flavor of the month club.
As I attended college and became an adult, I began to ask questions. The leaders in the church I attended told me that I asked too many questions, and that I should always remember that God is God and I am not, that His ways and thoughts are higher than mine, and I shouldn’t question them because I probably wouldn’t understand the answers anyway, and He is under no obligation to explain himself to me, a mere mortal, in a way that my finite mind could understand. Being a child of the sixties, this didn’t make much sense to me, so I embarked on a spiritual quest which included the study of comparative religion. I eventually made my way back to Christianity, but in the process I learned about many other religions and ways of thinking and living out one’s faith. Among the things I learned was that one can be born Jewish, but one cannot be born Christian.
I also learned that intelligent people can be tripped up by charismatic leaders with tragic results. Jonestown was a case in point. Jonestown hit me especially hard, and motivated me to study the Scriptures more intently and purposefully, thinking that the more familiar I became with real money, the easier I would be able to spot the counterfeit.
Several years later I was given the surprise gift of a Braille Bible by the church I was then attending. I dove into it with all fours and didn’t come up for air for almost a year, during which I read and reread the whole thing from cover to cover many times, something I still enjoy. But I digress.
After college, I got a job in my home town, got my own place, and started living my own life. I thought I had the world by the tail. Not very many blind people I knew were working at all, let alone full time, starting out at $2.17 an hour when the minimum wage was $1.65. I eventually worked my way up to over $11.00 an hour. Not bad for a woman in Great Falls, Montana, at the time, and virtually unheard of for a woman with a disability. I loved my job, and I worked to live. I laughed all the way to the bank.
I eventually married someone I had known since kindergarten, who was also blind. (It took him seventeen years to convince me.) Within two years we bought our first house together and got our first dog from the pound a week later. We had two children, a girl and a boy, within the next five years. We moved our happy little family to Billings with our jobs, but our marriage fell apart shortly thereafter. He said later that the grass on the other side of the fence may have looked greener, but it still had to be mowed. I became a single working mom for about ten years. I eventually moved back to Great Falls at the end of 1998 with a new husband and two grown kids. Well, one was grown and married, and one was a teenager living with us who was almost grown. as anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows, the mid to late teen years are some of the most difficult for kids and parents alike. It tested us all, but we all survived relatively unscathed, although some of that took decades to come to fruition. God has thankfully restored the years the locusts have eaten.
And then there is the matter of this new husband. He is also blind. He and I met at a mutual friend’s house at a pre-Thanksgiving dinner. He had just received a new guide dog, Sanders, with whom I formed an immediate bond. I didn’t have a guide dog at the time, and had never met one up close and personal. I didn’t pay much attention to the dog owner. All I knew about him was that he was a professor, he had lived in a big house on a hill with his first wife, from whom he was now divorced, he had no kids, and he was Jewish.
I had never had a male friend who was not a boyfriend, and I had never been able to stay friends with an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband, so I was pleasantly surprised that we became friends, and not just friends, but really good friends, without being friends with benefits or having any other ulterior motives. On our first real date, we went out to dinner and to a symphony concert. We discussed over dinner the fact that each of our previous marriages had ended in divorce, and that if we were ever to be blessed with a second chance, what we would want in a new relationship, never dreaming for a moment that we each were talking to our future spouse. We talked about the fact that neither one of us could abide shallow meaningless relationships. We talked about religion and a lot of other things. I began to appreciate his intelligence, his wry but often hidden sense of humor, the way he treated a lady like a lady, and the fact that he seemed to really listen to what I had to say and value my opinions, and to genuinely care about what I thought and how I felt. One of my quests in life became how to make him laugh. Although I thought he had so much going for him, there were two problems: He was blind and he was Jewish. I had already been a leading lady in that blind-husband-failed-marriage movie, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that again. I eventually had to sit myself down and say self, how would you like it if someone rejected you for that very same reason and no other? How fair would that be? I decided that it wouldn’t be very fair at all, so I let that part go and enjoyed his company and let the chips fall where they may.
Then there was the Jewish part. By this time our relationship was taking off like a rocket, which was unusual for me, since I don’t trust easily and I like to take things more slowly. I wasn’t even looking for a relationship or a marriage partner. Turns out he was. When I first went to synagogue with him, the student rabbi wondered who this girl-of-the-week was, and how long she would last. She outlasted them all. She decided to hang on for dear life and enjoy the ride. And what an enjoyable ride it has been.
When things got more serious, I learned that the student rabbi wouldn’t have married us even if she could have, because it would have meant uniting a Jew and a non-Jew in a sacred covenant with God. She said that she had seen lots of other mixed marriages, where either the battle for dominance of one religion over the other would eventually tear the husband and wife and perhaps both extended families apart, especially if children were involved, or the husband and wife would both become nonreligious. I struggled with that, too. I knew that Christians are encouraged to marry other Christians. I knew we wouldn’t have to fight over which religion we would raise our kids in, but what other unforeseen problems might we face. The student rabbi did suggest some passages and rituals to include in our blended marriage ceremony, which took place at the church I was attending at the time. Sanders was the ring bearer. the Jewish community had a special oneg just for us. A couple of brave souls from the local Jewish community attended our church wedding, which I learned later is against the law for them. Long after we were married, I heard a rabbi remark in passing that he would much rather marry a gay or lesbian couple than a Jew and a non-Jew.
Some other interesting things I have learned are that you don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish, that there is a difference between a cultural or secular Jew and a religious Jew, that there are several different sects of Jews, just as there are several different sects of Christians. Some are more liberal and some more conservative than others. Some have more modern music and some don’t have any at all, just like some Christians. Some have big debates about what Scriptural language means, or what English translation, if any, can be trusted, or the true meaning of Hebrew words, just like some Christians do. There always seem to be continuing debates in both religions concerning what is truth and what is myth, and whether you can tell the difference, or how, or whether it matters. Some will not work or play on their designated day of rest. Some include women as their religious leaders and some do not. Some abstain from certain things during certain times of the month or the year. Some have dietary restrictions. Some have differing concepts of the sacred and the profane. Some Christian denominations do not sanction drinking, dancing, or the wearing of jewelry. Some require certain kinds of dress or head coverings at services, or in their daily lives. Some Christian denominations, especially in the South, insist that women wear dresses or skirts, never pants, and that they wear long hair and even wear hats to church as a head covering. Some influence the ways men and women interact with each other. Some strive to be all-inclusive or gender-neutral, and some do not. Some have been portrayed in the media as either comics or buffoons. Some have ben the subjects of vicious or false propaganda. Some have suffered unspeakable horrors and persecution at the hands of others, not just because of their faith, but because of their race. Some Jews do not get along with each other, just as is true with some Christians. There are some Jews and Christians who don’t seem to get along with each other or anybody else, targets of other groups for reasons which may be as similar as gang or turf warfare in certain neighborhoods or toward other minority groups, or as different as the hatred, animosity, and contempt harbored in an individual’s heart. Jews struggle in the United States with such subjects as assimilation, or how or whether to remain as Jewish as they want to be, without being targeted. So do some Christians. Both Jews and Christians grapple with what they believe, and how much of it to believe or practice in order to become or remain in the faith they have chosen, or the faith into which they were born or reborn. I think each group also laments their waning influence on the society around them, and wonders how to raise up the next generation in the faith of their ancestors which their elders still hold dear. The younger generations may think that the older beliefs are now hopelessly antiquated, archaic, and out of touch, with no relevance to today’s society whatsoever, with its modern problems and ways of thinking. Both groups debate what is in the Book, how it got there, who wrote it, whether it can be trusted, what it means or should mean to us individually and collectively today, and why this particular book is different from any other book.
One of the most profound and life-changing ideas I have encountered about belonging to or relating to any group is from a book called “The Vanishing American Jew” by Alan M. Dershowitz, C.1997. Although it may seem a bit out of touch now given the recent resurgence of antisemitism in our society, one of the strongest take-aways from the book for me is not to let your enemies define you. That idea has impacted my life as a Christian, as a wife, mother, and grandmother, as a person with a disability, and as someone who cares deeply and passionately about the Jewish people in general and one Jewish person in particular.
So while each of us as individuals and groups ponders the meaning and purpose of life and where we belong as we journey together, who is in charge and makes the rules, what happens if we keep or break them, how to leave this world better than we found it, and what, if anything, happens afterwards, here we both are, over twenty years later, fellow travelers on that same road, a divided yet united household, still happy together and head over heels in love with each other and with God. We believe that the Biblical imperatives we share in this life are to love God above all else, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to treat everyone else as we would like to be treatede. We have two days of rest at our house. We read from two different translations of Scriptures. Bruce’s Scriptures have the letters OT on the cover, which he says means the Only Testament. We agree to disagree on some things, like Coke or Pepsi, but we always treat each other and each other’s religion with respect. I love learning about other cultures and foods and music and ways of thinking. One of the things I love most about the Jews I have met is how joyfully — and sometimes with profound and overwhelming sadness — they celebrate many of their traditions, and how they pass them on to their children. It breaks my heart to see the Great Falls Jewish community disintegrate, as have many Christian communities, for some of the same reasons. I hope our household of faith will continue to grow ever stronger with God as the common denominator, the firm foundation on which it is built, a foundation that will not be shaken. L-Chaim!