My great big Muslim-Jewish-atheist wedding

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from  THURSDAY, SEP 12, 2013

Can a devout Muslim and a Jewish atheist have a happy marriage?


Hi Cary,

I was born in the States to a conservative Muslim Indian family. My mother, younger brothers and I moved back to India when I was around 11, while my (very religious) dad stayed on in the States as a small business owner and came to see us three to four times a year. I came back to the States when I was around 18 to go to a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, graduated and moved back to India with my mom and brothers.

Although I didn’t realize it growing up, I was in the middle of a hot identity mess. While I have an American passport and have somehow retained the accent I had growing up, I’d always considered myself more Indian than American, and felt distinctly out of place in “white” cultural settings. I have a lot of white friends — black, Filipina and Asian too for that matter — but my closest are a group of brown girls at college who are similar to me — they have parents who grew up in Pakistan/Bangladesh and moved to the States and raised their kids there. The only difference is that they stayed there, and don’t really have meaningful relationships with people back home — “home” for them.

This is confusing for a lot of reasons to do with identity. Add to the mix a headscarf and a definitive non-Muslim boyfriend with whom I fell in love and it is all the more tricky. We decided to stay together and do the long-distance relationship thing after I moved back to India with my mom because we love each other, because we want to make this work, even though the only way for this to function with my parents’ blessings is for him, a raging Jewish atheist, to convert to Islam. And believe it or not, he’s learning. Semi-enthusiastically and slowly, but he is learning. And for his part he’s agreed to go through the motions and participate in rituals so long as our lives afterward have minimal interference from my family, which I imagine to be the case judging by the level of involvement my parents had and have in my younger brother’s marriage (he married quite young by choice). They are very hands-off once we’re out of the house. I eventually met his parents and we got along well although they were initially horrified at the idea of their son being with a Muslim. I think they’ve accepted us, and have an idea it’s serious.

Yes, it’s serious. We’ve talked seriously about marriage a few years down the road — he’s in the middle of applying to Ph.D. programs, and I want to start an MFA. He also wants to wait till he’s of a socially acceptable age in his family to marry. I don’t really have the luxury of time (my parents made me consider a total of four proposals while he and I were dating and they’re not slowing down). We’ve talked about telling my parents at the end of the year and when he’s learned enough to convert to Islam.

There are obviously a number of problems that I need to address, like, for instance, the ethics of this man pretending to be a Muslim so that he can marry me, the strain of the compromises we’d be making on us individually, and on myself — I’d have to leave my mental health nonprofit plans (inspired by own bouts of depression and rage during our relationship) in India behind to settle down in the States and give up ever really living there. He’s made it clear he can’t, which makes sense — it’s not politically very safe for a Jewish man to be married to a Muslim girl from the hood, ya know?

I’d have to make some lifestyle changes as well. The most important to me is that I dislike alcohol for religious reasons and he likes his occasional drink. He’s very controlled when he drinks, so I don’t ever mind if he does when I’m around and I’ve agreed to continue that policy. But truthfully I don’t know if I can live my married life rejecting a value that I grew up so observant of, even if I’m not quite as religious as I used to be. Not to mention that I’d be married to a man who doesn’t have any kind of religious ideals besides his cultural values, which are very different from mine. He says he’ll fast and pray with me, but how long can I realistically expect that to last? This strikes me as vaguely hypocritical at least — I’ve compromised other values by the sheer fact of dating him and I am in practice not very religious at all despite what the headscarf might imply — but I do believe in God and I am attached to my faith and culture.

Now, our relationship is wonderful. Despite being from such a radically different background (or is it really all that different? I spent my formative years in the States after all), and his belonging to the “white” culture at the school I spoke of earlier, I was instantly comfortable around him. Even though we had different tastes in everything, we’re similar people in personality and we connected, and expanded our interests to learn about the other. We’ve also had major trouble, and I had my serious doubts about him earlier on when he was more self-absorbed and less communicative, but he’s changed a lot, and he’s put up with a lot of my own flaws. Also remarkable about him is how he handled my depression when the first symptoms emerged and I started seeing a therapist. Despite having no exposure to this from within his own family, he didn’t scarper as I was afraid he might, and is supportive and involved in my treatment.

The best way I can describe it without going on for pages at length is that we’ve been through a lot, enjoy each other’s company immensely, have changed and grown a lot from our experiences together, and are deeply committed to one another. And from another perspective, the people who know me best and have watched my relationship with him evolve think we make sense together. His friends apparently really like me as well. And no man I’ve met since has made me want to put everything on hold to spend the rest of my life with him.

But even then, the reality of what I am proposing to do is weighty. Let’s not forget the religious father and relatives who might pick up on the fact that he’s not a real Muslim and reject our marriage on the grounds that Shariah doesn’t recognize a marriage between a non-Muslim man and Muslim woman? Even if that were to work, what about the reality of the lifestyle and religious adjustments I’d inevitably have to make to make this marriage work? What of our children, who will be confused as eff, caught between two cultures and worldviews? I cannot begin to imagine telling my parents that we’d need to have a Jewish wedding ceremony too, to respect his parents’ wishes, or that their grandkids would eventually probably have a bar mitzvah and go to the mosque. What of him and his potential resentment toward me for making him convert? And what of me and my potential resentment toward him when he inevitably fails to fast and pray with me? What of my scarf, and the multitudes of spiritual, social and political complexities of dating him and wearing the hijab at the same time? What of this long distance? We’ve been apart for three months, and we’ve been good with communication so far, but I’m terrified I won’t see him again for a long time, and that distance will drive a wedge between us eventually, especially considering that communication is not his natural strong point. Also consider the alternative — that if things don’t work out between us, I’d have to marry a Muslim man who’d accept that I dated a Jewish guy before I married him, and while those guys exist, they’re not exactly the proposals my religious family is drawing in. And I have no idea if those guys exist anywhere near where I live or work.

Sorry for the spiel but I’d love to hear how you wrapped your brain around this. Is this worth it? Do you see such a marriage working out without long-term bitterness and resentment? How?

Sincerely,

Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy Right Now

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Dear Love’s Got Me Looking So Crazy,

All the problems you mention are solvable. The danger is the problems that you don’t mention because you don’t see them yet. Paradoxically, they will only appear as a result of solving the problems you do see.

Naturally, we focus on the problems we can see. We focus on the problems we have solutions for. For instance, one can accustom oneself to the use of alcohol. One can accustom oneself to new kinds of clothing and new phrases and rituals. But certain problems will arise that you are not prepared for.

One of them is the sheer exhaustion that attends solving all the problems you already see.

So you must go into this with a dual spirit: Certainty that you can solve the problems you can see, allied with complete surrender to the unknown.

I mean, it is admirable, nay, remarkable, that you have thought through this in such detail. That indicates seriousness and a capacity for problem solving. But you do not have limitless energy, nor limitless patience nor limitless tolerance nor limitless ingenuity and problem-solving ability and diplomatic skill and negotiating skill. Stuff can wear you down.

So if you do it, make it easy on yourself. Plan as stress-free and secure a life as possible. Having a secure income and a stable community will help. Being in an academic environment would probably ease things. Living in an American community where people are excited by your relationship, and interested in the intellectual challenge of it, and the problems of identity and culture that it poses would make things much easier.

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Another unseen danger is your own psyche, your own dark side, your own vulnerabilities that are invisible to you at present. How well do you know yourself? What if your religious feelings are deeper and more intractable than you realize? What if his are, too?

I mean, this is the kind of story that Americans love. But underneath the happy American myth of blending cultures is the dark fact of sacrifice and loss. Because we are a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of loss. We are a nation of people who do not fully own their own land; we may have mortgages and title, but spiritually, psychologically, we do not own our own land because we took it from others; we do not own our own land the way you own your own land when your parents and grandparents and village stretch into the misty realms of prehistory.

Yours would be an unusual marriage but such marriages fit the American mythos. Consequently, you would have many people on your side — people who believe in the virtue of blending cultures. We are charmed by the idea of Muslims at bar mitzvahs and so forth. We think it’s cute. In other words, we don’t get the dark side of our own mythology.

Most Americans do not have family in India. Most Americans have not faced religious persecution. Most Americans do not have to worry that marrying a Jewish man could invite physical attacks.

So your story is attractive but you are wise to ask if it can really work. Because we all are immigrants, we all share not only discovery but loss. So your story fits here. But it won’t be easy.

You could definitely make it easier on yourselves. But love isn’t like that, is it?

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