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Photo: Antonio Dicaterina

Building a strong, loving interfaith family in a world of prejudice is an upstream but rewarding journey

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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“There is a word for you,” my husband Ufuk said, “muallafi qulub.” We were sitting in our living room on an ordinary spring day in Connecticut, engaging in our morning ritual of coffee and conversation. “Why can’t I participate without being Muslim?” I had asked, reflecting on the confusion that often resulted from my sociological research in mosques. “Are you a Muslim?” people would ask. “No,” I would respond, “but my husband is.” It was an honest answer, but also an attempt to break down boundaries, to show that I was there to learn, not surveil.

Over our five years of marriage, I have fasted during Ramadan, prayed in mosques and learned to recite the first verse of the Quran. But I am not Muslim. I am a Jewish sociologist who studies mosque communities, and I am married to a Muslim man. Muallafi qulub translates, roughly, to one whose heart is softened toward Islam.

I still recall the first day I spent in Sehitlik, a representative Turkish mosque in Berlin where large ostrich eggs hang from a silver chandelier carved into Arabic letters, sparrows fly through the open windows and young men sit cross-legged with Qurans open in their laps. It stirred something inside of me, the quietude and the turquoise carpeting, a sense that earth and sky, animal and man were all aligned. 

In our household, we make cakes to celebrate the life of the Prophet Muhammad and host Seders. We get dressed up for Eid and don’t keep alcohol at home. Our four-year-old son leaves the door open for Elijah during Passover, when we drink four glasses of grape juice instead of wine. My husband, both an Islamic theologian and historian of Jewish-German history, knows far more about my religion than I do; and I, a sociologist of Muslim communities, know Islamic theology better than Jewish theology.

Ufuk and I met during a college summer program called Humanity in Action in New York City in 2006. We did not have a smooth road to our union, long weighing the differences against the love that we felt for one another. To incorporate various traditions when we married six years later, we had four weddings: one in a mosque in Paderborn, Germany, a second in Berlin’s City Hall, a third in a hotel in Berlin, and a final ceremony on my sister’s organic farm in Wisconsin.

I lost two of my closest friends from childhood, who could not make sense of our union, when we married. Ufuk lost all of his.

We are often seen as renegades in our decision to marry one another. But we have learned that this choice is in fact rooted in our own religious and cultural traditions. Even the Prophet Muhammad was married to a Jewish woman named Safiyyah. And it is this rootedness that has allowed us to let go of the ultimate tug-of-war in a cross-cultural marriage—that over our child’s identity.

Our hearts softened, opened and beat for this child born of, and into, our traditions and love. We called him our “peace baby” when we spoke of Jewish-Muslim conflict in the Middle East. We named him Sami, meaning “sublime” in Arabic.

Like Islam, Judaism also has a category for non-Jewish community members, ger toshav, meaning a fellow traveler or the “stranger within your gates.” I first heard this term years into my marriage, in a chance encounter with an author in a New Haven coffee shop. Identifying as modern orthodox Jewish, he spoke of his non-Jewish wife who participated actively in Jewish traditions. “Why,” he questioned, “does the notion that we might accept such people into a traditional Jewish community seem revolutionary” when it is discussed in the foundational Jewish text: the Babylonian Talmud?

Throughout history, Muslims and Jews have not only lived among, but married, one another. These marriages entail, as they always entailed, both creating space for each individual’s culture and learning the ways in which the cultures intersect. The story of Passover, the Jews’ escape from Egypt, is also a foundational story of Islam. Fasting is a practice in both religions. It all begins with Abraham.

My mother-in-law locked herself in the bathroom when we announced our engagement. My own mother assured me that all children born to Jewish mothers are Jewish for life. Our families eventually not only stood beside us at our many weddings, but stood up for us in the face of disapproval.

I lost two of my closest friends from childhood, who could not make sense of our union, when we married. Ufuk lost all of his.

Many around us are disappointed in our choice not to fight for our child’s identity. They search our eyes for a desperation to root our son squarely in one tradition or the other. If we fail to do this, they warn, he will have nothing. We have Muslim friends who assure me that the greatest act of romance is for a Muslim man and his Muslim wife to travel together on the Hajj pilgrimage. Jewish friends admonish that there’s no greater mistake than giving my child a Muslim name.

It is not that we are immune to cultural affinities. My husband would have liked to have his wife accompany him on the Hajj, and I would have liked to have a husband who yearned to name his child Noah. And yet, while it is not always easy to give up likes in the face of love, it is nearly impossible to give up love for no other reason than someone else’s fear.

We have stumbled, again and again, along the way. We fought over Christmas, which I wanted to celebrate in honor of my late (Christian) father, but Ufuk perceived this as a deeply religious Christian holiday that he could not imagine in his home. I called him “the Grinch.”

Eventually, after three years of marriage, I gave up the idea of a Christmas tree and he accepted the presence of candy-filled stockings. We still don’t know what to say when Sami asks us if Santa is coming. We continue to search for compromises, both in one another and in ourselves.

We do not, however, disagree on the Israel-Palestine conflict. A blessing of our marriage is that we cannot help but see both sides. In a time of deepening social and political divisions, I take great pride in pushing back against essentialisms and building our home on common humanity, ethics and love. Last year, my teenage brother-in-law read the four questions at the first seder we hosted in our home and realized that our faiths tell many of the same stories, such as Moses parting the seas. Watching him read in his fourth language from a Seder book in our dining room filled me with the deepest sense of gratitude for the home we built.

My husband and I are both academics, contemporary nomads. We have lived in four countries and six apartments since Sami was born four years ago. We are no longer rooted in a single place, a single tradition, or even a single language, but in the shared belief that our love has done more than overcome walls—it has built a home, spanning nations and faiths, that can be carried across both oceans and time. And in that home, it bore a peace baby far more precious than any tug of war.