I’ve been an intermarried Jew for twenty-five years. When my wife Wendy was a junior in college, younger than our daughter is now, she spent the summer traveling in Europe, including a visit with her mother’s first cousin, Rhona Williams, in County Tipperary, Ireland. One of our favorite pictures is of Wendy (in a very short skirt) standing at a stone fence next to her second cousin Jeremy, who was then about six and looked very much like a little leprechaun.
A few years ago Jeremy came to visit us for a week, now quite grown up and with his wife Liz. We’ve kept in touch with him by e-mail and occasional “snail” mail, which usually now includes beautiful pictures (he’s a professional photographer) of his children Sophie and Ross.
Last summer Wendy and I went on a bicycle trip in County Galway and the Connemara coast. When I travel, I always look in the yellow pages of the telephone book, just out of curiosity, to see if there are any synagogues. Similarly, when I go into bookstores, I usually look at the religion section to see what kind of Jewish books are available. Galway is a small city with a major university, but there was no sign of a Jewish community, and there weren’t any Jewish books in the stores. I did see someone, undoubtedly an American tourist, with a “Young Judea” t-shirt, but that was about the extent of the Jewish presence, as far as I could tell. This didn’t make me uncomfortable at all, it’s just something that I noticed.
When our bicycle trip ended, we rented a car, set out driving on the left on narrow country lanes, and visited Rhona. Now in her seventies, she lives in a white-washed cottage with beautiful gardens, but quite modest inside, in a very rural area. There were about ten houses in her village, surrounded by large fields filled with cows and sheep. She is quite an engaging character, and treated us with great hospitality. Several of her children and grandchildren came to visit us, and we got to be good friends in our short stay.
I was struck by how connected Rhona was to her various communities. Her village was in the midst of a beautification program, which involved installing posts on which to hang baskets of flowers, and she was very actively working with her neighbors on that project. Rhona had recently lost a brother, and she had many visitors while we were there who expressed sympathy and offered her assistance. But the community she seemed most connected to was her Protestant church, where she is on the vestry, and also is the organist. So, on the Sunday of our visit, off we went to services at the Church of Ireland in Templemore.
I can’t remember the last time that Wendy or I were at a church service; it could be more than fifteen years. We are both very active in our synagogue and I am interested in how religious institutions are organized, so I was eagerly looking forward to this experience. We arrived early because Rhona helps set things up for the service, and she introduced us to the other early arrivers, who were all very friendly. There were only about thirty people present, because many of the “regulars” were attending a christening that was going on in a neighboring church. Wendy and I sat down about two-thirds of the way back, and I thought there wasn’t anyone seated behind us.
As I listened carefully to the service, I looked particularly for a prayer that I would be comfortable saying, but I didn’t find a single one. Every prayer and every hymn referred explicitly to Jesus, which made it impossible for me to join in. There was one hymn that did not refer to Jesus by name, but the implication was so clear that I couldn’t say the words.
During the service, communion was given. It looked as though every person in the church, other than Wendy and me, went forward to take communion. When all of those people were done, the minister and his assistant started walking down the aisle with the communion objects. I didn’t think there was anyone seated behind us and couldn’t understand why they were coming down the aisle, apparently towards me. Were they coming to offer me communion? I was feeling very uncomfortable–until the minister passed by our row, on his way to give communion to an elderly parishioner who was, in fact, seated behind us. Then I could laugh at the passing paranoia that I had experienced.
All it all, I had a great time in Ireland. The bicycle trip took us through beautiful scenery, but most of all I enjoyed meeting my Irish cousins. I really respect the strength of community that my cousin Rhona finds in her church, although I do wish that I had been able to join in some part of the service we attended. I’ve always thought, or perhaps hoped, that the liturgy of Jewish religious services is universalistic enough so that there are Jewish prayers that people who are not Jewish could feel comfortable saying. Although the frequent references in Jewish prayer to the people of Israel could be off-putting to non-Jews, I’ve thought that the references to God in Jewish prayer are general and not inconsistent with the theologies of other religions. But my experience in Ireland reminded me how important it is for non-Jews in interfaith families to be able to join in Jewish religious services.